Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LXXI: Getting Mad as Hell
(August 2009)

"I don't have to tell you things are bad. Everybody knows things are bad. It's a depression. Everybody's out of work or scared of losing their job. The dollar buys a nickel's work, banks are going bust, shopkeepers keep a gun under the counter. Punks are running wild in the street and there's nobody anywhere who seems to know what to do, and there's no end to it."
-Howard Beale, "Network"

Network has always been one of my favorite films, and not just because it was the first R-rated movie I snuck into when I was a kid. For some reason, I've always enjoyed films about the Great Depression (Paper Moon, The Grapes of Wrath, Bound for Glory), and this was the first film I'd seen that actually suggested the possibility of a second one. I don't remember things being that bad back in 1976, so I think Paddy Cheyefsky may have written the screenplay as a fantastic, in-the-not-too-distant-future sort of cautionary tale. Despite that, I instantly recall Howard's darting blue eyes and his rain-soaked Burberry trench coat whenever someone mentions that things are bad, even now in 2009.

I don't have to tell you things are bad in the high-end audio world. While manufacturers aren't quite hurling themselves out of 30-story windows yet, I've seen my share of hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing. I'm happy to see that many audio companies are concentrating on the lower end of their product lines and offering gear that performs well at fairly affordable prices. With that type of sensitive marketing strategies, I think most of these guys are going to be okay in the long run. It's the consumers I'm worried about. They're as mad as hell at the very idea of high-end audio.

"How can you sleep at night hawking $100,000 turntables and $350,000 amps during these hard times?"

Yes, someone actually said that to me in a recent email. First of all, if I am in the business of selling such products, I sure could use some of those sales commissions right about now. I had to remind that particular person that I wasn't a salesperson ("Yeah, sure" was their reply), and that last year I had written about a $60,000 turntable and concluded that while it was the nicest analog sound I had ever heard, I would rather spend that kind of money on a BMW M3 or a trip around the world or a college education for my kids. I love music, and hi-fi is my chosen hobby, but I believe there's far more beauty in the forest behind my house than in the fine burled walnut veneer of a coffin-sized loudspeaker that costs more than my Subaru did when it was new.

In the continuing spirit of the "Madman of the Airwaves," I don't have to tell you that I'm worried about our increasingly insular lifestyles. I've tried to do something about it by spending less and less time hunkered in my listening room writing about rich, chocolate-ly bass response and female voices that hang eerily in the air just barely out of the reach of my comfy leather recliner.

As Howard Beale said, people just want to have their toasters and their TV's and their steel-belted radials (not to mention their iPhones and their Facebook and Twitter accounts) and be left alone. But isn't that how we got into this mess? I'm really trying to distance myself from those who are as mad as hell at the people who didn't lose everything in the stock market or in an adjustable rate mortgage. It's none of our business if they still want to pay a lot of money to listen to the good stuff.

I really do understand both sides of the argument, however. I've been slowly selling off the more opulent pieces in my audio system because, quite frankly, times are tough. It's difficult to put off getting your kids braces when you have a $15,000 analog rig in your living room where everyone can see. Once the economy recovers, I'll rebuild. It will be fun. In the last couple of years, I've heard the best and it was a truly wonderful experience. But now I've downsized, and I really don't mind. That's because my journey as an audiophile was much more fun than arriving at the ultimate destination. I'm looking forward to doing it all over again.

If you're an audiophile who's starting to question the insanity of it all, or if you're a newcomer who believes a decent-sounding system will always just be slightly out of reach, here are some tips on how to keep it real and still enjoy that journey:

1) BUY USED One of the best parts about the current financial crisis is that it's definitely a buyer's market. That goes for houses, cars, hi-fi equipment and anything else you can name. Most high-end gear can be found on Audiogon or e-Bay for no more than 50% of the retail price. Audiophiles are notoriously fussy about their gear and keep all the original packing and owner's manuals. It's easy to find something close to mint for a very reasonable price. For example, ever since the 90's, I've loved a particular speaker from the UK but I could never swing the somewhat daunting $3000 retail price. Just last month, I found a used pair in good condition for $550 on an Audiogon auction. If I'd been just a few minutes quicker, they'd be in my living room right now.

A word of warning: some pieces of audio gear tend to retain their value or even increase due to their status as a collectible (LS3/5a speakers seem to fall into this category). Rega turntables also seem to be immune to deep, deep discounts. That's because they've always been a bargain to start with. Sometimes it's better to go with something off the beaten path than to stand in line for the next used pair of Harbeth speakers or Rega P3-24.

2) Quit fussing about the so-called "audiophile pressings" I know one particular guy who keeps emailing me to complain about the prices of new LP's. "How the hell can you justify a record that has been remastered at least a dozen times, was originally priced at $3 in 1974, costing $30?" he said recently. Yeah, it was all my idea. First of all, a lot of consumer goods cost ten times as much now as they did in 1974 (automobiles were the first thing that popped into my mind), so inflation may be more of a factor than greed.

Second of all, record pressing plants have thinned out considerably. The equipment is getting older and more expensive to fix. No one seems to be interested in starting new plants or building new pressing machines. The manufacturing of LP's is starting to get expensive. If anything ultimately kills the LP, it will be this.

That's why I shop in used record stores. Besides, many collectors feel that the first few pressings of a particular title sound much better than these expensive remasters and reissues. While you'll pay top-dollar for these collectibles from the usual suspects, you never know when you might find one at an estate sale or in a Salvation Army store (twice now, I've paid a dollar or two for something that was worth at least $100). Remember that collecting is supposed to be fun. If it becomes an obsession, you're done. It's time to move on.

3) Finally, caveat emptor. Shop smart. Look for the best deals. Listen before you buy. All of the things I've been telling you over the years are even more important right now. When I decided to replace my luscious, chocolate-y stereo system with something more modest, I knew exactly what I wanted. I still had fun choosing it however, because I was truly putting my knowledge to the test. And you know what? I did a pretty good job, if I do say so myself. It sounds great. If the economy recovers and I find a way to get rich, I'll be writing a check for some Audio Note gear or some Shindo or maybe even some McIntosh. But for now, it'll do quite nicely.

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