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

Injury Timeout

What do heavyweight boxer Muhammed Ali, actor Paul Newman, and audiophile Jim Saxon have in common? We have all suffered hernias. However, unlike those other studs who hurt themselves working out, old Jimbo strained himself working in. That’s right, the king of innocent bystanders actually tried to lift something, and it cost him. Both my loyal readers will note that just last month I proudly wrote of my hands-off approach to work. Yet, the gods love hubris.

The injury occurred while trying to hoist an amplifier onto the bed of a pick-up truck. The amp in question was the 350-pound Mark Levinson No.33. Four of us had lifted the monster three feet in the air, which was difficult enough, but when two men had to get in the truck to steady the amp, I remained on the pushing end with a friend, who may have been a little slow to react. As we grunted, I felt something pop in the nether regions and told my buddy I had injured myself. He said I was imaging things. He was right. I imagined the scene from the movie The Yearling where Gregory Peck tries to lever a tree stump and tears his innards apart. I had made a mental note never to push against anything heavier than I am. In the din of battle, caution departs.

Oddly, the incident took place in 1996. After a day of rest, discomfort passed and I resumed a normal life, jogging, lifting stereo equipment, and pumping iron. A few weeks ago, inspired by television talk about prostate cancer, I thought it was time for an annual four-year physical exam.

According to the internist, my vital signs were those of a hyperactive 20-year-old (despite being officially fat). As an afterthought, Dr. Cortés checked for hernia and smiled. He had found something to keep the wheels of medicine turning. "There it is," he indicated with a stiff poke of the finger. I immediately recalled lifting the No.33, but it had happened so long ago. Could the good doctor be wrong? After all, he was grinning. I went for a second, then a third opinion, but each time the verdict was the same -- only surgery, not pills, could fix the damage.

Of course, I felt fine before going to the doctor’s. Only the day before I had helped a friend box-up a 150-pound amplifier. Making sure my back was straight, I never felt a twinge. However, in the following days after being prodded and pushed by three doctors and convinced I was unwell, the area in question began to feel exceedingly tender. A week later, I was cut open and repaired and have been convalescing since. After the 7th of August, I’ll be able to work, drive and express those vital urges once again. Can’t wait.

What does this tale have to do with audio? For several weeks I have been unable to lift over five pounds. I realize that almost everything associated with high-end audio weighs at least that much, if not a lot more. The day after surgery, I received a CARE package containing a pair of Sunyata PowerSnake power cords. The top-of-the-line King Cobra was too heavy to lift. Can you imagine -- a power cord defeating a young James Bond? It turns out the lightest piece of gear I own weighs a gut-wrenching eight pounds. I couldn’t jack it up high enough to Vibrapod it. Hi-fi is a blood sport for the weak and the wounded.

The worst part has been the frustration at not being able to tweak the system. RCA connectors have been the bane of my existence. Interconnects are light enough to handle but feel like they are vacuum-attached. How can I get through an entire CD without changing at least the digital cable? Monica the maid has been an angel of mercy, switching interconnects and power cords, but she goes off duty in the afternoon. After she leaves, I’m stuck with the same sound all night. Critical listening is no fun when it’s no-touch. Also, my favorite low-slung listening chair is off-limits because I can’t lift myself out of it. A normal dining chair raises my ears above tweeter axis. I hate sitting up high -- it reminds me of demonstration rooms at the Consumer Electronics Show. I’d rather listen outdoors with a beer in hand (18 ounces, including mug).

The point of this is to caution fellow hobbyists of the dangers of our sedate pastime. If one is not careful, it can put him in the hospital. As we mount the ladder of high-end audio, we often wind up buying bigger amplifiers, heavier loudspeakers, and racks, stands and other audio goodies that can make life miserable with a wrong move. Hernia, back spasms or strained ligaments await the unwary. When I worked in the steel mill we were given a union rule: if it weighs over 40 pounds, get help. This is good advice for audiophiles.

I would also like to say something to audio manufacturers. In my opinion, any component whose design-brief calls for a weight exceeding 100 pounds should be mounted in two chassis. In this regard, I am pleased to see that the new Mark Levinson No.32 Reference Preamplifier, weighing a staggering 106 pounds, is divided between two units. The worst deal is when a component does consist of separate pieces and each one outweighs the consumer.

Are these back-breakers really necessary, or are they marketing ploys? In the case of loudspeakers, the weight is understandable. Deep bass and low-resonance seem to require heavy construction. Because of the leverage they afford, loudspeakers can be manhandled up to a certain point. That point may be as high as 120 pounds in the case of floorstanding speakers. Above that weight, it would probably be better to call the neighbor over.

With stereo amplifiers, current fashion dictates large mass and curvaceous lines. No handles are bared to mar the looks. The days of rack mounting are over. One may ask why professional music amplifiers produce hundreds of watts from 50 or 60 pounds of electronic muscle. Such amps may make a hi-fi enthusiast’s ears bleed, but does taming the harshness require 100 pounds of ballast?

One of the most powerful amplifiers, at 750 watts per channel, is the Crown Macro Reference. To New Jersey audiophiles, it purportedly sounds pretty good. This bulletproof product tips in at 65 pounds. If Crown can pack so much reliable power into such "small" size, why can’t high-end amp-makers do the same? If they absolutely have to use 60-pound transformers, then perhaps they can give us handles with which to lift the beasts. I would gladly except ergonomic design over lifestyle image if it will save my health.

By the time this column is published I will be anxious to get back to a hazardous occupation. My first chore will be to re-position the JMlab Mini-Utopias, 24" monitors that weigh a manageable 60 pounds each. However, they are spiked to 25-pound stands, which in turn are spiked to the floor. No doubt, I will lift both speaker and stand together in order to move them around more efficiently. Some people never learn.

On the other hand, I dread the prospect of ordering any more Texas-sized gear. In the future, I will read the specifications carefully and ask myself whether a component’s weight: performance ratio is something I really need. If other audiophiles did the same, we might ultimately find that gut-busting-specific gravity is unnecessary to attaining good sound. Then our neighbors will be less at risk while we find different ways to keep our doctors happy.

...James Saxon


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