[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

May 2001

Don't be Afraid of the Dark

I used to be afraid of the dark.

Admit it.... You did too...or maybe you still are.

I grew up hunting with my father. Although I no longer partake in the sport, at the time it was a bonding force between us. In the middle of Michigan’s bleak November, we would drive back into the woods to this old hunting cabin and stay for the season. The walls were decorated with pictures of old hunters (long dead) and their trophies (longer dead). At night, the propane lights illuminated the place with an eerie, pulsating glow. I would crawl into my sleeping bag with the latest Amityville Horror novel for company, while the winter winds whistled through the walls of the drafty cabin. It seemed that just as I managed to drift off into an uneasy, dream-filled sleep, my father would be at my side shaking my shoulder. "Time to hit the woods."

Northern Michigan is unbelievably dark. To a 14-year-old who spent the night reading about demonic pigs and blood-covered walls, it’s even darker.

My assigned spot was about a 45-minute walk straight back into a swamp. A narrow trail followed a stagnant stream leading deep into the darkness. As I walked along, feeling more like the hunted than the hunter, my finger never left the trigger of my rifle.

I was taught to walk silently, heel to toe, not to scare the game. But not me! I made as much noise as possible, singing, stomping, talking aloud. In my mind I was trying to scare away anything that might be waiting to eat me…or at least block the noise of it attacking. Without exception, a beaver would slap its tail in the water or a partridge would explode into flight just to my left, sending me into cardiac overload. It was a wonder I didn’t empty my gun into the first chipmunk that stepped from behind a tree. Aaaaahhh!!!!

And why did I quit hunting???

Yeah, I used to be afraid of the dark…but now I embrace it.

And what does all this talk of the dark have to do with you getting more enjoyment out of your audio system? State of mind, comrade, state of mind.

Picture this: You are running late for an extremely important engagement. As you drive down the expressway, during rush-hour traffic, your car sputters then dies -- out of gas. You frantically pace down the side of the highway to the nearest gas station a half mile away, and back. Total distance walked: one mile.

Now another scenario. You and your wife have just finished a romantic dinner on a verandah overlooking a moonlit Lake Michigan. You take off your shoes, roll up your trousers, and walk hand in hand a half mile along the cool, sandy beach, the water lapping at your toes. Total distance walked: one mile.

The difference??? State of mind….

Now let’s relate this to the times when we might try to listen to music and see what happens.

It’s a Saturday morning and you get up early for a little Chopin and coffee. You cue up your favorite Nocturne on the Rega and sit down to sip on that new African blend you picked up at the gourmet shop. The first few tranquil notes send you deep into the cushion of your over-stuffed chair. Life is good…until your neighbor starts his Lawnboy. As you nudge the volume up a little, you remind yourself to discuss the attributes of gravel and cactus with your neighbor. The sound of Barenboim on the Bösendorfer is a little louder than you’d like, but the mower’s dissonance is defeated.

Well…almost. A moment later, you hear your wife in the kitchen grinding some fresh beans. The kids are soon on her heels, screaming for their Saturday-morning pancakes to go along with the cartoons you can already hear droning through the walls. So much for Chopin. Might as well crank up some blues and go help out in the kitchen.

How about some afternoon? You get home early from work, after spending the entire day working through the final details of some big project. Walking through the door, you head straight for the C-Js. On go the tubes to warm up for a few minutes while you pour yourself a glass of Maker’s Mark on ice. Back to the living room, you go to make your music selection. CDs or vinyl, classical or jazz, the decision seems a little tedious right now. Your mind is still in the work mode. Analyze and make the right decision. Look at all the data first, then make an informed choice. IT’S MUSIC FOR GODSAKE!!!

After changing your mind twice, you finally decide on the newest Diana Krall. Nothing too heavy. You sit down to listen, sipping your bourbon, trying to relax. It’s just not that easy. Your mind is still analyzing. Staring at the tweeter, you wonder if you detect an ever-so-slight beaming of the highest frequencies. Perhaps you should check the preamp tubes to see if some microphonics has come into play. Diana’s voice seems a little off center, doesn’t it? Maybe the right speaker needs to come out just a little. You soon find yourself out of the chair adjusting, fiddling, tweaking -- not sitting, listening, relaxing, enjoying.

State of mind, folks. It’s all about state of mind. This may be the biggest component of all. And you had a hard time thinking of your room as a component. If you’re distracted, annoyed, nervous, depressed, angry, or feeling guilty about sitting there listening (instead of fixing that shelf in the basement), then give it up. The magic won’t be there.

Embrace the dark. Don’t be afraid. The dark is your friend. Come over to the dark side…

I start getting excited a little before nine. The kitchen is clean. The dishes are done. The house starts to quiet down. My wife heads for the bedroom to watch Sex in the City in bed. I have to admit that Kim Cattrall is pretty hot, but I find Sarah Jessica Parker a pain in the…whatever. I kiss my wife goodnight, and head out into the living room. After nine, it can be called my semi-dedicated listening room. It’s just me, Max, and the music.

Who’s Max? A certified music-loving audiophile cat. He might be anywhere in the house -- hunting daddy-longlegs, seeking out mischief in the kitchen, or taking his hundredth nap of the day. But when the music begins, he’s there, dude. He prefers classical, but can boogie with a little jazz or blues as well.

Anyway, before we begin our session, some preparation is in order. This is not the stressful kind of preparation. I don’t go analyzing my entire music collection as if life depended on making the right selection. This is more like rolling up your trousers for a walk along the beach. Relaaaaaxxxx. All work, and work-related objects, are far from sight. Any televisions in the house are turned down to an inaudible level…OFF! The phone goes too. A drink??? Sure, think of it as a tweak.

Without too much forethought, I choose a record or CD to start the night. Just pick one. Shoot from the hip. Perhaps I choose Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3, "Organ" on vinyl. For some reason I tend to lean toward vinyl for my night sessions. I think the night is more analog. Hmmm. The most important thing is not to stress over it. CD, vinyl, it really isn’t important.

The next thing, however, is vitally important. I walk over and turn off the lights. All the lights. I start with the room farthest from my listening area and work my way in. Sitting in the living room with a bulb glaring at you from the kitchen just won’t cut it. The tubes from the C-J provide just enough for maneuvering.Welcome to the dark side. Don’t be afraid.

Turn up the volume. Lower the tonearm. Push play. Get ready for magic.

There's something magic about listening in the dark. The mind is less distracted. You’re not thinking about the walls that need painting or the carpet that needs cleaning. More importantly, you're not looking at the cables, audio rack, or cartridge and thinking about another upgrade. You can’t see them. You forget. You hear the music. Its like a man who loses his sight and gains acuity in his hearing. What’s special is that the acuity doesn’t work to get you deeper into the equipment. The acuity gets you deeper into the music. You forget the equipment.

You forget the equipment….

As I sit on the sofa with Max at my feet, cloaked in luxurious blackness, it’s all about the music. Am I listening to my beloved Conrad-Johnson MV-55 with the new spiral-filament input tubes? No. How about the Rega Planar 25 with the Goldring Elite, low-input moving coil, feeding the Lehmann Black Cube, with a pair of "custom-made" interconnects? Uhhhh, no. Or the System Audio 3070 double-D’Appolito, floorstanding speakers with Scan-Speak tweeters and Vifa midbass drivers?

No, no, no….

Then what am I listening to? Albinoni, Bach, Bax, Beethoven, Brubeck, Cash, Corelli, Costello, DuPré, Davis, Elgar, Grieg, Grisman, Hedges, Hendrix, Haydn, Jacintha, Khachaturian, Lovett, Mahler, Miles, Mingus, Nielsen, Oregon, Part, Pink Floyd, Ravel, Respighi, Satie, Stravinsky, Sting, Tchaikovsky, Telemann, Vaughn Williams, Van Morrison, Wagner, Wilson, Yes, Zappa...

Sound familiar? M-U-S-I-C.

Don’t get me wrong. I love equipment. I love the tweakiness (is that a word?). I love the glow of the tubes, the size of the cables, the endless upgrades. It’s in my blood. It’s part of the religion (see Srajan’s March column). But I have plenty of time for that during waking-man hours. After nine, it’s lights out and goodbye equipment.

Isn’t that what it’s all about? Forgetting the equipment. State of mind. And I’m not talking about forgetting as in "great transparency" or "the image is so palpable." As soon words like this enter your mind, you are no longer forgetting. Those are words to use when you are paying very close attention. If you are truly forgetting the equipment, you may find yourself thinking, "M an, did Elgar write this for DuPré or what?" and "Miles must have been on something when he wrote that." Or on some magical evenings, you won’t think of a thing. As if drawn into a scene from Fantasia, you’ll become part of the music…drifting…drifting…finally back into consciousness ‘round midnight, to drag your Zen butt off to bed.

See you tomorrow night.

...Bill Brooks


[SoundStage!]All Contents
Copyright © 2001 SoundStage!
All Rights Reserved