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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 1
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On the Margins: Gaining, at last, a Sense of Proportion
by Tom Davis

 

I can mark the beginning of my becoming an "audiophile," just as I can mark its ending. The ending began when Julia and I quite unexpectedly bought a house in October of 2000. Built in 1955 "high modernist" style, it wraps a north-facing glass wall around two decks hugging spring-fed Stone Creek. That glass wall stretches the length of a radically open floor plan, running down three levels and turning in an "L" in order to follow the creek. All that glass is, of course, an audiophile nightmare. Signing off to buy the house, I’ve come to realize, was also closing what had begun when I bought issue 39 of The Absolute Sound at the newly opened Davis-Kidd Bookstore in Nashville in the fall of 1985. It took me that long to gain a sense of proportion.

A sense of proportion follows from the ability to judge the degree to which something matters within a larger context. Imagine this context is the richness of life. A sense of proportion would allow you to first locate and then discriminate the specifics of how different activities (or things, or people) contribute to the way life can be rich. Having such a sense would assume that you were clear about just what "being rich" means. If you weren’t clear about that, then you’d have no way to judge the relative contribution of this or that to how life can be rich. But now let’s say that you think certain activities (or things or people) are intrinsically rich. That is, that they are done (or are had, or are related to), not for the sake of something else, but just for their own sake. At this point, the problem in having a sense of proportion changes. It’s not just that you need to know what "being rich" means, but now you need to assess the difference between the way this or that intrinsically rich activity (or thing, or person) contributes to the encompassing richness of life.

And right here we get tempted to think, "Well, I’ll just aim to do (to get, to relate to) all those intrinsically rich things." Setting that fantasy aside, how do you judge between two activities you think are both intrinsically rich? Take, for example, listening to sound and listening to music. An audiophile thinks both these activities are intrinsically rich. Can they be? What kind of "sense of proportion" is operating in these different, if related, activities. (Notice, however, how the relation is only internal, moving from music to sound, not from sound to music; one can think sound itself intrinsically rich and not be concerned about the claim of music at all, but can you think music intrinsically rich and not be at all concerned about sound?)

When you sit down to listen, if your sense of proportion is attuned first and foremost to how sound is intrinsically rich, then your sense of what matters will mistake that other sense of proportion rooted first and foremost in the claim of music. I both knew, and yet still resisted, this basic point for a long time. I had to resist it to continue being an audiophile. I kept insisting that sonic difference could entail musical difference. And it can, but only if your sense of proportion is already musical. That’s why musicians are satisfied with junky stereos. Their sense of proportion is rooted in what the music is doing through the equipment. Listening to the equipment strikes them as weirdly misplaced. Showing them just how much better the sound is on your audiophile stereo just makes the sense of misplaced emphasis all the stronger. It would be comical, if in the end it didn’t become so pathetic.

tempo.jpg (23173 bytes)When I first saw that long wall of angled glass in our new home (the roofline angles slowly up, the glass is floor to ceiling, result: no curtains), I was still an audiophile. I thought, "How are the Audio Physic Tempo IIIs going to work with all that glass?" Then I looked down at Stone Creek meandering by, barely six feet away. I suddenly found myself with the hint of a different sense of proportion. By early December we had put in a new furnace, bought new furniture, tore out the "low maintenance" ivy landscape and begun the long process of putting in a "neo-Japanese" garden ourselves, stone by stone, plant by plant.

Of course I set up the system I was left with, the one I’ll lay out in this piece, after I sold everything and then "downsized" to help come up with the down payment. I knew all the glass would affect the sound, but would it also affect the music? Well, yes. I had worked almost sixteen years to train my ears to listen for the difference sound can make for music. But I also realize that my sense of proportion was changing. Music was now becoming part of the way "making a home" was giving me a new sense of how life can be rich — and within that larger context, the difference that sound itself makes just didn’t seem as important. It didn’t feel like something intrinsically valuable.

Yet it still had relative value. Changing a sense of proportion doesn’t mean junking all those years of analytical listening. It meant letting them help me find the right place for the stereo in this new home.

The key to "downsizing" turned out to be the amplifier. I went with David Berning’s ZH-270. What interested me was Berning’s attempt to combine the best of digital and analogue in a very simple (two source switch, Noble pot, that’s it) "integrated" amp (for details go to www.davidberning.com). Yet you can also play with sound by varying feedback. I went for the "medium" position (less sterile and also less fat than the greater and lesser feedback positions). Perhaps you remember my chief musical interest is how the singing voice inflects emotion to make sense; to hear nuance here, you need lithe, quick definition. And, thankfully, Berning’s amp provides exactly that, not just with voices, but also with its deeper-than-you’d expect bass reproduction. It mates very well with the 90 dB (but 4 ohm) Tempo IIIs. But again, what about all that glass?

berning.jpg (27609 bytes)The Tempo IIIs are very well balanced between a very open upper middle range (the most sensitive region for all that glass) and a more or less honest mid-30s low-end. Their midrange is articulate without a hint of sterility. But the openness of the house design and all that glass creates an echo chamber that enforces a brittleness to the upper midrange that I know is not native to the Tempo/Berning combination from briefly listening to this combo in my old apartment before moving to the house. The Berning is key here because of its ultimately humane transparency, what I have to call the sheer grace of its resolution. And while it can’t save hyped recordings, it does allow me to almost relax with tracks that verge on being too hot, like the opening cuts of Dar Williams’ The Green World. Honestly neutral recordings are, well, as honestly neutral as this listening room will permit.

Now if I was still purely an audiophile, I can readily imagine myself thinking at this point that what I really need is a "rounder, wetter, more mellow speaker" to "fix" all that glass. Or at least, say, some "tone control" cables. (Since I use the SONY SCD777ES as my sole source, digital tone controls are out.) But nothing will "fix" the openness of the house design (indeed I’ve already taken out a wall, added by the last occupants to make the place "cozier"). And, slowly, my "other" sense of proportion has settled into place. When I sit nearfield, most if not all of the glass effects "go away." Using a pair of easily moved quarter-round tube traps to dampen the first reflections of the speaker next to the glass wall helps, but mostly it’s just a matter of letting a different sense of proportion take over. Satisfied that my "downsized" system can adequately resolve vocal detail to let me begin to relax into this or that inflection, I’ve come, six months into "making a home," to just let myself listen to music. And working in the garden helps.

equitech.jpg (12531 bytes)So what was my last "fix," the last one to actually make a difference worth noting with my new sense of proportion? It was adding the JPS AC power cord to Equi=tech’s fully "tricked out" ET1.5RQ-FM balanced power line conditioner (see technical details at www.equitech.com). This Equi=tech unit is the only active power line tweak beyond the PS Audio power re-generators that actually makes an honestly noticeable difference in bass articulation and soundstage reproduction. And even though I knew both how good the Equi=tech stuff is and that JPS’ power cords have always made a difference in the past, I have to admit that I was surprised all over again by what a difference a simple power cord change makes toward "just relaxing" into the music (and if I keep repeating this business about "relaxing into the music," it’s because, once you get beyond a certain level of detail retrieval, it’s the single most important factor in sound reproduction).

It was after I added that JPS cord and had my "See, these tweaks still do make a difference" experience that I even considered dropping my name off the masthead of Positive Feedback and leaving high end audio behind. I had achieved a sense of proportion that makes my life very full. (If in the future I decide to "downsize" again, the component I’d build an even smaller system around would be the Berning amp. I don’t know how much longer whatever’s left of the high end will have folks around with the design talent, ears, and integrity of David Berning. What music comes my way late at night in the future will do so by way of the interpretive art of his amp.) Did I really "need" high end audio, with all its follies and foibles, any longer?

Since that time I have reconsidered, and have decided that I would like to continue exploring the aesthetics of audio and music—but I will do so on my terms, and without losing that all-too-critical sense of what’s really important in life. Positive Feedback may be the only place where it is possible to seriously explore audio possibilities without becoming entangled in the flotsam and jetsam of obsession; look for me here in the future, as I am moved to write from time to time.

 

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