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A Life Through a Stereo System

Paul Wilson looks at the influence his parents played on his love of music and sound…

I remember it well. I was about fifteen years old and had recently been introduced to high performance audio. My best friend’s older brother had purchased an all McIntosh system – tube amp and preamp, a turntable and speakers. Compared to my AM / FM transistor radio, music uncannily sounded like something from another planet, and thus became the object of my desire. 

AR-MusicSmallFormat.jpgI spent several weeks dropping hints to my Father all in the singular hope he would relent and buy me a system like the one with which I was so enamored. When the trail of bread crumbs I was leaving for dear ole Dad didn’t seem to be working, I came right out and asked him if he would “get me a stereo.” In what can only be described as a “Leave It To Beaver” moment, he looked up from his newspaper and very succinctly told me, “I bought you a transistor radio, if you want something better than that, you’re on your own, kiddo.” 

And so it began. My messianic quest to save enough money to buy my system. I myself would do that which my Dad refused. I abandoned any naive hope I may have had for the hyper expensive components I saw in the pages of Stereo Review. I settled for something more practical and affordable. 

Cut grass. Rake leaves. Prune shrubbery. Pick up, clean up, you name it, I just about did it. Anything within reason and short of outright thievery throughout the entire neighborhood was no problem. I worked and saved from the early spring, through summer and into the fall. Then one afternoon after school, in the autumn of my fifteenth year, I counted the money in my envelope and I couldn’t believe my eyes – I had finally saved enough money. 

I went charging into the kitchen where Mom was cooking dinner and while I don’t remember exactly, I have to believe I must have screamed that I had enough money to buy my system. Naturally, I wanted to go get it. Then. Right then. To my Mom’s eternal credit, she simply turned off the stove, walked into the den and told my Father that supper would be a little late, she was taking me to get my stereo. 

AR-VintageStereo.jpgWe couldn’t get home fast enough to suit me. I unpacked the boxes, connected both speakers and the turntable and then it hit me. I didn’t have any music. My goal of saving money was so hyper-focused on the system itself, I never even considered what I would actually play on it once the system was finally mine. 

Mom to the rescue, although her musical selection wasn’t what I really wanted but let’s face it, at that point, Bing Crosby was decidedly better than nothing. When I arrived home from school the next day, Mom told me she wanted me to go with her to the mall. Naturally, I protested. 

All the way to the mall I kept thinking how big of a waste of my time this was. I would have rather been pouring over a Stereo Review back issue and pining over something to play, my music not my parents music, on my glorious system. Imagine my surprise when we walked straight to the record store and Mom said to me; “I’ll buy you any five albums you want on one condition, you don’t play them too loudly.” Such a kind gesture for her to do for me. 

I have tried to remember my first album but sadly I cannot. I do know that I was on fire over Jethro Tull’s recent release of “Thick As A Brick” so that must have been one of the five albums I got that day. As to the rest, again, they are lost to me except they were the polar opposite of Bing Crosby. Now, life in the back part of the house would be rock and roll! 

I suppose it’s no small wonder that I still have that same system today – despite the fact it has been relegated to a closet in my audio room and hasn’t been played in years. Frankly, I place as much value on it as I do my big reference system. 

AR-Parents.jpgThat was forty-four years ago. In those intervening years, I have had various combinations of systems – speakers, amps, turntables, CD players, you name it. In 2010 I decided the time had come for me to build the modern day version of my dream system, the one I wanted my Dad to purchase for me so long ago. 

I started upgrading, trading in a lesser component in for a better one and all the while, immensely loving the journey. Every time I made a change or upgraded something to a better, and, well, more expensive version, I told myself that I’m finished. It’s good enough. I don’t need anything better than what I have. I’ve been telling myself that same thing for almost a decade now. So far I’ve yet to listen to my little voice. 

I’ve often wondered what it is about an audio system that is so enamoring. Why is it that my simple little transistor radio wasn’t good enough? Or in modern parlance, why is an iPod not good enough? Why go through all this madness in the singular quest of playing a song? I’ve come to multiple conclusions, and have even written about most of them, but ultimately, the question remains unresolved. Some questions, perhaps, simply can’t be answered. 

Both of my parents are now gone. But I will never forget the kindness shown me by my Mom and the fortitude instilled in me by my Dad – that quest to work for the things you want as opposed to having them gifted. I’d like to therefore dedicate this article to all parents who encouraged, or are encouraging their children’s passion in the high performance audio arts. 

Happy listening from a lifelong audiophile.

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