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Finding the Perfect High-End Stereo Equipment Can Be a Journey into Musical Madness
Matt Kramer
From the Print Edition:
Linda Evangelista, Autumn 95

(continued from page 1)

"No problem," he replied, with the same breezy self-assurance Satan uses in finding new recruits.

What happened next is what moralists call a cautionary tale. I still had the Rotel CD player and amplifier. And now I had this California Audio Labs Transport and DAC. Here was a rare chance to see, or rather, hear whether anything could possibly justify such an exorbitant price difference--and for a compact disc player, no less. After all, isn't it just a matter of zeroes and ones being read by a laser beam bouncing off microscopic pits in the disc? It's all abstract wizardry, not the easily imagined effects of a needle furrowing its way in a vinyl groove.

Since the Rotel CD player was already hooked up, I played a track on it first. Then I switched the interconnect wires to the California Audio Labs setup and played the same track on it. Everything else was the same--the amp and preamp, the speakers, etc.

I couldn't believe what I heard. It simply wasn't possible. It was like seeing a night sky in the desert. Who could ever have imagined there were so many stars? The music simply came alive on the high-end CD player. It wasn't just a matter of a little more bass or treble. Instead, there was a whole new depth and dimension to the sound. I called to my wife and asked her to go into the living room, where she couldn't see the equipment. I repeated the comparison. "The second one was really something," she reported. "Let's get that one," she said happily. I couldn't bring myself to tell her the price. Still, I was uneasy. I guess I could find the money, but jeez, $2,390 for a CD player?

That evening, I was conducting a wine-tasting class. The group trooped in and spied all the audio gear arrayed in the kitchen, wires trailing everywhere. "What's this?" they asked. I told them the story--leaving out the price difference. "Nonsense," said one. "Ridiculous," said another. "Bits is bits," said a third, who is computer-savvy.

"OK," I replied. "Go into the living room and I'll play you the same track on each CD player. And you tell me if there's any difference."

Keep in mind that this group of wine tasters was a pack of Burgundy junkies, the sort who ponder such lunacies as whether a producer's plot is on the upper or lower slope of a five-acre vineyard. The sort who long ago became inured to the idea of a wine selling for 200 bucks a bottle.

I ran the comparison and then walked into the living room to hear their reactions. The response was as close to a stunned silence as that opinionated bunch of Burgundy hounds had ever gotten. "Whatever the second one was, get it," opined one. This was echoed by everyone present. "I can't believe it," said another. Unprintable expletives were voiced, followed by the word "incredible." They were right. And I was hooked.

If you detect in this saga a sense of pleasure mingled with pain, you are correct. A really great stereo system is a joy beyond most of our imaginings. I suggest you pursue it if you have any interest in music. But I cannot tell a lie: Getting a really good system takes time and trustworthy advice. And keep an eye on your wallet. It is possible to get a stellar system for a price that most of us would consider reasonable--for something of dramatic quality. Of course, you can also spend more money than most people make in a year. Then again, look at how much money we plunk down for the likes of a Lexus, BMW or Mercedes-Benz. Their quality is enduring and enlightening. A great stereo system has those same possibilities.

But remember whom you're dealing with. Audiophiles are not really into music--no matter how much they protest to the contrary. Their real passion is sound reproduction. Music is just a vehicle for testing the sound reproduction capabilities of their components.

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