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June 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine

Sonic Satori
A New Journey into the Heart of the Audiophile Dream
Article By Michael Mercer


  Sometimes I look back and wonder: How the hell did I end up in this crazy niche of an industry? One minute I'm in high school; next thing I'm answering phones at The Absolute Sound magazine. A year later am at Harry Pearson's setting up gear and the equipment acquisitions Manager! The magazine sinks (before Tom Martin and Absolute Multimedia came to the rescue) and then find myself working on the office services department at Atlantic Records! Not a glamorous job, where I did everything from fill water bottles to running tapes back-n-forth to the studios. But guess what? I had something interesting on that resume, something they needed: A decent in-house audio tech for the A&R rep office systems and the executive reference systems. They got me to do both jobs and was ecstatic. But, one year later, I'm working for Arif Mardin. My mother's favorite producer (Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, Donny Hathaway, and many more)! Life's been wonderfully strange to say the least; living in audiophileland and the music biz! Now my life is equal parts audio and music, being blessed enough to write about both. But there's always been a great divide between the audiophile industry and the younger generation ever since I got into this game. Admittedly that wasn't until the mid-nineties.

Since then I've been a younger man in an older man’s industry. At thirty-eight, it was starting to get old. Would see all the same faces at audio shows and conventions. Not that I mind it as many of them are my friends, but I've always craved something new. Never is this feeling more prevalent than at domestic hi-fi shows. I know things are different overseas and always wanted to attend the Munich show for that reason: I hear there are thousands of young attendees at that show. But that's not the case in the Great U.S. of A! One of the reasons I love Rocky Mountain Audio Fest so much is because of Head-Fi.org's fantastic CanJam event! I hear the music I love there. The manufacturers and attendees are closer to my age. Everything just feels great in that particular space: Like we're all a part of this community. We're not there to put our dicks on the table. We're there to hear what's on the table and get to know each other. We talk about music, our friends, families, we get real.

I always hear about the eighties as glory days for hi-fi. As said in my article for The Daily Swarm: I remember seeing hi-fi advertisements in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine and Playboy (sure, I was looking at the gear pictures) as a kid. But something changed, and I won't pretend to know what. The high-end audio industry became so elitist and separatist it lost it's connection to the streets. Always hear about the high end being a community, but I hear about more stories of beefs between people in the high-end industry than times I do of togetherness and friendship. Those times do exist, but often they're smaller events, closed off to other peers in the industry. We're not in the entertainment industry folks. Just needed to toss that in there. We're not rockstars. Now, I have met some of my most trusted friends through this niche industry, and I cannot deny that. But high-end audio industry politics and the infighting between writers at the different publications is ridiculous. The average person walking around in the U.S. doesn't even know what a tube amp is; let alone how great they sound! Whose fault is it? Who cares?!? Those days are history and it is time to get on with it together.

We have newer and better opportunities to share our collective passion for recorded sound with the world than we ever have. Accessibility to great sound, and the price tag associated with the price of entry has been blown to pieces. I could recommend a dozen personal audio systems under fifteen hundred bucks that provide a level of sonic integrity and musical engagement that would've cost you ten grand in an in-room stereo system a decade ago! You can own a pair of Andrew Jones-designed bookshelf speakers for eighty bucks a pair and you can purchase them at Best Buy! What a splendid time to be a hi-fi enthusiast and a music lover, no matter how you listen. With all these new avenues to experience music and audio gear at our fingertips, it's easy to get lost in the noise. But the sad truth is people crave new experiences because they're being bombarded with information all day! The typical audio show isn't enough anymore. Hotel rooms filled with stereo gear isn't enough anymore. People need to gather and share experiences, and get a taste of something new for it to sink in today. Think about it: How many people are buried in their gadgets non-stop, even when they're alone with somebody else! It takes a little more to get us to look up, take a moment, and focus in the information age. You can deny it, and I'll try not to miss the estate sale when your company goes outta business: Or you can embrace that unfortunate fact of modern-day living and figure out how to make a connection.

T.H.E Show Newport Beach (ironically not located in Newport) made a grand attempt at making an audio show accessible to more people through different ideas. They associated the hi-fi industry with high society toys like cars and cigars! Nice thinking. They even dashed in the uber-Twitter blazing LA food truck scene (the Bacon truck was a timely treat). On top of that, they had a dedicated home theater erected in a makeshift little building in the parking lot! The theater sound was impressive: Dynamic and encircling. That surprise came courtesy of Visionaire FX; a company whose acoustic/aesthetic solution was originally designed by Owens Corning. Luckily for me, I was asked to take on the role of co-producing the dedicated headphone event dubbed The Headphonium! We crowd-sourced the name, and thanks to Mr. John Darko of Digital Audio Review, Tone Audio, and 6moons for the title! It worked beautifully, as the event was located at The Atrium hotel. Unfortunately we were only given 2000 square feet to work with, but I hope everybody had a good time! It seems like they did, judging the feedback I'm getting from industry friends.

I was also asked to DJ at Tweak Studio's Where Else poolside party at the Atrium Hotel last Friday and Saturday nights! I was psyched to work on the headphone event, and I never thought my ol' underground house DJ life and my audiophile life would work so well together! We learned a lot this time around, so we'll be ready for Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 2013. All of this should have been the best part of T.H.E Show Newport for me, and I was blessed to be a part of it all. But you know what part I cherished most? Making new friends that I met through Head-FI.org. Now gotta admit, getting stopped early on Sunday morning by Cliff Johnson of Reus Systems (a man I'd never met before) and getting thanked for my DJ set the night before was also a highlight! He said it was his first audio show, and my DJ sets were his favorite part! Not because of me, it was the music I played. Dropped everything from Atoms for Peace to Grizzly Bear, Radiohead, James Blake, the Yeah YeahYeahs, to Burial! I was so stoked to hear his enthusiasm. Big shout out Cliff!

Given all these amazing things, it was getting to know four new friends from a community-driven headphone website that's what I'll take with me forever. I'll leave their names out of this to respect their privacy. But we figured out something truly wild on Saturday night (as I thought they were all younger than me): Out of the four of us, three are thirty-eight, one is twenty-eight. Maybe that has a role to play here. There was no generation gap. Don't get me wrong, some of my closest friends are almost my parents age in the industry, and that's cool, but there's just something about meeting new people who grew up with the same music you did, the same evolution in pop culture, the same global awareness. When you find each other through a common love of something (in this case personal audio and music) there's an instant bond that's to be cherished. This is what I always wanted (and what I have to a certain extent) in high end audio. But something tells me these friends I just met through Head-Fi are going to be the kind of friendships you have with people you grew up with. Hell, two of them already offered to help us move! I can't say the same about anybody else! Though I don't blame them. That's the mark of a real friend, because moving sucks. All that seeming bullshit aside: I didn't wanna let go of our time together. It felt like the end of an all-night underground rave (believe me, it's a compliment). I just wanted to keep talking with my new (and old) friends!

Another highlight? When I gave a shout-out to the Head-Fi community during the headphone panel and Tyll Hertsens asked for a show of hands: of not only those who knew about Head-Fi, but those who were active members. Next thing you know 90% of the hands in the room were raised, and I got up flashing the new Head-Fi tribe sign. A new generation is rising up, and they were raised on experiencing music through headphones! Many of them have never even considered large speakers in their room! But they know more about audio and great sound than many people in the high end audio industry realize. Look at what Alex Rosson and his team at Audeze have done with the LCD3 magnetic planar headphone, and Ken Ball and his team at ALO with their class defining Studio Six headphone amplifier. Not to mention the innovation by companies like CEntrance, Schiit Audio (killer name), Burson, MYTEK, V-MODA, Ray Samuels, JH Audio, Cardas (yes, the genius has delivered one of the best in-ear headphones on the market) and many others! The future looks very bright for audio, especially high end personal audio!

And thus I salute T.H.E Show Newport for throwing a memorable event. Next time they may wanna tell the car show guys to let us near the cars on display! Wink. There also needs to be more floor space for The Headphonium! With the involvement of people like my new friends, we can all make next year even more accessible! How ‘bout some live music other than jazz and classical for one? I know I'd like to hear some blues!

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