Monday, August 13, 2012

Jumping Half Way

If a frog jumps half way out of a bowl each time it jumps, when will the frog jump out of the bowl?

High-end audio is much like this frog.  Just like the frog's first jump gets it half way out of the bowl, moving from an MP3 player and earbuds to a CD player in your car gets you half way into the high-end.  But when you start listening to the music and comparing it to what other systems sound like, that's where things can get quickly out of control.

The next few hops toward the edge are much the same where there is a lot of bang for the buck.  Now that your car stereo is pretty good, you most likely want to have a similar if not superior sound in your home so you invest in your first home system.  Normally, this consists of a package that starts as a surround sound system for your television.  Here, your XBOX or PlayStation finds new excitement and movies, well it's like discovering a new meaning to what watching a film is all about.

So far the investment is still modest and here is where many folks stop: right at the edge after two or three hops.  They're 3/4 to 7/8 of the way out of the bowl but they are happy where they are and choose other avenues for adventure.  But for audiophiles, this is just the beginning and more and more hops are necessary - essential in some cases. Typically, you go to a friend's house and listen to their rig.  They've been hopping toward the edge now for three more years than you and have accumulated quite a bit of nice gear.  As soon as you hear it, you're hooked.

More jumps are now in store but as the bowl edge approaches, so does the steepness of the sides and it costs more to cling to the edge.  With fortitude, you plan your next leap and screen possibilities.  Usually, this takes the form of the question "Where will I get the most audible improvement?" and the answer is is the speakers.  The next series of hops begin.

Speakers, stands, spikes, wires, all find their way into your home and soon your budget changes.  What was once allocated to Big Macs and wild weekend adventures is now reapportioned to the new amplifier fund.  You begin to look at things you can sell and the old toys begin to move out of the closet and garage.  Used equipment becomes a good option and so the next hop comes.

With cleaner power comes more detail and the fact that it goes louder doesn't hurt anything either.  Your friend just bought that new fangled preamp and sure enough, you now need one too.  After many trips to your favorite audio salon, something that unknowingly has become an occasional stop like going to the movies once was, you decide on a tube risking what you hear against the better judgment of your friend's solid state. When you flip the switch and watch those tubes glow, it's like magic and despite the warmth in the room that taxes your air conditioner, more funds are dedicated to interconnect cables and new software.  More jumps toward the edge makes the end in sight and now you are almost there - or are you?

A new Blu-Ray player finds its way to your system and you integrate the television into the stereo.  But when comparing the sound to the old CD player, you realize that there is more to those little ones and zeros than meets the eye -oops, the ear. If you buy a high mileage car, you will have more money for your stereo and so a Hybrid appears in your driveway where your old gas guzzler once stood.  More jumps to the edge are now affordable.

But the frog is getting older now and with age comes other interests.  A companion appears one who hopefully appreciates sound as much as you do.  If not, toss that one back and find another; there are a lot more fish in the sea compared to the few truly fine pieces of high-end gear.  Another hop.

With a promotion or a new higher paying job comes a bigger budget for the rig.  The frog now finds that the edge of the bowl is becoming financially feasible and new speakers appear, monsters compared to the old ones.  At least you feel some comfort knowing that the price per pound of your investment is seeing its fruits.  Electrostatics may appear or some other exotic blend.  More space is needed for the rig and a room is now completely dedicated to the frog.  Furniture disappears and strange wall coverings hang in corners and along walls looking nothing like the art work it replaced. But such is the price of getting closer and closer to the edge and the rewards for the compromise, well that's what brings the frog back to thinking about the next jump.

Another friend has an analog turntable, something you've heard about but never paid any attention to - until now.  Cancel the trip to Cancun, we're getting a Goldmund!  Another jump and you realize that the digital sound is not all that it is cracked up to be, at least at the price point you have invested. CAUTION: ANOTHER JUMP AHEAD.

The new 24-bit player makes its way into the dedicated listening room and the frog is dazzled.  Even the sound of the old CDs now improves, but compared to the turntable it still has a way to go.  Buying high-end software appeases the frog and is much easier to deal with so the system grows into two pieces: the everyday listening through the digital system and the occasional serious listening to the analog system.  The frog justifies this by knowing that each time one of its precious discs is spun, it wears it out so playing digital most of the time preserves the investment. And then the Shibata tip cartridge finds its way into the room.  Another hop.

The old turntable was fine but now the cartridge needs to be upgraded to coax out all of its potential.  A new tonearm, Litz wiring, and an insanely expensive stepup transformer complete the transition and now music appears where once was noise.  Spinning digital now compares somewhat to fingernails on a chalk board and the frog looks for even more.  WARNING: MIND THE GAP.

The edge is right there.  The frog can see it but it is just out of reach.  Another dozen hops or so and surely it will appear.  Or will it?

How many hops along the way to the edge of the bowl is your frog?  Where do you see the edge of the bowl in your system? How steep are the sides of the bowl and how much has it cost you to cling to its edge?

Just keeping things in perspective folks. Hope you enjoy your next hop as much as I have enjoyed mine.  Honey, there's a new...

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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