When I was fifteen, my best friend Jimmy Burnette and I both loved audio systems. His was a complete Tandy system from Radio Shack. (www.radioshack.com) In those days, one had only to pick up a Radio Shack catalog, choose a receiver, turntable and speakers and be all set. My system was my beloved Marantz Model 1040 integrated, a set of Acoustic Research AR-6 speakers and a turntable, which if memory serves, was a JVC of some kind. I do remember the little strobe with an adjustment wheel designed to "zero" in the platter speed. A little black button was then depressed to "lock" everything. I'm not all so sure it actually did anything but it was fun at the time.
Being fairly competitive kids, and well, just kids in general, we used to argue over whose system sounded the best. We debated the subject while riding bicycles or getting into various amounts of mischief. One day, we were in my house listening to Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album. The song "The Ballad of Danny Bailey" was just starting. Jimmy exclaimed, "I love that drum hit at the beginning." I knew exactly what he was talking about.
To me, it sounded like Nigel Olsen, the drummer, hit the drum and the metal rim at the same time with the stick because it had a very loud "whack." We know that today as dynamics. But in 1973, and at the age of fifteen, that level of knowledge escaped us. While unfamiliar with technical terms, what we did have was a way to finally measure our systems against each other's. Our own little product review if you will. So as soon as the song finished we rode our bicycles as fast as we could to Jimmy's house to hear that song on his system and finally determine which sounded the best. Which one had the best "whack."
That his system sounded better bothered me for years and was most likely the method to a madness that has lasted now for over four decades. As much as I hated to admit it at the time, I had to finally agree with Jimmy that his sounded better. It had a bigger "whack." The other day I pulled out that same 1973 album and played it once again. When "Danny Bailey" began, suddenly the memory of that day in Jimmy's bedroom came back to me in such glaring focus that I could think of nothing else. I sat in the sweet spot listening and laughing and wondering where in the world Jimmy might be that day because I felt sure that mine would, and finally, have the biggest "whack." If not the album then certainly the CD I also have.
On some level it seems silly for me, as a middle-aged man, to sit and relive something so distant in my past. But on another level, it may well have been the catalyst that has fueled the passion for a hobby that will likely never outgrow me. In thinking about it even more, I wish I saw more of that same level of interest in audio in the youth of today. At fifteen I wanted what today would be considered a "reference system." It took me forty years to get one and I never lost the desire. Each and every step of the journey has been a lot of fun. I was just as excited last year when I brought in the KEF Blades as I was at twenty when I replaced the AR-6's. For the audio enthusiast, time does not temper passion.
Today's youth seem to have the singular desire for portability. The iPod revolutionized music playback for young people first and then spread to adults. The MP3 format allowed a huge number of songs to fit on a device small enough for a shirt pocket. Kids bought them by the millions. Were I a fifteen year old kid today I would undoubtedly have an MP3 player as well.
With so much uniformity in the MP3 format, and even if you factor Dr. Dre headphones, how do kids of today have the interaction that Jimmy and I did so long ago? What needs to happen to a fifteen year old today to fuel the audio passion? How do they even know that something better exists?
Admit it, ours is a relatively small hobby numbers wise. The number of people whose sole means of music reproduction is little more than an iPod dwarfs the number of people who own a reference system. If you add mid fi into the equation the imbalance grows wider still.
Audiophilia will likely always be a relatively small hobby in terms of numbers. But the future of high performance audio, in spite of it all, looks to be one that is pretty bright. New products with more affordable pricing are starting to be introduced. Sure, not as many as most would prefer but there are more affordable products available. The last audio show I attended had more young people than I would have expected. Some on their own, some with their parents. But still they came. Kids are now starting to learn the drawbacks of MP3. Album sales are increasing at substantial rates to young people. Whether it is a cool hipster thing or the desire for a better sound is irrelevant. Progress is being made. Maybe not at the pace some may like but still progress. Hopefully the Dr. Dre headphone kid of today is the reference system enthusiast of tomorrow. Time will tell.
Oh, and one last thing- Jimmy, if you read this- mine sounds better!