Live from Casa Saxon

September 1997


There are things your best friends won’t tell you. One of them is, your listening room sucks. I am grateful to Don Manuel for telling me, in painful reminiscence, that the worst sound he ever heard from good hi-fi equipment was at La Casa Saxon.

Seven years ago, when I started my home business, the cars roaring by were half their present number, the rainy season was less intense and the danger of auto theft in front of the house was almost non-existent. The sound sucked anyway, but I didn’t know that. I thought the main listening area, whose L-shape was divided in three by archways, had enough square feet to allow the propagation of a serious bass note, which was all I cared about in 1990. My idea of resonance control was LEDE, live-end, dead-end. I left the stone floor, back wall and vaulted ceiling untreated, and spent an enormous sum to line the walls around the speakers with custom-made carpets. I should have bought lottery tickets with the cash. Blithely, I subjected my clientele to flutter echoes, lopsided imaging and a 60 Hz standing wave the size of Kilimanjaro. At first, the excellence of the new equipment I was bringing, primarily Mark Levinson amplifiers and Mirage loudspeakers, was so impressive that customers accepted the sound as better than they were used to at home. What I didn’t know was that a bomb was beginning to tick. The customers all had better listening rooms than I. It was only a matter of time and purchasing power until the sound of their systems exceeded the one at the dealer’s store. Yegads, what a way to kill sales!

I had no idea anything was wrong. First, I was so arrogant about the equipment I assumed its sonic abilities would overcome any room limitations. Secondly, I was inured to the problems, dismissed them during auditions and never realized that visitors were too polite to demur. Thirdly, I seldom made housecalls, thus had little hint of the extent to which customers’ systems were approaching, nay, surpassing mine.

Ironically, the first inkling that something was wrong occurred in Miami. On the subtle recommendation of a friend, I visited a member of the South Florida Audio Society who has attained demonstration performance quality at home. The arrayed equipment was excellent, but more impressive was the dedicated listening room the good doctor had constructed along acoustic guidelines. HxWxD approached the "golden ratios" and room treatment, though minimal, was effective.

I was surprised by one of my own demo discs, Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat. "First We Take Manhattan" had more slam, more dimensionality and more harmonic detail than I had ever heard. As we say here in Paradise, "gŁeputa" (sonofabitch). I tried to remain blasť, for this is a competitive hobby, but in my heart, I knew the truth. The music had more impact at Dr. D’s than at La Casa Saxon, where the sound was insipid by comparison. Could it be the acoustic environment—a handicap no combination of electronics, loudspeakers and cabling could overcome?

When I returned to Paradise, I auditioned other stereo systems in order to dispell my suspicions. Instead, the consternation increased. Most of my friends enjoyed fine sound. In the home of a lawyer whose entire set-up had been purchased from yours truly, I was totally distracted. The same equipment never played so stirringly in my house. What’s wrong with this picture?

The coup de gr‚ce occurred one Saturday afternoon when an audiophile group descended upon me to audition a new pair of loudspeakers. There were six of them, all raunchy for the sweet spot and drunk with lust for hi-fi. As I cued up the digital transport, the heavens opened up on the corrugated fiberglass skylight over the listening room and the demo was irretrievably ruined by the sound of rain on the roof. That did not stop your ol’ pal from trying to bull through a running commentary louder than both music and rain noise. It was a sad caricature of a clown who has lost his timing. I, my speakers and my listening room drew titters. Shortly afterwards, a neurosis began to develop. In July, for the first time in twenty years, I stopped listening to music.

I made a variety of excuses for the silent displays at La Casa Saxon. Finally, Don Manuel exposed the festering wound. After confessing how he had hated the sound here, he asked "When are you going to have a better place to listen?" Confronting the question was curative. The equipment on hand was blameless: examples of it sounded great in other systems. Now, is the time, a little voice urged. "In a few weeks," I told Manuel. La Casa Saxon was history.

Soon afterwards, I launched a search for listening venue I could tame. A block away was a huge house with great potential. Unfortunately, the doorway was 22 steps above the sidewalk. If you have ever tried to hoist unaided a "real man’s" amplifier over a six-inch stoop, you realize that raising one up two flights of stairs will induce intense pain and unrequited suffering. My used-equipment dealer signalled time-out. No way was he going to haul equipment up and down the staircase. «e la vie.

The next house I liked was too far from civilization. What good is quiet if you have no one to share it with? The third, fourth and fifth houses were all decent to live in, but did not lend themselves to an audiophile lifestyle. Like Goldilocks, I couldn’t find anything just right.

Finally, I threw myself on the mercy of a real estate broker, who convinced me to look at a ritzy neighborhood on the other side of town. We approached a handsome corner house with prominent "For Rent" signs and a bell went off. This is the place, I thought. I became giddy with desire. Unfortunately, we drove right past the house.

The broker’s offering was a block and a half away, in the same wonderful neighborhood, but a homely sister to the beauty we had passed. In defense of the broker, his house read well. It had five [tiny] bedrooms, two [truncated] living rooms, a [one-car] garage with electric door, and enough [moist] storage space to hide a harem. The price was negotiable and the location impeccable. I was tempted by the sensible shoes, but longed for the gal in high heels around the corner. After the broker and I exchanged undying affection for one another, I drove back to the first house and rang the doorbell. A caretaker answered as if he had expected me. "Right this way, sir," he beckoned. A short hallway, a wetbar to admire, and voila, we entered The Room, a fully carpeted, unobstructed masterpiece of solitude yearning for the sound of music.

Let me have this house, NOW! The rest of the tour was pleasing but anticlimatic. Unless the landlord was after my first-born child, the house was mine. The caretaker phoned the owner. I spoke with his wife. "Yes, we do take first-born children," she advised. "Also, we’d like your eye teeth and a pound of flesh."

I was too covetous to argue. "Don’t have any first-born, " I bargained, "but agree to sign over any child I may have during the term of the lease."

"That sounds okay," she replied. "The canines?"

"How about a pair of wisdom teeth?" I countered.

"Do they have any wisdom?"

"Not really."

"At least you’re honest," she said. "As for the pound of flesh, we’d like the heart or other vital organ."

"Look, I don’t want to play hardball here," I said, " but you’ll have to settle for a layer of midsection or the deal is off."

"My husband will call you back," she responded.

Later that day, I agreed to liposuction and the house was mine. I feel royal.

My first two official acts as the Count of Monte Estereo were to hire an electrician to redo the power conduits, and to send a drawing of the room to ASC, makers of Tube Traps. The story has just begun. It may cost millions of dollars and thousands of lives, but before any auditions take place at La Casa Saxon II, the room is going to be as good as Dr. D’s. You can bet your first-born on that.

Jim Saxon