[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
November 1998

Appendages for Hi-Fi

The upward spiral in the price of hi-fi has begun to raise a scary question: What else can one buy with the money? For instance, one of my customers looked at a $6000 preamp the other day, and said, "I’m tempted, but at that price I can buy a new motorcycle." I was tongue-tied to answer. If he said he could buy a new pair of loudspeakers instead, I might have had a response. But a motorcycle just didn’t compute.

In some ways, audio journalists have adopted a similar litmus test. Recently I read this of a product that costs $20,000: "Okay, so maybe it isn’t an X-mas stocking filler, but -- let’s face it -- what else can you buy for $20K these days? Half a BMW; a year at an Ivy League college; a cheap Web site; one of McGwire’s balls...

Whoa there. One of Mark McGwire’s balls? This takes competing investment alternatives to new heights of speculation. My demented mind could not erase the notion that a body part might equate to the value of a stereo component. In a world where audio equipment costs "an arm and a leg," would someone actually trade an appendage for hi-fi? Is there a possibility for commerce here, a financing scheme of last resort? Not many of us own a BMW or have a child in college, but the great majority of hobbyists have a full complement of limbs and organs that might be used for trading purposes. Can you imagine the following denouement: "Joe’s hobby has reduced him to a mere torso, but man, you should hear his hi-fi system." Unfortunately, I can.

Years ago, hi-fi buff Bob W. confessed to me that he was in the dog house with his wife. Why? He had taken his son’s bicycle money and bought an amplifier with it. The pathos of such self-indulgence has remained with me ever since. Hi-fi gear is expensive. Since time immemorial a decent system has cost at least $2500. Better systems cost multiples of $2500. In the example of Bob the hi-fi buff, here was a young middle-manager earning a decent salary, in 1982, of $30,000 a year. The amp he wanted cost $1,000; the bicycle, about a hundred. If Mephistopheles had approached Bob W. with a trade proposal, I am sure Bob would have sacrificed a minor appendage -- he’d already fathered three children -- rather than pilfer a young boy’s bike money. How many others of us might consider an offer from the devil?

To my knowledge no such Beelzebub stalks the halls of CES, or advertises in Stereophile. But there’s always insurance. We old geezers remember when Betty Grable insured her legs for a million dollars. Suppose I wanted to own the latest Krell "simple" system, a KPS25s and a pair of FPB650 monoblocks ($40,000 in total). Do I have anything expendable to offer? Could the grizzled old warrior surrender the family jewels for money to buy hi-fi? I decided to call an old pal from my gravy days, Percy Truscott-Jones, a former member of Lloyds of London, famous for insuring anything.

"Trisquit," I yelled into the telephone. The connection to Fiji or wherever he is hiding is always a bad one. "James Saxon here. How’s the weather?"

"Dreadful. Seventy-two degrees and balmy. Oh, for a sodden English day."

"Have a question involving your specialty: body parts. How much could I insure my testicles for?"

"Why do you ask? Are you planning to pledge them?"

"No. It’s an academic question. If I should come up one short, how much could I collect."

Trisquit is always very business-like, which is how he was able to win the hearts and minds and inheritances of many a staid baroness. "This depends on whether your testes have any earning power. In your case, I don’t see the possibility."

"Suppose my name were Mark McGwire? Would that make a difference."

"Mark McGwire? Don’t know him."

"How about Stanley Wickham, the famous cricket player -- could he insure his nuggets?"

"Not with Lloyds. Not in the course of being a mere batsman. Perhaps if he were a pornography star he could insure his money-makers."

"I get the picture. If I were a famous sculptor, I could insure my hands."

"That’s right. You’re using them in a trade or business to generate income."

"Or a famous guitarist, my fingers?"

"Most likely."

"Thank you, Trisquit. You can go back to the hammock and coconut juice."

I instantly saw the devious possibilities, at least for Eric Clapton. Insure the fingers of the left hand. Lop off the pinkie. Buy Krell.

The Clapton method may seem a sick and sorry way to go about slaking one’s lust for hi-fi, but have you noticed the prices lately? Only a professional athlete can actually pay for certain brand names. The rest of us have to beg, borrow, steal, or at least tell big lies.

I’m reminded of audiophiles who must keep their wives in the dark about the cost of the hobby. I once sold a $4000 CD transport to a family man who turned around and handed the box to his cousin. "This will be a birthday gift for me from my uncle," he winked. "Carlos will bring it to the house next week." Wow, nice move. Another client asked me to save a new faceplate rather than install it with a preamp upgrade kit. "I love upgrades," he said. "Totally invisible."

An equation I also like is the one that measures "bimbos for hi-fi." I sometimes hear from wives of successful audiophiles: "My husband can invest all the money he wants on his stereo equipment. It keeps him from spending it on women." Maybe so, but if she knew the true size of hubby’s investment (>$30k), she might recommend castration.

The other day I was approached with an offer of a sports car for hi-fi. As much as I’m addicted to audio gear, I have an even bigger jones for cars. The offer was tempting. If my garage could hold a second car as well as boxes and packing materials stored therein, I’d have made the trade. Actually, it’s well I didn’t. As soon as someone offers me a house in exchange for an all-Mark Levinson system, I’m out of here and into new quarters.

At least audiophiles are patriotic. Whenever a spy is arrested in the US, I check to see whether in addition to the fancy house and imported car he bought any recommended components. To a man (or woman), spies all own rack systems, usually quite elaborate ones, however. Maybe it’s only a matter of time until we see "state secrets for hi-fi."

Although I’ve painted a bleak picture here, there is a method of dealing with audio addiction without resorting to draconian measures. It’s called do-it-yourself, and all it requires is the willingness to forego pride of purchase. Remember Bob W? After facing down his addiction, he took the plunge and bought an amplifier kit a few years ago. Even though he earns $90,000 a year nowadays, he only buys digital components and loudspeakers pre-built. His amplifier, preamp and cables are all home-brewed. You won’t find a review of the Bob W. Signature Stereo Amplifier (the BWSSA) in an audio mag, but Bob assures me that it compares favorably to well-reviewed amplifiers his friends own.

In my case, I’m not quite ready for solder fumes. However, since coming to SoundStage! a few years ago, I have been exposed to the philosophy of Greg Weaver, whose Synergizing column is a must-read for its wit and wisdom, and the practicality of Steven Rochlin, whose website lists a plethora of good suggestions for audio tweaks. I would say to those who are concerned about the high cost of hi-fi, try a little DIY. Try tweaks that cost next to nothing and move up from there to tube upgrades, home-brewed cables and room treatments. With the money you save, you can buy that commercially available piece you must have while still retaining all your appendages.

Which brings me to an apology for abusing a DIY digital cable last month. As readers of my column may have noticed, I attempted to write a satire about the reviewing process. During that attempt, which some people interpreted not as humor but as a confession of incompetence on my part, I used for a stage-prop the digital cable designed and offered as a free do-it-yourself project by my colleague Steven Rochlin (www.enjoythemusic.com). After imposing upon Steven to make a cable for me, I proceed to sacrifice the MR1 to the needs of this column. This was a mistake and a callous disregard for Steven’s feelings. Furthermore, the MR1 is quite a fine digital cable, one many times deserving of its modest cost. If anyone thinks I was other than impressed with the MR1, please be disabused of the notion. In fact, I bought a second MR1 before the article was printed. However, I apologize to readers of this column for confusing them with my convoluted prose, and to Steven Rochlin for a reckless attempt at humor at his expense. Later today, I plan to shoot off a little toe in atonement to the audio gods. Maybe they have an old turntable to trade.

...James Saxon


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