[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

February 2001

Welcome to Audio Hell

Now, don’t tell me you haven’t visited here before. You can deny all you want, but we all know how it is. We have glimpses of nirvana. Most of us can testify to these moments, however fleeting, when we feel "This is it, this is what I’ve been searching for, that last purchase was really worth it, this is the reason the kids can stay home and go to the community college for one more year, BECAUSE I’ve finally gotten my system just the way I want it. Everything is just right. There’s nothing to improve upon. I’m totally satisfied." Riiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiight!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So there you are, sitting in your newly purchased "listening chair." You just couldn’t resist, could you? Anyway, there you are perfectly positioned at the peak of the isosceles triangle. You’ve spent hours, days, weeks getting everything positioned just right. You plugged your room dimensions into the Cardas formula to find just the perfect position for each of your speakers, then tweaked them, angstrom by angstrom, until they just couldn’t sound any better. The new old stock Telefunkens you dropped into the preamp have been burning in for a few days now. UPS arrived just that afternoon with the "ultimate air-filled isolation shelf," upon which you have placed your CD transport. You have more tied up in your speaker cables than you ever thought about spending on that ten-year anniversary present. She’s happy just to know you love her more today than ever. Right.

The moment has finally arrived. You spend, what, the next 15 minutes just letting your fingers wander through your audiophile-approved recordings for this moment of sonic arrival. Chesky, Reference Recording, Mobile Fidelity…oh help me, Professor Johnson. Finally you find it: Mephisto & Co., a disc of devilish symphonic samples that will surely show just how far you’ve come. It was just last week that you listened to this at your hi-fi buddy’s house. It sounded pretty fine on the system there, and you’re at least two upgrades ahead of him. No amateur are you.

Cue up track one, Liszt's Mephisto Waltz No. 1. You are on the edge of your seat as this Faustian symphonic delight begins. Just listen to that double bass pumping dirge-like way to the back of the soundstage. The sweetness of those violin strings…magnificent. The placement of each instrument is perfect. You wind your way through Mussorgsky ("the brass has such dimension") Liadov ("feel the weight of that percussion") and Dukas (" the microdynamics are incredible"). You are convinced. It has all been worth it. After all, the kids are still getting a good education, and your wife loves you anyway. All is right with the world….

And then it happens. No. Please NO!

It starts about four minutes into "The Sorcerer’s Apprentice." The bells. Those are bells, aren’t they? The ringing seems a little strange. It soon starts wearing on your ears. Something’s not quite right. Those bells. They begin to drill into your brain like a demonic dentist’s drill. What is that? The brass seems a little forward too. But those bells. Please stop.

Somehow you manage to get through it without hitting the stop button. You reassure yourself that it was nothing more than an anomaly. Something totally unrelated to your perfectly balanced system has gotten in the way. Minutes after hitting the pause button, you figure it out. You have been sitting there way past dinner time. Once again the traditional family bonding time takes it in the rear. But your kids love you….yeah, yeah. Whatever.

Filled with hope -- or denial -- you run to the refrigerator looking for a quick cure. Looking at it, you remember an article you read about refrigerators being one of the worst contaminators of clean AC power. For a moment you consider if an old-fashioned icebox might not be a bad idea. Naaawww. Two badly bruised pears and several slices of cheese (that was cheese, wasn’t it?) later you’re back in the game. Much better. When was the last time you ate? They had that free popcorn at the record store yesterday. Hmmm.

Feeling refreshed and well nourished, you ease yourself back into the chair. You take a deep breath and assure yourself that your system is flawless. After all, they are all "Class A" components. Another touch of the pause button and you’re back in action. The first few notes of Saint-SaŽns' "Danse Macabre" float from the speakers. The plucking of the violin strings sounds right, doesn’t it? Of course it does. "Quit questioning yourself," you say. The bowing on the strings of the double basses deep into the soundstage are somehow reassuring. Enter the haunting notes from the violin solo just left of center. Goooood! And just shortly the triangle will start ringing from the front left. Here it comes... the triangle.

What sounds like a sharp piece of tin being scraped on a pane of glass begins to emanate from some unfocused point somewhere between the speakers. Your eyes close tight and your face clenches. "Danse Macabre" is right. Macabre is just how you are beginning to feel about now. Without thinking, you begin to grind your teeth. "Why me? What did I ever do to deserve this?" you mumble to the audio gods. You silently apologize for selling your turntable when the first generation of CD players came out. How were you to know that "perfect sound forever" was just a temptation to weed out the jaded from the pure?

As the screeching notes fade, you begin to relax. Such a small flaw really. After all, the soundstage is way beyond the edge of your speakers; and check out the dynamic shadings as the entire orchestra comes together in that bombastic symphonic climax. Tomorrow you’ll fix that problem right up. A new power cord on that amp and perhaps some different isolation cones under the transport and you’ll be right back in business. Just a few minor changes, right? Yes! Yes! Yes! No! No! No! It’s back…that infernal triangle. Nails on the chalkboard. You can take no more of this and hit the "next track" button.

"Tam O’Shanter" by Malcolm Arnold. You just love the thunder of the tympani at the beginning of this piece. Yes, they are just as majestic as your memory served, but the respite is brief. Even the tympani, that glorious tympani, seems a little…loose. Perhaps you do need an amplifier with more current. Then everything goes to hell. The string section seems congested. The woodwinds sound like plastic. Finally, the glassy sound of the cymbals and the edginess of those trumpets are more than you can take. You jam your thumb down on the stop button as if you were saving the world from nuclear annihilation. All hope fades as you slouch lower and lower in that expensive chair of yours. The endless research, the painstaking midnight tweaking sessions, the credit card balance…all for what? So that you can sit and tolerate this miserable cacophony of ungodly noise?

A glance at the back of the jewel case reveals a cruel joke. You never made it to the last track. The title jabs at your senses like a hot poker. If feels as if someone’s sick sense of humor is at play. And the joke’s on you -- the last track of this CD is "Lucifer’s Polka." No need to hear this. You’ve been dancing with the devil all night. He danced and danced and danced you all the way home. And now you’re there, like it or not, you’re there.

Welcome, comrade, to Audio Hell.

...Bill Brooks


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