Thursday, April 25, 2013

How Mischa got her groove back

The three-day weekend of April 12-14 was a significant one for me. You could say that it was the weekend that Mischa got her groove back.

I took the Friday off to attend the New York Audio Show, an exhibit of new high-end audio equipment. This show is different from the Home Theater Show I attended in New York several years back, as the difference in name suggests. Only one of the 20-odd rooms was playing a movie as a demo (the opening scene of “Skyfall”); the rest were playing either analog records or digital music through a pair of stereo speakers.

Now, I’m not really in the market for a $20,000 pre-amplifier or an $80,000 pair of speakers. What I’ve already got is more than enough for my little apartment. But you don’t have to be a buyer to appreciate the beauty of such equipment, like admiring an exotic car in the showroom. And paying $18 to take the stuff for a spin, well, that’s a pretty compelling deal. Which reminds me, I need to book my Lamborghini test drive I purchased on Amazon Deals….

But my favorite part of the show was, after wandering from room to room and hearing snippets of this and that, I stumbled on a large room where a Classic Album Sundays session was about to start. This is an event scheduled in different places all over the world where people gather to do critical listening of an entire album without interruption. My old family used to do the same thing, but they called it Music Club.

Since this was an epicenter of audio, the setup was incredible: Wilson MAXX 3 speakers that are in the neighborhood of $60,000/pair, VTL tube amplifiers as large as full-size suitcases, Transparent speaker cables that could hold up the Brooklyn Bridge, judging from their thickness. The Spiral Groove turntable was set up by Michael Fremer, possibly the world’s foremost authority on the art and science of analog playback. It was a dream system for anyone short of Middle East royalty.

I got a seat in the front row, a couple chairs right of center, and waited for the program to begin. The host, Colleen, gave a short introduction to herself, her event, and the record we were about to hear, Remain in Light by the Talking Heads. I only know one Talking Heads song, “Once in a Lifetime,” from seeing clips of their live concert movie, "Stop Making Sense" – it’s the first track on Side B of Remain in Light. We turned the lights off and listened to the whole record, front to back, without interruptions.

This might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, but it was an exciting experience for me. Not so much that I was blown away by the sound. One thing about high-end audio is that it’s usually not flashy, sound-wise, because that gets fatiguing after a while. It strives for accuracy, fidelity, perfection. It tries not to call attention to itself sonically (even though visually it can be overwhelming), in order to step out of the way of the music. And that’s what it was about for me, being in a room full of people willing to shut off their phones and appreciate the complete record album as an art form representing a single point in time, not as a vehicle to collect hit songs.

I ended the night in another room, listening to Anesthetize by Porcupine Tree on a much smaller set of Wilson speakers. It was interesting how much different it sounds from what I’m used to hearing through headphones and earbuds. There’s complexity in the percussive quality of Gavin’s drums that’s missing from casual listening devices. It sounds like a real drum with a head and shell, not just a beat from a machine. It's also set further back in the listening space, rather than dominating the sound as it does through my Altec Lansing earbuds.

Saturday, I listened to more music of a different kind – the live kind, as I took my friend Christine to see Muse at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Connecticut. We had a nice time driving up and back, and it was good spending a big block of one-on-one time with someone I don’t know that well – very much like listening to an entire album for the first time. The concert itself was fantastic, only a little on the loud side. After Friday’s experience, I was more interested in protecting my hearing so I wore my earbuds on some songs. But the show was terrific and I’m glad I finally got to see them in a live show. Since then, I've been listening to their entire new album, The 2nd Law, over and over - it's phenomenal and highly recommended.

So the repercussions of that weekend led me to think about how I could achieve better sound in my listening space. I don't really want to delve back into analog because I don't have room for a turntable and a record collection, so I decided it was time to revisit SACD, a high-resolution format that is nearly dead except in audiophile circles. I have an old DVD player that plays SACD, but it requires a receiver to have an analog input, and my new Denon that I bought a month ago didn’t have one. So I started looking at new receivers to address this shortcoming, plus the fact that my original plan to use an HDMI splitter didn’t work out, so I was having to switch cables each time I switched viewing from the flatscreen to the projector.

I finally found a Yamaha receiver that would do everything I wanted, and more – it was controllable through Wi-Fi using my Kindle Fire HD. That means no more reaching around the projection screen to lower the volume at the end of a movie. It also had additional digital inputs so I could hook up all four of my sources (PS3/Blu Ray, Cable, DVD-R and DVD/SACD) using digital connections and dual HDMI outputs to drive both my displays simultaneously. 

So this week it arrived and I’ve been setting it up and testing everything. Last night I think I finally got it locked in where stereo presentation is about the best I can get with my current setup. I still don’t have the theater setup optimized yet because it’s much more complicated dealing with five speakers instead of two, plus video. But once it’s ready, it’s going to be really nice, I’m sure.

I think what’s important about that weekend and the events that followed is that it means I’m finally getting back to where I was before the fire of 2007 in New Jersey. I have always been an audiophile, a connoisseur of sound if not musical taste (it took Tara’s influence to get me into good music again). Before the second fire, I was trying to rebuild what I had before the first fire in 2005. I actually had purchased a high-end Yamaha receiver before, along with my current speakers and a plasma TV back in 2007. I lost most of the electronics and one of my two subwoofers in the fire and ever since then, I’ve just limped along with the bare minimum (to me) of what’s required to get my system operational. Some of my current speakers still have damaged or missing grilles and drywall residue on them as a result of the fire.

That’s not to say I haven’t made progress since 2007. For about a year after the second fire, I severely curtailed buying any CDs, DVDs, or books. If it weren’t for my family getting me stuff for birthdays and Christmas, it would have been even less. I’m pretty over that part now. But high-end audio is a luxury in the truest sense of the word – it doesn’t serve a “useful” purpose, and it doesn’t increase in value (with very rare exceptions). It’s not something you need, like food, shelter or transportation. What it can do is inspire passion for music and that is important. As the sunshine colors the flowers, so do art and music color life – and a life without passion for music is one I’m done living.