Sorting Eccentricities: Call Me No. 3
Mike Silverton
12 January 2001

Surely you've noticed: as we audiophiles grow older and our hearing degrades (as it must), we become all the more fastidious. About our sound systems, I mean. An elderly audiophile's performance over a bowl of soup is an embarrassment to all within earshot. I understand that in certain societies slurping's good form. Belching likewise, here and there. Farting's gauche just about everywhere. But I wander from my topic.

I expect that the aging audiophile's fastidiousness has to do with an enlarged mound of discretionary greenbacks. The kids are grown and on their own; the houses, cars, island and boat are mostly paid up, the lawsuits are settled, but again I wander. As concerns the implicit irony (now we get serious), I've a gentleman in mind, retired, who had a fine and profitable career as an artist and art dealer. The home he designed for himself and his wife is a masterpiece of minimalist-modernist sensibility. In matters visual, I judge the fellow peerless. In matters auditory, it's a different story. We know that certain people classified as legally blind are possessed of some sight. I don't believe there's an equivalent legally deaf category. If there were, our man would be there. Trust me on this one. And he is an audiophile, heaven help us, a most self-assured specimen moreover, and the ironies accrue: not only is he an audiophile but a principal of the Malcontent School. Little in the way of hardware, speakers especially, remain for long in his spacious and beautiful listening room. The systems he's assembled over the decades share these features: visually striking (it goes without saying), weirdly complex, and generally miswired, as befits what sounds right to a hearing-impaired poohbah. Indeed, indeed, yet where's the harm? Poohbah's got buckets of money and he's having barrels of fun. But wait. He fancies himself an audio shaman, and so apparently does his halfway-house following. He is reported to have remarked about a visiting designer-manufacturer who spent an afternoon promoting his gizmo of the moment: "I didn't understand a word he said. The man's a genius!"

Another of Poohbah's aperçus: he once contemplated the acquisition of a speaker system reportedly capable of 360-degree dispersion. A wag suggested doubling up in order to achieve 720 degrees of dispersion. Poohbah gave the proposal long moments of thought. No, he finally said, it wouldn't look good. (He was serious. So far as I am aware, Poohbah is a stranger to humor.) I do not characterize Poohbah as an audio shaman out of caprice or spite. Some of his pronouncements impinge on the mystical. For example, my favorite: You know, he said, once you've surpassed perfection -- Poohbah is speaking of his audio system -- there's no end to where you can go.

I owe the genius and perfection quotes to the mischievous fellow who proposed the 720-degree setup. Let's call him No. 2. No. 2 takes pleasure is relating amusing anecdotes concerning No. 1. Here's another. Call it a nightcap: No. 1, on being told that someone he knew died of alcoholism, offered that the deceased might have lived longer had he stuck to a better brand or scotch. (There may be a pinch of truth to that.) One, two and I inhabit audiophilia's first generation, if we can agree that Gen-the-First's appearance coincides with the advent of the microgroove disc in its initial, monophonic state. For Gen-the-First, the great innovation was stereophonic sound.

So far as I'm aware, No. 2 has good hearing for a man his age. I'm 65 and he's a few years older. He lives in a small apartment so stuffed with audio gear as to make one anxious for the floor on which it sits. (It's a walk-up in a quaint brownstone neighborhood; the beams between floors are probably wood. One's anxiety does not extend to the wall-hung speakers and those abutting his ceiling.) This hardware riot, at least some of it, addresses several multi-channel, surround-sound systems, each with its own rack of electronics. No task-sharing here. He's been a surround-sound buff for as long as I can remember. If No. 2 fancies one system over another for an evening's listening, he wheels aside the speakers he doesn't want to hear in order to clear a path for those he does. A number of analogue turntables and over a dozen CD players contribute to the census. He's also a discophile and knowledgeable music lover. One would need to go to the nearest grocery or pharmacy for an antacid or headache remedy. The medicine chest is filled with CDs. His bunkbed serves as a case for LPs. Lateral record collections, a half-dozen performances, say, of Schubert's Winterreise, are comme il faut among Serious Music Lovers. As regards hardware, however, the audiophile SML tends to think vertically. Out with component A, in with component B! Upward to Sublimity! No. 2 sees hardware in terms of horizontality: in with A to abide with B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, and so on to Z, but why stop there? A1, B1, C1…, welcome all!

Would I be telling you about this curious pair if I saw myself as the least like them? Hardly! But what of the unengaged visitor who remarks the resemblance of the sound system in one's living room to a Star Trek episode's alien altar? Or who questions the need for several thousand CDs, the shelving for which serves as said room's dominant design feature? I can only guess at the unspoken observations, but the quizzical, is-this-guy-okay glances are most certainly for real. Perhaps the unengaged visitor recognizes obsession as, in these events, the thread that binds. Call me No. 3.