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Positive Feedback ISSUE 3
october/november 2002


The Learning Curve
by Gary L. Beard


The world is flat

On a cold February night in 1964, while watching The Ed Sullivan Show with my mom and dad, I unknowingly witnessed the beginning of the British invasion. The Beatles took the stage, girls screamed, and almost instantly, music changed forever. Being eight years old, I was too young to realize the impact of this event. I was still stuck in my parents’ time warp of Lawrence Welk, The Ray Conniff Singers, and square dance music. Three years later, while surfing the AM waves via my tiny Sears transistor radio, I happened upon the Chicago radio station, WLS. That was a huge find in my little corner of the Corn Belt. Every night thereafter, I fell asleep tapping my foot on the bed frame while Larry Lujack played the nation’s top 40 hits.

>Along with my newfound love for rock and roll, there was another brave new world that beckoned—audio equipment. My first foray into audio gear began at age twelve, when I bought a very cool fold-down "portable" stereo record player with my paper route money. I procured as many 45s as I could afford on my modest income, followed by my first LP, The Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed. Over the next several years, as my love of music and audio (as well as my income) grew, my system continued to evolve. In 1988, I brought home my first digital box, and eventually put away my LPs for shiny discs. During the early 1990s, I added home theater to the tangled web of boxes and cables. I was in mid-fi heaven and life was good.

Surf’s up

In the waning moments of the last millennium, I made another discovery that would change my life forever: cyberspace. I was consumed with computers, and spent hours upon hours surfing the net. One evening, I stumbled upon a home theater website, where I read voraciously about all the newest toys. After the drooling subsided, I decided I just couldn’t live another day without a DVD player, so I popped into a local stereo store to check some out. While most of the gear in the store was mid-fi stuff, they also had a few pieces of "high end." You know the stuff—insanely expensive, no bells, no whistles, and no remote. The only place I had ever seen gear like this was in a magazine. I was drooling again. The store was a B&W dealer, and it only took me about five minutes to pull out the credit card and buy a pair of CDM-2NT speakers, only to bring them back two days later and order the CDM-1NTs. I had found that the 2NTs weren’t my cup of tea, and reasoned that for only a few dollars more I could afford the next model. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had just caught that incurable, insidious disease, Audiophilia Nervosa.

I began surfing every audio web site I could find, and suddenly the names of multi-thousand dollar amps were a part of my vocabulary. I had never actually heard any of these components, let alone a true high performance system, but I could talk about them! Then one day I had a stroke of genius. I decided to drive an hour to check out a true high end stereo store. The place was filled with some of the more familiarly-named audio esoterica. I took a seat and heard, for the first time, how wonderful, intimate, and majestic recorded music could sound. I was stunned at the difference, and it was painfully obvious that my system was not serving the music. My quest for a great sound system began in earnest that day.

The learning curve is a slippery slope

I began my modern era (1999 to present) of audio foolishness by purchasing a used (entry-level high end name here) solid state amp and preamp, my first-ever separates. I followed with a new CD player, speaker cables with a special noise rejection configuration, and brightly colored interconnects with funny nicknames and big gold connectors. Partnered with my B&W speakers, I was finally the proud owner of a high end stereo system. Man, I was diggin’ it.

You already know that everything would have been fine if I had just let sleeping dogs lie. However, we audiophiles are predisposed by a genetic flaw to not only love our stereo gear but everyone else’s too. In other words, we just can’t leave well enough alone. I read on the Internet about how Mr. (cool industry-guy name here), the designer of the aforementioned solid state gear, would personally do an upgrade to my amp for a small investment. Of course you know I couldn’t help myself, and this worthy upgrade took me to a very special place in the world of megabucks audio: The Next Level.

The upgrade parade continued over the next year, and armed with a plethora of excellent advice received on line, I made nary a mistake. During this Age of Enlightenment, I acquired time-tested equipment made by highly regarded manufacturers. I became an early adopter of new technology. I purchased gear from lone-wolf genius modifiers and equipment designers. I migrated from solid state to tubes and from CD to SACD. Recently, I even put my trusty old turntable back into the mix (which of course has precipitated the purchase of a new phono stage, NOS tubes to go with it, and soon, perhaps, a new turntable). I have climbed the steep curve of audio very quickly, and yet this article is not about the equipment I have owned, or about what gear I liked or didn’t like, but rather about what I have learned and still have to learn about audio.

The learning curve as a teacher

This is the part of my narrative that I think is really important. Audio can be as simple as a treeless landscape or as complex as a teenager. It is a combination of high-strung thoroughbred racehorse and newborn baby. The music produced by esoteric audio equipment can be as beautiful as a painting by Monet, or as frustratingly bad as a day on the (your most-hated name here) freeway. Having gone through so many system gyrations over the last three years, my emotions have run the gamut. Joy and pain are frequent visitors to my master suite/listening room, and through these trials and tribulations, I have learned many of the Great Truths of Audio. Here are but a few:

If you have synergy you are destined to destroy it, and struggle to recapture it.

You will sell something you love, buy something you hate, and sell something you hate to buy back something you love.

You don’t have the funds to buy the (piece of gear) you’ve always wanted. You will deflect the notion that you don’t have the funds to buy said piece of gear because you have spent way too much of your savings account since becoming an audiophile. You will find a way to procure the funds necessary to buy said piece of gear, come hell, high water, or spousal disapproval.

You will cringe at the thought of how much money you’ve really spent.

The real importance of the learning curve

If this all seems crazy to most intelligent folks, they must be excused. They are not genetically flawed like us. (The fact that you are reading this makes you an "us.") There have been more than a few times when I have questioned my own sanity, and then made the mistake of putting a great recording on my system and sitting down to listen. If I am in the correct frame of mind, I sit back in my listening chair and become one with the music. This is my personal measure of audio success. An emotional listening experience is, for me, the equivalent of the perfect sunset, evoking the same feeling of euphoria that I get when I hit a high draw with a six-iron that checks on the green for a gimmie birdie. In other words, this is the magic that causes the passion for perfection.

Over the past few months it has finally become clear to me why the learning curve is so important. I have come to an understanding of my audio self that I didn’t have before. I now understand that great audio teases with contentment, by giving you the beauty of music. It also challenges every fiber of your being, as the positive qualities of these sometimes-finicky components spiral into some black hole, never to be found again. In the midst of this learning curve, I have found my own set of audio truths: I have found that I value music over equipment. I have learned the type of sound I like—warm, inviting, spacious, detailed, not overly aggressive—the palpable realism of great musicians on a stage. I have learned that tweaking a system is as important as spending more money. I have learned that not all highly regarded components sound good to me. I have learned that whatever I think today may change tomorrow. Most importantly, I have learned that I need to win the lottery.

Base camp at 15,000 feet

In sum, I have finally heard enough equipment to have a sense of what high performance audio is all about. Not expertise, mind you, only enough to know the basic flavors. It is an important lesson to learn, and many audiophiles are willing to impart their considerable wisdom if you take the time to ask. I have not yet finished my journey, but I am enjoying every moment of the trek up the mountain (except the moments where money is involved or power LEDs don’t come on as planned). There are still single-ended directly heated triode amps to sample, do-it-yourself circuits to build, high-efficiency speakers to wrestle, and three-armed flying saucer turntables to set up. There is a lot more to know, but an important part of the learning curve has been passed. I have proudly graduated from high end high school, and with diploma in hand, I am looking for a scholarship to The Next Level.