It was on a recent Saturday afternoon's adventure in search of a new toaster oven that found me, by the fourth stop on my quest, at the local Best Buy and completely disinterested in toaster ovens. Not surprisingly, I was not in the toaster oven, or any other type of oven part of the store, but rather in the audio section.
I was looking around at the various mid-fi equipment and noticed that despite whatever I might have thought of the sonics, the appearance of the equipment was pretty nice. It was, in fact, attractive-looking gear. The appeal of this equipment was glaringly obvious. It just looked like it sounded good.
Soon enough, a freckle-faced young man approached me and asked if he could help in any way. I politely told him I was just looking because I didn't see the need to get into the whole audiophile vs. mid-fi thing. Being a dutifully trained salesman, he told me there was a sale on hi-fi equipment and if I wanted to really improve my sound system, I should consider a new stereo. Really? A gauntlet of sorts had been thrown down, at least from my point of view, and besides, it sounded like way too much fun to hear this guy out.
I found myself in a real dilemma. I could -- one -- tell this kid I was an audiophile and that nothing he sold could even remotely approach the sonics of my current system. That, of course, presupposed he even knew what an audiophile was. Or two, I could let him practice his sales pitch and play along as an interested buyer. I suppose there was legitimately a third option -- politely thank him and say I wasn't interested -- but in all honestly, that didn't seem like much fun. I was bored with toaster oven shopping, Best Buy wasn't very busy, and so I decided that hearing the sales pitch was infinitely more interesting.
His first question caught me by surprise: "What type of system do you have now?" I sort of panicked because I hadn't seriously looked at mid-fi in many years and I really didn't know what to say. I told him it was the basic system I bought back in the early 1980s. Given his presumed age I thought that would be an impact statement, as it was almost certainly before he was born.
"Oh, well," he exclaimed, "things have really changed since then." From there we looked at the various receivers; cube, bookshelf and floor speakers; CD players; and the streaming devices that now seem to be inevitably showing up at stores like Best Buy.
In looking at the various systems, I discovered that less than $1,000 would set up a basic system that did, indeed, play music. I also found that compared to even an entry-level high-performance system the sonics left quite a bit to be desired -- from an audiophile perspective, that is. No surprise there.
It also reminded me of something else -- that as audiophiles, we surround ourselves with playback systems of a wide range of price points, quality, capabilities and sonic achievements. And that even a budget-priced high-performance system is so much more revealing and musically satisfying than mid-fi. Of course I knew this already, I've even written about it. But not having heard a mid-fi audio system with the intent of listening to the sonics in a really long time, I can say without hesitation that it was an ear-opening experience.
I decided that I was taking up too much of the salesman's time, and, that it was unfair for me to keep him from other potential customers when I had no intention of spending any money. So I thanked him for his time and his assistance, left Best Buy without a mid-fi audio system, and never even looked at toaster ovens, the real reason for my visit in the first place.
This experience underscored in me the reason I am an audiophile. It also underscored in me the fact that it is so vanishingly simple to become lost in our marvelous systems, that we tend to not see the forest for the trees -- that we sometimes attach normalcy to a sound system that is anything but normal. Being humbled at our system's sonics is often tempered by the critical judgment of the very music we are supposed to enjoy.
I also realized that, yet again, I have had some seemingly innocuous experience happen to me that secondarily, gives me something about which I can share on this website, but primarily why it is important to take time to enjoy the music. A task that, at least for me, seems to be easier to neglect than actually practice.
I've also made a personal pledge that every few months I'm going to some sort of big-box store and spend some time listening to mid-fi equipment. My goal is not to denigrate that musical playback category, although it may sound like I'm doing exactly that. Rather, my goal is to remind myself of two things: one, how amazing high-performance audio can sound, and two, that it is important that amid all the critical listening and judgments, and the critiquing and evaluating, that I should experience the simple pleasure of just enjoying the music.
If I'm lucky, I might even stumble across that elusive toaster oven somewhere along the way.
Happy Listening ...