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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.)