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December 2022 Issue [Miscellany]

Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon

Audiophilia and its discontents
Illustration by Adam Simpson. Source photograph of a jazz kissa in Okayama, Japan, taken by Katsumasa Kusunose and included in his book Jazz Kissa 2015–2019. Courtesy the artist

Illustration by Adam Simpson. Source photograph of a jazz kissa in Okayama, Japan, taken by Katsumasa Kusunose and included in his book Jazz Kissa 2015–2019. Courtesy the artist


Corner Club Cathedral Cocoon

Audiophilia and its discontents

My wife, Heidi, and I put up a string of Christmas lights early in the pandemic. They were LEDs that slowly flashed different colors, hung along a copper wire that stretched above our windows. As 2020 unfolded and we binged shows like Le Bureau, the lights made for a cheerful horizon. In the small East Village living room that became our world, it was a good trick. Before we stopped having people over, friends would comment on the vibe in our house. In the absence of company, vibe was all we had.

Right before the holidays, I discovered an Instagram account called @jazz_kissa, run by a photographer and music fan named Katsumasa Kusunose. Patrons of jazz kissas (cafés) typically drink coffee or alcohol and keep their voices low, sometimes reading books or comics as they listen. There are around six hundred such cafés in Japan—a number Kusunose and a few other fans carefully tabulated a few years ago, and which he believes has not significantly changed. Kusunose has been photographing these places since 2014, and his pictures became a ballast for me. The average jazz café is small, about the size of our living room, though a few are big enough to accommodate perhaps fifty people. Their audio gear generally looks older, and, even though I knew nothing about it, I decided it all sounded exquisite. A speculative leap, but I needed it.

Dim, atmospheric lights are not uncommon in jazz cafés, though most don’t look like our LED string. Sometimes the aquamarine glow of a McIntosh amp’s front panel is the only accent. There’s generally lots of wood, rarely any chrome or aluminum. If there is ever a human figure in Kusunose’s photographs, it is a man, usually older, laying a phonograph needle on a record or standing behind a pour-over coffee setup. I imagined that the stereos produced an otherworldly sound, and it did not seem unreasonable to think that these small spaces and our East Village safe haven were linked. The proprietors had made decisions about what mattered and what could be done with the limited space. Their choices emphasized an experience that would be both communal and quiet. Silence and sound at the same time appealed to me. What little we could control was right in front of us. We definitely didn’t have any of this gear, though. Our modest stereo would have been no better than a midrange system back in the Nineties, when it was new.

A friend who knew of my obsession told me about another Instagram account, @_listening_room_. Someone was posting photo spreads from what seemed to be mostly Japanese audiophile magazines and translating the accompanying text. “Listening rooms” are essentially residential jazz cafés, though they are agnostic as to genre. You see enormous home stereo setups in these photos, gear from another era piled high in living rooms. The owner of the system is sometimes there, perched on a couch. I didn’t know then what it cost to outfit a listening room, but it was obviously not a budget undertaking. The combined practices of listening and reflecting in this kind of space made me think of the rooms as miniature cathedrals, places where anybody could enter and connect with a larger force through sound.

I had begun thinking about such larger connections and their stakes in my own life, and what writing could and could not do. Being trapped was good for these thoughts. I’ve spent my life making music and also writing about it, without regret. If a piece of criticism is less sharp than it could be, no matter; the reporting could be of some use later. In luckier instances, I might discover how a particular piece of music works and illuminate some of the spiritual connections available to a sympathetic listener. But looking at these speakers and reading about how people talked about them began to make me feel uneasy about my own work. Not often, but more than once, I have ranked pieces of music as if there were some accepted metric to which these rankings correspond. (There is not.) I have, under no duress, posted end-of-year “Best Of” lists, even in years when I was not paid to do so. These impulses began to seem like firm examples of scientism, a spiritual impoverishment in which one’s feelings and opinions hide behind a facade of false exactitude. I was just really into “Crazy in Love”—it was in no way, shape, or form the “best” song of 2003, because that is a nonsensical superlative, as is the idea that an album can be worth seven points out of ten.

When I started researching the individual components of these listening rooms, I encountered this language of bedroom expertise, of an axiomatic surety based on an invisible axiom. Certain speakers delivered sound that was “detailed” or “transparent,” whereas others did not. What was the detail being retrieved? Was it not being created in that moment by that machine? What was the referent for something being transparent? Transparent in comparison to what?

I’ve been making records since I was a teenager, and at no point have I been involved in making a record that reproduced an event from everyday life, just as your favorite novel is (with rare exceptions) not a transcript of a conversation. You shape the material you have to make it do what you need it to. The idea of anything being “natural” or “accurate” in the field of recorded music made no sense to me. I do know that the word “accuracy” in the context of audio means reproducing the master recording faithfully, but this always seemed like an imaginary pursuit. Who, other than the artist, would know how a master recording was supposed to sound? More to the point, as that artist, I’ve never been entirely sure that I know what a final release does or should sound like. An album always feels like a rock thrown over a fence. We have an idea of where it might land, because we tested it on car stereos and fancy setups and phones. But we don’t really know, and that’s part of why we do it.

Audiophiles often talk about what people will miss if they don’t have a specific kind of gear, as if recorded music were a fragile code requiring elaborate reconstruction. As much as I found myself opening up to the idea of building a good sound system over time, I still felt at odds with most audiophiles, or at least their representatives in the press. I find recordings to be immensely sturdy. Something as potent as Miles Davis’s In a Silent Way creates a different reality even when played through an iPhone or the ten-year-old Bluetooth speaker we have in the bathroom (which is busted and seems only to reproduce sound events in the bass register). As much as I want a pair of expensive hi-fi speakers jammed into our tiny living room, they would probably not be as useful as the Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker I bought last September for a hundred bucks. Am I listening to Johnny Clarke in the kitchen? Well, he’s coming along to the shower too. Sound is dependent on its context, so how could its quality be determined with any sort of precision?

I met Jonathan Weiss in April 2021 at his loft in Dumbo, when a glossy magazine I hadn’t heard of asked me to write some copy for a photo spread. Weiss is a bright-eyed man, fifty-eight, with a head of thick white hair and an appealing intensity, but he was not the model. The photographer was coming to shoot the speakers made by his company, Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA). Its Imperia model, over six feet tall, is made up of two massive wooden horns held together by steel frames next to a woofer as big as a stove. These speakers look like a pair of military-grade butter churns, or crowd-control technology from the nineteenth century. I laughed when I saw them. According to a 2019 catalog, the pair costs roughly $452,200. (Weiss, who doesn’t like to discuss the price of his products, declined to confirm whether this was still accurate.) The new OMA turntable, the K3, is a three-hundred-pound hulk cast in iron with a tonearm that looks like a miniature boom crane. It was on the October cover of Stereophile magazine, and the review was positive: Michael Fremer called it a “truly great audio product.” The magazine listed the price at $360,000.

Unlike the tech bros burning through money both real and imagined, Weiss and the rest of the high-end audio cohort could at the very least drag their wares into the street and be of service, even though they are rarely thinking of the greater good. Gordon Gow of McIntosh Laboratory called this type of equipment “toys for insecure adults.” It’s not gear for the general population, and I would have left it alone if something hadn’t rearranged me. I had a feeling that the jazz kissa might be hovering around us.

The Imperia speakers made a sound that was wide and vivid and full of dirty weight, the breath of an organism. When the audio critic Herb Reichert hears this quality in good speakers, he calls it “believable corporeality,” which he says “has largely been missing from the experience of recordings since digital arrived.” OMA has a less expensive division called Fleetwood Sound, and Reichert calls its DeVille model, listed at around $15,600, “one of the best small speakers” he has ever heard.

There are real physical differences between this older technology and the audio devices you can find in a Best Buy. Cheap new stuff is likely powered by a clutch of transistors driving small diaphragms that move a lot. By comparison, the older horn designs are very good at throwing sound while barely moving, partly because the music is being amplified by something called a compression driver—a thin metal diaphragm agitated by a magnet. The supersensitive horn-loaded speakers are driven by low-wattage amplifiers outfitted with single-ended triode vacuum tubes, the oldest and simplest of their kind.

The idea here is not complex: a signal moves from the source—a phonograph or CD player, say—to an efficient speaker, and along the way it experiences the fewest possible augmentations, the least amount of stress. The word “excursion” refers to how much a diaphragm has to move in order to produce sound. Those small speakers you find in Best Buy? They experience excursions up to a quarter of an inch, a violent amount of back and forth. By contrast, the diaphragms of compression drivers found in horn speakers move only a few micrometers. The horn is the most ancient amplifier, a physical sound-thrower that can transport a large air mass. Small movements excite its narrow end and large movements come out its wide end.

“These big horn systems—they’re asleep,” Reichert tells me. “The system is barely operating. It’s adding energy in a relaxed and unstressed way.” The sound feels like a physical emancipation, the music suddenly rising up and walking toward you. It is not a coincidence that horn-loaded speakers are sometimes the size of people. Weiss’s loft is not a jazz café, but it is a kind of cathedral.

Before I left, I asked Weiss what had inspired him to get into this work. He mentioned Heidegger’s essay on technology and Juni’chirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows and an obscure Stereophile article from 2000 called “God Is in the Nuances.” It was written by Markus Sauer, an audiophile who reviewed and sold high-end equipment in Berlin. It’s a winning cri de coeur, a reckoning with the fact that all of the time he spent considering measurements and specs had very little to do with why anybody would buy a stereo. “There is no easily ascertainable relation between component sound and emotional response,” he wrote.

I found myself relating to Sauer. It is appealing to admit that you don’t know what you’re doing, while also reiterating that the project is worthwhile. There is nothing strange about spending a life immersed in recorded music and wanting to hear that music reproduced in an exceptional way. So why did it seem to lead to such an annoying milieu?

For most of my adult life, I believed in the implications of the phrase “non-stick pans”: other pans must be unmanageably sticky. During the pandemic, as I began to want my own listening room and wrote every day across from a stove, I started to cook. I bought a Lodge cast-iron skillet that cost about forty dollars. It heats up quickly and evenly and can be easily cleaned. Our non-stick pan, by comparison, sheds its coating, and the handle keeps coming unscrewed. This is like the history of audio gear. The cast iron was sufficient, but an imaginary quality—stickiness—was being “solved” by new technology like Teflon. The new gear is fine, and works well in a couple of settings, but seems largely like an unnecessary innovation.

One day, I brought Weiss a copy of Comet Meta, a record by David Grubbs and Taku Unami that features the sound of two electric guitars playing at relatively low volume. When we put the vinyl through his Imperia speakers, we heard the guitar lines ring and hang and interlock—and then something else happened. I felt a presence, as if someone had entered the room. The music had become a concrete experience. I don’t mean that I could see the musicians, but that the people in the music, and of the music, were with me.

Modern American audio technology descends from equipment developed initially for movie theaters. In 1926, the Vitaphone system was designed by Western Electric for the first talkie, The Jazz Singer. The speaker was driven by a compression driver called the Western Electric 555, known also as the Loudspeaking Telephone. At the time, Western Electric was the manufacturing arm of Bell, and this equipment, rather than being sold, was only leased, the way that telephones once were. In the late Twenties, quality home audio was still decades away, no matter where you lived.

The world of domestic hi-fi audiophilia began to take shape after World War II. Audio magazine and High Fidelity magazine launched in 1947 and 1951, respectively. Home hi-fi manufacturers had emerged, along with LP records. For certain middle-class consumers, the hi-fi system became an essential locus of home entertainment. A Scottish engineer named D.T.N. Williamson published the schematic for a tube amplifier that was regarded for years as the standard for audio quality. An antitrust lawsuit forced Western Electric out of the audio business, and its speaker division was spun off into a company that eventually came to be known as Altec, which continued to make descendants of the horn-loaded speakers Western Electric introduced. Around the same time, a man named Paul W. Klipsch started a high-end speaker company in Arkansas. His signature product, the Klipschorn, was of the same family as the Western Electric gear and the first of its kind to be sold directly to American consumers. According to Jim Hunter, the program manager at the Klipsch Museum, Klipsch thought that high-end audio began with the Western Electric 555 driver. He was a fan of triode amplifiers, and believed in the pursuit of high efficiency and low distortion. A baseline for audio health was created by men who came up during the age of DIY crystal radio sets, when a music-making machine was something you could have only if you built it yourself.

While Americans had the money to excel as consumers, the Japanese became expert curators and repairmen. Faced with a weak postwar economy, music lovers in Japan preferred to repurpose gear rather than buy it new. In the late Fifties and early Sixties, Japanese movie houses gradually upgraded to locally made pro audio, and the older stuff made its way into surplus shops. The used gear became part of listening rooms and jazz cafés. Eventually, Japanese magazines like MJ began to document the horns and tubes community, complete with schematics and photographs.

Against my better judgment, I found myself becoming an outlet for the resentments and niche preoccupations of the people who make speakers. Despite their shared passion, this group does not a happy family make. The only two points of consensus for many are the Western Electric 555 driver and Sound Practices, an independent magazine started in 1992 by the anthropologist Joe Roberts. With this slim, well-designed zine, subtitled “The Journal for Audio Experimenters,” Roberts endeavored to break away from the progress-fixated commercial audio world and, as its slogan put it, “look at things a little bit differently”—allowing a band of enthusiasts to delve deeply into the history of sound equipment. Reichert published his first piece there, long before he became an influential columnist for Stereophile. This cohort of audiophiles became central to what is now called the triode horn mafia—a term referring to the type of low-wattage amps and simple horn speakers the group favored.

Reichert had initially met fellow travelers through a stapled-together newsletter called Audiomart, published throughout the Eighties by Walt Bender, a sound aficionado based in Virginia. People who knew their onions looked there to hunt for vintage gear. The listings in Audiomart formed a breadcrumb trail for the triode horn crew. Most ended up working at, or wandering through, an audio store called fi, in SoHo. Sound Practices had the reach, but the store was where the players wired their ideas into reality. In a 2017 blog post, one admirer described its owner Don Garber modifying a tube amplifier: “Every time he made it simpler, it sounded better.” This is the triode horn credo.

Reichert and other Audiomart people (including the filmmaker Vincent Gallo) spread the Roberts gospel, a key principle of which was that recovering old technology was the key to the future of the field. One early Sound Practices article featured a writer building the classic Williamson amp design with newer tubes and recording the performance results. Another sang the praises of the Western Electric 555, which is still selling in the high four figures on eBay, with most potential buyers bidding in yen or won.

Reichert describes Roberts as a “puppet master,” someone “more comfortable behind the scenes.” I found him in September 2021, when he was preparing to move from Washington to Philadelphia. When we finally got onto a video call, he cleaned a layer of schmutz from his computer camera. We were eighteen months into the pandemic and this was his first Zoom.

“I hide from people,” he explained.

After we talked a few times, Roberts told me that he prefers email, and our correspondence moved on to the question of what is and what isn’t a good musical sound. Or maybe we talked about good-sounding music. It wasn’t always clear to me. There is a push-pull in this group. It’s hard to tell who is doing it right when, according to any two of them, everyone is doing it wrong. Roberts and other enthusiasts I spoke to—several of whom reject the term “audiophile”—remind me of poets who have little access to money or prestige and fight one another with a particularly vigilant acrimony, though their professed goal is spiritual or intellectual elevation.

One of the disagreements concerns how sound should be discussed in the first place. For Roberts, the rhetorical slide away from reason that took place in the Eighties was in part because of a writer named Harry Pearson, who died in 2014 and extolled the idea that reproducing some definitive, objectively accurate sound was the ultimate aim. Pearson’s magazine, The Absolute Sound, is still publishing, and his conceptual frameworks remain influential. Roberts praised him as a writer, but objected to his use of “geometric concepts” and terms taken from photography, like “transparency” and “imaging.”

“Eventually it became what linguists call a dead metaphor,” Roberts wrote to me. “We got stuck with language that is both imprecise and irrelevant to the musical truth.” He continued:

The problem is not that visual metaphors are used for sound, it’s the idea that visual perception and aesthetics are taken to be a valid modeling system for musical perception and aesthetics. We have a language to work with in this arena of perception, whereas for sound we really don’t. Half the time, people can’t even define what these terms mean, and who knows what each user’s private interpretation is, not to mention hearing acuity and flat-out taste.

Audio is a field very susceptible to non-stick syndrome, which you sense when you run into terms like “transparency.” Klipsch himself responded “bullshit!” so often to his competitors’ audio claims that the company printed the word bullshit on T-shirts and buttons.

Devon Turnbull, the founder of the audio company Ojas, started reading Sound Practices and traveling to Japan in his early twenties. At forty-three, he is too young to have been part of the original triode horn mafia, but he has befriended the surviving members and continues in their tradition. Turnbull’s Ojas systems have been placed in several Supreme stores and used in one of the late designer Virgil Abloh’s art shows. In September 2021, I started visiting Turnbull at his home in Clinton Hill. Four months later, he was building speakers for Mark Ronson and Tyler, the Creator.

Turnbull contacted Joe Roberts of Sound Practices and helped him sell off the remaining copies of the magazine on eBay last year. He speaks Japanese well enough, and has frequently traveled to Tokyo to buy vintage gear. Turnbull has a near-complete set of MJ magazine, which he scans for photos of listening rooms. When he told me this, I paused.

“That listening room Instagram account—this is you?” I asked.

“Yup,” Turnbull said.

He was wearing limited-edition jeans printed with the artwork from John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme. We listened to Midnight Blue, a 1963 Kenny Burrell album on Blue Note. On a Garrard 301 turntable (accepted by many as a kind of standard) equipped with an Ortofon SPU cartridge (also standard) and sent through a made-to-order combination of Ojas components and speakers, the music felt damp and bright, like a bunch of amplified plants. I had no desire to look at my phone or do anything other than listen. The experience was soothing, at a level deeper than mood. With a triode horn setup like the Ojas, there is a subtle recalibration of the physical world. The system costs roughly $85,000—and in that moment felt more than worth it. “The triode horn thing is the future, not the past,” Reichert told me, and Turnbull seems proof enough of this.

After months of hearing about triodes and horns and wishing that I, too, were, say, a famous Scientologist who could afford a flash rig, I went with Heidi to the actual Oswalds Mill in Pennsylvania, to hear the system that started it for Weiss. The mill is a dark four-story building that’s only slightly modernized. On the third floor is the system that Weiss has been toying with for a decade, the monster to his Frankenstein. From a couch covered with woven saddle bags (“women find these uncomfortable,” Weiss said), I looked at the left-right stereo setup. Each side was anchored by a massive RCA baffle from the Thirties, which measured three feet by three feet, and looked a bit like a speaker cabinet you’d have seen at a rock show in the Eighties. On top of that were three or four small speakers, one of them an actual plasma flame that vibrated quickly enough to create high frequencies. I assumed Weiss was making this up, but the device later killed an insect, and the noise it created was nasty enough to convince me that it was, in fact, a flame.

Weiss pulled out a double LP and put it on. I heard someone strum an acoustic guitar, two chords in a syncopated cycle. This was the opening of “Tudo Que Você Podia Ser,” the first track on Clube da Esquina, a collaboration between a collective of Brazilian musicians that was recorded in 1972 and is usually credited to the singers Milton Nascimento and Lô Borges. There isn’t much popular music better than this record, a block that feels both airy and solid as lead. The intimacy between the friends is easily heard and instantly felt. It’s the kind of thing that stops small talk and makes tough guys confess. What came out of this colossal ziggurat of speakers was not something I’d ever heard, though I’ve played the album over a hundred times.

In the following months, I developed a new way of thinking about how we listen to music, together or alone. My alliterative schema for the various listening environments, designed to be annoyingly mnemonic, is corner, club, cathedral, and cocoon. The corner (as in street corner) is where people take priority over sound, and this model encompasses both a block party using a multi-speaker sound system on the street and the digital commons of web radio stations and streaming platforms like Mixcloud and SoundCloud. One of my favorite web radio stations, LYL Radio, was established by Lucas Bouissou, who stated his view firmly: “About audio quality, honestly, I don’t give a shit.” LYL Radio is very much the corner, in every sense.

The cathedral is an environment built by the audiophile, where reflection is the norm. You don’t have to be alone, but if there are a bunch of listeners together, you’re not talking to one another. You listen, and only listen. One arrives here with a certain amount of time and money, introducing an exclusive element, which I don’t love, but if I imagine a house of worship with its doors flung wide open, I am less uneasy, because the resources are oriented toward establishing a common good.

The club is halfway between these two points, presenting a certain level of audio quality, but not at the expense of interaction. If there is an emphasis in the club, it is about people connecting through music. The cocoon, meanwhile, is where most people find music now, through earbuds and headphones, locked into the cycle of wage labor or exercise. As cited in a recent thesis about headphone listening by Jacob Kingsbury Downs, the current market for headphones is worth an estimated $25.1 billion. The high-end crowd has higher price points, but they aren’t moving nearly as many units.

The audiophile cohort serves as a volunteer R&D wing for the larger music community, for all four of these nodes. I find myself defending whoever is on the other end of the spectrum from the person I am talking to. When audiophiles start babbling on about old blues records or some dishwater new classical, I make it clear that I love Doja Cat. When someone tells me they are perfectly happy with Spotify and earbuds, I plead with them to listen to a live recording played through a decent setup.

Seen as a whole, the corner, club, cathedral, and cocoon are all healthy options. I am heartbroken that the masters of John Coltrane’s Impulse! recordings were lost in a 2008 fire at Universal Studios. But I still think the existing analog and digital copies of those recordings are good enough to spread the message. An obsession with the quality of recordings is, on some level, antithetical to the spirit of mindful listening. The constant, beautiful, churning production of music in the present moment reminds us that fetishizing the past, rather than simply learning from it, is a non-musical obsession. You can love the texture and living power of recordings—I absolutely do—without losing your goddamn mind. In their back-and-forth manner, all technologies have been improving, even if the peristalsis of history is hard to follow. The necessary gear will be there, somewhere, and even bad gear is good enough for great music.

That said, despite not having the space or money for massive bespoke speakers that move only in micrometers, I finally resolved to make a listening room of my own. I went to see Steve Guttenberg, who hosts a channel on YouTube called Audiophiliac. A small and cheerful man in his seventies, Guttenberg wants “people to have good sound, for not crazy amounts of money.” He discusses several products a week on his channel, and he uses concrete and simple language to do so. I find myself swayed by most of what he says, largely because he seems to rate products based on his own preferences. He also clearly loves music (oddly not a prerequisite in this cohort).

When I dropped by his Brooklyn apartment, he was testing PureAudioProject’s Duet15 Prelude speakers, which don’t rely on a conventional cabinet to house their woofers and tweeters, but instead mount the elements to a flat board in order to produce what Guttenberg called “a more spacious sound.” They sounded sick. I have no idea what they cost and I don’t want to know. What I wanted was for him to tell me about something I could afford.

He suggested the Klipsch RP-600M, a bookshelf speaker made by the same company that first sold high-end audio equipment to home consumers. Although the RP-600M is not a Cornwall or a Klipschorn or a Heresy, the brand’s most famous units, it is a speaker made by a group of people who lived with those models. I assumed a certain institutional spirit would infuse even this lesser iteration.

And there are horns in the speakers! Steve put it in human terms: “The tweeter is mounted in the horn.” The Klipsch website puts it in the vernacular of an advertisement for razors or something:

Leveraging a 1” titanium tweeter matted to our proprietary hybrid Tractrix® horn—the award-winning RP-600M bookshelf speakers deliver incredible acoustics to fill your home with loud, crystal-clear sound and robust bass.

That sort of thing.

A pair of RP-600Ms is priced at $568, but I found one for $350 on eBay. Heidi and I brought the speakers home, and we looked at them on our shelves. They are handsome black rectangles, their lower halves bisected by a gleaming copper cone. We got so excited by the spirit of change they introduced to the apartment that we decided to throw out a rug that had been decimated by mice, a long-delayed task that we estimated would take about an hour. It took the entire weekend and was revolting.

By the time we were finished, it was Monday. I connected the speakers and placed them on either end of our bookshelves, like rooks at the corners of a chessboard. Once they were set up, I played “Small Hours” by John Martyn. It’s quiet music, mostly guitar phrases swelled into focus by Martyn’s right foot on a volume pedal. There’s a bit of delay on the guitar and a muffled heartbeat drum underneath the whole thing, and Martyn doesn’t get around to singing for a few minutes. Though it’s more than forty years old, it sounds completely of a piece with, say, James Blake or Frank Ocean. Through the Klipsch speakers, it sounded alive, drunk, and present. I felt a little reverent, maybe even bashful, about finally having real sound. It was not quite a prayer, but not not a prayer.

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