ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

June 1, 2005

Wristwatches and Audio

Consider the wristwatch. For a modest outlay, you can buy one that communicates with an atomic clock. Its accuracy boggles the mind -- to within fractions of a second per year. Relative to these astonishing instruments, your Timex is crude, gaining or losing, as it can do, as much as a few seconds in the course of a month. My quartz-movement Tag Heuer reads 1:13:02. It doesn’t much matter if atomic-clock time is 1:12:59. As an approximation, 1:13:02 satisfies my needs. Only obsessive-compulsive types require superior accuracy.

Exactitude comes cheap and hardy in the bargain. You can drop a beefy, plastic-encased, quartz-movement watch from a rooftop, and in all likelihood it’ll be working when you pick it up off the pavement. And if it isn’t, it doesn’t cost much to replace.

Conversely, as items of conspicuous consumption, wristwatches are up there with yachts and penthouse condos. And high-end watchmakers disdain quartz movements -- for innards yet more accurate, yet more resistant to shock and abuse, yet longer-lived between battery changes?

Well, actually, no. Upmarket watches -- Rolex, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piquet, Cartier, Baume & Mercier, the sportsman’s Breitling, and so on in luxe -- don’t employ batteries. But you knew that. You also know that the basic operating principle of upmarket watches is both centuries old and, by comparison with quartz technology, unreliable and inaccurate. And this is what folks pay through the nose to acquire. Is this not strange?

Why would Switzerland’s prestige Uhrmachers opt for what, by any reasonable measure, must be deemed hopelessly quaint? Mercedes-Benz roadsters don’t come with buggy whips. The earliest computers used vacuum tubes, which technologists abandoned as soon as silicon-based technology became practicable. No computer end-user ever expressed a preference for creep-along data with greater warmth and midrange liquidity.

There, I said it: vacuum tubes. This little squib is, after all, about audio. Now, while I don’t wish to ignite a firestorm, it has occurred to me that high-end audiophiles have been known to favor components whose cost, complexity, and fussiness challenge those of the world’s most elegant watches. I live a half-hour’s drive from the designer-manufacturer of a turntable-tonearm assembly built to a price that defies belief. Reviewers have rhapsodized over its performance, and I don’t doubt for a moment that it does a spectacular job. And yet one suspects that a not insignificant part of this meticulously crafted device’s allure is the very fact of its superbly machined and assembled complexities.

I don’t have what I’d call fond memories of a familiar household figure, our neighborhood TV repairman, as he yanked tubes from the back of the set, its chassis under a quarter-inch of mouse-gray dust. The guy was nice enough. ’Twas the boob tube’s unreliability that rankled -- my folks more than me, of course; they paid the bills. Please understand, I’m not plumping for solid-state circuitry and digital technology as the only rational games in town. Rather, with respect to exclusivity, I’m drawing what seems a clear line from upmarket watches to aspects of upmarket audio. Analog playback is finicky. Unless you happened on this site by accident or curiosity, you doubtless know what I mean: tonearm and cartridge setups, tracking angles, belt tension and maintenance, vinyl hygiene -- the old, familiar drills. By comparison with solid-state, tubed components are likewise finicky -- a tad less, I’m sure, than our old DuMont console.

And so are upmarket watches. Finicky, that is. I worked with a fellow who came into an inheritance. In a moment of giddy joie de vivre, he dropped ten grand on a watch. I don’t remember the make -- this was long ago -- but it would cost perhaps twice as much today. Anyway, the watch was unreliable. Most of the time, the thing would be off by as much as half an hour, and repairs could not correct the problem. When a quartz movement begins to lose time, it usually means that it needs a fresh battery, which you can have installed by your neighborhood jeweler for a few bucks. Talk about plebian! -- the very image of infra dig!

Logicians tell us that argument by analogy is essentially flawed. Mine parts at the seams when attention turns to digital disc players. In my experience, the drawer’s mechanics and its associated electronics will be the first casualties, and not necessarily the last. In the main, however, no one can deny that solid-state and digital componentry require a whole lot less attention.

Am I suggesting that the audiophile’s notion of the good life is elsewhere than at the carefree edge? And here, dear reader, I take my leave, munching on food for thought. Don’t forget to wind your watch.

...Mike Silverton

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