Saturday, June 23, 2012

Mature Ears

I remember hearing my first good stereo, the one that got me hooked on the high end. I was in high school dealing with hormones, a body growing lanky and long, social pressures, and intellectual stimulation; in other words, I was growing up.  Between times of chaos, passion, and confusion, I found time to make friends and explore other people's views.  One of my friends was the editor of our school newspaper and he invited me to help him with something. His name was Bob and he needed to find something a new teacher left for him in his office.

On our trip down to the catacombs of the school basement, where the instructor's offices hid, we wound our way by boilers, stacks of boxes, and steam pipes en route to this new instructor's digs. Of course, being the newest teacher meant that your office was the furthest from anywhere and indeed it seemed like this one was at the end of a mine.

We finally found his office, a small desk without a door in the back corner of who knows where behind a wall of boxes holding who knows what, and there we began to search for Bob's things. But of all the things I found, none of which helped Bob, was an old tube stereo receiver and speakers.  Next to that was a collection of vinyl records and an outboard turntable.  What struck me about this teacher was that he brought music into his world, even at work, and his being different is what I instantly admired.

I recall asking Bob about this stereo and him demonstrating it. Flipping on the switch and waiting until the tubes glowed brightly, I paused in reflection to understand just how unusual this situation was.  In a while, a low, barely audible hum emerged from the speakers and Bob put on a record.  As the needle touched down and the familiar pops and ticks came from the small brown speaker boxes, what happened next changed my life forever.

Music, unlike anything I had ever heard before, sprang forth from what appeared to be everywhere and with a clarity until that moment I had not thought possible.  I had my own record player at home as did all of my friends, but this was like watching an opera at the Met in New York City compared to one of our high school productions. It was strikingly different. At that moment, my ears and brain knew that the reproduction of sound in a more accurate way was indeed possible. I was mesmerized.

I recall commenting to Bob that this was the best stereo I had ever heard to which he instantly replied, "If you like this, you should hear my dad's." Well, I never heard Bob's father's stereo but that moment changed me somehow and set me off in a direction and on a course that I am still on today.  As time passed, I too heard things sound different from speaker to speaker, later from amplifier to amplifier, speaker wires to speaker wires, and interconnect cables to interconnect cables. What I found myself doing was listening more intently to what I heard rather than just being pacified with what I saw and thus appeared my own personal rabbit hole.

 My first contact with a good sounding stereo was in 1965 and I'm sure that you all remember your first similar experience. I suspect that you too remember the moment you felt a switch turn on inside of you that was fascinated by the variations in quality, each time assessing value and calculating how long it would take for you to accumulate that particular piece of gear into your own collection. From my encounter with my rabbit hole, my goal was not only to learn more skills used in my career, but also to flex my mental muscles  straining to understand what I liked the sound of the best. This was the age of maturing my ears; a never ending process ongoing still today.

Time marches on and one day you're out on your own with your MP3 player and earbuds. You stumble across something that sounds good to you and then something else that sounds better. Before long, you too have trained your ears to hear what you like, be it bass, treble, of midrange, but you collect that kind of gear to allow your own ears to listen to what it wants to understand. This is good.

One day, you will hear that one thing, that silly nuance, that drives you nuts and from that time you try to find how to incorporate that sound into your own system.  That is your rabbit hole; this is where I suspect you are all now.

Like any other thing worth pursuing, it begs the question, "How far down the rabbit hole do you want to go?" This answer is truly individual and separates the high-enders from the mid-fi folks.

Which club do you belong to? How mature are your own ears? Just how far down your rabbit hole are you willing to go, Alice?

Food for thought.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

I do not use ads in this blog to help support my efforts. If you like what you are reading, please remember to reciprocate, My newest title is called Where, oh Where did the Star of Bethlehem Go? It’s an astronomer’s look at what this celestial object may have been, who the "Wise Men" were, and where they came from. Written in an investigative journalism style, it targets one star that has never been considered before and builds a solid case for its candidacy.

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