Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Hans WetzelI am not obsessed with high-end audio equipment. Reading some audio reviews out there, one would get the impression that reviewers get a hard-on for big, brutish amplifiers and tall, elegantly designed loudspeakers. Listening rooms become shrines to equipment, rows of CDs, and framed pictures of Miles Davis. And the act of reviewing becomes a deeply ritualized evaluation period in which legal pads are filled with listening notes, and grave expressions are highlighted by a markedly furrowed brow.

To which I say -- eff that. While I find much stereo equipment cool, conceptually and aesthetically, at the end of the workday I just want to turn on my stereo, have a beer, and relax. Eighty percent of the time my stereo is playing, I’m doing something else -- and seeing as my cable box, Apple TV, and Sony PlayStation 3 are all routed through my integrated amplifier, it’s easy to see why my stereo is almost always on.

This is out of necessity. I don’t yet own my own place, with a room dedicated to manly pursuits like blasting awful music, drinking too much alcohol, or screaming at my TV in hopes that my beloved FC Arsenal will hear me telling them to stop sucking so hard. One day. As senior editor of GoodSound!, I envision such a room as being used primarily for reviewing audio equipment, with all sorts of gear haphazardly strewn about. And it most certainly would be strewn -- right now I’m staring at eight reviews’ worth of gear, a number that will probably increase if I can manage to make the time for it.

Which gets me thinking. If I had a place of my own, with a room dedicated to stereo equipment and immature goings-on, would I then become a recluse who wouldn’t emerge from it for hours on end, in the process neglecting the rest of my life? To me, such a life sounds as ludicrous as spending thousands of dollars on equipment racks, risers to keep speaker cables from ever touching the floor, and hideous room treatments rather than artwork or something else of value, and for the same reason: Inanimate objects would then dictate the way I live my life.

Nonsense, I say. A stereo is supposed to be used by everyone in a household to listen to whatever kind of music or other media they please. And it should be easy and hassle-free for them to do so. I want the equipment to serve me, not the other way around. If it looks and sounds nice, all the better. That’s my philosophy; I think some people take this whole stereo thing too seriously.

Cabasse Pacific 3Then I remember: I’m only slightly less eccentric than “some people.”

A friend of my hugely understanding better half was recently over for a drink. I had some Calvin Harris and Swedish House Mafia (read: EuroTrash) playing. At one point, when the two of us were alone, the friend said, “So what’s the deal with all this stereo equipment?”

I never mention that I moonlight as an audio reviewer; frankly, no one my age can grasp the idea of listening to something other than an MP3 played through an iPod dock. They don’t care.

But there’s something else. After I’d explained what I do, she circled a pair of +4’-tall Cabasse speakers (review forthcoming on our sister site UltraAudio) and asked how much they cost.

“$16,000 a pair,” I replied.

“F--k you.”

And there it is. After I played her a song from The Beatles (aka the “White Album”), she certainly appreciated how good the sound was -- but the idea of spending $16,000 on a pair of speakers remained incomprehensible to her. Then again, spending even $1000 on a pair of speakers is likely unfathomable to most people.

Why should this be? No one bats an eye at spending thousands of dollars on a 60” monstrosity of a TV to dominate a living room, or on clothing, or watches, or whatever. They’re status symbols of sorts, and in ’merica, we’re gold medalists at demonstrating to others just how awesome and wealthy we are.

Yet with a nearly state-of-the-art stereo system in my living room playing the most convincing reproduction of whatever that she’s likely ever to hear, her reaction was more shock than envy, less “Wow!” than “. . . Why?” She puttered away, almost assuredly thinking me not quite right in the head. Which is unfortunate.

But while spending $16,000 on a pair of speakers would make one a bit of a nutter, I find it depressing that most people wouldn’t consider spending even a small fraction of that to better hear their favorite music.

And why wouldn’t they? So many people listen to music while walking or driving to work, while exercising, and/or while doing chores. Some even listen to it just for the sake of it -- weird. In this instance, it’s not for lack of exposure to what some of the “best” sounds like. Rather, I think it’s down to the fact that the threshold of what is considered “good sound” is worryingly low.

Paradigm Millenia CTIt’s also a function of practicality. If you could buy a set of inexpensive audiophile-quality speakers at a major retailer -- e.g., Paradigm’s Millenia CT system ($699.99/pair, with subwoofer), which I reviewed for SoundStage! Xperience last year -- that would definitely be a step in the right direction. But how do you explain to someone that, to have a system like yours or mine, they need to spend a few grand? And that they’ll need at least an integrated amplifier, some kind of source hardware, half-decent speaker cables, and a pair of speakers? The standard audiophile formula is not an easy sell.

I -- or should I say we -- are all a little crazy, then. Trying to explain to a layman that one amp sounds different from or better than another is analogous to explaining the difference between wine varietals, or blended and single-malt scotch whiskeys. In the end, you just sound like an elitist schmuck who would have been better off keeping his eager mouth shut.

And so I keep my little moonlighting gig to myself. Comparing components and discovering that some are better than others, and that each has something to offer, is fun. It’s really fun. Just don’t expect me to start waxing poetic about a revolutionary power cord, like some of those other reviewers. Those guys are nuts.

. . . Hans Wetzel