[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
November 1999

On a Budget

In launching a new hobby, one tends to set budget constraints, some real, some artificial. When I purchased my first stereo rig in 1971, my budgetary limits were reality-based. Although I was an overpaid young lawyer, by New York standards I lived hand to mouth. A thousand dollars for music in the apartment was clearly all I could afford at the time. After reading about receivers and loudspeakers in Consumer Reports I took my "A" list to Crazy Eddie’s hi-fi discount store in Greenwich Village. There, I was baited and switched into products with a bigger commission in it for Eddie’s salesmen.

However, ignorance being bliss, I spent a decade enjoying a JVC receiver, Dual turntable, Akai tape deck and Crazy Eddie house-brand speakers. Only toward the very end, when my new loft required greater fiesta-giving capability, did I appreciate the inadequacies of my system. In the fall of 1981, I decided to buy a new "stereo," one that wouldn’t cause sparks to fly out when the party really got hot. Besides, I was about to close my first financial deal and wanted to reward myself with a small gift. I began to lust for hi-fi.

A friend of mine who was serious about music suggested I brush up on the subject of high-fidelity audio components. He passed along copies of a skinny booklet called Stereophile, which alerted me to a new realm of aural sensibilities. I also purchased a newsstand magazine called Stereo Reports, which measured and tested brand names I had never heard of, such as Apt-Holman, Carver, Thiel and Luxman. Hoping to spend the same amount on new equipment as I had invested in 1972, I began toting up costs of new gear. It soon became clear that $1000, while realistic for a receiver-based system, foreclosed me from owning separate components, other than some low-powered stuff called NAD. To avoid power shortages that plagued my parties, I wanted a potent amplifier, at least 200 watts. Such a beast would cost about $500. Preamp, tape deck, and turntable would total at least $1500, and the speakers my friend suggested, a pair of B&W monitors from England, cost another $500. I decided that the budget for my new system would be $2500, a considerable sum in 1981.

However, unlike the cost constraints of 1971, the amount I reserved for a new stereo system ten years later was totally artificial, especially since I was about to pull some serious change out of a real-estate closing. Still, old habits die hard, and I determined that frugality would guide my personal expenditures. How little I suspected that a sybarite would soon surface. Meanwhile, operating within an artificially tight budget, I was fairly placed for the events that awaited me.

On the day of the big closing, I had to walk by Harvey Radio on West 45th Street in Manhattan. I didn’t quite get all the way along when I spotted in the window a famous component, the Carver Holographic Generator preamplifier. I glanced at my watch, took a deep breath and went into the store. When I inquired about the Carver, a kindly salesman tipped me off that some idiot had traded in a new Carver "only hours before." If I promised to buy the matching Carver amplifier, he would take me to the back room where I could find an identical unit to the one in the window for half price! My temperature shot up. Where’s the amplifier? I asked. The salesman handed me a lightweight silver cube and said it put out 250 watts of class-D power and sold for a measly $400. I was amazed. The amp was cute!

I remember asking him how class D compared to class A, and he said it was like with diamonds: the higher the letter, the better the grade. So the Carver amp was a diamond. To my eyes, it shone like one. I bought the Cube to go with the Holographic Generator. I made the mistake of telling the salesman that time was running short, I had to leave. "Time," he said, "I’m glad you mentioned it. Right this way." In a corner of the used equipment room was a pair of tower loudspeakers covered in black cloth. They looked imposing. These, I was informed, were the famous DCM Time Windows. I sucked in my breath. Only days before I had read a glowing commentary on the speakers, but never expected to find them at Harvey Radio. Even better, they were selling for half price! Time to buy Time Windows, a voice commanded. And so I did, five minutes after I should have been elsewhere.

I paid with a credit card and ran to the lawyer’s office. Two hours later I was back at Harvey’s arranging delivery of the new preamplifier, amp, and speakers. Still with money to burn, I also bought a Technics direct-drive turntable, tonearm and cartridge included, and a used "Nak," which everyone had to have in those days. The salesman threw in a roll of loudspeaker wire for free. The total cost was $2512 with tax. I was delirious with pride.

After spending a full day setting up the system, playing Billy Joel and Melissa Manchester albums at full blast, I felt ready for the big test. I invited my friend Otto, the one who had given me the Stereophile back issues, to come hear my new stereo system.

Otto, who was a practicing alcoholic in those days, arrived at the loft sober as an executioner. He took his hi-fi seriously. I sought to pre-condition him with a tumbler of Scotch and water, and asked what kind of music he wanted to hear. Anything, he said, but it took a full ten minutes of hunting before any of my album covers looked remotely interesting to him. Finally, we settled on a recording of Schubert’s "The Trout," which has been a gift from my former fiancee. I cued up the record, adjusted the volume of the Holographic Generator, and back-pedaled to stand beside the chair in which Otto sat in closed-eye rapture.

When "The Trout" had finished swimming, Otto opened his eyes and asked me how much I had paid for the new stereo system. Modestly, I estimated the equipment would have cost $4000 new but through dint of luck and hard work I had paid slightly over $2500 -- for everything. Otto took a sip of his Scotch and shook his head. "Isn’t it amazing," he said, "how bad $2500 can sound?" I was stunned; tried to laugh, but couldn’t. He was absolutely right. The JVC receiver and Crazy Eddie speakers had sounded better. I asked him what made the presentation so bland. The speakers? He waved the glass of Scotch in front of him. "It’s the whole lot," he said. "Get rid of it all and start over."

Before he left, Otto switched off the Carver Cube amplifier and hefted it. "Why don’t you begin by seeing how far you can throw this thing," he said. I was surprised he went for the Cube, which seemed to me to be the Pit Bull of amplifiers. It was a dog, he assured me, a Chihuahua. That night, I began a solitary journey toward ever-better, ever-more-costly hi-fi systems. The quest continues to this day.

Sometimes, I wonder whether playing with an arbitrary budget was the right thing to do. Maybe if I had gone around to stereo shops, listened to figure out the sound I liked and made a budget afterwards, things might have turned out differently. Instead of becoming the audio perfectionist I am today, maybe a really good, top-dollar system would have assuaged me early on. Over the years I have been cursed with the memory of Otto’s words again and again, but the cost of the equipment has changed. There have been times, sad to say, when I’ve asked myself, Isn’t it amazing how bad a $50,000 system can sound? Of course, this is not true of my present system!

...James Saxon


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