The following submissions are for the 'Readers Who Want to be Writers' Contest. The authors are not Staff members of Positive Feedback.
Learning To Listen
My audiophile life began in adolescence, which of course added to my parents' concerns about my turning out at least close to "normal." No doubt their mounting fears were justified, as I was known to hang what my wife calls "audio-porn" on my bedroom walls at 14 years old. It's not that I didn't have the hots for Farah Fawcett, I did—but the pin-up I remember most was a cool, slinky Sansui receiver with a lit-up dial that made me drool. I would stare at it often, fantasizing about one day owning such a thing of beauty. At the time, both the Sansui and Farah seemed equally unattainable.
As a semi-normal, cash poor but fairly resourceful youngster, I embarked on my first DIY project, which entailed enhancing the sound of my crappy red plastic all-in-one stereo by reinstalling the speakers in empty one-gallon cardboard milk containers. There was no question…they still looked crappy, but they sounded much better. By 15, I was completely hooked on all things audio.
At 20, I bought my first audiophile gear at HiFi Haven, a high-end audio dealer in my college neighborhood in New Jersey. This was definitely not a part of town you'd expect to find an expensive audio store. On its left was a raunchy strip club and on its right was Greasy Tony's, purveyor of questionable cheese steaks to students, vagrants and felons alike. This infamous establishment was open all night, every night and was staffed by the shadiest, crustiest characters you can imagine. While some of my friends frequented one or both of these paragons of local culture, I found more excitement wandering around expensive stereo systems. Names like Dahlquist, DCM Time Windows, Nakamichi, Linn and Mark Levinson populated my daydreams.
One day, as I was wandering through the store, a salesman named Peter Cuddy noticed the hungry look in my eyes as I ogled the gear on display. He seemed to enjoy my enthusiasm, and without any hesitation or pressure to buy anything, took it upon himself to teach me how to listen, not just hear.
At those fortunate times (for me, anyway) when the store wasn't busy with actual paying customers, my new mentor taught me how to listen deeply into the music he selected, revealing to my attention new layers of nuance and subtlety that I completely missed before his instruction. Soon, I was beginning to discern not only whether the gear in question had the ability to place me in the recording venue and involve me emotionally in the musical event, but whether it could also reveal the intent of its composer and/or performer. Once again, I was completely enthralled by this new world that was unfolding before my ears.
Not long after he took me under his wing, Mr. Cuddy handed me a photocopied sheet that would serve as my main reference throughout my education. That single page of roughly typed but timeless questions cut through to the heart of what is meaningful to audiophiles—namely, how closely does what I'm hearing resemble live music?
For 32 years, this document was in a file with all my old owner's manuals. I came across it recently when I was looking for the original paperwork for my Thiel CS2s, which I had put up for sale in our local community.
Surprisingly, a 15-year-old responded, and soon came over for a demo of the speakers. He had never seen an LP or turntable up close before. Sitting somewhat self-consciously in the sweet spot, I watched his jaw unhinge as the first seconds of analogue, tube-driven music came to life in the room. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. We played track after track, until he was saturated with a new sense of how amazing reproduced music can sound.
I assured him that although the Thiels would not sound quite like this in his system, I would come out to voice his room, and over time, help him pick out components that would sound great with these wonderful speakers. He left quite excited.
When he came over the next day with his Mom to pick them up, she quipped, "I hope you know he'll never be the same again... and that sounds very expensive!" Yeah, sorry about that… right on both counts, my friend.
Although he doesn't know it yet, this budding audiophile is getting a copy of this Critical Listening document. Peter Cuddy's legacy will live on in this young man, and one day, I imagine him passing it on to another wide-eyed kid who is ready to discover the wonders of music through high-end audio.
Wherever you are, Peter Cuddy… thank you.
p.s. If you are interested in a copy of this Critical Listening document, click the link below. And if you are moved, please share it freely with your friends.