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Audio inferno: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love ‘Best Audiophile Voices Vol. 4’

By IGAN D'BAYAN, The Philippine Star Published Aug 15, 2020 8:46 am

Well, I lied.

I still would not be caught dead with any of the “Best Audiophile Voices,” “Jazz at the Pawnshop,” or Teresa Teng albums. They are, to put it bluntly, bland and unenthralling. But the audiophiles love them, especially when paired with their preamp, line conditioner, power plug, speaker and RCA cable combos that are almost as expensive as the Adobe Master Collection software allegedly procured by erring ill-health officials. Audiophiles are the types of people who go into a record store in the US, Europe or Japan teeming with the most glorious pieces of vinyl ever created by human beings (stuff that would make anyone feel alive and doomed at the same time, just like works by Dostoevsky, Ari Aster or Neo Rauch) — and ask for Stacey Kent, Vanessa Fernandez’s Led Zeppelin covers (why not just listen to the real thing?), or those demonstration discs with song snippets for sine wave, pink noise, tonal accuracy, spectral balance evaluation. Or, worse, mooing cows or an entire album of stereo-panning tablas, bongos and congas. Alan Parsons (the Project guy, “Dark Side Of The Moon” engineer) has been quoted as saying, “Audiophiles don’t use their equipment to listen to music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment.”

A side note: my girlfriend heard me listening to King Crimson’s Requiem with its “Frippertonics” loop and asked, “God… Are you turning into one of them?” Hell, no! She probably thought I was testing for octave warble tones.

But to each his own, I guess. I have audiophile friends and acquaintances who would die before admitting they are, indeed, philes of any kind. They are the nicest, smartest, most generous people when it comes to discussions about audio (I am talking about you, Leonard “Elco” Co and Romeo Babao). I have learned so much from them, directly and indirectly. How Audio Fidelity discs have been mastered masterfully by Steve Hoffman or Kevin Gray; how Mobile Fidelity Ultradisc One-Step pressings of Bill Evans, SRV, Santana and Charles Mingus are game-enders; how the Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree) remixes of prog bands (Yes, King Crimson, Jethro Tull) and even Tears For Fears deserve more than a few slots in your Ikea Kallax; how to couple or decouple anything to lessen vibrations (oh, it’s not as naughty as it sounds).

Give these tips a try. They might just bring out the true potential of your own stereo equipment. I assure you — in the words of Kimberly Guilfoyle channeling Zuul — THE BEST IS YET TO COME. Cue thunderbolt and lightning.

I had hunted for the “Led Zeppelin II” record etched with the “R.L.” initials for years, scouring the earth like Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name, until I saw it in a Disk Union in Shibuya (or was it Shinjuku?). Believe me, this is one mother-effing great-sounding rock n’ roll record: Bonham’s cymbal hits in Ramble On hang in the air like smoke rings from those fragrant cigarettes, while the psychedelic break in Whole Lotta Love is pure sound sorcery, a womb throbbing with Page’s guitars and Theremin, JPJ’s low-end excursions, as well as Plant’s orgasmic crooning. My audio-enthusiast friends would be proud of my find.

Their logic is simple: if you love music, you want to listen to it the best way possible. Some people just pop in their ear pods and set their iPhone Spotify playlists and are moved accordingly. A friend of mine listens to Rush in his tinny car stereo and still goes gaga every time Neil Peart executes those impossible fills in YYZ (that’s you, Julius Sanvictores). I know someone who is currently memorizing the entire Hamilton musical (even Daveed Diggs’ speed-rapping in Guns and Ships) by listening on her computer and gaming headphones.

Whatever works, that is true. Tool is still Tool even if the music snakes out of loud and boomy Konzert speakers from good ole Raon. But since no one gets to hang out during the pandemic (“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave…”), and we have so much dead air, maybe it is time to put together a “humble” audio setup.

I know, I know. A lot of houses and condo units were built without any consideration for a stereo system: too cramped, squarish, low ceiling, footfall-friendly floors, with cumbersome built-in cabinets and non-soundproofed walls (you can hear the neighbors exorcising their demons via karaoke). Add to that the glass shelves crammed with ceramic vases, porcelain figurines and religious statues that your mother or grandmother collects. The key is to find a space, no matter how small, where you and your partner can commune with the spirits of dead musical artists (Jack White, Kamasi Washington and Thundercat are cool and can be summoned as well) — unfettered and without those wood or resin santos giving you the judgmental eye for listening to Danzig and Deicide.      

The importance of acoustic treatment cannot be underscored. I currently have a mid-fi analogue and digital setup composed of vintage and modern gear — a small but sufficient music room. Not enough records, though. (Maybe if I were a bureaucratic pit-bully with a monthly allowance of one million pesos I would get to upgrade to a McIntosh-Audio Research setup or, better yet, get Norah Jones herself to play piano live in my room.) But I’ve heard the stereo system of people I’ve interviewed for The STAR and, despite the price tags on their state-of-the-art gear (more expensive than a luxury car or a plot of land), the music sounded shrill, fatiguing, and reverberated all over the place. Those rich peeps thought merely plonking Wilson speakers and Mark Levinson integrated amps in their living rooms (with their glass sliding doors, trophies, diplomas, framed graduation pictures, eye-stabbing brass sculptures by you-know-who, shelves upon shelves of big, bulky, breakable travel souvenirs) would bring the magic in. That would work if music functions as wallpaper. But even a system such as mine composed of secondhand scores (from my friend Wendell Alinea) and hand-me-downs (from my brother Dennis) can sing and create sorcery in a properly treated room. 

It is a complicated thing, acoustic treatment is; not all experts agree on one fail-safe way in going about it. But audio enthusiasts such as Tony Rodriguez explain it in simple and practical ways. Put bass traps in each of the corners to tighten the bass, otherwise you get a boomy, poorly defined low-end. Mount absorber panels on first reflection points, those spots on the wall where the sounds bounce and compete with the direct sound from your speakers, resulting in a murky soup of sounds. (Google the mirror technique to find out where exactly those pesky early reflections are.) Place a carpet or a piece of rug to tame floor reflections. Stick some soundproofing tape on the gaps between doors and windows (Shopee sells them cheaply). Mount acoustic diffusers (quadratic, skyline, etc.) on the front wall and back wall to diffuse or scatter the sound, making the room seem larger. Diffusers — specifically the handcrafted, wooden beauties — can fit any home no matter the motif, while absorber panels can be covered with printed fabrics. Geometric, industrial, artsy, funky kitsch… whatever turns you on.

Keep vibrations in check. I see it too many times: a turntable or a CD player placed atop a stack of amps, preamps, tuners, streamers, and receivers. Are you, perhaps, building a Tower of Babble? Vibrations can wreak havoc on your cartridge or lens, especially when everything is thumping to the gentle and soothing sounds of Slayer. It is a good idea to put the turntable or the CD player on a separate rack or table. There are high-end, ultra-expensive isolation platforms in the market to address the vibration issue. But check out the pocket-friendly foam pads by Auralex and — I kid you not — bamboo butcher’s block by Ikea. I have two Ikea Aptitligs under my Technics SL1200, resting atop Sabre racks fitted with spikes. And I didn’t have to sell a kidney or sell my soul to the Gods of Graft & Corruption to procure these things. In theory, I can even apply varnish to the bamboo cutting boards to match the rattan furniture gnawed on incessantly by our Doberman of Doom named Lucca. But there is music to be spun.

Move the speakers away from the front wall (the one in front of you) and the sidewalls (the ones beside the speakers). Speakers in corners is a space-saving move, I know. But the further away, the fewer reflections. Toe them in (or out, depending on your speaker specs) until you find the sweet spot.

Clear the area between you and the speakers. A coffee table is the pièce de résistance, but they tend to reflect incoming sound, especially the ones made of thick glass and solid wood, like having a sonic trampoline. Also, try to place your stereo gear on low racks (contact Che Cruz and Stereofiles Audio for those well-designed Atacama racks, or Boy Bustamante of Woodstocks for his creations made from upcycled wood), so that the space between the speakers remains unencumbered. The center is where you want to have the phantom image of Chris Cornell or David Bowie singing. The illusion of imaging will be ruined if you have a Trump Tower of electronics in that crucial area.

Join audio groups on Facebook. It is a way also of getting to know crazy diamonds having the same audio malady as you. Learn from the posts of guys who constantly experiment with their own setups and share their experiences (like Rafael Ruiz and Tony Go of Audio Friends of the Philippines, Leonard Co of Audio Pilipinas), and be entertained by others such as the self-styled ninja-doctor who excitedly reveals the sexy starlets he currently has a crush on (what this has to do with audio I don’t really know), the “audio philanthropist” from Vegas, and the guy who comments on his own posts and comments on his own comments (which is a bit meta). I tend to avoid the audio groups with members who post nothing but the records they are currently playing. Yeah, have fun with your usual swill: “dead center female vocals + plus sparse instrumentation + plus cover song = now playing.”

Give these tips a try. They might just bring out the true potential of your own stereo equipment. I assure you — in the words of Kimberly Guilfoyle channeling Zuul — THE BEST IS YET TO COME. Cue thunderbolt and lightning.

And if vinyl becomes too expensive, try digital. Nothing can beat vinyl with its holographic, almost realistic sound. And the record sleeves — with artworks by everyone from Andy Warhol to Hipgnosis, Alex Grey and Peter Saville — are good enough to be framed and mounted. The audiophiles are right: if you are going to listen to John Coltrane, Miles Davis or Weather Report, then there is nothing better than a piece of Analogue Productions, ORG (Original Recordings Group), MFSL (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab), Speakers Corner vinyl or, better yet, an original pressing in pristine condition. Don’t you notice how other writers have been harping on about the supposed “resurgence” and “revival” of vinyl for several years now? Don’t they have other angles to dangle their editors come Record Store Day?

Playing vinyl can keep us sane during these days of RevGov and COVID. But for a certain spell, I hardly played any records. I didn’t want to wear out my stylus during lockdown. Nowadays, since most of us are faced with an ever-“bleakening” future (except for crooks prepping their props of wheelchairs, neck-braces and medical certificates), maybe cost-cutting is the way to go. Most of us are broke; the entire system is broken. Wait till you hear one lawmaker tell you: if hindi ninyo afford mag plaka, eh di mag MP3 kayo.

There is an alternative, though. I worked on my digital music rig (Cambridge Audio CXN V1 paired with a Denafrips Ares II DAC), endlessly tweaking with stereo racks, isolation platforms, spikes, Vibrapods, speaker placement and power plug upgrade (courtesy of King Llamas and W Acoustics). I am not an audiophile but I do audiophile things. I just do things on the cheap. A couple of years back, a friend gave me ripped files of CDs and SACDs from his extensive collection, as well as downloads from HDTracks.com. I listened to the tracks again and was floored by the sound.

I was not listening to just FLAC or DSF. I was not listening merely to digital music with its ones and zeroes. I was not listening to byte-size blips in the ether. I was listening to The Rolling Stones shoot up songs recorded in a former Nazi villa in Nellcôte with swastikas engraved in the heating system, the clenching of Keith Richards’ blood-soaked fists, and the tinkling of needles and spoons.

I was listening to the great Marvin Gaye looking down on James Jamerson playing sublime bass as he laid on his back in a drunken haze.

I was listening to The Mars Volta putting a hex on themselves with an ouija board purchased in a curio shop in  Jerusalem — the studio filling with floodwater, people around them going mad, and much, much bedlam.

I was listening to Joni Mitchell driving across a burning desert, looking at the hexagram of the heavens, while Larry Carlton conjures jet planes and false alarms with his guitar. These songs so wild and blue.

This is how one travels even when locked down at home.

(Illustration by Igan D'Bayan)

For more bedlam, follow @igandbayan on Instagram and Twitter, and visit www.igandbayan.com.