The Stereo Geeks

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Were you a stereo geek? They were the guys—and they were always guys—who obsessed over their sound equipment. They could talk for hours about wow and flutter and signal-to-noise ratio, and they bragged about the wattage of their systems and the size of their speakers. You’d go over to a stereo geek’s house and he’d put on an album you’d never heard of, crank it up until the pictures on the walls were moving, and with a gleam in his eye, wait for you to react to the glory of the sound. If you were a fellow-traveling geek, you might get the same gleam. If you were not—if you were, like me, a guy who liked music but wasn’t particularly obsessed with sound—you’d try to think of something complimentary to say before your brain started leaking out of your ears.

Here’s a 1984 TV report on the hot new technological breakthrough, the compact disc. While the reporter describes Frank Maiale as a “connoisseur of music,” it’s pretty clear that he’s actually a connoisseur of sound equipment. Watch.

There are several clues to Frank’s stereo geekdom. First, his giant rack of equipment: turntable, tuner, amplifier, equalizer, and other silvery boxes to perform various esoteric functions. Second, his turntable, which in one shot seems to be equipped with a stability device to hold the album absolutely still. Third, after a lifetime of collecting music, he’s got only 600 or 700 albums, which is tiny by serious record-collector standards. Fourth, the breadth of his collection: “from modern electronica to classical acoustic.” But the single biggest clue is when Frank is asked to describe the advantages of the CD: “It’s clean. There’s no noise.”

The “clean” sound of the CD—no clicks, no rumble, and the amazing way in which the sound would rise up from absolute silence—was a major attraction for early adopters. For “clean” was the mantra of the stereo geek. The sound of the music was the thing, and not the music itself. Frank’s record purchases—modern electronica to classical acoustic—would show off the quality of his sound system first and foremost. For those in search of the cleanest possible audio, the CD promised nirvana. A stereo-geek friend once told me, “I don’t care what I listen to as long as it’s clean.”

I was not a member of the geek tribe. My first stereo system was an inexpensive all-in-one unit, turntable and AM/FM radio, received as a gift from my parents circa 1975. (They still use the speakers.) When my dormitory roommate quit school in 1978, I bought his turntable, receiver, and speakers from him. The speakers in our living room today are the ones I bought in 1988.

In general, people care less about sound quality today than in the pre-CD era. Much of our listening is done through earbuds or computer speakers, and the quality of our downloaded MP3s is spotty, even on the ones purchased from reputable online stores. The sound geek is still with us, however. Today, he’s more likely to obsess over the quality of his home theater system than whatever he plays music on.

(Adapted from a piece in my WNEW.com archives.)

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4 responses

  1. I’m kinda in between. I wanted the top of the line stereo because I loved music so much & I fell in love with CDs because of them having no clicks & pops more so than because of their sonic capabilities. I still have my huge component system, but even though I have my HD TV connected to it the system isn’t set up to be true home theater. I find 5.1 and all of that stuff to be over-rated. Do Jon Stewart’s “newscasts” sound funnier in surround sound? Not really. I’ve also grown to love my Klipsch docking station for my ipod classic. It’s amazing how great small speakers can sound these day. Great post!!!

  2. when I was growing up the CAR stereo was the big thing. We loved to blast our tunes at unsuspecting old fogies as we cruised the town. Until the advent of the boombox this was the best way to foist your taste in music on anyone within earshot.

    One guy in town had a giant four-wheel drive (you needed a ladder to get into the cab) and put out so much stereo wattage we joked that he had to play the National Anthem when he turned in for the night.

    And good timing, JB. I see that Ray Dolby passed away. How about of moment of silence? Hey, no hissing from the crowd !!

  3. Frank isn’t really a connoisseur of wine and music. His sport is all about the ritual: carefully removing the album from the shelves, taking it out of the dust jacket, sniffing it, perhaps, putting it in his Groovesucker 5000XR-S Limited Edition disc cleaner, carefully placing the record on the platter of his exotic turntable, installing the record stabilizer, lifting the tone arm and setting the stylus of his $10,000 phono cartridge in the proper lead-in groove, etc. etc. All the better to experience the depth, clarity and fruitiness of the third-chair piccolo on that elusive West German pressing of Lou Reed’s ‘Metal Machine Music.’

    Which is not to say that he doesn’t truly derive joy and satisfaction from his wine and music. But the electrifying excitement of BTO’s “Roll On Down The Highway” slamming from WLS’ 50kW blowtorch signal would be anathema to Frank and his fellow audio snobs. Different folks and all, as Sly once said.

    If for no other reason, Frank has probably moved on to home theater geekiness because his newer, brickwalled CDs would have been sounding even crappier on his high-end stereo setup for nearly the last two decades.

    Being a record geek is much more fun to me. I find it fascinating to discover, for example, that the original White Whale singles of the Turtles’ “Elenore” and “You Showed Me” differed between the “dry” Monarch west coast pressings vs. the “wetter” echo-drenched varietals bottled by the Columbia plant in Terre Haute. Since those White Whale promo 45s were pressed by Monarch in L.A., what you heard on the local top 40 station may not have sounded the same as the record you bought at the local record store. I’d be happier hearing them both over AM radio than through an expensive setup like Frank’s. Think of how many records one could buy for that ten grand phono cartridge outlay alone.

  4. Fantastic Yah!!! Keep ‘em coming!!

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