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Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
january/february 2013


The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback. 


"The Tell Tale Etch" by Edgar Allen Poe
as modified by Howard Rothstein

Author's Preface

To some, modifications provide an effective path to great audio. PFO writers have shared many articles describing how good components are enhanced by substituting parts and modifying circuits. This makes sense to me as a lay audiophile, as it seems intuitive that an inherently good piece, although perhaps dated, can be customized into something outstanding for the modern day listener. I have taken a similar approach to the crafting of a story for audiophiles. The story in original form would not be appropriate for publication in an audio magazine, yet it will resonate for many who obsessively pursue this hobby. Specifically, I have modified "The Tell Tale Heart" by Edgar Allen Poe. My mods were inspired by a recent personal episode and are implemented as follows: simple substitutions of specific objects and phrases; and a couple of minor changes in story flow. I left most of Poe's original writing in place because it is so superior to anything I could hope to achieve. I hope your readers will be amused, and I speculate that some will see themselves portrayed!

"The Tell Tale Etch"

TRUE!... nervous... very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? Years of listening had sharpened my senses... not destroyed... not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the treble and in the midrange. I heard many things in the soundstage. How, then, am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily... how calmly I can tell you the whole story.

It is impossible to say how first the idea entered my brain; but once conceived, it haunted me day and night. Object there was none. Passion there was none. I loved the S SACD player. It had never wronged me. It had always loaded discs flawlessly. For prestige I had no desire... the player was rated A+ on the Recommended Components list. I think it was the etch! yes, it was this! I could hear etch in the softest passages, and when the orchestra thundered. Whenever it scraped my ears, my blood ran cold; and so by degrees... very gradually... I made up my mind to buy a new, cost no object reference SACD player, and thus rid myself of this etch forever. But, how to conceal from the wife? I am retired, our income is fixed; she will be furious! No, I must hide; must hide it and she shall never know!

Now this is the point. You fancy me mad. Madmen know nothing. But you should have seen me. You should have seen how wisely I proceeded... with what caution... with what foresight... with what dissimulation I went to work! I was never kinder to my love than during the whole week as I secretly auditioned the new piece. The first day, about midnight, I moved the old S player from its place on the rack to make an opening sufficient to install the new player... oh so craftily! And then, when I had convinced my dealer to allow me an in-home audition of the E reference player, I placed it on the shelf, all hidden, hidden under my custom dust cover, that no light shone upon it, and then I listened. Oh, you would have laughed to see how cunningly I listened! I quietly played my Telarc reference SACD of Dukas: The Sorcerer's Apprentice, etc. / Lopos-Cobos etc. ... very, very quietly, so that I might not disturb my wife's sleep. It took me an hour of adjusting volumes using the Rives 1000Hz test tone to get the volumes equalized to with +/- 0.5dB. Ha! would a madman have been so wise as this? And then, when the system had fully warmed up, I turned up the volume cautiously-oh, so cautiously... cautiously (for my wife sleeps lightly). I turned up the volume just so much that I could feel the growl of the string bass. And she remained asleep. I compared the S to the E by switching the preamp inputs. And this I did for seven long nights... every night just at midnight... but I found the etch wasn't there; and so it was impossible remove the S; for it was not the player that vexed me, but it's etch. And every morning, when the day broke, I went boldly into our bedroom, and spoke lovingly to my wife, calling her by name in a soft tone, and inquiring how she has passed the night. So you see she would have been a very profound old lady, indeed, to suspect that every night, just at twelve, I auditioned the E reference while she slept.

At the seventh night, as I had auditioned both players a long time, very patiently, I resolved to purchase the E reference without alarming my mate. But how to conceal a purchase of so large an amount money? Ah! I could do so, perhaps by clever use of business accounts only open to my eyes. So I moved funds around... you cannot imagine how stealthily, stealthily... until, at length a simple certified check for the negotiated amount was safely in the hands of my dealer. I now owned both players. But I must be sure! And so I continued to compare.

Upon the eighth night I was more than usually cautious with the audition. A robin hears less acutely than did my golden ears. Never before that night had I felt the extent of my own powers...of my sagacity. I could scarcely contain my feelings of triumph. To think that there I was, comparing the two players, track by track, and she not even to dream of my secret deeds or thoughts.

Presently, while listening to the S I heard a slight distortion, and I knew it was a distortion in the treble. It was not a distortion of inner detail or of raised sound floor...oh, no... it was the high slightly grainy sound that arises as the orchestra hits crescendo. I knew the sound well. Many a night, just at midnight, when all the world slept, it has welled up from my speakers, exposing, with its dreadful echo, the flaws in my system. I say I knew it well. I knew this was coming from the S and I hated it, although I chuckled at heart. I knew that the etch had been there all along. Its sibilance had been there, merely covered up... "It is nothing but a slight opaqueness in the strings" .."it is only an aggressiveness in the midrange," or "It is merely a weakness in the leading-edge transients of the snare drum." Yes, it had been getting by: but now all in vain. All in vain; because my audition had shown me the flaw, the fatal flaw. And it was this fatal flaw that caused me to know that I must... I  must ...get rid of the S player.

I opened the volume control... wide, wide open... and grew furious as I listened. I heard it with perfect distinctness... a grainy sound that lacked finesse, with a hideous veil over it that chilled the very marrow in my bones; but I could hear nothing else of the S character: for I had directed my ears as if by instinct, precisely upon that damned etch.

And have I not told you that what you mistake for madness is but over-acuteness of the sense? Now, I say, there came to my ears a high, harsh, quick sound, as of chalk on blackboard. I knew that sound well, too. It was the scraping of bow against violin string. It increased my fury, as the beating of a drum stimulates the soldier into courage.

But even yet I refrained and kept still. I scarcely breathed. I put the Living Stereo SACD of Heifetz/Munch playing Beethoven's Violin concerto into the tray and started the 1st movement. I tried how steadily I could maintain my ear upon the violin. Meantime the hellish etch increased. It grew quicker and quicker, and louder and louder every instant. Heifetz swirled into the cadenza. It grew louder, I say, louder every moment!... do you mark me well I have told you that I am nervous: so I am. And now at the dead hour of the night, amid the dreadful silence of my listening room, so strange a noise as this excited me to uncontrollable terror. Yet, for some minutes longer I refrained and stood still. But the etch grew louder, louder! I thought the tweeters must burst. And now a new anxiety seized me... the etch would be heard by my wife! The hour had come! With a loud yell, I hit the stop button and leaped into action. In an instant I unplugged and boxed the S in its original packaging. I then smiled gaily, to find the deed so far done. But, for many minutes, the etch strangely continued on with a muffled sound. This, however, did not vex me; it would not be heard through the wall. At length it ceased. The S was no more. The etch would trouble me no more.

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for the concealment of the box. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence. First of all I remembered that the basement had a closet, behind the sofa bed, that was rarely if ever used. Taking the box downstairs, moving the sofa, I then made space on the shelf by tossing away some old junk that no one would miss. I deposited the S, taking care to cover it with a blanket. I then replaced the sofa so cleverly, so cunningly, that no human eye... not even hers... could have detected anything wrong. There was nothing amiss... no residue of any kind... no packaging materials whatever. I had been too wary for that... ha! ha!

When I had made an end of these labors, it was four o'clock... still dark as midnight. As the bell sounded the hour, there came some noise on the floor above. I went back upstairs with a light heart... for what had I now to fear? There stood my wife, somewhat bleary eyed. A bumping noise had been heard in the basement, suspicion of foul play had been aroused; and she had wanted me to search the premises.

I smiled... for what had I to fear? I bade her not to worry. The bump, I said, was my own stumble. I was downstairs, I mentioned, to find a power cable I'd been meaning to try. I led her, at length, to the listening room. I invited her to linger with me. I bade her listen... listen well. I showed her the rack, secure, undisturbed. In the enthusiasm of my confidence, I brought some wine into the room, and desired her to relax in my chair at the sweet spot, while I myself, in the wild audacity of my perfect triumph, placed my own seat upon the very spot beneath which reposed the box containing the despised player.

She was satisfied. My manner had convinced her. I was singularly at ease. She sat, and while I answered cheerily, we chatted of familiar things. But, ere long, I felt myself getting pale and wished her gone. My head ached, and I fancied a ringing in my ears: but still she sat and still chatted. The ringing became more distinct: It continued and became more distinct: I talked more freely to get rid of the feeling: but it continued and gained definiteness... until, at length, I found that the noise was not within my ears.

No doubt I now grew very pale; but I talked more fluently, and with a heightened voice. Yet the sound increased... and what could I do? It was a high, harsh, quick sound, as of chalk on blackboard. I gasped for breath... and my wife heard it not. I talked more quickly... more vehemently; but the noise steadily increased. I arose and argued about trifles, in a high key and with violent gesticulations; but the noise steadily increased. Why would she not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of my beloved... but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed... I raved... I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder... louder... louder! And still she chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible she heard not? Almighty God... no, no! She heard! She suspected! She knew! She was making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear that hypocritical smile no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now... again!... hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!

"My love!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! In the basement closet! Here, here! It is the screeching of its hideous etch!"