[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

September 2001

Are You an Audio Daredevil?

Sometime you just have to take a risk, throw caution to the wind, forget about logic, ignore every rationalization that is screaming into your brain and jump. Just jump!

I turned 40 recently and does it ever suck. I’m not one of those people who normally has problems with birthdays or anything. When I turned 30, it was just another day -- a good reason to quench my thirst a little more aggressively perhaps, but still just another day. When my hair started to play a less prominent role on my head, I simply began to coif my locks nice and tight so that the contrast was less noticeable. Haven’t you ever seen the old guy with the long strand of hair that he weaves all over his head failing miserably at trying to cover his shiny dome. NOT ME! Give me the shears and a #2 blade and I’m one happy, closely shorn customer. The additions and subtractions that come with age simply never bothered me.

It was because of this that I decided to mark the occasion with something I had never done before -- something so different, so incomparable, so insane that it would really shake things up a bit. No, I’m not going through a mid-life crisis. I'm completely head-over-heels in love with my wife, and I have no desire to get a second mortgage on the house so that I can purchase a new Porshe Boxster. (However, if anyone is feeling generous, my favorite color is silver.) No, I had something a little less costly and a little more risky in mind.

After signing my life away (and I do mean this literally, the liability-release forms were endless), my adventure was underway. First stop was wardrobe. I was handed a skintight chartreuse zip-up jumpsuit that made me look like a mutant animated lime. "I’m ready for my close-up now, Mr. DeMille." I was then trussed in a harness that eliminated all the guesswork from that age-old question, "Boxers or briefs?" At this point, some of you are wondering if I spent my birthday money visiting Mistress Helga, the dominatrix to the middle-aged. Well, perhaps I do need to be punished, but my adventure of choice was skydiving, not…whatever.

Soon we were aboard the DeHavilland Twin Otter jump plane climbing to an altitude of about 14,000 feet. Over two miles! Am I insane or what? But really I never felt in the least bit nervous. Not going up. Not marching up to the exit door. Not stepping out into…nothing. Not free-falling for almost a full minute at 150 miles per hour. There was something pure about it. It was the first time in recent memory that I had absolutely nothing else occupying my thoughts. Literally, I had not a worry in the world. I’m not sure if it were the fear of death, or experiencing the ultimate air dielectric that did it but if ever I was in "the zone" this was it.

Was there a risk? You bet your mortal butt there was! But I think that the size of the risk ultimately had something to do with the reward. The smaller the risk involved, the more fleeting the payoff. Jumping off the diving board at the local pool just doesn’t give a comparable sensation.

I think that our hobby is a lot like this. Perhaps we don’t have to worry about paying the ultimate price if a poor equipment choice is made, but this stuff ain’t cheap. In the same vein of the greater the risk, the greater the reward: Are you an audio daredevil?

I kind of view the flea-powered single-ended triode guys with the mega-efficient horns as some of the real adrenaline junkies. These guys are kind of like the base jumpers in the skydiving world. Base jumpers are the guys (or girls) who climb to the top of radio antennas or Angel Falls and jump with their parachutes in their hands. Like the crazy base jumpers, the triode guy has to make sure everything is just right. It’s extremely difficult to design a speaker with an efficiency approaching 100dB without it sounding kind of, well, horny. I don’t now how many demos I’ve heard where I sat down with great anticipation only to be disappointed by another horn speaker shouting at me. Source components need to be as transparent as possible for the real magic. Everything must be just right. But when it works, it really, really works. The first notes will literally give you butterflies, like the first few seconds after you exit the plane. I’ve seldom experienced as high a goosebump factor than with a well-balanced single-ended-triode setup.

Tube guys in general seem to be higher risk-takers than solid-state owners. To the tube aficionado, it would feel riskier not to use tube equipment. He could only imagine a loss of emotion, space, and just plain musicality that would result from the lack of those precious firebottles. The more cautious listener can only think of the long warm-up times, the degrading signal with age, the poor measurements, and the horror stories of a runaway tube launching fireworks from the amplifier. Hey, it happens! Is there truth to these concerns? Of course. There is more work, and risk, involved going down this path. Again, speaker choice is usually more critical. Tube amps generally like a nice, easy load. Finding just the right complement of tubes can also take time and money. Risk? Yes. Reward? Oh yes, yes, yes!

Vinyl lovers are audio adventurers too. No static line for them – free-fall all the way, baby! Just look at those guys: dragging a piece of rock through a groove in a plastic pancake and trying to get music out of it? You betcha! These folks hearken back to your high-school physics class. No button-pushing binary code for them. They deal with pulleys, gear rations, pivot points, friction, motors, inertia, gravity, force, acceleration and e=mc2 -- well maybe not quite. Skydivers deal with many of the same issues. Who woulda thunk it? Let’s add a minor in geometry in dealing with radius, parallel tracking, and perpendicular angles. I tell you, these guys are out there.

But let’s talk reward. I dare you to compare. Never have I had a rookie sit and listen to a clean, well-recorded record and not walk away with his jaw on the floor. And let me add that my vinyl setup is nothing extravagant: Rega Planar 25, Goldring Elite, Lehman Black Cube. Goosebumps!

Are you solid-staters starting to feel like pansies? Don’t. There’s no reason for you to feel stuck on the audio right wing because you prefer transistors to tubes. It’s all about attitude. If you only buy matching systems bearing the name of a cable-television star's husband, or other corporate staples, then make yourself comfortable and polish up those Johnston Murphy wingtips, you crazy guy. On the other hand, if you want to live a little, how about trying some of those brands with a little less star power? Bel Canto is blending digital with analog in a most pleasing way. Audio Analogue from Italy has found a way to inject the passion of Tuscany into their transistors. Edge Audio amplifiers have anything but. And 47 Laboratory? Just plain funky.

For those who need to build up your nerve a little, start slow. Like skydiving, there are ways to lower your level of risk. My first jump was a tandem jump. This involves strapping yourself to an experienced jumper who does everything while you enjoy the ride. Risk of death: low. For audio, you might consider going to your dealer and borrowing a few sets of cables to audition. Risk of driving you into the poor house: low. The rewards can be considerable. A good dealer can be a lot like a tandem instructor. It's your ride, but he’s there to make sure you don’t do anything stupid.

So go for it. Take a risk. Throw at least some caution to the wind -- and jump. Airplane is optional.

...Bill Brooks


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