[SoundStage!]The Y-Files
Back Issue Article

June 2000

Massive Mojo Mourning -- a Musical Maditation

My mojo has a blister. My birdcage has been rattled and my feathers are ruffled. I’ve seen first-hand the havoc audio reviews can wreck on people’s lives. I’m seriously disturbed by what I’ve seen.

Let me explain. Shortly after my Bel Canto "Y-Files" hits the cyber waves in February, an e-mail arrives. The sender, a fellow named Aaron, asks me how I think the Bel Canto Evo 200.2 compares to the Audiomat Prélude. Having never heard the Prélude, I tell him so. Unperturbed, he does me one better and wants to know whether I still have the Bel Canto on hand. I do indeed, so? Well, would I mind evaluating his new amp and compare it to the digital challenger? Hmmm. Next thing I know -- a few more e-mails are exchanged first, like two dogs sniffing each other’s, well, circular visions on the world -- a huge box arrives at my doorstep, happily coinciding with my birthday. It’s weird when synchronicity happens like that. There it sits, a brand-spanking-new, never-opened, positively virgin Audiomat Prélude, original invoice still attached and made out to one Aaron Audiophile of LA. If his name under the circumstances sounds like errant audiophile, this isn’t entirely coincidental.

I attempt in vain to persuade him that my opinion doesn’t amount to squat. Nobody else’s does either for that matter. It is his money he’s spent and he has to live with the results. Does he like the amp or not? Well, obviously he has never listened to it yet, so how would he know? Why would he trust what I think instead? He has never even met me for Jehovah’s sake! What apparently serves as my lone calling card, symbol and identification positive of unquestionable excellence, is my peculiar writing style. My florid prose has somehow convinced him that attached to the words must be a set of finely calibrated ears directly hardwired into a superior cortex operating in the eternal void of abstract objectivity. Do you know how to tame a Bronco? You keep one leg on each side and your mind in the middle. Ditto for audio. Keep one ear on each channel and common sense in the sweet spot!

Anyway, further e-mails exchange. Some time later, a set of premium NOS small-signal tubes arrives, sourced from the ever-tubular Kevin Deal of Upscale Audio. This happens presumably to turn the tides in favor of Aaron’s push-pull amplificatore. In pursuit of careful honesty, I had let my lender know that to these ears, his Prélude was a top contender in its class but bettered in certain aspects important to me by its single-ended cousins.

Due to some complications on his end, Aaron can never make the two-hour trip to San Diego to hear his amp in my surroundings, so no comparisons for his sake between the single-ended amps I have on hand, as well as the Bel Canto that prompted his original inquiry. I thus decide to drive to LA myself and return the amp to its rightful owner.

Upon entering his lower-Hollywood-style guest house adjacent to the main house -- I initially mistake it for his residence -- I find myself in a single room crammed to the very rafters with stuff. Closer inspection reveals volumes upon volumes of Internet printouts from various audio manufacturers’ websites as well as magazines. Key passages are methodically marked with translucent highlighter as though they constituted a saint’s final pearls of wisdom before the swine amongst his disciples turned his sayings into unrecognizable paroxysms of the truth. In other words, a truly massive compendium of diverse opinions masquerading as facts and thus spanning the proverbial gamut. It quickly becomes lightning-clear that poor Aaron is majorly confused. A look at his system confirms this suspicion.

There is a Rotel HDCD player, a Toshiba DVD player, a Bel Canto DAC1, a Creek integrated, some Kimber and XLO cables and Canton floorstanders. So far so right. Nothing super fancy but certainly more than a cut above receiver-ville and, in the right setup, capable of providing some serious enjoyment. Except he admits that he can’t really tell the difference between the Rotel and the DVD/DAC front-end. He obviously bought the latter on somebody’s recommendation alone, hoping for aural bliss. Enjoyment, however, doesn’t truly seem to be on Aaron’s mind. Tweaking is. To wit, I find a massive Bybee-Curl conditioner plugged into which are two expensive Shunyata Research power cords feeding the puny Creek and champagne-in-a-can Rotel. Not installed yet but waiting on the sidelines like long-legged cheerleaders are various sets of Black Diamond Racing cones and Nordost Pulsar Points. Somebody had seriously studied the after-market accessory options and taken the plunge.

And dove right into a bone-dry swimming pool. I note a strange, disconcerting mixture of sorrow, disgust and gleeful mockery in myself while I observe le residente audiomaniac shuttle from half-played track to the next and the next, hot on the heels of whatever it is but quite obviously not catching up. Rather than relaxing into tasting the music, he ingests bits and flotsam of noise. He behaves like somebody who absentmindedly nibbles on food and pretends to follow a conversation while really calculating tomorrow’s stock-market options. When I finally uncork -- well, unpack -- the Prélude to let him hear it for the first time, I don’t realize how excessively high Aaron in his imagination has set his expectations on what this component swap should accomplish. Never mind that tubes need time to settle down and warm up and that any system changes take a while to solidify -- it doesn’t take Aaron more than five minutes to determine that he don’t dig the sound.

The magnitude of difference to his ears isn’t at all concomitant with what it should be. Neither is the purported magic of tubes. Worse, he feels that the improved solidity of the soundstage is now offset by a less lively and tacit presentation. It’s not what I hear, but that’s beside the point. The Prélude is castrated, written off, discarded in a heartbeat and sent to pasture. And there I can’t detect a single solitary sign of evidence that Aaron habitually spends thousands of dollars on a momentary whim only to shrug his shoulders, proclaim forgeddabouddid in that causal Mafioso tone and turn a fast screeching left to pursue fresher fancies. But drop it he did -- the Prélude’s off the list, and I can’t figure it.

Nonetheless, Aaron is obscenely contented -- no make that compelled -- to now spend endless longwinded hours talking about audio. Not listening to it, mind you, but talking. Comparing opinions, pulling memorized retorts from out of under his cap and creating new problems by discarding real and present ones I hope to address. In short, he dances around the ring rather than going in for the possibly fatal confrontation. Namely, does he even know how to listen to music? Has he taken the time to learn what to listen for? Are his expectations even remotely realistic? Has he considered synergy? Is his room conducive to his aims? Is he properly prepared for his date, clean-shaven, relaxed, dressed to kill, money in his pocket and more smart one-liners under his tongue than dental floss? Or is he perchance more committed to agonizing over abstracts, to pursuing a dream vision rather than getting down to lift the veil and say "I do"?

I honestly feel very sorry for errant Aaron who has obviously consulted hard, compared diligently, read tirelessly and doubted strongly before he ordered the Prélude sight unseen. Maybe if he had only harbored more innate suspicions about review shadows casting themselves menacingly over consumers with zero faith into their own perceptions. Maybe if he had inquired more about his room, his expectations, what he thought review descriptions really signified. Maybe if he had done more of that, Aaron wouldn’t have bought the Prélude to now be so plainly disappointed.

Really? Cockamamie. Aaron would have merely latched onto a different amp sight unseen and someone else more than gladly would have taken his shekels to sell him another "ultimate" solution to his quandary.   And therein lies a lesson to be learned for us reviewers. You see, in order to describe rapidly diminishing differences amongst components, our vocabulary tends to paint in broader and broader strokes to capture those fleeting differences. This is the first thing every reader must remember -- a hair’s width is a difference, but does it matter a gnat’s ass? When we reviewers hear something that truly rocks our world, coinciding more closely than anything we’ve ever heard before with our personal ledger of priorities, we say some mighty impressive things about it. If we dispense with this intensity on that rare occasion only where it is truly warranted, this should alarm the faithful to a major discovery. If, on the other hand, we’re new to the reviewing gig, haven’t traveled the breadth and width of what’s possible, and go gaga over the first amp that pulls harder, accelerates faster and stops quicker than our resident lawnmower, then the unsuspecting reader goes confused. If he takes this drivel at face value -- literally, in other words -- and expects the sun to rise in his loo when the pilot light turns green, well, you get the picture. It ain’t pretty.

What should you take home from this? Just that to the same extent you don’t have strangers pick the person that is to become your significant other for the next ten years, don’t have reviewers pick your audio gear. Furthermore, accessories are accessories -- choose your core components first and forget about tweaking everything to death, at least until the morning after. Get laid first and worry about toys later. Consult with friends who have well-balanced, dialed-in systems you appreciate. Learn about how components complement each other. Make friends with a dealer who cares. Let him educate you about the tonal range, from vanilla to chocolate, that different priorities can elicit from components simply by virtue of how they’re chosen and put together. Once you find a dealer or friend who can demonstrate a system that raises your goosebumps, trust his recommendations. But don’t forget this proviso -- you have to like it over the long term. Most importantly, maintain perspective. How important is all this shit to you -- really? How many hours do you actually listen to music? Do you sit down to music on a regular basis? Or are you more married to the idea of grooving to the tunes while never getting around to actually doing it? Is music your passion, or are you a component hound, a bone collector? For what it’s worth, I had to get this of my chest. I sorely need my mojo back without sores and blisters. The way things were headed, it was about to fall off like a witherspoon.

Now that I’m all cocksure of myself again: Who amongst you out there has a $5000 CD player with 24/96 internal upsampling, tube output stage and remote-controlled analog-domain variable outputs and wants me to compare it to my resident Marantz 630 Pro CDR recorder? Ship it to my door, preferably factory-sealed, and if I like it, you can read about yourself in my upcoming column. Just don’t expect it to be anything flattering. About your smarts, that is.

But to truly level with you and have that air bubble between my ears go horizontal again with equanimity: Aaron really is a very nice guy. Massively confused, yes, but he doesn’t deserve to be ridiculed in public for asking and trusting my opinion. Wondering how to rectify his situation while still in his place, I make a call to a dealer and friend, John Barker of Sonic Culture in San Diego. He drives out the very next day and brings some other amps, speakers and cables to set up a dialed-in system in-house and demonstrate to Aaron what’s possible and what’s not in this room of his and with his expectations. I knew that John had recently started trading in Audiomats. He is gracious enough to accept Aaron’s Prélude for his as yet outstanding display sample, having ordered the Arpège first. This gesture nets Aaron credit towards a future purchase with Sonic Culture once he figures out what he really wants. He won’t lose the customary fifty cents to the dollar by turning his piece on the used market. Plus, he now knows at least one dealer who cares enough to drive four hours to educate, demonstrate and help out.

Needless to say, our lost soul’s name ain’t Aaron. Everything else is true, though, and I sincerely hope that this little story helps someone else out there regain his bearings or not let go of them to begin with. My fellow SoundStagers and I enjoy writing and tend to think that we have a pretty good way with words. But folks, these are just words, meant to amuse you while at the same time sharing some information. That’s all it is though -- a finger pointing at the moon. Don’t bite my finger; look what it’s pointing at. Then forget about the finger and enjoy la bella luna!


Ciao again -- I thought you might like to know something else before I ride out into the sunset. As all successful stories must, ours has a happy ending. Last time I looked, somebody had taken a huge chunk out of the moon, leaving nothing but a meager sickle crust. I take that to mean that my few remaining fingers are safe now and I can get on unperturbed with my writing gig. John Barker’s informed me in the meantime that based on his demo with the well-regarded Diavolo amplifier, Aaron has ordered Art Audio’s new PX-25 amplifier and seems settled on a pair of speakers by a company called Talon Audio. Not that I’ve ever heard of them, but a recent ad in Stereophile suggests it’s a real company for the time being, and SoundStage! has a review in the works.

As a thank-you for my so-called help -- liable to be revoked once this article hits -- Aaron also sent me a tachyonized crystal to mount on my cell phone, which is said to offset the deleterious effects of the high-frequency radiation cell phones emit right into the brain. I’d like to keep this little gizmo to keep my brain waves in the theta range and remain off the radar screens of the cancer docs. So Aaron, if you read this, rest assured that I truly respect your desire for good sound. I write for folks just like you. But there does come a time when you have to stop reading stuff -- mine included -- and trust your own ears. That's reality. All phone or e-mail advice should be shunned from now on, or at the very least, swallow it with a huge grain of salt, Jägermeister at the ready to calm down that poisoned stomach afterwards.

Now hand me that salt shaker, would you? I can’t drink this shit without a good reason first, but I do like the heat it creates inside. It gets me ready to write another acidic installment of the "Y-Files." Happy tunes, y’all.

...Srajan Ebaen


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