As I sit here, I’m transfixed. As Radiohead’s Kid A (Collectors Edition) is streaming from my laptop via Spotify into my McIntosh D100, feeding the Cavalli Audio Liquid Gold differential solid state amplifier and through my Audeze LCD-X planar magnetic headphones, I realize how lucky I am. Not only because of the state-of-the-art gear that’s engaging my soul, but because this is my job. This is my life.
I’ve worked my ass off for twenty years in order to be able to play with toys that play my music! I get to write about these experiences in all sorts of ways: I review music and audio gear, I write concept pieces about the audio industry or the state of the music business, I follow the news in the current music scene and try to submit it to my editors before anybody else cracks the story. I also consult with audio companies about their social media campaigns, and handle those campaigns for audio shows, trying to build a better Hi-Fi world and help it grow.
I also consider myself a full-time audio evangelist. And that’s a blessed life. But in the weeks following CES 2014, most of that life was stolen from me. I couldn’t write for weeks on end. An illness took over my body, and I was rendered useless. I had no energy, lacked focus, and, for the first time in my life, I lost any sense of motivation. I needed to get well. Yet, in order to recover, I basically had to do nothing at all. Well, those who know me know that’s impossible. I had restless leg syndrome for years before they branded it. (My sister would grab my leg all the time and beg me to stop it. My wife does the same now! But for those weeks, my legs were as limp as my body.)
There were a few things that kept me from going insane. Spending time with my wife was most important. She grounds me, relaxes me, and so, she’s always my best medicine. But you know what takes a close second? Music.
One of the greatest things about music is that you don’t have to be critical to be able to love it. You don’t even have to focus on music to enjoy it. I realized I was getting so caught up in work – the life of a freelancer, we gotta boogie all the time – that the only time I was truly listening to music for pure enjoyment was in my car, and, maybe at other peoples homes. Of course, there are exceptions; like when I discovered an alien LP on MOG and couldn’t sleep. But those rare times, when you truly lose yourself to the music, when hours pass like minutes, man, those are moments to behold. Horrible cliché aside, I realized I was starting to take my musical world for granted. So therein lies the silver lining to a seemingly dingy story.
I can enjoy music in almost any state of mind. Whether I was crampin’ up or just feeling like shit. However, I couldn’t get into my home office, and that’s exactly where the Sonic Satori Personal Audio Lab sits. That’s my baby, my magic musical portal, whether on vinyl, CD/DVD, file, stream, anything. It’s also where I house my treasured headphones and headphone-related gear.
Knowing I was of limited mobility, I grabbed what I called my “audio survival kit”, which consisted of various portable DAC/Amp combos, cables, cans, a MacBook Pro, and a trusty headphone amplifier. I wanted to be able to play the two-channel system and feed every source through my E.A.R 868 pre-amp through a proper headphone amp. I wanted the ability to listen to everything with my cans.
The Burson Conductor filled the role of primary amplifier for my headphones. Not only would getting my E.A.R HP4 out of the office be a royal pain in the ass, the Conductor is a great headphone amp. Admittedly, I’m not a huge fan of their DAC (and I have the original version with the line-stage), but the Conductor is a successful blend of form and function (the minimal anodized modern aesthetic is so easy on the eye). I gathered all these audio toys and hunkered down for what turned out to be a five-week period.
Passing the time wasn’t easy, to say the least. My wife’s been dealing with her own illness for months. So, naturally, things weren’t peachy keen at the Mercer household. But we kept spirits high. We repeated mantras. “We’re burning up all our newly acquired karma for 2014 this month”. But, most of my time was spent listening to music. Whether sitting up in bed with my Astell & Kern players and Audeze cans (the LCD-X or XC) or on the deck with my CEntrance HiFi-M8. Music was my companion. One of the main reasons I’ve dug so deeply into the world of personal audio for years is because I can have my music and sonic integrity with me wherever I am.
Personal audio isn’t a mere convenience thrill anymore. Look at the size of the tribe at Head-Fi – it’s not a passing phase, it’s a movement. Although I’ve found myself in awe listening to two-channel systems, my experiences with high-end headphones, long before this recent bout of illness, have taken this listener even deeper than any room system has. Crazy, I know. When I say deeper, I mean everything melts away except the music: I don’t think about the gear, the wires, the wonderful power units keeping the signal clean, the signal path, none of that bullshit. I’m just connecting to the intangible beauty in music that’s impossible to encapsulate with words. This is the “goose-bump factor”, or, as HP says, the “twinkle dust factor”. The music takes you over and it becomes meditative as your thoughts ebb and flow with the sound. You forget about the damn rat race, the bills, and everything else.
For me, experiences that transcend a time and place are vital. I need the ability to unplug, literally. Here I am spewing about taking my music with me everywhere. I’m talking about unplugging from the madness of the world sometimes. Listening to music has the power to do that. I haven’t gone on some vision quest or come to any biblical revelation – I’m just trying to break it down so I can try to understand myself. Some of these experiences with the headphone systems were as spiritual an experience as listening to music in Sea Cliff (at HPs).
I remember listening to HPs reference systems and the music just took over. It was impossible to ignore. The sound was insane. I distinctly remember that part of the magic of experiencing those big, amazing systems was that everything else in my life was instantly shut out completely. We were forced to listen, forced to engage with the sound. I discovered that, for me, this translates directly to the headphone experience. If I close my eyes, the music washes over me. Sounds have velocity that I can feel, and the meandering waves catch me. If I’m in the right state of mind, it’s almost the perfect drug.
Now, because I was sick, I couldn’t get to my favorite rigs when I needed that fix. So as I mentioned before, I lined everything I needed in the living room, and tried my best not to climb the walls. Oddly, I found myself listening to more music without vocals than usual. It was as if I needed a soundtrack instead of a performance.
As Chris Sommovigo said in his brilliant clock radio piece here on THFR if you can’t enjoy music listening to a clock radio than what’s the use. But, since I do have the toys, and I needed a conduit to my music, so why not play? The not-so surprising thing is: I didn’t spend much time experimenting. It was the music I was after. Once I found a system I liked, I stuck with it. That said, can I honestly claim I would’ve experienced the same level of enjoyment through a clock radio? I don’t know. Because I don’t listen to music on a clock radio! However, I can imagine that if it were my only portal to music, it would be perfect. The music transcends all the gear. I say that knowing I’m as guilty of geeking-out as any audio obsessive. But it takes experiences like the one I dealt with to reel you back to the core. Smell the flowers and all that shit.
As I lived couch-bound, I found myself shuffling through more new music than usual. Sometimes I couldn’t find the right sound to fit my state-of-mind, and other times I nailed it. But often I had a sound in my head, and I couldn’t quite pinpoint it. So I’d toggle through my Macbook Pro/Amarra rig, or my AK120 (Astell & Kern digital audio player), seeking the track that would put me in a better mindset. Eventually I’d get there. I didn’t realize it then, but I was interfacing with my music in a way I hadn’t done in a long time. My relationship to the gear vanished and I was left with nothing but a great way to hear my music. Not to downplay the role of the gear, the direct conduit to my music. But once I got a lil’ system together that synced up right, and the music was hovering and dynamic, in that very moment, I could give a shit what it says on the faceplate. This deep connection will come in different packages for different people. What I love may or may not agree with you. And we have no control over that. But I can do my best to relate to the reader, the fellow hobbyist or new-comer, how the gear makes me feel, and not merely how it measures or what it does when placed on a dummy head.
Music is not sterile, it’s not black and white, and certainly not something we can break down to convenient fractions or equations. It’s a universal language. It’s rhythms and melodies often mimic that of our own, biologically. There’s an indescribable bond we have with music, and when you’re deep in it, when you’re at the Concert Hall, your living room, or wearing your favorite cans on the street, there’s a feeling, there’s a connection.
I thought about the fact that my reviewing style is far different from the mainstream in that I don’t include graphs or much by way of specifications or technical analysis (though I always make sure there’s a link where you can find that tech stuff). I come from the school of HP (Harry Pearson, our General at large). I feel the music when I connect with it. And that is what I need to share.
The more idle time I ended up with, as I got more and more restless, the more music I would listen to. I couldn’t collect my thoughts to write in any sort of understandable way, but I could find a piece of music and understand it.
I got to thinking about some of the bigger audio companies and wondered if they are really paying attention to what’s going on in personal audio. If you’re reading this, I gather that you’re a part of this high fidelity tribe. Seriously: Do you think Sony is going to drop real money into the US market for the PSA-2 headphone amp/DAC? Maybe. As a PSA-1 owner, I’d be psyched. But I have a feeling this new audio frontier is going to move forward with the companies that started in the garage and with passion cultivated on the forums and at meet-ups. I’ve also been thinking about the differences between the older audiophile crowd and the younger headphone culture. What’s the biggest difference? Connections. In the headphone community we are all about connecting with one another. We need to constantly share our feelings on everything music and headphone-related. There’s always a tribe of people on some thread somewhere online when it comes to personal audio. I know, whenever I get a bout of insomnia, I’m never alone. There’s a power in that.
I ‘ve been an active member of the Head-Fi tribe since 2009, but only in the last few years have I dedicated myself there. These connections resulted in friends I can count on in a heartbeat, along with the access to a large community of like-minded people eager to hang out and spend time talking about music and gear. It’s a nice feeling. Believe it or not, it was this feeling of belonging to something, and of being eternally grateful for what I get to do for a living that kept me smiling when my whole body ached! Sure, I got friends I grew up with that I would die for. But these guys, people I met through the headphone community, have become like family. Now, people can hate on that all they want. But it’s awesome.
I like spending time with like-minded people. I’ve never attended, but have you ever seen documentary footage of people at a Star Trek convention? They may look crazy, but they share something at a fundamental level. It doesn’t matter what character is their hero, in the end, it’s all about the concept. The same thing is exploding in the headphone scene right now. We’re building tribes. As sick as I got the last month, every-time a pair of headphones or a DAC/Amp would arrive, I’d be so excited just to hear music in a fresh way. I also knew there’d be a bunch of people out there, wondering what those cans sounded like. It’s an interconnected community. Since the demographics are younger, in my opinion, they’re into a wider variety of music than the typical, middle-aged audiophile. So I’m always finding out about new record or band through this community. It’s nice to know you’re a part of something that’s still learning and growing, as the world wakes up to the possibility of not hearing your music sound like complete dog shit all the time.
There is no reason to settle anymore. There’s an option for everybody. I can’t wait until the next record arrives, or the next pair of cans. After being down for so long, I realize this is a gift: Being able to listen and report about these toys to the consumer. I still get to listen to the stereo for a living. What could be bad about that? After all, it’s what got me through all this. However, one thing keeps rattling my brain: My body’s breaking down while my spirit just won’t let go, and I couldn’t stop thinking about one particular thing (well, lots of things, but this, more-so than any other) between listening – it’s our job as writers and reviewers to be true to ourselves and not act as a billboard for all the manufacturers. Don’t be a shill.
So, this time of reflection brought a newfound love for music along with a quandary in regards to writing about music and audio. I’m not sure if its possible to shield editorial from the advertising streams today. I guess it’s time to start asking the right people, because here at THFR, and at Audio360, we’re all attempting something different. We’re trying to reach people through music and gear that excites us in new and fascinating ways. Where that takes us, who knows? But, I’ve gained clarity on one thing: I really don’t care about the price, if it can’t incite my passions, it’s useless.
Nonetheless. It’s our time now as the younger generation and we’re starting to find each other and build a new era of audio. Yeah, sitting still for too long isn’t recommended. You may end up with delusional ideas of grandeur. Maybe not.