Part One: ’Old Man Rant’
As a musician and the owner of a musical instrument repair and retail store, the amount of wonton subjectivity in both industries has become a consistent thorn in my side. Blame for the rivers of snake oil can be conveniently placed on all parties involved, but the fact remains that more often than not it’s the bling factor that wins the sale or the musician with the best instagram game that gets the gig, leaving such virtues as craftsmanship and musical merit far behind in the polls. In both the spheres of professional music performance, the current production musical instrument market and musical instrument repair there is very little hard science and therefore has always been and continues to be rife with ‘gurus’ and false prophets from every angle which has left a lot of unknown greats and talented folks by the wayside. There’s little left of this poor deceased equestrian left to beat, but I implore you to stick with me.
Part Two: ‘Less Ranty, Potentially Informative’
Enter the wonderful world of HiFi. For me, I landed here because of a dear friend for whom I repaired saxophones happened to be the owner of a company that manufactured high end, boutique turntables. As our professional relationship developed, I was eventually invited to his workshop to see what all the fuss was about. I was unequivocally blind sighted by the experience, my ears were serendipitously t-boned and my life changed forever. After studying music at the conservatory level for six years of my life, I had never heard recorded music at any level of quality above that of a CD on my car stereo. Thousands of hours of intense transcription and active listening had all been done with mp4s on my iPod that still had the four buttons at the top. Whoops, you blew it. On top of this, I had just met Armando Conti and didnt realize that he was the most renowned designer of turntables in the world. His company, Basis Audio, has been at the pinnacle of the industry for 25 years. So basically we’re talking about going from a 71’ Ford Pinto to a Bugatti Veyron in one go.
Obviously the next step in my logic after I scooped my brains off the floor from listing to the first record was to find a way to get an analogue playback system into my life immediately. I was overjoyed with the possibility of really ‘hearing’ what the musicians I’d been emulating for years actually sounded like. Nuances in articulation and inflection that had gone unnoticed were suddenly obvious listening on Armando’s setup.The best way to describe it was that the music sounded believable for the first time and by that, I mean that in listening to ‘Somethin Else’ I felt the humanity of Miles Davis, not just the notes I had memorized and catalogued years ago. Miles really woke up one morning, stepped into his pants,went in the studio and played that solo. It sounds asinine but it hit me because it had never sounded like someone was actually playing trumpet standing right in front of me. I could see him, where he was standing, hear him moving on the mic, the reverb of the ceiling, his breath. It was an intensely overwhelming, powerful and beautiful moment for me.
Armando was amused at my reaction, the fact that the biggest impact the experience had on me was the desire to use a system like his really as a research tool, to understand the music deeper. I was also elated because here was a real scientific field i.e. mechanical engineering and acoustical engineering that could create such a great sounding product. There was accountability and logic and objectivity huzzah! What a wonderful reprieve from the world of saxophones. Boy was I wrong.
Over the last two years I’ve gotten in pretty deep. Hundreds of records, and a beautiful system featuring one of Armando’s tables. Tragically losing Armando in October of 2016 left me at a loss. While surveying the audio playing field in assembling my personal system, Armando had served as a selfless guide in a new and exorbitantly expensive land. Armando was a firm believer in the power of ‘word of mouth’ reputation and that great work speaks for itself, thus said he was an enigma and of a rare character these days; honest. He was tired of the exact same bullshit I was in his own industry, customers being snowed over by a nice review in a trade magazine rather than doing their own comparisons. I read the magazines too, it was horribly amazing. Reading some of the reviews was like what it would be like to experience Guy Fieri write a column describing ten different hotdogs weekly. Except that the hotdogs cost $60,000 a pop. I mean, we are talking serious serious money, high end audio is an expensive sport not for the weak of wallet. I couldn't believe people were pulling the trigger on this stuff based on this. The people writing the reviews aren't musicians, most likely they have never stood next to a saxophone or trumpet. Yet they can control the market using words like ‘effortless, punchy articulated bass with clean high register definition’ to describe a dozen different pairs of loudspeakers. In the world of HiFi there is a lot of MyFi, meaning people making things sound like they think they are supposed to, not what they actually do because they dont have a clue. gross.
Ok so heres where Ill leave you. I have a lot of friends and clients of my saxophone shop who have come to really enjoy hanging out and listening to records on my system, or maybe its just the fact that this also usually involves a free espresso, but thats another story. Some of these folks are in the process of assembling their own setups and collecting records. Its clear to me now that If I hadn't had Armando, I could have easily wasted a crazy amount of money on records and gear that sounded like a pile of hot garbage. I have now heard multiple systems that cost in total well over $100,000 that are laughably phony sounding to someone who has played a real instrument. So i’d like to start doing some simple reviews. For the moment Id like to review just records, not equipment, things Ive found or have been pointed to that truly sound magnificent and can recommend it being worth spending the money on. If people are interested, ill keep it up. I promise they’ll be shorter than this post and we’ll call it a New Years resolution.