I’ve long felt that a kid who doesn’t know what he wants to do will soon find out exactly what he doesn’t want to do. That is, there is no greater motivation for suddenly embracing (any) plan B than first being confronted with a disagreeable plan A.
Take, for example, early me:
I didn’t want to do homework, so I dropped out of school.
I didn’t want to starve, so I got a (crap) job.
I didn’t want to live on the streets, so I joined the army.
Finding inspiration shouldn’t be so perverse, but what got me through it all was always the music I had with me.
It started with a collection of cassettes in a gray Case Logic case on the front seat of my then-young old man’s car. He said, “Jason, pick one,” and I chose yellow. Later, in another car, a trunk-mounted plastic tray with inserts shuffled songs from six shiny discs. I learned early on that being a part of the selection discussion meant that I was part of a shared experience.
Then one day, the old man leveled up. I was 11 when a pair of walnut-veneered monoliths appeared in the living room. My mother’s cats rubbed their backs against the cabinets’ hard corners, and I could barely see over the top, above the red and brown woven-fabric grilles. These immovable obelisks brought forth the old man’s next lesson: how to sit still and listen.
Klipsch Forte (behind) and ESS AMT 1B speakers, Emotiva XSP-1 Gen 2 preamp, Danish teak media cabinet.
From that point on, the Davis family sound belonged to ESS and the Air Motion Transformer. Most Saturday mornings I awoke to the echoes of bleating sheep and barking dogs and oinking pigs. It was sound as clear as light, and it didn’t take me long to understand that my new speakers—the old man’s castoffs—were garbage in comparison. That comparison ignited a lifelong curiosity: if I could discern the differences from a speaker swap, what else could be swapped?
Around the time that I was discovering my own music, I should’ve put together that dad was using his own to escape. In the 25 years since those days—he’s now recently gone—what I’ve learned is that comparing the demerits of plan B or plan A matters less than the music played along the way. Better yet, with whom can you share it?
They say never meet your heroes, but I did. I met my writer hero, and he said, “There is no secret. Anyone can do what I do.” I believe he meant it, and humbly so, because the thing about reading published writing is that it’s all there, on the page, exposed and vulnerable to those who can learn to peel its many layers. But one need not be a writer to be affected by great writing.
ESS AMT 1B speakers biamped with Emotiva XPA-2 Gen 2 and Decware ZKIT SET amps, Sony PlayStation CD player, Thorens TD-150 turntable.
I think the same is true for being a critical music listener: one need not know how to play music to dwell on its instruments in space, to discern its physical characteristics, or to savor its creative manipulations. The music that moves you will always move you. Which brings me to a question we in this hobby sometimes forget: does your music bring you joy?
I know I’m not alone in seeking music to suit particular emotions, but in a way, even the gloomiest days are better after listening to music, even the music I associate with amplifying particular moods. This brings me to yet other questions, which I hope to address over time: Does your playback gear achieve its intended function? Have you identified what a satisfactory point sounds like? Are you always happy with your sound? Are there times when you’re not? And, if so, have you figured out why?
My playback journey began with a refurbished name-recognition “BPC” stereo from a big-box outlet. Over the years, I upgraded to a hand-me-down AVR. Then a modern AVR. I sold all of that one day and went vintage, with the silver faceplate and blue lights and big dials, and the sound was golden hour on my ears. But then I tried separates, and cables, and then a dedicated 15A circuit wired straight to the electrical panel with a budget power conditioner and noise harvester. I added tube amps—both vintage and DIY—before moving back into class-A solid-state amps. There were two-ways, three-ways, line arrays. Subs, horns, ribbons, and room treatments. Every single change made a difference, and none of it was more to me than just the idea of experiencing something new for the sake of its being new to me.
Sometimes, the best upgrades involve creating a comfortable listening environment—added a new cork tile floor, a new chair, and a Massif Audio Design Dogma rack.
Have I discovered which changes are keepers and why? No. So how do I reconcile wanting to hear it all with knowing when I’ve found my own sound for my musical tastes? These are thought-provoking questions for the budget-conscious hobbyist!
Of course, there are more practical matters, too. How do I find and get rid of hum? How do I reduce an audible noise floor? Are those included-in-the-box power cables junk? Can a big(ger)-budget power regenerator help, or is that just pseudo-science marketing, imperceptible to normal ears? (Is this fuss why some people are more interested in all-in-one-box integrated amps with built-in DACs? Are these a preference or lifestyle choice, or are they actually good enough on their own, on the whole, to compete with large, heavy stacks of separate gear?) What other system and room efficiencies are worth my time and energy? Will I find an audible difference between $80 and $500 interconnects? What about cartridges and step-up transformers? Are those vintage turntables and their vintage arms and well-loved cartridges just nostalgia for the past? CDs are my nostalgia; do they have a future?
Home audio as a hobby feels like having a project car. No matter how much progress you make, it’s never done—even when it’s done. So, assuming that there will always be music I haven’t discovered and want to hear, there will always be new ways for me to explore how I hear it.
ESS Transar speakers; Thorens TD-125 MK II turntable with Jelco 550S arm retrofit by Dave at Vinyl Nirvana, Ortofon Bronze cartridge; Rotel RCD-955AX CD player; DIYAudio.com First Watt Aleph J clone amp.
Thus, the one who may not know what he’s looking for may also unexpectedly find the great. To be in the best possible place for discovery, I’ve come up with some rules: be curious, seek out new experiences, ask questions, challenge all previously held beliefs, have fun, share your music, and cherish the people who share new music with you.
This month’s New Noise features Stygian Bough, a folksy doom collaboration between Bell Witch and Aerial Ruin; All Thoughts Fly, lush organ landscapes by Anna von Hausswolff; Infinite Granite, new shoegaze by post-rock/black metalists Deafheaven; Forgotten Days, by prog-doom rock band Pallbearer; and A Tear in the Fabric of Life, the surprise EP by Kentucky’s hardcore-punk/death-metal band Knocked Loose.
Massif Audio Design Dogma rack
Linear Tube Audio microZOTL Level 2 preamplifier
diyAudio First Watt Aleph J clone amp
Emotiva XPA-2 Gen2 amp
Thorens TD 125 MkII turntable, Jelco TS-550S arm, Zu/Denon DL-103 cartridge
Parasound Zphono preamp
Denafrips Ares II DAC with RPi4 streamer (Volumio to Tidal Connect)
Rotel RCD-955AX CD player
Klipsch Cornwall speakers
ESS Transar speakers
AudioQuest Black Mamba II interconnects
AudioQuest NRG-Z3 power cables
AudioQuest Type 4 speaker cables
Trying horns: Altec Lansing 846U.