[SoundStage!]Paradise with James Saxon
Back Issue Article
June 2000

Profiles in Audio

Over the years of selling hi-fi equipment, I’ve met a lot of people. Some I have influenced and some have influenced me. Here are a few souls who come to mind without deep reflection. In each case, the give and take has been instructive. Maybe you recognize a kindred spirit.

Gabriel is a graduate student who likes to meditate. He began upgrading his music system about three years ago. By sticking to my advice on used gear, shunning all hi-fi magazines and ignoring his friends who try to confuse him with opinions, he has painlessly attained high-fidelity sound. His total outlay was less than $2500, including cables, and he doesn’t plan any changes until he enters the work force in a couple of years. He enjoys listening to my system and sometimes brings over new compact discs to audition before taking them home. He can hear the difference in the two setups but finds them more akin musically than less. I’m not there yet myself, but Gabriel is patient with me.

Ernie is one of my failures. I hooked him on hi-fi before realizing he couldn’t afford to play in the big leagues. Giving him equipment to take home was like offering free drugs to an addict. It never came back. After a year, he was in hock to me, although I didn’t know it at the time. Wasn’t until I learned he had spent his son’s bicycle money on a new set of cables that I cut him off. He did the same to me, selling off all the equipment he bought on credit without paying for it. I’ve recovered from the setback, but last I heard Ernie was divorced and trying to break a drug habit. This story isn’t folklore. Hi-fi and other addictions are not to be taken lightly. I should know.

Ronald is a gentleman who’s an acquired taste. We’ve spent hours auditioning equipment together and getting lost in the music. Hi-fi has been good to Ronald, enriching his life (mine, too -- thanks, Ron!), giving him a healthy outlet for his substantial disposable income. His frustration is that he has no one with whom to share the hobby. His wife thinks it’s a stupid waste of money. His children are happy with computer downloads and car stereo. His friends prefer to drink and talk when they come over. Too bad we don’t have an audio club in Paradise. Ronald has much fellowship to offer. He has the best system I’ve ever heard after mine and serves little sandwiches with the beer.

Peter is an equipment trader. He comes over once a week to see what’s new in the used equipment rack and complains when he sees the same "old" gear. He needs action. His stereo system can fluctuate in value from zero to ten grand and back to zero in a matter of months. Once, out of boredom, Peter traded me a cassette deck for a fax machine. The fax machine didn’t work. Neither did the deck. As a former bond trader, I enjoy haggling with Peter, but I deplore his lack of music. At my insistence, he invested several years ago in a plastic rack that holds 36 jewel boxes. He’s never filled the rack. Peter’s focus is on the hardware, pure and simple. When he needs to do some serious listening, he borrows my demonstration discs. He returns them if I remember to ask.

The man I hide from is Gus the reviewer. Gus has a coterie of friends, non-customers, for whom he critiques products. I try to keep equipment arrivals a secret from him, but he ferrets them out somehow. Demonstrating anything for Gus is a no-win situation. In the first place, he’s not a buyer, and in the second, his mission is to search and destroy via word of mouth. The irony is that four years ago Gus assembled a first-rate stereo system with my help. Since then, nothing he’s heard in or out of his listening room has topped the gear he owns. In my natural role of breadwinner, I strongly urge everyone who enters the store to abandon the old and buy up the new. This includes Gus, who finds my manner offensive. Don’t I understand that nothing is better than the equipment he so carefully purchased? Consequently, Gus delights in the negative review. The component I’m flogging doesn’t improve upon his four-year-old model. People with good money believe him. Meanwhile, he forgets to mention that everything he owns he bought from me! Oh, the unfairness of it all….

Finally, we have Monica the maid. I love Monica. She’s my best friend in Paradise. We’ve unboxed a lot of equipment together. Monica is passionate about music and has a golden ear. If I need a second opinion (which is seldom, I assure you), I ask her to take a listen. After her boombox gave out, she used to circle pictures of rack systems in the newspaper. I told her that discount stereos have metal speakers that ring like Big Marie. When I began to import Denon electronics, Monica got excited. A photo of their high-line mini-system showed real-wood speakers, Missions, instead of tin cans that resemble R2D2. Even though it will take her a year to pay for the stereo, she insisted on buying it. She’s happy with her sound. People from the barrio come to her house to listen. Monica set the speakers on cement blocks and uses Vibrapods under the speakers. I’ve heard her system. Unlike certain hobbyists I know she’s all set.

Why have I singled out these people for discussion? It is because each one has taught me a lesson. Gabriel the grad student has shown me that huge differences in quality between hi-fi systems are not that huge. At the portals of high-end audio, the entry-level gear is damn fine stuff and getting better all the time. With a modest outlay of cash and care in selection, one can obtain a playback system that provides the joy of music. The rest is gilding the lily.

Poor Ernie was right to stiff me on the hi-fi bill. With one’s back to the wall financially, the stereo system is an easy sacrifice. Food, shelter, clothing and family are infinitely more important. Sometimes we fat cats forget that. Besides, all salesmen should qualify their buyers. In Ernie’s case, I was careless in assuming he could handle high monthly payments. Sometimes, saying no is the best approach. Of course, if I could say no, I wouldn’t be living in Paradise.

Ronald, my alter ego, is actually a lonely guy. A psychiatrist might say he’s substituted hi-fi for personal relationships. As much as I condone Ronald, I think he should take the recent advice a woman friend gave me. "Jim," she said, "get a life!" I’m thinking to sell my collection of cardboard movie-star figures to Ronald. He can party in his listening room without disturbing the family.

It’s galling to say this, but Gus the reviewer is entitled to his hard-earned opinions. He’s paid his dues in cash and hard listening experience. Besides, he may be right -- newer isn’t always better. In fact, better isn’t always better. Sometimes it’s just different. Moreover, the Internet has created the million-man review board. Everyone is a potential Gus. I, as well as others in the audio industry, should get used to criticism from unexpected sources.

Of the spirits who haunt me, Monica is the only one who has failed to inform. How can I relate to someone who applies a few principles of good sound and makes a "final purchase?" Heaven forbid my customers should adopt this approach. Ominously, I noticed in the April issue of Stereophile that Monica’s stereo is the only mini-component system to receive a rating -- Class D to be sure, but a rating nevertheless. I’ve decided against pointing this out to her. A rating system is the root of all hi-fi evil. I might wish them on others, but Monica is too good for ratings.

...James Saxon


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