This Magic Moment

I remember the Tuesday night that music broke free of my hi-fi. The sound stirred my soul—everything was so right that I was tempted to call over my audiophile pals to earwitness its magnificence. But I didn’t, fearing that sharing the sound might break the spell cast first by the Allman Brothers Band’s At Fillmore East (2 LPs, Capricorn ST-CAP 712223 VSRP), then by Jimi Hendrix’s Live at the Fillmore East (CD, MCA MCAD2 11931). By the time Hendrix got to “Machine Gun,” I could almost smell the pot wafting up to the Fillmore’s top balconies. Next came John Mayall’s unplugged album The Turning Point (CD, Polydor 314 549 432-2)—the best-sounding Fillmore recording, in my opinion—and capping that Tuesday night was the Incredible String Band’s Live at the Fillmore 1968 (CD, Hux HUX 137). I swore I’d never have to change my system ever again. The sound was perfect.

Wednesday eve was a different story. Some of that magic had vaporized. Mind you, I hadn’t changed a thing—no cable swapping, no adjusting of cartridge VTA, no monkeying around with DAC filters, no nothing. My SME Model 15 turntable with SME 309 tonearm and Koetsu Urushi Sky Blue cartridge, Parasound Halo JC 3+ phono preamp, Oppo UDP-203 universal Blu-ray player (used as a transport), Schiit Audio Yggdrasil DAC, Pass Laboratories XP30 preamp and XA25 power amp, and TAD Micro Evolution One speakers all sound freakin’ great every night.

But that Tuesday night the stars had aligned, and sound and music had reached another level. Such nights arrive according to no set schedule—I’m lucky to get one a month. If only there were some way to experience such epiphanies every night.

Well, some things were different on Wednesday. First, I hadn’t repeated Tuesday afternoon’s deliciously wonderful shiatsu massage. I was super-relaxed Tuesday evening, and my wife, Robin, was out with friends—our apartment was unusually quiet, and I do tend to play music louder when she’s not home. On Tuesday the weather had been cool and dry—on Wednesday, it was warmer and more humid, and that night I’d had pizza for dinner and should have stopped after three slices; I felt a tad bloated. Do you think any or all of that contributed to the difference I heard in the sound of my system on Tuesday and Wednesday nights? Duh.

Craving a fix of Tuesday’s magic, on Wednesday I played some of the same Fillmore albums I’d played the night before. Somehow, they weren’t quite as stirring. The music was just as great, but when the sound didn’t make my pulse race, I began to fret about not getting there. My head was literally in a different place—I was sitting up straighter. I was thinking, too, that maybe the AC power had been unusually clean Tuesday evening—that had to make a difference, right? Or was it the cumulative effect of many little differences that had taken the sound down a peg or two?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who goes through these kinds of changes with their hi-fi: one night the sound is glorious, and the next night you wonder where all the wonder went. Then, if the hits of dopamine from your pleasure centers don’t hit in the next few nights, you might be tempted to do something rash: to upgrade this or that to reach some imaginary sonic plateau, even if all the right stuff—the stuff that got you there in the first place—is still there in front of you. Could it be a simple matter of rearranging those little throw rugs in front of my speakers to lock in the sound . . . ? Ah, that’s better!

When your system has a bad case of the blahs and you start frantically changing things in hopes of getting the magic back, more often than not you’re just digging yourself deeper into a hole. Take it from me: On those days when, for no good reason, my system doesn’t sound right, I turn it off and do something else. A few days later, it’s back to normal.

I’ve noticed that the level of ambient noise in my apartment changes with the flow of traffic outside my windows. A lifelong city dweller, I find traffic noise easy to ignore, but there’s no denying that it takes a toll on the sound of my system. Of course, refrigerators, fans, air-conditioners, etc., also raise the level of ambient noise in a house or apartment, and the more ambient noise there is, the more music’s low-level details are masked. Varying levels of ambient noise must take some of the blame for changes in a system’s sound from day to day.

How loudly we listen to any given recording is yet another factor. This would be easier to deal with if recordings were mastered at a reference volume level and that information was included with the recording, but they’re not and it isn’t. In determining the “correct” volume for a particular recording, we audiophiles are on our own. I suppose the more obsessive among us could note down their own personal reference levels: the volume level or setting they prefer for each album or tune they listen to. Then again, as system components come and go, there’s no practical way of ensuring you playing music at the same level every time.

All of this can drive you crazy. Of course, your mood will affect how you experience music, and not just music from your hi-fi—live concerts, too, are no less influenced by mood. Ditto food, art, sex, and pretty much anything else that can be experienced. As for my system right now, it’s sounding awfully sweet, and I’m feeling good—or is it the other way around . . . ?—Steve Guttenberg

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