(Un)healthy Obsessions

During a ferocious storm one recent Saturday, firefighters knocked on my door and urged my family and me to evacuate. The gale had smashed loose a neighbor’s large propane tank and plunged it into the choppy waters of the fjord we live on. An explosion was possible, we were told. Five minutes later, our teenage daughters, our dogs, and my wife and I were in the car on our way to safety. (No blast occurred.)

Coincidentally, the last thing I’d read that turbulent morning was the Washington Post‘s front-page story about the late Ken Fritz (above), a diehard audiophile who’d spent 40 years creating “the best stereo system in the world,” and, as I wrote in the April 2024 issue’s My Back Pages, alienating members of his family in the process. Both the evacuation and the Fritz tale put me in a pensive mood. If you’ll pardon the triteness, each reminded me that life is precious and fragile, as are our relationships with loved ones. We can’t afford to take either for granted.

But the newspaper article and its aftermath proved exasperating at the same time. Many of the 3500-plus reader comments were cruel. An impromptu posse sneered and jeered at the “miserable” and “pathetic” dead man who had supposedly “wasted his life.” Perhaps those commenters forgot that Fritz was an entrepreneur who’d built a successful business and provided for his family until he died. Who the hell were they to judge his entire earthly existence? It’s true that Fritz divorced his first wife, who the Post article said was an alcoholic, and that he severed ties with his oldest son after a terrible argument. But he seems to have had a loving bond with his second spouse, who was by his side until the end. His daughters helped him operate his turntable and remotes when ALS destroyed his fine motor skills.

A father and son becoming estranged is grievous indeed. But let’s be real: Billions of familial relationships are weighed down by quiet grudges and resentments. That’s as regrettable as it is common. Who doesn’t have a skeleton or two in the family closet, or dirty laundry they’d rather not see aired in, say, the Washington Post? How many of the backbiters in the comments section were on their second or third marriages when they wrote those snide, spiteful assessments?

I was also mystified by the schadenfreude over the man’s million-dollar stereo system fetching only 15 cents on the dollar when it was sold off. No audiophile I know believes that his or her equipment is a future fount of money. The dividends our stereos pay are in the here and now—in how satisfying the ownership experience is and how deeply it pulls us into the music. Why is it sad that Fritz didn’t get all his money back after he was dead? No one in their right mind would apply that logic to smokers, drinkers, or people whose hobbies are travel, gastronomy, gambling, boating, personal aircraft, or luxury shopping sprees.

Like other passionate pursuits, the quest for perfect sound carries the virus of obsession. Remember Takeo Morita, the Japanese audiophile who spent $40,000 erecting a utility pole to ensure clean power? Online, scads of fixated ‘philes brawl over MQA, R2R vs Delta Sigma DACs, and the ideal shape and weight of $5000 tonearms. I’ve heard hi-fi devotees sort-of quip that they’d find it hard to choose between their stereo system and their romantic partner (footnote 1). Among evergreen audiophile tropes is the one about sneaking stereo purchases past a spouse who is kept in the dark about the product’s sudden presence, especially its cost. “Isn’t that the same,” my friend Justin Hunting asked rhetorically, “as alcoholics hiding bottles around the house where their significant other won’t find them?”

Justin ought to know. A 40-something cinematographer who lives in Norfolk, England, he’s been bitten deeply by the audio bug. Maimed, perhaps. He calls himself “literally a junkie.” In the span of a few minutes, he can go from “High-end equipment makes me very happy” to describing it as an oppressive yoke. “It’s a type of hoarding,” he ventures, something that stems from “abandonment and loneliness.”

Years ago, Justin promised a girlfriend a romantic weekend abroad and ended up taking her to a fleabag hotel in the UK because he’d spent all his money on an amplifier. A man of wry wit, he used to call his stereo PAM, an acronym for People Avoidance Method.

Here’s a conversation we had just last month. Justin, jokingly: “I’d sell my grandma for some Focal Grande Utopias.” Me: “Now I’m worried about your grandma.” Justin: “She’s dead.” Me: “How are the Grande Utopias?”

We laughed, but there remained a certain heaviness. Justin has spent so much on his audio system, and so fast, that it’s now worth triple what it was 18 months ago—around $200,000, he reckons. Movie jobs notwithstanding, this profligacy is unsupported by a steady income. A few years ago, Justin made a lot of money in cryptocurrencies, but he says it’s pretty much gone now. Meanwhile, his elderly dad is in a care facility that almost doubled its price earlier this year. Justin pays the home’s monthly bills, but his finances are precarious. “If my dad’s life insurance doesn’t cough up, I’ll be in serious debt,” he told me.

He knows that the pace and level of his stereo purchases aren’t sustainable. One recent Tuesday, he texted me in an apparent state of elation, saying he’d stepped off the hedonic treadmill (footnote 2). “I’m done buying gear. Talking to you has cemented it. I’m out. I’m free.” He then sent me a GIF from The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins as Andy Dufresne smiling quietly after his prison break.

Twelve days later came another text. Justin, who owns three subwoofers including a $7000 REL No.31 and a $10,000 Perlisten D215s, had decided he needed a fourth. “The Perlisten D15 is $6000, but I think I can get it down to under 5k,” he explained excitedly. At best, it sounded like a pyrrhic triumph.

People like Ken Fritz and Justin Hunting, though intelligent and colorful, serve as reminders that we should probably stay within the zone between “far out” and “too far.”

Or, as liquor ads remind us, in small type so as not to spoil the fun: Enjoy, but consume responsibly.

Footnote 1: See shorturl.at/ilPS5 for an example.

Footnote 2: See psychologytoday.com/us/basics/hedonic-treadmill.

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