Live from Casa Saxon

November 1997


Last month, I made a short journey of discovery, which began when I bought a new bed. I was not looking for a bed, but intention is seldom a requisite to insight. I merely wanted a table for the listening room. I called my good friend and fellow audiophile, Carlos, who makes high end furniture of the finest hardwoods. In stock, Carlos had a coffee table which he assured me would accomodate the brochures, discs, beer mugs, tequila snifters and peanut bowls he was accustomed to seeing at La Casa Saxon. The table, made of mahogany, would also add a touch of elegance to the surroundings.

At Muebles Soto, I found the coffee table exactly as described. However, in order to view it, I had to pass the bedroom displays where my eye was captured by a handsome queen-size bed, which featured floating nightstands attached to a padded leather headrest. Just the thing for an insomniac, I thought. After brief negotiations, in which Carlos agreed to include the display mattress at cost (he only makes the wooden parts), I was the proud owner of a cama lujosa (luxurious bed).

Turning in the first night after the bed’s installation was a treat. The smell of wood and leather was intoxicating. The nightstand brought the reading lamp to an ideal height. The side drawer slipped in and out noiselessly, providing perfect pistol access. I was impressed with Carlos’ choice of mattress, which had the firmness and attenuated bounce of the best hotel bed. Tucked-in under a new quilt, I felt like a millionaire.

Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, I woke up in pain. The small of my back ached and my hips were inflamed. I tried to remember any lifting or falling down I may have done during the day. When nothing came to mind, I vowed to stretch and walk more, and proceeded to do both at sunrise. The next night I had the same experience. Suspecting a culprit, I called Carlos.

"Carlos, I can’t sleep in the bed," I said.

"What’s the matter?" he asked.

"Pain," I said.

"The bed is very comfortable."

"Then you sleep in it," I said.

"I do," he replied. "I have one just like it at home."

We went around for awhile, until Carlos figured out my problem. "Jim, do remember what you told me about h-fi components--they need to be broken in before they sound their best? The same is true of the bed. It needs to be broken in. Give it a few weeks," he suggested. "After that, it will be fine."

Although I had not heard of a break-in period for beds, I perceived the wisdom of Carlos’ advice. Gradually, and grudgingly, the bed began to loosen up and take shape. Now, a month later, it is deeply satisfying, providing me the sleep of kings, or should I say, "queens"?—no jokes, please.

From this episode, a couple of lessons have emerged. First, I considered my status as a hi-fi guru who had to be reminded of his own teachings. Then, I examined my sentiments about living as an expatriot in a country to which I have not given nearly enough credit. These introspections have led to enlightenment in both audio and real life, which occasionally blur together into the same experience.

Clearly, I have spent years observing hi-fi convention in the breach. As all audiophiles know, new components, loudspeakers and cables benefit sonically from being used for a length of time, which is referred to as the "break-in" or "burn-in" period. A horse opera fan, I prefer to say "break-in" because it reminds me of "bronco breaking" and connotes a similar goal with equipment as with horses, i.e., making skittish beasts complaisant.

Here at La Casa Saxon, the necessity of a break-in period has been overlooked in the rush to uncover the virtues of new equipment. The results have been predictably bad. For example, an extraordinarily refined and dynamic class A amplifier, on hand for over a year, continues to age and improve like fine wine. Unfortunately, I lugged the amp around the city while it was still immature (I didn’t know it, but that’s no excuse.) and its youthful thinness has never been forgotten among early auditioners, who are loathe to give it a second chance. Had I allowed the monoblocks the month or so they needed to fill-out to a ravishing fullness, this great amplifier would not now be a wallflower in Paradise. Furthermore, patience on my part would have provided listeners with an immediate glimpse of the pleasures which the amplifier now provides. Instead, impatience to impress caused disservice to both product and customers. Mea culpa.

Besides electronics, I have also cast loudspeakers to the wolves too soon. One tall tower, dominating visually, seemed extremely bass-shy out of the box. Despite re-positioning, changing cables and amplifiers, and chanting old Anglo-Saxon battle curses, I could not make the speaker play bass. Unforgivably, I allowed it out of the store for an in-home demo before it sounded the way its maker intended. Afterwards, rumors flew in our small audio community and people began to shun the speaker. I finally sold it at cost to a novice upgrading a rack-system. Some novice. I went to his home a few months after he bought the towers and they mocked me with their tuneful bass. Worse yet, the midrange had come alive. Although the speakers weren’t lease breakers, the buyer heard tight guitar on the music he preferred and was as pleased as a burglar. Innately, he understood the value of break-in far better than I. By impulsiveness, I had damaged a brand name, and as a result, have had to work doubly hard to resurrect the loudspeaker’s reputation in our marketplace. Life is too short to repeat things that should not need repeating.

My worst behavior has been aimed at wire products. How could I know? I’ve bought lamps over the years and they always made light despite fresh power cords. Doesn’t the same principle apply to audio cables? Unfortunately, you know the answer. The best power cord I have used to date is the ElectraGlide EG-1, and it not only needs to be broken-in, but also needs to be wiped down with a soapy towel before it will sound good. Nordost makes an anti-static spray called ECO3, which Scott Hall of ElectraGlide recommends. If you don’t have any ECO3 on hand--and who does?-- then Scott suggests adding a tablespoon of Dove liquid soap to a gallon of water to make an anti-static rub-down solution. I tried it and during the power cord rub-down my maid looked at me as I were committing a perversion.

Maybe I was. Strangely enough, the EG -1, when covered with static, sounds worse than a stock Belden cord. After de-staticizing, the ElectraGlide makes line-level components sound much more robust than a Belden does, even before the interminable break-in period concludes. If you buy an ElectraGlide power cord, and I suggest you do, remember to cut the static somehow, and then play the heck out of the cord for about three weeks.

With our first shipment of ElectraGlide power cords, I paid no attention to the foregoing. As a result, several cables wound up in the hands of Don Roch, the number one audiophile in Paradise, who took them out of their plain white wrapper and hooked them up without warning. He was in low dudgeon when he telephoned, calmly calling into question my judgment, as well as that of the cord maker, the editor of the journal that reviewed the cords, and my pal, Clark Johnsen of Positive Feedback, who alerted me to them via secret missive.

In relaying to Scott Hall the conversation with Don Roch, I got an earful about the effects of static on power cord performance, which I would have known about had I read the owner’s pamphlet. (Oops.) When I passed on to DR the news about static electricity, he was skeptical. Paradise is humid. We have a difficult time making static electricity, even in the driest days of February. Nevertheless, Roch followed Scott’s directions and wiped the cords down with Dove. Voila! The cords showed great promise. Unfortunately, Don Roch does not find wiping power cords amusing and did not buy the ElectraGlides. He did speculate that the static which hampered the cords’ performance was produced in the airplane during shipment. [Scott, if you are reading this, I hope in the future you will pack your power cords in anti-static bags. I don’t enjoy rubbing cords either, despite what the maid thinks.] The lesson here is that by causing Don Roch to do the dealer’s homework, I alienated a potential customer to a product that deserves a place in his system. From now on, we will sell no cables before their time (unless accompanied by all the warnings, provisos and helpful hints I can think of).

Pondering these misadventures in light of the recent episode with the bed, I have begun to see other areas in which I have been quick to judge, overlook, or take for granted the essence of things which only reveals itself over time. Break-in periods uncover not only the virtues of hi-fi designs, but also the merits of many every-day items. Most of our possessions require playing time in order to meet their design goals (or else to show how fully they fail to meet such goals). I see it in my twelve year-old Mercedes Benz, which has begun to prove its worth (despite nagging noises); in my Sears polo shirts, which have softened up after a dozen washings; in the microwave oven, which now tells me how much time to use.

[JIM'S GIRLFRIEND]Moreover, I appreciate the need for a break-in period in personal relationships. When someone asked about the new girlfriend recently, I responded, "She’ll be fine after a little more break-in." Likewise, a period of conditioning would be good for the young doctor who takes earnestly my hypochondria; for the shy gardener who ducks from criticism that never comes; for the messenger who leaves his motorcycle idling at 90 dB while he badgers me with papers; and for the young athlete in the mirror who fails to come to grips with the circumstances of aging.

In a fourth dimensional way, the country in which I reside has also benefitted from a break-in period, at least in my perceptions of it. When I first moved here at the end of the last decade, I thought I had found the Land of Oz. The natural beauty of the place was reflected in the comeliness and good nature of the people. After a romantic sojourn, emphasized by long, contemplative walks in perfect weather, my first rainy season came. It lasted so long, the soles of my shoes melted off. Just as I thought the gloom would never end, a new summer brought the sun and re-birth, but it also brought an earthquake, a failed partnership and a disastrous love affair. I knew for sure I wasn’t in Oz. Since then, cycles of discovery have resulted in a more balanced view of the country and I realize that to grow accustomed to our earthly abodes is to know satisfaction, frustration, triumph and resignation, no matter where we live. That’s the way the Designer planned it.

[PARADISE]Most importantly, I have become broken-in to Paradise. Where I used to grow enraged by third world constraints, I have become stoic. In matters of bureaucratic delay, I have gained a modicum of patience. The custom of screaming at employees, which I learned from berserk Wall Street bosses, does not fly here, and I have learned to keep cool, after a fashion. Not only is my blood pressure lower as a result, but now people who are employed to help me do so cheerfully and more efficiently. As my late physician used to say: Jim, you are in Paradise and out of the rat race, why should you worry about anything? It took awhile to learn he was right. After years of fuming like Lear, I have adopted a healthier attitude. I often laugh at my ingrained, irrational expectations. Laughter, particularly at one’s self-importance, is good for the body, as well as the soul.

I am not a nature freak, but I anticipate with pleasure morning walks in the equatorial sun. Even though I spend too much time in front of a pair of loudspeakers, I see more birds and flowers and trees and mountains on a daily basis than in weeks of living in New York. When I return to Paradise after time abroad, I feel the comforting embrace of the soft tropical air, smell the scent of vegetation, both cultivated and wild, and sense the friendliness in people who recognize a fellow Paradisian returned. I shiver with subdued happiness and realize I am home. The break-in period has been worthwhile.

Jim Saxon