Random Noise 3: The Bittersweet Spot

[This column first appeared in OnSoundandMusic.com. We again thank OS&M’s editor for permission to post it here. M.S.]

Random Noise 3: The Bittersweet Spot

Mike Silverton

[November 2003.]

If you cohabit with a lower-case stereophile, you are accustomed to said specimen slouching about the premises with a pinched and earnest look. One never knows, he might even be you.

Before we get to the visage and what lurks behind it, let’s work on our definition. Homo stereophilicus (which includes the infrequent she) listens to recordings, for the most part stereophonic, sometimes mono (no, really, it’s true), on a two-channel sound system of, with rare exception, exemplary quality. That’s the superficial aspect. Molten lava burbles below. Being any manner of phile implies an intensity of devotion the disinterested passerby would doubtless judge excessive. Good taste precludes a discussion of a pedophile’s day, likewise a necrophile’s, never mind a coprophile’s. Put the phile up front, and we’ve the rather more innocuous philately — the desire to collect postage stamps. Innocuous yes, but to what degree? Innocuous as a babe in arms?

A philatelist’s acquisitiveness, his drive to completeness, bears directly on that wee patch’s price. Hasn’t been canceled. No rips, smudges, or dog-eared edges. Bright, unfaded color. Excellent! But was it ever hinged? When I was a kid, one mounted his stamps in an album by means of a skimpy paper hinge. One licked the hinge’s glue, applied it to the object of desire’s backside and secured the thing to its place on the page. These wispy bits peeled off effortlessly, doing no great damage to the stamp. You’ve guessed it. If however rare an item was ever hinged, it’s considerably less valuable than another such that wasn’t. Who makes up these nutty regs? Philatelists, of course! They drive the market. It’s theirs. It belongs to them. Who else would dream of laying out heaps of money for little quadrilaterals of decorated paper? Fanaticism. And, I think you’ll agree, not nearly as interesting as the way you and I release canned music into the air.

We could go on with this phileography business for days. Since we’re in the agreement mode, I think you’ll also agree that like any kind of phile, a lower-case stereophile goes to extremes. It’s what he does. You might as well ask him to stop breathing. A $75,000 extravaganza for spinning LPs? Sure. Credenza-size amps? Horn speaker systems that look like something out of a Flash Gordon short? They’re there at the shows. These things exist. Somebody’s buying them.

And we’ve been calling that somebody an audiophile. (Sounds a whole lot more dignified than hobbyist, no?) Why, then, this curious, lower-case stereophile I persist in popping up like a training-camp target? Obviously, the prefix distinguishes our clinically driven specimen from the upper-case mag; less obviously, because our lower-case stereophile may very well differ from an audiophile, and in no small way. To return to where we started, he’s slouching about the premises with that pinched and earnest look. Time to find out why.

The audiophile is perfectly happy to swap bales of bills for that which makes one’s audio system sound better. Keep your eye on the system. Therein lies the key. If it’s two-channel now, it may be something else in the not-too-distant future. The audiophile is amenable to essential innovations, for obvious example, surround-sound. The lower-case stereophile balks at the very notion. Stifles waves of nausea. Brandishes a crucifix. What I’m saying here is, first, that your lower-case stereophile is committed in his bones to two-channel sound, which — and this is the part that explains the pinched and earnest look — he does not audition casually. Phile. Hang on to phile. The lower-case stereophile’s peculiarly focused obsession resides in the appreciation of what a good two-channel recording can do, and in order to achieve these heights of appreciation better even than sex, he needs to be in what we have agreed to call, perhaps in a surfeit of love and goodwill, the sweet spot. All right, sure, this isn’t classified information. But my sermonette’s title is “The Bittersweet Spot.” Let go of phile, latch on to bitter.

As a resistant-to-change, long-time, lower-case stereophile, my passion — I do not choose the term in haste — amounts to a ritual deprivation similar to a priest’s vow of celibacy (observed apparently more in the breach, or maybe better, britches) or the vast calendar of prohibitive ritual the Hasidic Jew observes, the more assiduously, the better. There are days when a Hasid cannot press an elevator button. No, really, it’s true. It’s not as if the Old-Testament Taskmaster dispatches a lightning bolt through the cabin’s roof, striking the scofflaw dead. The willingness, indeed eagerness to observe the rules comes from within. The lower-case stereophile doesn’t wear a hair shirt or scourge himself till he bleeds. Medieval oddities, nothing to do with this time or place. The monastic aspect, however, clings. Indeed, austerity reigns. In an era of big-screen, high-definition TV, surround-sound and home theater, one sits in the sweet spot, in, if you will, solitary confinement staring at an image with no visual component other than the two speakers from which these sounds, when they’re well done, seem not to be emitting. To hammer on that nailhead again, our disinterested passerby might be tempted to say that this manner of behavior bears a striking resemblance to the kind of ritual deprivations similarly rigorous orthodoxies observe with pride.

Hence the bitter of bittersweet spot. It sets one apart. Literally! Wouldn’t give it up for anything.

Mike Silverton’s Sound System, or a Fanatic’s Dream Team

Speakers: Wilson WATT / Puppy 6’s. These are to resolvers what Colt is to revolvers. A wonderful speaker system. You can hear a hair split.

Amplifiers: Mark Levinson No. 33H’s, one pair. Godzillas with a butterfly’s touch. In their way, as remarkable as the Sixes. One hundred-fifty watts into eight ohms, they’re capable of 1200 distortion-free watts into a one-ohm load. Now that’s engineering.

CD player: Mark Levinson No. 390S, upgraded from a No. 39. This extraordinarily good player has its own analog volume control. As this is a one-format system, no need for a preamplifier. Seldom does the adage “less is more” make better sense.

Cabling: RS Audio Palladium balanced interconnects, one pair; Nordost Valhalla speaker cables, one pair. Palladium is le dernier cri in cabling, and not without reason. Resolution to die for. Nordost’s celebrated Valhalla line needs no further praise from me.

Acoustic isolation: Silent Running Audio VR Series platforms under the Mark Levinson pieces, and a Tremor/Less under the Harmonix Reimyo ALS-777 Line Stabilizer. Kevin Tellekamp, who’s spent a lot of time getting submarines to soundlessly prowl under water, knows about vibration and noise suppression.

Line Conditioning: the abovementioned ALS-777 Line Stabilizer, with Harmonix X-DC Studio Master power cords. The unit’s Japanese designer “tuned” these power cords to this very effective, very expensive box.

Power to the System (no, I’m not a Sixties radical): Dedicated outlets for the amps, one pair; another for the 390S-Reimyo combination. We live in Maine’s Midcoast area in an old town house. As the listening room-front parlor is just above the cellar where the power panels reside, having our electrician put the audio system on its own lines wasn’t much of a sweat.

Glare extraction: Walker Audio Ultra High Definition Links, one pair. These little mystery caskets operate, for me, as mysteriously as Bill Stierhout’s quantum resonance technology, which, incidentally, comprises a large part of the ALS-777’s innards.

CD treatment: Walker Audio Vivid, a lotion you buff to a sheen that actually makes discs sound, um, a little more vivid.