Music Is the Spice of Life

I wouldn't be writing this little audio tale for you if audio weren't an important part of my life. Yet, it wasn't always so. I suppose I've always had music playing in my life in one form or another, but rarely as focus for its own sake. Music was incorporated into my life much like a spice or herb is carefully added to a fine meal - enriching and complimenting it rather than being the raison d'être.

When I was a child, Mom would set the Holiday mood in motion with Christmas music, or cue up a big band or jazz LP to set the atmosphere for parties. As a middle and high school student, I was athletic and daring, an eager participant in the sport of motocross. I was caught up in the excitement of the speed, the adrenaline rush that is motorcycle racing. I loved the showmanship of styling for the spectator crowds, leaping through the air off jumps, feeling the thrill of the G-forces compressing my body while diving into corners hard on the brakes, then accelerating out. I loved the runaway, bucking, rhythmic feeling as I kept the throttle pinned WFO while racing through the whoops. During the evenings when I 'wrenched' on my racer in the garage, music was there with me to provide a merry melody - a spice in my life.

I was (and am) an incessant reader and have always kept a few good books close by. I have sat spellbound, intoxicated and carried off to new worlds by the evocative words of Thoreau, Homer, Tolkien, and Rexroth - and music was with me when I explored those new worlds in words. Music was there with me during the candlelight dinners to romance a lady friend, or later while making love, and afterwards in the arm-in-arm ambience of afterglow. Music is with me when I am preparing a fine meal. It's here now as I tap away at the keyboard of my notebook computer while attempting to write this little tale for you.

Over the years I have listened to different types of music at different times in my life: Rock & Roll, folk, jazz, classical, blues, bluegrass, gospel and so forth - I have left few musical stones unturned. The music I heard during those times has worked its way into my heart and mind. Now as the music plays from my life's script, it evokes a panorama of memories and emotions - not of music but my attempts to live life to its fullest.

Music brings back the joy and wonder of my childhood; the sorrows of the death of friends and family; the sensations of newly found and lost loves; and all those little victories and losses tucked away into the corners of my soul that make up the tapestry of my life's experiences - of who and what I am. I believe that life can be largely meaningless in itself. It's who and what we infuse it with that gives it meaning - and it's up to us to do our best and make every day a rich experience, to savor and enjoy for ourselves and others. Music helps me do that. It's a spice, an herb, a pleasant aroma that adds richness to life.

The Wilderness of Sound

While working on my doctorate in analytical chemistry in graduate school, I met a couple of interesting and gregarious neighbors in the apartment complex where I lived: Gordy and Brent. Gordy and his wife lived a couple of doors down from me and were friends of Brent and Anne, my next door neighbors. Gordy was studying to be a recording engineer. Brent was studying jazz saxophone. Brent -- living in the apartment next to me -- kindled my interest in jazz as I listened to him practice through the thin walls of the apartment complex. Gordy was a budding recording engineer and an audiophile. Gordy's HiFi rig was the first serious rig I had ever had spent any time with. I was just bowled over by its visceral sound and emotive impact. In short, I was hooked.

Gordy recommended I read the back issues of Stereophile and TAS in the University library. Armed with new knowledge, I put together my first enthusiast HiFi system: Vandersteen 2C loudspeakers, a used pair of Quicksilver tube amplifiers, an Adcom preamplifier bought at a discount, a used JVC 1010 CD player, a used VPI HW-19 turntable with an ET-II air bearing arm, some Audioquest cable to tie it all together. I was very impressed with the sound of my new system and I enjoyed listening to music through it. Prodded by the HiFi magazines of the time, I then slipped off track and began to lose my way in the wilderness of sound. I listened for sound effects, focusing on abstracts like soundstaging, imaging, and all the usual audiophile dragons and trolls that inhabit that place.

Don't let them look upon you, or they'll turn your heart to stone! I left graduate school and went to work. As I could afford to, I periodically changed out components for those that "sounded" better. The sound of my system "improved", yet I became increasingly dissatisfied with my HiFi without really understanding why.

Back Again - to the Music

About that time, I went to work as a detailee for a congressional think tank, the Congressional Research Service of Washington, D.C. While working at CRS, I visited a local HiFi shop in McLean/Virginia called Déjà Vu Audio. At the hands of its owner, Vu Hoang, in a single moment and while listening to a Fi 2A3 stereo amplifier through Spendor SP100 loudspeakers, my HiFi world was turned upside down. The music came alive. Orchestral strings had texture, tone and directness that were astonishing; lyrics were infused with depth of meaning; the music moved and thrilled me with its power and message! It wasn't sound I heard that day, it was a musical event - living, breathing, communicative music infused with the artist's intent.

I remember gazing at the ugly duckling Fi 2A3 amplifier with wonderment. How could anything with so little power and such unpolished exterior play music in such convincing fashion? I imagined the Fi to be some sort of manifestation of an audio anti-establishment statement. It whispered "I am inexpensive, I am crude in appearance, I have low power, and I play music better than any of the high powered audio jewelry designed to empty your bank account!"

I felt as if I had just experienced a HiFi big-bang in the birthing process - a new kind of experience that changed the way I think about audio and reproduced music. I had just gone back to the music.

Whatever works

I have to admit that most of my audio pals think of me as a tube guy. After all, I have owned and enjoyed tube products from Quicksilver, Jadis, Cary, Wavelength Audio, Joule-Electra, Audio Logic, Fi, and probably a few brand names I am forgetting. However, it's not strictly true that I'm a tube guy by principle. I tend to buy what I think serves the music, regardless of the technology behind it - which, granted, most often happened to have been tubes. However, I have also flirted with the Pass Aleph 3 (single ended MOSFET), the 47 Labs Gaincard (direct-coupled opamps), and the brilliant Tom Evans Design Vibe (opamps and lots of regulation).

I've owned and enjoyed various speaker technologies: Conventional driver designs from Vandersteen, Spendor and ProAc; electrostatics from Martin-Logan; and horns from Avantgarde. Front ends have included vinyl from VPI; and digital from JVC, Meridian and Audio Logic. I've never had a tuner but I want one bad, as I think it might be the best way for me to explore new music. At the moment, I don't have a turntable, tuner, or any of the new high-rez digital sources.