The Best System I Never Heard

I write for The Absolute Sound. I'm always on the lookout for High End audio news that could be of interest to readers. So, I sat up and took notice when a consensus developed online late last fall that one particular audiophile in central New Jersey had one of the finest stereo systems on earth. 

AR-bestnever2a.jpgI was familiar with audiodeathstar, as he is known on online forums, from the thread he started titled "MQA Causes Cancer." As of this writing, "MQA Causes Cancer" runs to 823 pages with 14,450 posts, of which at least 150 are not from audiodeathstar or even one of the eleven other like-minded enthusiasts who contributed.  They have names such as cranko, AudioBully, contrarian666, not_taking_meds , and IHateHarley. 

I was surprised to learn that audiodeathstar was not, by training or workplace experience, a musician, electrical engineer or recording professional. He was a periodontist--though he was quick to point out that he had performed a root canal procedure on a guy who assisted in the mastering of an early Springsteen album. 

After some back-and-forth on the forum where he playfully referred to me as "a lying shill" and "a low-IQ con man hostile to the laws of physics," I felt we had the beginnings of a relationship and, as I was just an hour down the New Jersey Turnpike in Philadelphia, I PM'd audiodeathstar to ask if I could visit and experience his legendary audio rig. To my surprise, he agreed. 

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In person, audiodeathstar was not the fire-breathing warrior I'd imagined but, instead, a genial middle-aged man with a receding hairline and a strong smell of Listerine. His real name was Phil, but I had to promise to call him "deathstar" in the presence of other audiophiles. Over lunch, we discussed music--his tastes were remarkably broad, ranging from The Moody Blues to King Crimson to Jethro Tull--and his unalterable belief that the 1969 moon landing was faked. 

But he hadn't forgotten why I'd come and led me to a basement room, to his system... 

It was, to say the least, an interesting sight. A substantial portion of Phil's suburban rancher's basement had been turned into an anechoic chamber. The décor was spare--there were a few framed Jethro Tull album covers on the wall, a lava lamp, and an artificial tree that seemed to be dying--and seating for one. (When I asked what his wife thought of his room, he looked at me blankly.) 

Because Phil had sworn several years ago never to purchase a component recommended by an audio magazine, the gear was unfamiliar to me. I can't remember all the specifics, but I do recall that the power amps were of Uzbekistani manufacture and his digital source was a circa 2005 Dell OptiPlex GX280 desktop, modified according to instructions provided online by a "genius" named Michelangelo. His speakers were enormous DIY affairs, with 11 drivers per side--different ones for the right and left channels. 

AR-bestnever6a.jpgMy expectations were...I don't know whatmy expectations were but I had to hear this thing. "What do you want to play for me?" I asked, preparing to settle in for "Knights in White Satin". Phil stopped in his tracks. He turned to me: "Oh, I don't listen to music down here," he said. "I put together this system based entirely on spectral analysis plots and rigorous double blind testing. We learned this from the MQA debacle: It doesn't matter how people think it sounds. Any competent electrical engineer can tell you that MQA-processed masters can't possibly sound better than regular files." Phil continued. "When this system was new, I had some guys over to hear it and nobody seemed to enjoy themselves much. Me neither. But when I told Michelangelo how I'd assembled it, he told me I had a world-class stereo, a dream system." He beamed. "I come down to look at it a few times a week." 

His demeanor changed suddenly and Phil turned towards me, his Listerine-scented face inches from mine. "You guys--you subjectivists," he sputtered, returning to his audiodeathstar persona. "You spew out that flowery language about 'air' and 'continuity' and 'grain' and 'soundstage depth'--Phil was making so many air quotes I was starting to get dizzy--"and it's all bullshit. Snake oil. Confirmation bias. Voodoo science...P.T. Barnum...Rich idiots...." Phil's voice, rising in pitch and volume, increasingly became a harsh blur and at some point, I stopped listening. These were familiar tropes. 

AR-bestnever7a.jpgFifteen minutes later, heading south on the Turnpike, it occurred to me that this hobby of ours is actually several hobbies. Some of us got started as kids building rudimentary amplifiers from kits and are forever intrigued with the correlation between circuit design, parts quality, and sound. Others are music-lovers who wonder why listening to recorded music at home invariably falls short of the concert hall or club experience and set out to close the gap. 

The audiophiles I'm most comfortable with are those interested in that point of intersection between art and technology. 

But there are other motivations for declaring yourself an audiophile. It can be an expression of conspicuous consumption. 

Though a Maserati is probably a better choice, you will turn at least a few heads with 500-pound loudspeakers sporting a one-of-a-kind Urushi lacquer finish, driven by a pair of monoblocks that go for roughly the cost of a Calibre de Cartier Flying Tourbillon. 

AR-bestnever8a.jpgSome, generally online and anonymous, love controversy and their goal is simply to stir up trouble, attack popular ideas, and personages associated with an avocation that's supposed to be fun. They use terms like audiofools... 

For me, the antidote to my afternoon with audiodeathstar came a few days later, the monthly meeting of my local audio society--50 guys taking turns listening to the host's system and, mostly, hanging out over sandwiches and beer to share their enthusiasms. If I ever do see Phil again, it will be for gum disease and not for anything audio-related. 

But I have started flossing twice a day...

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