Getting Real

If you: 1) live in an apartment, condo, townhouse, dorm, or share a house or apartment with someone;

2) are going to, have recently graduated from, or have never gone to college and are not working at all, are working a minimum-wage job, or have just gotten your first job but have loans, Visa/MasterCard/American Express bills, a brand-new car payment, and can’t afford to eat anything but macaroni and cheese anyway;

3) love music and want to get into hi-fi but can’t imagine spending $9000 on a pair of speakers, $2750 on a preamplifier, $7950 for a pair of monoblock power amps, $7900 for a CD transport, and/or $14,000 on a CD processor because you don’t even know what a CD processor is, don’t even make $9000 a year, can’t tell the difference between the Yorx stereo system your dad bought for you when you were in junior high and the ProAc Response Whatevers you saw in the local hi-fi store last weekend when you and your friends decided to see if anyone at Stereophile knows what they’re talking about in the first place; or

4) want your music to sound “good,” whatever that means, because ever since you started reading Stereophile, you’ve gotten your priorities all confused and/or challenged, and you didn’t even know you had priorities—then you just might be living in the Real World.

And if you’re living in the Real World, you just might be interested in joining me as I venture into the nether regions of HiFiLand, into the EW/NS latequator region known as the “Affordable Region”: an area untouched by many, yet talked about behind closed doors and written about on bathroom walls.

We’ll begin our journey by hopping on Virgin-System-Setup Airlines; then we’ll fly over Ecstasy Sea, replan our itinerary, drive across flat, barren wastelands, and end up in three-dimensional mountains. I’ll be your tour guide, taking you into and out of (maybe) the many trials and tribulations that one faces when trying to be hi-fi in a hostile Real World. We’ll encounter many hardships and experience many joys, but we’ll also have a lot of funnnnn, because that’s what music is all about.

New toys
John Atkinson suggested I put together a $2000 “reference system” (that’s what he called it) from components that had already been positively reviewed in Stereophile‘s pages. That way, both I and many of Stereophile‘s readers would already be familiar with the components, and I wouldn’t have to worry about dealing with products of whose value I or the reader was unsure. This would be the system to which I would compare all future components.

I could hardly wait for UPS to deliver the goods. It nearly drove me nuts when my NAD 304 amplifier ($379), then my Rotel RCD-965BX CD player ($600), arrived, and I had to wait three more weeks for my NHT SuperZero/SW2/MA-1 sub/satellite/amplifier system ($930) to come! So until it arrived, JA suggested I use the $173/pair RA Labs Black Gold Mini Reference speakers we had in-house. Okay, I thought, but I sure hope I don’t get stuck with them as my reference speakers—see, because bass is reeeeeeal important to me, and I was reeeeeeally looking forward to that NHT sub.

JA scrounged up a pair of Arcici Rigid Riser stands and some AudioQuest F-18 and Kimber 4PR speaker cables and loaded up his Mercedes. Gathering up Steve Stoner (not Stone—like Gordon Holt, he lives up in Colorado), he jaunted along to my third-floor apartment to help me give my neighbors a reason to hate me. I like my music loud, and most people find much of the music I listen to obnoxious at any level.

JA set up the speakers for me: equidistant from the corners at the long end of my living room. He and SSer did most of the setting up; I drank a beer, told them where I wanted the furniture located (footnote 1), and asked a couple questions, like, “Why do you want the speakers the same distance from the walls?” (footnote 2). JA also pulled the speakers out from the rear wall, where I would have instinctively put them, muttering under his breath about “free space” and “smoother bass.” Apparently while speakers give the most bass against a wall or in a corner, a speaker gives its most musically natural low-frequency balance when arranged to be unequal distances from the three nearest boundaries (two walls, one floor). In any case, JA left me with instructions to experiment with placement: “Placement, placement, and placement are the three most important things in speaker setup!”

After all was said and done, John and Stoner asked me to put something on my new $1200 reference system. I chose Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” (Metallica, Elektra 61113-2), which is a very intense song—I can’t listen to it any way but loud, even if I’m listening to a cassette on my cheap Panasonic portable. I cranked the bass knob on the amp all the way up and turned up the volume. JA and SSer looked at each other, then at me with amused fatherly faces.

I was impressed. The RA Labs even handled the bass on N2DEEP’s “Back to the Hotel”—anyone familiar with rap knows that they like to go heavy on the bass, so I was quite surprised that the bass didn’t bottom out on these 14″ H by 8″ W by 8″ D speakers. They started to compress when pushed to loud volumes, but other than that, I enjoyed my time with the RA Labs. For $173/pair, I’d recommend them to any Real Worlder in a heartbeat.

Bigger, better toys
Then the NHTs arrived. Stoner and I took them to my apartment and ripped open the boxes. My heart began racing as I plunged into the sea of styrofoam packing popcorn, and as I pulled my first little SuperZero out of the depths, I began dancing around my living room to the sound of my own hearty “Whoooo-peeeee!!!” I felt like I was seven years old on Christmas Day and had just opened my 34th present after having eaten all the Christmas cookies we left for Santa the night before. I unpacked the other SuperZero, the SW2, and the MA-1 monaural amp for the SW2, popped the little ‘Zeros on top of the RA Labs sitting on top of the Arcici stands, set the SW2 on the floor near the table where my CD player and amp were sitting, and pulled the speaker cables off the RA Labs and screwed them onto the ‘Zeros (footnote 3). I was ready to rock’n’roll—I didn’t care about the placement of any of the speakers, I just wanted to listen to mah music!

“Hmmm…which one first?” I asked myself as I leafed through the pile of CDs I’d just pulled out of the rack.

“Well, while you’re trying to decide,” replied Stoner, “let me listen to this Carlene Carter song.”

“My turn to play a song!” I shouted over the music, shaking the jewelbox of Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville at him as the Carter song neared its end.

“Okay. Then I want to play this Dave Edmunds song…”

This went on all night. I was loving it—couldn’t get enough. The music sounded great. What that meant to me at the time was: the bass went deeeep, and was well-integrated with the highs, which were clean; I could listen to it loud all night long without my ears starting to bleed.

Footnote 1: I have very little furniture in my apartment: a twin-sized futon on the floor, a couple end tables near the walls, one chair, a TV sitting atop a milk crate, and now my stereo.

Footnote 2: Something like, “The symmetry in each speaker’s immediate acoustic environment maximizes the imaging stability and accuracy,” was the answer. Huh? What I think he meant is that you have to position the speakers symmetrically, otherwise the musical information will bounce sporadically off the walls, causing a general state of musical chaos. Or something.

Footnote 3: This has proven an arduous task: the cumbersomely small, round terminals on the SuperZeros are awkwardly angled into the back of the speaker. I find it extremely difficult to tighten them down onto the spade lugs on the speaker cables—and my hands aren’t that big.

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