[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

August 2001

The Question Best Left Unasked

There are certain questions best left unasked. There are certain questions that do little but make the listener uncomfortable. There are certain questions that make you feel like chewing your own foot off, stealing a police car, and speeding out of town regardless of the price to pay later. You know the type of questions I’m talking about.

An atheist is brought home by his girlfriend to meet the parents. As the boy steps into the house, he is met by the girl's father, a Lutheran minister complete with collar. "And what church is it that you attend?" No one expects the Spanish Inquisition.

The bleeding-heart liberal corporate employee is called into his extremely conservative boss' office for his annual job/salary review. "Can you believe what that Jeffords SOB did?"

The you and your wife arrive at a dinner party and are greeted by the hosts. Knowing you to be of a golden-eared lineage, they quickly escort you into the living room to check out their system. Tightly snuggled behind the glass doors of the black Formica-covered cabinet sets a newly purchased rack system. Yep, it’s all there. From the 200-disc changer, to the dual-cassette deck, and the 12-band graphic equalizer, it all matches in shiny lo-fi black. There are so many flashing lights on the front of the thing that you are reminded of the operations room of a runaway nuclear power plant. "200 watts!" barks the proud owner. He walks over to one of the "tower" speakers and rests his hand on the top as if he were the owner of a three-time grand-champion show dog.

Dog is the right word. But what can you say?

He checks his handy CD-library index sheet to find the location of just the right disc to show off his new…pet. As he punches in the number, the machine comes to life. Whirrrrrr…whine…click, click, click, click…CLUNKKKK! With all of this noise you think perhaps you’ve caught a break and the toy is broken. Goodbye Rover -- may your rest be eternal. But then the first few notes of a Ricky Martin song screech forth from the beast, and you realize it’s you who has "screwed the pooch" for getting into such a situation. For the next half hour or so you endure the sound (sound is a very non-judgmental word, isn’t it?) of every no-talent, poorly recorded, marshmallow pop star that a greedy marketing person ever got a hold of.

This, even this, you could endure with a smile. It’s the question that is sure to follow that has you twistin’ in your tube sockets.

So you sit there with a grin on your face, nodding your head up and down in an exaggerated fashion. You hope that the motion of your head will be noticed and the host will be satisfied. You attempt to lead the man off on a tangent by distracting him with conversation about Mariah Carey’s latest torso-revealing attire. Damn it all -- you’re even willing to get up and start bustin’ a move right there in the living room if it will stop what you know is coming next. But your efforts are wasted.

"So what do you think?"

"I had no idea Ricky Martin was so talented." You’ll burn in hell for that one, but if it throws him off track…. It’s no use.

"No. I mean the stereo. What’s your honest opinion? Did I choose wisely?"

Wisely? If this were Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the first note from this noisemaker would have caused his flesh to melt from his bones and his skeleton turn to powder. But this is probably not the best response.

The best response…. Hmmm. Like a good 1960s B-movie, let’s leave our audiophile frozen in his moment of hell while we examine the options.

Option A: Pacify pride with perjury

The natural response, of course, would be to tell one big, fat whopper of a lie. "Man does that sound great." "All this for only $900?" "You’re really getting high-end sound now." "I can’t believe how good of a deal you got." "This sounds as good as anything I’ve heard at three times the price." Yes, there is some serious sinning going on here, and the Audio Gods are firing up the lightening bolts.

This does seem like the kind thing to do, but it does not go without consequences. Soon your friend will be telling all of his friends that his system has the approval of an audiophile (your name will be used). It will be stated in your presence that the two of you are "audiophile buddies." He will invite you over to his home again and again to share the latest disc from the New Backdoor Dweebs in the Hood. He had better continue to listen to this crap because it’s the only kind of music mixed and compressed to sound good on his sonic nightmare of a system. And worst of all, he will never understand how good recorded music can really sound and will continue to believe that spending any money on this hobby is a complete waste of time. On the plus side, he may at least continue to develop his interest in music and eventually stumble onto some taste.

Option B: Terminate with the truth

I use the word "terminate" because that’s what the end result will be in so many ways. Telling him how heinous his audio lemon really is will probably do nothing but temporarily satisfy your misguided sense of justice. The first termination will be your friendship. He will be either embarrassed or defensive; both lead to the same end. The other termination will probably be an end to his love of music. Instead of getting excited at the prospect of bringing home a new disc (no accounting for taste) to try out on "the system," he may be reminded of the inferiority of his purchase and play it less and less.

This might provide your golden ears with some relief, but this is a real loss for your friend and potentially the audio industry. Every audiophile has to start somewhere. The listener whose first system consists of Mark Levinson, Conrad-Johnson and a tricked out LP12 either has too much money, too big an ego, or more than likely both.

Option C: Dance around the issue with deceit

This option is only for the most despicable of rodents. Don’t you just love that word? Despicable. I can’t even say it unless I do so with the accent of Sylvester the Cat. "I taut I taw a tubey CAT…preamp, that is." Enough of the bad humor.

Those of you slimy enough can deceive your friend with truthful lies -- or is it lying truths? Use the secret language of the audiophile to confuse your friend into thinking you are paying him a compliment when you are actually telling him how big his St. Bernard really is. "Man, the images just blend right together." "Your soundstaging sure is nice and narrow." "The bass really booms." "You sure can’t miss where the sound is coming from in this room." You get the point.

This may serve to satisfy your warped sense of honesty, but unless your friend is a real moron, you’ll find yourself with the worst of both worlds. You’ll be stuck temporarily with a lo-fi audiophile buddy bragging about the deficiencies in his system until he is corrected by someone who actually knows better. After this, he’ll either think you’re really stupid or be seriously pissed off, both of which you will deserve.

Option 4: Lure from lo-fi with learning

If you consider yourself a real friend, and at the same time want to rid another house of the dreaded "lo-fi infestation," then I’ve found it best to play it this way.

First of all, don’t insult his purchase. He paid his money for what he expected would give him many hours of musical pleasure. Remember he is at a totally different level than you. You need not brag on the system either. Choose your words carefully. Phrases like "It’s amazing how far electronics have come" or "It works pretty well in this room" would be appropriate. Try to be positive; keeping his interest alive is the important thing.

Next invite him and his wife over to your house for dinner or drinks. It’s important to get her involved because, after all, her ears are probably better than his anyway. Most women’s are. No doubt you will end up listening to some music from your system. Play some of the music that you know they like. Play something you’re sure they have heard through their own system. It’s not all poorly recorded, so find something that will really sing through your elite electronica. This will probably catch their attention. They aren’t deaf, just unaware.

Slowly, begin introducing music that you know will show off a certain aspect of what a great system can do. Perhaps a jazz piece in which each instrumentalist seems placed exactly where he or she is supposed to be. Show them what to listen for and introduce the idea of imaging. How about a well-recorded symphony? Try something mainstream like Beethoven’s Fifth or Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas. Now you can show them soundstaging and dynamics. Let them hear the notes slowly decay on a well-recorded piano piece. They will go home and try this, and they probably won’t be able to duplicate any of it. You see where I’m going.

Later invite him along on a trip to your local high-end dealer. Sure, he’ll get a kick out of having a listen to some of the really pricey esoterica. More importantly, have him listen to a well-balanced system made up of some less expensive gear. Arcam, Cambridge, Creek, Audio Refinement, Rega and Rotel are among a myriad of brands that may be within his reach. This stuff can sound very, very good.

And you’ve done something very good as well. You’ve taken a prisoner from the depths of what you would consider the worst of audio hell and shown him the path to paradise. Or have you? Sometimes ignorance really can be bliss.

...Bill Brooks


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