When I was five years old, grocery stores began selling a product called Happy Nut, which I considered ingenious: peanut butter shaped into quarter-pound sticks, like butter, and filled with a core of grape jelly. With Happy Nut on the butter dish, one did not have to bother opening two jars (or even one!) before enjoying a healthy, satisfying meal: It was a simple and time-saving matter of dipping one's knife, spreading one's spread, and eating. The fact that the Happy Nut logo was a picture of a monkey was icing on the cake.
To my five-year-old consumer consciousness, nothing made more sense: This was the pinnacle of modern achievement. From the moment I first saw it, I could not imagine life without Happy Nut.
Then things changed. Up to a point my imagination had been the sole province of Happy Nut's benefits, but when the moment of truth arrived, those benefits proved fleeting. In fact they fleeted all to hell. As it turned out, in order for the peanut butter to retain enough of a stick shape to successfully enclose the jelly within, Happy Nut had to be refrigerated. (It was stocked in our grocer's dairy case, alongside such comparatively ancient creature comforts as butter and cheese) Therein lay the rub: Spreading cold peanut butter on the soft white bread of 1959 was like frosting an angel food cake with tar: It didn't work Within seconds of trying, the bread was ll ripped to shit. Then, and only then, did once realize that the proportion of jelly to peanut butter in Happy Nut was wrong to begin with. Way wrong.
In 1959 I came of age as a consumer. I experienced the highest consumer high and the lowest consumer low, all pretty much in the span of an hour and ten minutes.
Some readers will expect the obvious here, and I wouldn't blame them: They will expect me to draw a patent if amusing parallel between Happy Nut and some audio product from my life as an adult consumer one more thing which I convinced myself would be Santa-like in its wonderfulness, only to disappoint, crashingly. Bose 901 speakers as Happy Nut. Akai 8-track recorder as Happy Nut. Denon direct-drive turntable as Happy Nut.
But I have something else in mind: Actually, I'd like to pee on the Internet for a minute or two.
When I got into print journalism, I had to prove myself. I had to start at the bottom, as a proofreader/sleeping bag tester it was Backpacker Magazine hence the sleeping bag part), and work and work and work at refining my abilities as an observer and a writer before people higher up the editonal foodchain would take me seriously enough to actually let me address an audience with my opinions.
Not only that: I had to literally, physically get out of the house. I had to attend trade shows and press conferences and meet the people of the industry upon which I was paid to report. I had to give them the opportunity to meet me and look me over to see if I could carry on a conversation, to see if I possessed the requisite social skills, to see if I wore clothing appropriate to my gender before betting me in, so to speak.
But nowadays, any pasty wanker with a computer and a phone line can become an audio critic. Don't believe me? Go visit AudioReview.com, which is home to more angry nerds than a Gilda Radner skit. If you have ever suffered a bout of curiosity oven what other consumers think of their hi-fi, your hi-fi, or someone else's hi-fi, a visit to Audioreview.com will cure you in an instant. For good.
Then take a peek at the newsgroups Rec.Audio.Opinion and Rec.Audio.HighEnd either of which makes a visit to AudioReview.com seem like Thursday night at the Algonquin Roundtable.
Even my favorite of the hunch, the once reliably friendly AudioAsylum.com, has been infected. One example that comes to mind involves a recent posting by our own Rob Doorack: Just after the HiFi 2001 show in New York, Rob politely corrected another participant ("inmates" they're calleda witticism sadly reminiscent of lighter-hearted times at the Asylum) who had observed that New York City has the highest rate of violent crime in the nation. But quoting statistics and citing a source didn't impress Mister Scurvy, who simply refused to back down and admit he was wrong. If anything, his rhetoric got nastier which was, I suppose, the sport he was there for in the first place.
Another recent example involved a debate although "pile-on" would be a more accurate term between a controversial audio reviewer on the one hand and a group of anonymous inmates on the other. Even after he crawled from the wreckage, the reviewer continued to be taunted by grown men who have nothing better to do with their lives. One private e-mail observed, sagely: "Your (sic) ruined, and deserve the fait (sic). Character assassination [sic]? Hell, yes, and you deserve it. Everyone at AA thinks your sic] a scum bag loser and love watching you get assassinated [sic] in public. The jury has come to a verdict."
I don't mean to pick on Audio Asylum; it remains the best of its kind, and most of the participants Clark Johnsen, Bob Neill, Joe II-V, Senator Blutarsky, et al are among the nicest, wittiest, and most insightful people you'll find anywhere in audio. The flaw, I think, is in the Internet itself. A "man" who would write such a thing as the above diatribe is probably not likely to win a Mister Universe title any time soon, and I imagine that the c-venting of his c-spleen is just a part of his revenge for all the sand he's had kicked in his face over the years. Anonymity breeds cowards: Unlike the real world, we can't see who this guy is, we can't see what he looks like, and we can't even see the little open circles he no doubt draws over the letter i when he writes with a pen instead of a keyboard.
Frankly, I think most audiophiles are just too thin-skinned for the Internet, and they should stay away from it.
And I say that with empathy and understanding and something like love: Here we have a bunch of nice guys who made a decision at some point in their lives to crank themselves up to a state of heightened awareness and then dedicate Paleozoic amounts of time to listening for subway trains in their records or trying to hear whether their speaker cables sound different when they're lifted up off the floor. I think that just about says it all, don't you! These guys are rubbed raw. Burn victims can't go out in public until their skin grows hack and neither should some audiophiles.
And as far as Internet audio reviewers are concerned forget it. You get what you pay for, and that applies to information at least as much as it does to hardware. Please note, however, that I will sing a different tune once my contract with Englander Communications has run its course and I begin posting reviews on WilmerFurman.com. That will be different.)
My answer to all this is pretty much my stock solution: Get out of the house more. Turn off that damn computer and walk to the library. Read a book and talk to somebody about it. Turn off the stereo and go listen to some real music, too. Don't do it to "calibrate your ears to the sound of live music," because if you've ever really listened to or better yet played a musical instrument in a variety of different settings, you'll know what a silly waste of time and what a vain and condescending notion that really is. Do it because hearing music played even a tiny bit differently from the way you hear it on your records will make you a better listener, as will meeting other people in the audience.
Yes, the Internet has given us a few good things, but it has also given us a mudslide of child pornography, hate mongering, (as with the nasty dweebs who are spoiling AudioAsylum.com, there's nothing that the McVeigh-style gun nuts and white supremacists love more than anonymity), and scam upon scam upon scam. Like television before it, the Internet is just one more open sewer pipe in my home, and if I didn't like e-mail and BushorChimp.com so much, I'd get rid of it in an instant.
When I was 40 years old, when I first heard about the Internet, I thought it was a load of crap. Then, a couple of years later, I thought it was the greatest thing since disposable diapers. Now, at age 47, my viewpoint has moderated some.