Memories: Best of, Vol.1

July 15, 2023 0 By JohnValbyNation

It happened 30 years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday: My best friend’s brother’s friend showed me his record player—an AR turntable equipped with an SME 3009 Mk.III tonearm and a Shure V15 Type V-MR cartridge—and offered to sell it to me at a price that, until that moment, I would never have considered spending for a complete system. “It’s audiophile gear,” he said with a knowing smile.

Audiophile? The word sounded exotic—and grown-up.

It was love at first sight, even before I’d heard a single note played on this nonconformist record player—a product category, I would soon learn, that audiophiles tribally refer to as a source, another exotic term that immediately appealed to me. The fact that this wondrously pragmatic-looking source, assembled from audio components built by perfectionist manufacturers, also made music that sounded better than everything else I’d heard from its mainstream-market counterparts—more detailed, more bold, more fruitful— made me an instant disliker of mainstream audio. On the spot, I bought that AR setup and never looked back.

It’s a favorite audio memory that also serves as a profound reminder that I was fated to be an audiophile. We all have them: memories of audio events that stand above the rest, whose impact on us remains so strong that we feel compelled to share them with complete strangers:

“Ray Charles’s studio, November 15, 1988,” begins the favorite memory of award-winning mastering engineer Steve Hoffman. “It was the first time I heard Ray’s [recording of Hoagy Carmichael’s] ‘Georgia On My Mind’—a song I had listened to for years on my little 45 record—from the actual stereo master tape. Hearing that tape, made in 1961 by recording engineer Robert Arnold on a vacuum-tube Ampex 300-3 recorder, through big Rogers studio monitors powered by 1963 McIntosh MC60 vacuum-tube electronics, in the presence of Brother Ray himself, was a glorious moment in my high-end awakening. It’s when I realized that there was so much more to the music than what I was hearing at home on my old record. That day, I vowed to reproduce that exact same sound in my recordings.”

As befitting his past as a standup comedian, our very own analog guru to the world, Michael Fremer, chose a favorite memory imbued with humor: “It’s 2017. I am on a Japan-bound Boeing 777 to attend the Tokyo International Audio Show. Before the plane leaves the airport gate, the pilot exits the cockpit to do some pre-flight business. It looks serious. Then the pilot turns around, locks eyes with mine, and comes running down the aisle, exclaiming loudly and excitedly, ‘You are on this flight?’ At first I thought he’d mistaken me for someone else, someone famous. Brad Pitt, maybe. But no! He says, ‘I have some serious turntable issues I need to talk with you about.’ To which I respond, ‘I’d be happy to, but why don’t we do this at baggage claim in Tokyo? I don’t want you to be thinking about turntable adjustments while you’re flying the plane!'”

I asked Michael why, of all his favorite memories, he chose this one: “It was so surprising, that this pilot would get sidetracked by a concern for his audio!”

At the root of the favorite audio memory of Fabio—ex-supermodel, actor, and pop icon—is veteran amp designer Dan D’Agostino, and a crush Fabio had on a pair of D’Agostino’s crushingly heavy amps: “Dan introduced me to his Krell NMA monoblocks. Each weighed over 1000 lb! But the clarity and purity of their presentation was unlike anything I’d experienced before. Songs I had played thousands of times suddenly sounded lusher, fuller, and more nuanced. This started me on a decades-long pursuit for the best sound I could achieve at home. Until recently, I didn’t think my sound could get any better, but then I heard Dan’s Relentless monoblocks at his house in Arizona. Stunning. It’s my new favorite memory. I think it might be time to upgrade again!”

Henry Rollins—punk-rock royalty, actor, radio host, Netflix comedian, and two-time contributor to this Stereophile column—offered a different spin on “a” favorite memory: “I have a recurrent one. I’m a vinyl and analog guy, but I spend months a year on the road, when I’m restricted to listening to music from a laptop to a Shure SHA900 amp to a Soundmatters Foxl Dash 7 speaker system. Don’t get me wrong; it’s a great setup. But after several days of listening to it, my brain seems to remap itself and completely forget my analog system at my house. Then, after weeks or months, I’m back home. As soon as I can I get the amps warmed up and put on a record. A few minutes into listening, a fascinating thing happens. It’s as if everything in me goes from digital to analog, and every sense collectively says, ‘Oh, that’s right. This is music.’ It’s at this time I realize that, on the road, I’ve been listening to the sound of music but not to music itself. It’s a favorite memory: returning home after a long trip and spinning vinyl again.”

Testimonials to the lure of our hobby, these memories now belong to us all. They underscore the notion that beyond any differences between us is kinship: We are brothers and sisters on the audio family tree. Our memories are the stars that shine on that tree. There are billions of stars. A billion audio memories.

To rejig a popular credit-card slogan: “What’s in your head?”—Robert Schryer

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