Hobby? Ha!

[Signor Scardanelli, our Man in the Attic, returns with some reflections on audiophilia that are bound to offend everyone. We’d have rejected this out of hand were we not in fear for our lives. We suggest you read something else. Ed.]

Signor Scardanelli

[May 2002.]

Picture this: King Arthur’s Round Table, knights seated about, breastplates buffed to a lustrous sheen. Gawain raises his hand. “Yes, my boy, you have something for us?”

“Indeed, sire. I seek your permission to quest for the Holy Grail.”

“Excellent! Everybody should have a hobby.”

Now there’s a bit that would most certainly come back for a rewrite. If an activity as emotionally charged as this can be so classified, we might as well include bulimia and suicide. It simply will not do. Nor, I suspect, do many audiophiles take much comfort from the term. It locates us among folks who queue up at the post office for commemorative sheets or go dump-digging for old bottles. (I live in a part of the nation where collectors seek out powerline insulators. Actually, they’re quite attractive — the insulators, I mean — but that’s another story. As are model trains and WW2 memorabilia.)

The slightest acquaintance with history demonstrates that people who agree in a general way on a serious subject, Christ’s divinity, say, are at each other’s throats on matters of detail, as in religious wars and heresy prosecutions. And so it is with audiophiles, albeit on a far less sanguinary plane. Consider:

We Happy Few, we for whom Transparency and Resolution are Truth and Beauty’s mirror image, are obliged to share our little community with naysayers trailing academic degrees like the chains of Marley’s ghost. I bring them into the narrative only because they’ve told us, among other items of specialized interest, that lampcord suffices as speaker cable. Lampcord! And they’ve the formulae to prove it! Which I, for one, cannot read. They might as well be posting cuneiform tablets for all the sense their figures make. But I have my ears! Which these amply credentialed personages tell me will fail to do their discriminatory thing in a double-blind listening test. We all know the stories, we’re familiar with the feuds, we’ve all heard the hissy-fits. Do model-plane builders carry on so? When’s the last time numismatists konked each other upside the head with bagged buffalo nickels? Or percussion-cap gun collectors traded shots?

But let’s be honest: I’ve constructed a straw man whom I’ve kicked in the slats. In high-end audio, the meter-readers have been sent packing. The Open Ears have it. We’ll see the odd letter about the efficacy of double-blind listening tests, but more and more they’re beginning to read like cranky valedictories. Vis-à-vis the marketplace and the journals that support it, subjectivists reign. And of course are having at one another from their various strongholds. Solid-state sucks! Vinyl rules! The whirlwinds encircling the compact disc — some of our more paranoid colleagues having damned it as a sinister, mass-market coup — remind one of how Stalinists and Trotskyites carried on. I know a fellow who builds those little sailing ships in bottles. He quarrels only with his wife.

Even the term subjectivist raises hackles among its adherents. (If not hackles, eyebrows.) As a modus operandi, subjectivism appears to imply an auditory free-for-all. Crazy Charlie hears voices. His audiophile neighbor hears coin-size discs he stuck up on the walls of his listening room making a tremendous difference. For the better, of course, always for the better. Harry Pearson, one of the subjectivist camp’s significant figures, much prefers to identify himself as an observationalist, the thinking being that one’s ears, like one’s tastebuds, acquire sophistication by dint of experience.

That’s fine, as far as it goes. I know a fellow who in the course of a month hears a greater variety of upmarket audio gear than I do in a year. One would think in matters of judgment that this puts him at an advantage. I wonder. We’ve engaged in bitter email exchanges, he and I, the issue our sound systems. (What then, baseball?) I cannot conceive of a pair of mere hobbyists firing off notes anywhere near as vituperative. What was the flap about? My having called his mother a crack-smoking slut? His having called me a cannibalistic pedophile? Nothing so piquant. I’ve heard several of his systems in two dwellings and detected a consistency I can best describe as midrange-woolly. And made the mistake of saying so in response to his asking what I thought. From that low point, a steep descent: He has characterized my sonic preferences as soulless. Better he had disparaged my manhood. People are amused that medieval clerics actually disputed the number of angels capable of dancing on the head of a pin — a silliness that at least bore a resemblance to matters of metaphysical significance.

Let’s linger for a moment at the casus belli, one’s perception of midrange wool. As mentioned, my opponent’s experience of sound systems at shows, showrooms and audiophiles’ homes leaves me dining on his dust. Experience is significant, no denying it, but isn’t what we bring to these events as important as the event itself? We squirrel away an Ideal Sound we apply to what we hear in the Sweet Spot. One’s Ideal Sound is an individual thing. One speaks only for onself. To complicate matters further, one’s Ideal Sound’s birthplace is anything but clear. Again, speaking for myself, it’s the sound of live unamplified musical instruments, but even so clearcut a standard is blurred by a preference for what a first-rate recording over live performance imparts to inner voices. These matter a great deal, and it has everything to do with the kind of music one spends most of his time listening to. The chap with whom I exchanged those billets doux is after something else. Apart, that is, from my scalp.

To return to our theme, I believe that the audiophile’s passions fall as far from a hobby as it’s possible to get this side of running amok. In terms of what we know to be True, audiophilia more closely resembles religion — not some namby-pamby lemonade religion, rather the rock-bottom, tub-thumping variety. I also think that audiophilia is quite the perfect expression of the narcissistic personality, especially in its tendency to grandiosity. One is closer to the music. Arm and arm with Frescobaldi or some loudmouth rapper. Doesn’t matter. It’s the proximity that counts. One hangs out with whom he chooses. And we’ve not even mentioned conspicuous consumption.

So what is this about? An expression of self-loathing? Perish the thought, put it out to pasture, shoot it in the head! When I consider our editorial aerie’s sound system, my chest swells with pride. Call me conflicted, confusing, concussed. But never a lowbrow! I am, after all, as are you, in quest of the Holy Grail.