My immediate excuse for going to see my long-time friend, Don C., in Malakoff, Texas, yesterday was to deliver a box of used classical music CDs, a tiny “DAC,” and a pair of self-powered loudspeakers the size of very small shoeboxes. Don, who is a robust 86, has been a devoted fan of classical music for most of his life. He cannot easily go to live performances any more because his knees groan in protest. So, months ago, after discovering the iTunes software that Apple offers for free, Don began uploading his CD collection to his computer like a mad man. He has also learned how to create iTunes “playlists.” This allows him to enjoy a customized concert of his own creation every evening. For a music lover juggling a large music collection, this is a miraculous thing.
The fly in this ointment — at least for me, although Don never before complained about it — is that, until yesterday, the notes and rests floating about Don’s home office have been coming from loudspeakers no larger than a pair of ice-cream sandwiches. These particular speakers, I happen to know, are the ones a certain computer vendor tossed in for free as inducement for Don to buy a new model. The best that can be said of them is that they reproduce music accurately enough for the tune to be identified correctly most of the time. But they are too small to generate identifiable tones any lower than one octave below middle C. While it cannot be denied that even poorly reproduced music is a great improvement over no music at all, it is also true that music that sounds real is far better than music that doesn’t. The law of diminishing returns sets in quickly here, but I had long suspected that Don is at a point on the curve that makes little sense for him, given his great love for music and the time he devotes to listening to it. So I persuaded him to take for a trial run a pair of speakers that I no longer need, but that have a lot of life left in them.
This was not an easy sell in the beginning. Don was concerned, first, that there was no room on his crowded desk for two speakers the size of small shoeboxes. He was, of course, right about that. So we set them up on either side of his television. If Don decides to keep the speakers, we will eventually move them off the credenza on which the TV rests, and put them on small speaker stands.
He also worried that he no longer hears well enough to justify better stereo equipment. But the best way to see if this was true, we decided, was just to try out the new stuff. So, once the speakers were connected to the DAC and the DAC to the computer — the work of less than five minutes — we opened iTunes and cued Vladimir Ashkenazy to start playing the piano. I watched Don closely as he listened to the opening chords of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2. A look of careful concentration gave way to bemusement as the introductory chords grew louder. Once the orchestra joined in with the principal theme, a wide grin broke across Don’s face. “I can certainly hear that,” he said. “I can make out every note of every part. I’ve never been able to do that before.” We listened to the entire first movement together in giddy silence.
It is possible that Don, who has always adored good music, is now hooked on listening to it in a way that more closely approaches the realism of a concert. But it is also possible that, after giving his new speakers an honest try, he will decide to give them back, in which case it will not be hard for me to find a new home for them. I’d bet a lot on the former, though, because of the excellent point Don made over chicken-salad sandwiches later in the day: There is an important difference between “putting some music on” and actually listening to it. It is, roughly speaking, the difference between having a movie playing in the other room while cooking dinner, and sitting down before the screen with a bowl of popcorn in your lap. Few of us have the luxury of doing that very often. But when we do, and when we choose to devote those precious minutes to music we treasure, wouldn’t it be nice to have equipment around that makes this not only possible, but delightful? Our time on earth is short. Few would consider having a credit-card sized television as the only one in the house. Why do so many of us think nothing of putting up with the speakers computer makers use for packing peanuts?
Some will say that expense is the reason, but I know better. The stereo equipment now in Don’s home office — two active speakers, a tiny DAC, and the cabling required to connect them to each other and to his computer — can be purchased new for about $500. While that is not an inconsequential sum –it’s a car payment or two, depending on what you drive– it’s hard to buy a decent TV for less than that. But most people cannot imagine life without a TV, and they buy a new one every few years. So what it boils down to is how much you value music and how much pleasure you believe it will bring you if reproduced realistically. It’s easy for me (and I suspect for Don) to see that this easily outweighs both the required budgetary trade-offs and the required decorating trade-offs. While it would be overkill for most of us to put together a $50,000 sound system, you can have one like Don’s for roughly 1% of that. If only all decisions in life were this clear.