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


A few months ago, I strained my back -- with odd consequences. I could walk, stand, and lie down, but I could not sit without discomfort. As a result, I took my meals standing, watched television in a supine position, and listened to music while walking around the house. This experience gave new meaning to the phrase "listening off-axis" and provided me with a new way to judge components.

For those readers who are not familiar with the terms "on-" and "off-axis," let me define them as I understand their meaning. If one were to draw a line from the left loudspeaker to the right and then another line perpendicular to the center of the first line (which would form a letter "T"), all points along the perpendicular line would be on-axis. Conversely, any point not along the perpendicular line would be off-axis. However, this definition assumes only two dimensions. In a three- dimensional world, we must also ascribe a height to the perpendicular line, which for most dynamic (cone) loudspeakers parallels the tweeter’s distance from the floor.

Thus, the famous "sweet spot" is not only "on-axis" as defined by two dimensions, but is also at a certain height. With my injury, I could listen to the system on-axis if I stretched out on my back or stood up behind the listening chair. Either way, however, I was off-axis in terms of the proper vertical angle. This produced strange results.

First of all, listening while lying on my back induced a feeling of time-travel. In college, I studied on the floor with my head on a pillow, listening to the Victrola (just kidding about the Victrola). Therefore, it was only fitting that I should dig out the Beatles, the Temptations, the Youngbloods, and the Rolling Stones (!). Despite being served by state-of- the-art high-fidelity components, the groups sounded much as I remembered them. Even wondrous digital music suffers a sonic penalty when the listener is hugging the floor. To ears at ground level, sound resembles that produced by the squawk box we used to hang on the car window at the old drive-in movie: lyrics through a megaphone. Imaging is strange since it passes over like a wave. Flipping over on one’s stomach does not improve matters. It merely causes one’s hair to flutter. Now I know why exhibitors at hi-fi shows insist that visitors take proper chairs rather than stretch out on the floor. When ears are well below tweeter-level, loudspeakers honk and quack.

Standing up to listen is better than lying down. Imaging improves, of course, and so does tonality, up to a point. However, even tall loudspeakers designed for far-field listening in a big room (e.g., Wilson Grand SLAMMS) are tuned to a seated listener. A shy visitor standing at the back of the room is not hearing the speakers as God and David Wilson intended. Although my own loudspeakers are floorstanding models with tweeters 45" above floor level, a near six-footer like myself has to crouch to hear them at their best. With a strained back, I could lean over for about seven seconds before turning into a Tin Man from the waist up.

Therefore, I found it served no purpose to stay in the listening room during auditioning sessions. I was more efficient doing chores or working in the office at an elevated computer keyboard. After awhile, I became inured to the way the system sounded from outside the room. Within days, I learned to appreciate differences between components without having to be in the same room with them. The overall sound of the system seemed easier to evaluate without wall reflections, room resonance and phase distractions to assault me in the sweet spot.

Therefore, when I recently inserted a Muse Model 8 transport and Model 296 digital processor in the system, I did not hesitate to "evaluate" them from my office down the hallway. Despite being decidedly off-axis, I could easily hear that the two pieces improved the overall sound of the system. Maybe they don’t throw the widest soundstage -- how would I know? -- but tonally they are aces, with a silky midrange and tight, percussive bass.

Which brings me to the ultimate off-axis listening experience. On Friday afternoons, I invite several of the neighborhood guards over for refreshments on the front porch. Then, I crank up the old stereo and let fly so I can drown out the inane conversation. Jim’s Front Porch Bar becomes the venue for evaluating a system’s emotional kick. This is where the Muse components excel. Whether I’m sipping margaritas or quaffing cerveza, I can feel the music reach inside me and turn my heart inside out.

Thanks to Todd Warnke of SoundStage!, I have the latest rock recording from radio station KBCO in Denver, Colorado (KBCO Studio C, Volume 10 [KBCO C-10]). Included are "unplugged" performances by Shawn Mullins, Sarah McLachlan Willie Nelson, Little Feat, and Marc Cohn. My favorite songs are the uplifting "The Day Brings" by Brad, the shamelessly nostalgic "Henry" by Keb’ Mo’ and a song that eerily presages (to me, at least) the Columbine High School shootings, "Love, Lead Us Home," by Tiny Town.

Last Friday, I was into my second beer by the time "Love, Lead Us Home" came on. I stopped drinking, stopped talking and stopped paying attention to my surroundings as I listened to lyrics about "two desperate kids looking for cheap thrills." Suddenly, I realized I had acquired a sniffle. Two songs later it was "The Day Brings," followed by "Henry," which combination led to blurred vision. Two beers have never affected me so strongly. Either I’m getting along in years and can’t hold my booze, or the system was really singing to me. The local vigilancia think I’m nuts, which is OK. They still can drink my wine.

For me, listening to music way off-axis (outdoors, to be exact) is the real acid test of a system. None of the audiophile parameters apply. The results are either magical or so-so, with no hedging or forelock-tugging involved. The added neutrality of the open air, a bit of alcohol, and a forgetful disregard for the brands involved lend a sense of clarity to the proceedings. Thanks to a bad back, I have arrived at a more "holistic" approach to system evaluation. Nowadays, the spine is fine, but I continue to enjoy off-axis listening. From here on out, audio equipment will be judged, in part at least, by how it sounds from the front porch at happy hour. Damn, sometimes this business is so easy.

...James Saxon


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