A friend of mine and I both love the sound of music but we are two different kinds of audiophiles. He knows that if there is too much equipment that costs too much money, it will create expectations that will literally get between him and the music, the cruelest irony of
audiophillia. He is correct, of course. If you spend enough money, you are very likely to spend the rest of your life trying not to hear the equipment. If you spend enough, you want to hear the equipment, grow restless when you stop hearing it. So he studiously - though not ruthlessly - simplifies. Of course, by audiophile standards, that still means a (retail) expenditure of around $10K. I could cut another $2K from his system without doing much damage but I'll leave him alone. He has a big room to fill, he knows what he's doing, and none of us is pure. Because his system does not plumb the depths, ascend to the ultra-sonic, uncover the lowest level detail, image like a bandit, or load his room, he has nothing to pay attention to but Mingus and
Marais. His system is a skillfully constructed means to an end. He and his wife listen to music, more attentively and regularly than anyone I know. I envy them that. The truth that inspires my friend - he quotes Thoreau to me whenever an appropriate occasion presents itself - is "Simplify, simplify."
Puritans and Cavaliers
Clearly, it takes a cavalier rather than a puritan mind to experience such exhilaration without misgivings. But the truth is that plenitude - more and more, better and better, more and more complete - is the only possible route to the Absolute. Not to greater and greater resolution. Not to a more and more breathtakingly holographic soundstage. But to the Whole that transcends these merely constituent effects. The best digital front end can deliver a level of natural clarity that is awesomely self-effacing. The best electronics and only the best, can render that natural clarity, with ebullience, delicacy, and majesty, across the entire bandwidth. And the best speakers can literally make it manifest before you. And if your cables can meet the near impossibly high standards these components set, you can in fact enter that select drawing room where Couperin's musicians play. Which ain't no Cabin in Concord.
"A Terrible Beauty is Born."
Last night, in one of my ritual culling sessions, I put the Decca cd of Quartet #10 of the
Fitzwilliams' Shostakovich box set on my fairly opulent music system. This is a recording I've owned long enough to have heard it on several systems that Henry David would have found acceptably modest - and it is one that in previous listening I'd decided had never quite made it through from analogue to digital intact. Decent but forgettable, no match for either the Borodins or the
Emersons. Culling time. And then everything changed. The next hour or so turned into one of the most stirring musical experiences of my life. Powerful, rosined and almost raw, dynamics sawing through my living room beautifully - ravishingly real violins, viola, and cello, on the edge of the unbearably brutal. And then, in the midst of this powerful cacophony - spatially distinct - a plaintive ribbon of violin sound (must have been the second violin), a voice that in all previous hearings had been nearly buried in the mix. Here, it was both separate and inseparable from the violent song storming around it.