In the 1960s and 1970s, audio manufacturers played games with specifications, because they perceived that what hi-fi buyers of the time wanted was Really Good Numbers. Eventually the FTC stuck its beak into the proceedings and decreed a standard for power output: that “280-watt” amplifier would become “42 watts RMS per channel, all channels driven, 20-20,000 Hz, ± 2 dB, 0.5% THD, 8 ohms.” As with other Federally-approved numbers cf. “EPA city mileage” this tells you some things and doesn’t tell you others. This particular amp sits in my living room. If I fed it nothing but sine waves, I’d presumably get exactly the numbers the Feds ordered. Music, however, isn’t continuous tones: it’s peaks and valleys. And for very brief peaks, the box might actually deliver more than 42 watts: as much as 70, in fact. Given that this is a four-channel amplifier, you can multiply 70 x 4 and suddenly there’s that “280” rating. But that rating, too, conceals a lot: mostly, that the difference between 70 watts and 42 watts is only about 1.66 dB. And none of those numbers will tell you what you really want to know, which is “How does it sound?”
Back then, there were two markets for sound equipment: hi-fi and lo-fi. Today there are three: Real Crap, Average Crap, and Hideously Expensive But Good. A catalog from a dealer catering to the latter arrived this past week, and its cover photo tells the story: a rack of gear that cost as much as my house, off to the side a tube-powered amplifier, and seated off to the right, a fashion model, presumably expensively dressed, her expression suitably dreamy. I’d hazard a guess that guys who blow $100k on audio gear probably might not date a lot, but not being a member of this class, I could be wrong, and besides, the young lady is quite lovely, which tends to mess with my capacity to rationalize.
And I have to admit, I like the idea of a $13,000 turntable. (Tonearm sold separately.) At the very least, it hews to the idea that the closer you get to Utter Perfection, which of course is denied us mere mortals, the faster the price goes up, a characteristic found in most other activities as well. Most of those dollars seem to have gone into making sure that no stray vibrations of any sort find their way to the stylus and thus into your speakers, a laudable goal. But still: thirteen thousand dollars? I paid $12,400 for a car this past summer. (Don’t ask me about its alleged “200-watt” audio system.)
I must disclose here that some of the accessories in this catalog are items I actually own, and there are a couple of them I could see adding to the arsenal, had I a few zillion dollars to spare; this gizmo, for instance, actually de-warps records, assuming you haven’t done something foolish like leave them in the sun. And that amplifier of mine is now thirty-one years old, ready for banishment to the dreaded Auxiliary System. I doubt, however, that I’m going to put out five or six digits for new sound equipment: contemporary CDs are mastered for Maximum Loud, and the hell with dynamic range; most of my other new acquisitions are MP3s and/or AACs, which are compressed anyway; and how much good will the finest equipment do for a scratchy old 45? (Dave Marsh once said that the sound of Gary “U.S.” Bonds’ “Quarter to Three” possessed “peculiar unity”: “I’ve played it on stereo systems ranging from $49.95 to $10,000, and the equipment makes no difference.”) Of course, should someone discover that high-end audio does in fact enhance one’s ability to lure beautiful women in short black dresses into one’s home, I’ll grit my teeth and write the check.