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Middle-Aged Bourgeoise Blogging, Home Audio Edition

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‘Game of Skittles’, copy of 1660-68 painting by Pieter de Hooch in the Saint Louis Art Museum via Wikimedia Commons

When I was a kid, I spent a fair amount of time visiting my cousin, who lived in Cambridge, MA. He’s a few years older than me, and I thought he was just the coolest. He built large, complex Space Lego arrangements. He came up with elaborate adventures to keep us occupied. We’d wander unsupervised, not just all over Cambridge, but into Boston.

In retrospect, I’m not sure that the total lack of supervision we enjoyed was such a great thing – and I understand much better its connection to the mental-health problems that plague my mother’s side of the family. Nonetheless, my preteen self thought this was all terrific.

My cousin’s immediate family was significantly wealthier than my own. I’m a bit vague on how his father made his money – perhaps real estate? But they lived in what seemed like a huge house. I think it’s the one pictured below.

If I remember correctly, after my cousin’s bar-mitzvah he used some of his gift money to purchase a fairly nice stereo system (he would later spend time working as a salesman at Tweeter, a now-defunct audio-video chain based in Boston). So, of course, I too became interested in audio equipment.

Throughout my teens and early twenties, my parents never had the money or the inclination to really invest in home audio. They’re the kind of people that the Bose “wave radio” was designed for. When I left for college our receiver on the “tape monitor” setting. My father couldn’t figure out why he couldn’t play records or CDs, and concluded that the system was broken. He didn’t use the stereo for the next four months – that is, until I returned for winter break and ‘fixed’ it.

There are plenty of other factors that might explain why, as an increasingly solvent adult, I’ve pushed for some of our discretionary income to go into mid-fi gear. One is that playing music in the background was one of the ways I’ve managed ADHD; even with drugs, it still helps me work.

Another reason: my hearing has declined. It’s not clear how much of that reflects damage from operating construction equipment without adequate protection (go ahead and judge me, I deserve it) as opposed to creeping deafness. My pattern of loss suggests the former, my family history the latter. The doctors think it’s probably both. Regardless, in recent years “enjoying it while it lasts” has become a thing.

Still, when it comes down to it, my interest in audio gear is a decades-long legacy of wanting to emulate my older cousin.

Why am I writing about this now? Because I’ve been scratching my ‘audio itch’ lately. I have an adequate setup in my office: a decades-old receiver – which, to be honest, sounds better than any of the stuff that we’ve powered our home theater with since – paired with bookshelf speakers from the 1990s. It gets a PCM output from my computer via a cheap USB bridge – thanks, Apple, for eliminating the TOSLINK mini-plug on MacBooks. But I’m not going to put real money – even by my anemic standards – into an office system.

Nearly a year into the pandemic it’s clear that, even when things return t normal, I won’t be going into the office everyday. That means more time listening to home setups – and more justification for investing time, energy, and money into them.

I won’t bore people with the full details, but this has entailed (finally) breaking from physical CDs in favor a music server. I’m currently ripping about 1600 CDs as .wav files – and trying to decide how I’m going to handle our SACDs. I’m sure this is a small collection by LGM standards, but it’s still taking forever to transfer the files. Then there’s all of the figuring out what’s bullshit when it comes to “high resolution” audio, what isn’t bullshit but we won’t be able to hear on our listening environment, and what kinds of tinkering in terms of placement and components might make real improvements in our listening experience.

Combine this with far too much research into the better (very) low-budget outboard DACs, mucking around with SPL meters in our living room, A/B testing old subs I’ve picked up over the years, and playing with speaker placement… and let’s just that my family has pretty much run out of patience. Yes, Maia likes the idea of a networked music server as a replacement for sticking a CD into our wizened OPPO and hoping it doesn’t choke. No, she doesn’t want to listen to me talk about any of this.

The only thing of note that I’ve discovered is that I don’t buy REL’s claims about the superiority of its modern subwoofers over its “classic” designs. I don’t have the model discussed at the link (the T/9i), but I did pick up a T/7i for about $250 from a Magnolia a few years back (the sub was missing its grille, its “High Level Neutrik Speakon” cable, and screws for its feet; if you don’t care about the grille, that’s maybe $5-6 in parts and a bit more money if you don’t have spare four-connector speaker wire handy). Our living room is an acoustic nightmare: wood floors, lots of windows, essentially open to the rest of the first floor. The Strata III rolls off sharply below 24 Hz. The T/7i can’t make it into the mid 30s. Given the specs of the T/9i, I find it hard to believe that it would do that much better. The broader sound stage REL claims from its subwoofers manifests with the Strata III, but not with the (much) newer model.

Anyway, I thought it might be ‘fun’ to write more posts outside of my usual brief. The nice thing about LGM is that the commentariat has people who know more about any given subject than the “front pagers.” Consider this an excuse to share thoughts about how you listen to music, the etiologies of your own side interests, why this post underscores the policy wisdom of increasing transfer payments, or whatever.

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