November 1, 2007
One Christmas, when I was about 11, my mother and father bought me a stereo system. Up till then Id listened to music over a small portable radio or my dads big system in the living room. He had Realistic speakers, and a console that played eight-track tapes and LPs. I had tons of 45s. The model he bought me was from Sears and included a cassette player, a tuner, and a turntable -- man, it was sleek. Dad "upgraded" me right away by replacing the small, wafer-like speakers that had come with the Sears with his much larger Realistics. They did sound much better -- they had deeper bass and a fuller sound. From then on, my search for better sound through better gear was on.
Over the years, I upgraded my stereos often. I think I was around 15 when my father bought me some components from Circuit City -- another Christmas present. I remember an integrated amplifier from JVC that had a built-in equalizer and four floorstanding Criterion speakers. I rocked with those components all the way to college, where I attracted all manner of attention playing AC/DC in my apartment at 1 a.m.
Growing up with rocknroll and my buddies built lasting memories that I carry to this day. My friends and I were always on the lookout for new and exciting music -- who would discover a new band first and memorize all the songs? Whether it was listening to my upgraded Sears model, or to a boombox while playing basketball in my driveway, music was a huge part of my life. My last few years in college, I kept my budding audiophilehood alive with a McIntosh amplifier and preamp-tuner. But at that point in my life I spent more time in my car, so that was the system that got upgraded more often than anything at home.
When I think back on my childhood, I have nothing but fond memories. My friends and I must have spent hours on end making cassette tapes and listening to them until they wore out. My supportive parents let me be a kid, and through my naturally unfolding explorations I developed a love of many things, music being a primary. Reflecting on those years, I know in my heart that the memories I built then are what are most important to me now. The gear was simply a means to an end; in the big scheme of things, the details of it mean little.
In the years since, I sometimes think Ive lost some of my unbridled enthusiasm for music, though my stereo system has certainly improved. Maybe its just the business of life intruding on the time I spend enjoying tunes. But then Ill play a CD I havent heard in a while, or discover a new artist who really kicks, and Ill be right back where I was: listening to music.
These days, Im privileged to be auditioning some of the best gear in the world. Im lucky enough to have a dedicated listening room that has been designed to approach acoustical perfection. I can go out and buy whatever new music I want, whenever I want. Still, I find that being a 39-year-old audiophile is not quite as wholesome an occupation as I wish it were. Part of it is the "business" of the high end -- the backbiting debate about this component or that, the competition over whose widget is the best, the wondering about whether or not one of my reviewers will "get" the Model 2000 Ive just sent him.
Then I put things into perspective and realize that stereo equipment is fairly far down the list of important things in my life. When Im teaching my two-year-old daughter about the orb-weaver spider on our back porch, or I hear about our soldiers dying for our country overseas, I think about exactly what matters most to me. I then realize that getting too worked up about things such as loudspeakers and amps is pretty petty. Were lucky to be in a position to have such luxury items, but theyre just that -- theyre not necessities, nor will they in themselves provide the memories that will last.
My memories of my first stereo arent really about the stereo at all. Theyre about my Dad, and spending time with my family and neighborhood friends, and developing a love of music. I know in my heart that if I traded those Realistic speakers for the best that money could buy back then, I probably would not have increased my enjoyment of music one bit. Instead, its the memories of those times that I relish.
When we get too wrapped up in ourselves and our stereos, wed all be better off if we remembered what really matters. And Dad, maybe its time I upgraded your speakers. I owe you for that Christmas stereo of 27 years ago. (And I can get you something even better than those Realistics.)
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