Bring Back the Rotary Dial!

[We had originally thought of submitting this to The Absolute Sound. It appears here as a nuisance to those audiophiles who do not subscribe to that publication. Ed.]

Mike Silverton

[July 2000. Originally appeared in La Folia 2:5.]

It’s in our genes. Our shorts. Our very souls! As we [read: I] muddle along toward decrepitude, we wax reactionary. Not perhaps in all things, but surely in some. Scrooge rules! Kick the rascals down the stairs! Up with the old, out with the new! Get a horse! Bring back the rotary dial!

A reactionary rejects this or that development elsewhere welcomed as beneficial. He or she need not be curmudgeonly in his deportment. Some old farts can smell quite nice. Readers of J.R.R. Tolkein’s wonderful Hobbit fantasies will have remarked the writer’s ill-disguised loathing of the suburbanization of rural England, as would anyone with an eye for beauty. Reactionaries do not necessarily thump for wrong causes. As with most things, it’s a question of perspective. Mine comes first. Yours is next.

A great deal in high-end audio is judged from without our mountain stronghold as reactionary. Out-of-shape guys with comb-overs and pocket protectors in short-sleeve shirts that do not go well with their trousers see vacuum tubes as a ludicrous retrogression. No, I mean it. Give it a moment’s thought. Where but among audiophiles have tubes had a renaissance? Who proposes a return to boxcar-large, tube-festooned computers to restore inner warmth to cold, heartless data? In a similarly anachronistic vein, audiophiles cling to vinyl as if to their very life and are willing, without befouling themselves, to entertain the existence of a $7500 phono cartridge, no less buy the freaking thing! Does it matter that for nearly twenty years little of musical interest has been issued in microgroove? Of course not! Zealotry is blind to all but itself! Also, I forgot to mention, audiophilia is only tangentially about music. Excuse me, I wander.

I began life as a drop-dead handsome matinee idol scorned by high enders. I railed in “Random Noise,” my Fanfare forum, against those nutcake aspects I mention here in thumbnail form, along with others of similar stripe which I’ve since embraced as an imperfect convert. Yes, I do hear differences among cables, and no, I’ve never heard a comparison in which vinyl trounced silver. Different, yes; better, not. I’ve fended off a number of otherwise perfectly agreeable audiophiles who, for this apostasy alone, would have burnt me at the stake. Meanwhile, yet and happily in the raw state, I offer for examination a raft of ultra-high-end audio components and peripherals in application of a work permit up here where the air is thin. (See Editor’s Foreword for the latest fussings and frettings in re the editorial aerie’s hardware.)

Okay then, thus do I straddle an alp, taking in the view, God’s very own soundstage, and feeling them germinating in the marrow of my bones, these preordained seeds of reaction. Yes, even I feel those — what to call them? — internal adjustments. They appear to be expressing themselves, these seedlings of the spirit, as a rejection of multi-channel sound as the putative wave of recorded music’s future. It’s not entirely grouchy, one’s anxious reluctance. I wouldn’t trouble to mention it had I thought for a moment that I’m alone in my foreboding.

First, there’s one’s audio system — one’s lovely, expensive, two channel audio system. Not much as the cosmos goes, but plenty enough for him who writes. One assembles it meticulously, upgrade upon increment, sweating every aspect and tweak. “No, I think I’ll return to my Ultima Thule curare-core interconnects. They sound to me best in the rig as it stands. I wonder whether the lighter-than-air line conditioners a friend proposes to lend me will make the difference he says they will? He suggests a pair. Three might be better. Oh, the expense! My speakers need dusting! Is the toe-in adequate? Are they too far apart? Should I consider an oxygen-free listening space? Would Lee sit still for that?” There’s the story about the painter James McNeill Whistler at a London dinner party where Oscar Wilde was also a guest. Whistler said something witty, to which Wilde responded, “I wish I’d said that,” to which Whistler responded, “You will, Oscar, you will.” How I’d love to take credit for the term audiophilia nervosa! Anyway, there it is, the perfect tag for what we’re about. (Question: How do you know when the audiophile is standing on horizontal ground? Answer: He’s bleeding in equal measure from both ears.)

And what it is we’re about — this exercise in revelatory hair splitting — flies in the face of multiplication. Family planning, that’s the ticket! Celibacy! A four-channel system? Five? Six? Eight? The cabling alone scores a small Caribbean island! So how about downgrading to dollar-a-foot crap? With all these channels singing away, who’s going to hear the difference? I don’t know about you, but the mere fact of keying in these thoughts gives me the fantods. The willies. Major league jim-jams. Shakes to shame delirium tremens. I mean, really, here I am at the summit, chin-deep in virgin snow, sparkling, crystalline, virgin snow. To hell with the valley! I refuse to care how good it sounds!

And then there’s one home. In which lives a wife, the abovementioned Lee, whom one cherishes for so many reasons. Mine’s an interior designer who (phew!) loves the look of the Wilsons in silver. They’re in that part of an open space we call the living room. Just renovated the place. Spent a fortune! Am I about to turn this expanse of domestic pulchritude into some ratty-looking audio-component warehouse? When pigs fly or Lee leaves home. Also, and I mean this quite seriously, the achievement of superb two-channel sound comes close for me to a religious calling. For you too, I bet.

I see it this way. Back when chemistry was the devil’s work, alchemists spent lifetimes (and their patrons’ fortunes) in quest of the philosophers’ stone — that which elevates base metal to gold. The audiophile has a touch of the alchemist in him. I’ve spent a dog’s age cultivating the Sweet Spot, which is of such significance to my happiness, I capitalize. But never capitulate! Long live the Reaction! Bring back the rotary dial!