It’s that time of year!
You all know the Genie story: the one where Aladdin rubs a magic lamp or Sabu, in The Thief of Baghdad, walks along the beach and, finding a bottle, wipes it off and a Genie pops out and offers to grant some number of wishes. You also know that Genies, if one can believe the tales, are apparently absolutely literal in their understanding of instructions and, even worse, seem to have a nasty sense of humor so that, unless you are VERY VERY careful in crafting your wish, you’re likely to find yourself sorry that you ever asked for it. (As an example of this, one of the better horrible consequences versions of the Genie story has the lamp-rubber, when granted three wishes by his particular Genie, saying that it’s hot out and that he’s thirsty and asking the Genie to make him a malted, whereupon the Genie, faithful to his word, gestures magically, and… turns him into a malted – a type of old fashioned ice cream drink made with powdered malt)
If you’re like me and so many other Hi-Fi Crazies, you’ve probably spent your fair share of time day-dreaming of the perfect system and, thinking how nice it would be if the Genie story were actually true and you could just rub a lamp or a bottle or, as in the Wishmaster movies, do something to a fantastic gemstone, and have a Genie appear to grant you sonic paradise.
Well, let’s pretend that it was true and that you did rub it and you did wish; what would you wish for?
When I was a kid, it wasn’t visions of sugar-plums that danced in my head, but dreams of the perfect system. And that was, back then, one that would have absolutely “flat” frequency-response and THD (total harmonic distortion) and IM (intermodulation distortion) figures so low that they would measure in the thousandths of one percent. My dream system would be able to play just about anything, so I routinely added to my wish list not just a record player, but also an FM tuner and a (pretty, pretty, pretty) Berlant Concertone tape recorder – definitely the hot setup for home recording at the time.
Things have certainly changed since then, but they’ve also remained surprisingly much the same. Take speakers, for example, what would you want? Something like the Infinity IRS, the later Genesis One; the Dunlavy Sovereign, or the “flagships” from JM Labs, Wilson, von Schweikert, or others? Those are all world-class speakers, but they’re HUGE! Would they even fit into you listening room?
Here’s another thing; when you’re enjoying your System, do you normally have friends with you? If you do, you might want something with a very broad dispersion (“polar”) pattern, so that it will give you and your friends the broadest possible “sweet spot” for everybody to enjoy the best sound. The speakers with the very broadest polar patterns are, of course, the “omnis” – speakers, like the MBL “footballs”, with an omnidirectional (360°) polar pattern. Unfortunately, omnis, because they interface with ALL of your listening room can be the hardest speakers to place and actually get to sound good and, although I have heard them cast an absolutely spectacular image, that – in my experience – is a rare occurrence, that not even a Genie is likely to be able to bring about on a consistent basis, and it may be better to compromise on speakers that are more limited in their sweet spot, but easier to get to work in your room.
If you usually listen alone, you might want to consider the exact opposite of the omnis – speakers like the old Acoustat Model 8 that, because of their extreme width relative to the higher frequencies and the physics of wave propagation, tend to “beam” their sound into a very tightly-focused area that gets progressively smaller with increasing frequency. The sweet spot with these speakers was tiny, but, because of their laser-like narrowly focused dispersion, they had very little interaction with whatever room they were placed in, and were really easy to set up. The problem, of course, was that the sweet spot was SO narrow that they were strictly one-person-at-a-time speakers, and, even for that one person, moving your head or changing listening position could put you out of the sweet spot at the very highest frequencies and, sorry, but once again, not even a Genie could do anything about it.
For private listening, you could certainly solve the whole “listening position” problem entirely by using headphones, but even they have their problems: One is that they are private-listening ONLY so, unless you’re willing to take them off and pass them over to your friend, you’re not going to be able to share your music if you ever want to. Another is that, although they DO eliminate the problem of room interaction entirely, most also reduce or eliminate what, to me, is a big part of the High-End audio experience; imaging and soundstaging. Of the phones that I have heard, most sound like the musicians are performing not in their original venue, but on the inside of my head, which is a lot less fun. There are certainly ‘phones that have tried by various means to fix this — the Stax Sigma, for example, or the AKG K1000 — but, at least for me, they just replace the missing soundstage with an artificial construct all their own, that I don’t find satisfying at all. Too bad, but even worse is the fact that, unlike live music or even listening on speakers, where if you move your head or change your listening position, the musicians stay right where they are in relation to each other and the recording venue, when you listen with headphones, every time you move your head, you move the musicians and everything else. To me, that serves as a constant reminder that I’m NOT listening to the real thing, and spoils the fun, entirely.
It’s not just speakers and headphones that are hard to pick, electronics and everything else is just as difficult, with, it seems, everything having reasons why that’s the one you MUST wish for and other reasons why maybe you need to think of a better choice: Flat frequency response turns out to be nice,, but not the only thing that’s nice. Tubes are great, but WHICH tubes to use? Unless you keep “rolling them”, you may never really know which is best. And even if you DO find the best, it will eventually wear out and you may never be able to replace it. Solid state, too, has its own features and faults (like, for example, most of that gear with distortion figures in the thousandths of one percent doesn’t really SOUND all that good); and all of any gear you may buy or wish for may – especially with formats rapidly changing and CDs, DVD, and other physical media seeming to be in the process of going away — eventually come to the point where, like that Concertone tape recorder or even the Ampex or Studer master tape recorders that replaced it, you simply can’t find or afford software to play on it.
What’s a Genie to do? Maybe you should save your wishes for health wealth and happiness. Or an MV Agusta sport bike, a Lamborghini, or a current Rolls-Royce Phantom sedan. They all have problems, too, but think of the fun you could have putting up with them!