Life Lessons From A Record Store

I’m sitting in my music room; well, I’m lounging in my music room. Lying? The only pieces of furniture in here are a daybed and a small end table, so I guess that’s a more accurate reflection of my posture. My music room isn’t as sparse as that suggests, though: It’s packed with records, tapes, and of course a stereo.

My stereo is nothing to brag about, but it sounds good enough. The room isn’t that big, after all, and I’m no audiophile. In the home stereo world there are basically two kinds of people: music lovers and gear lovers. Gear lovers, or audiophiles, spend thousands on their equipment. Never mind “how much did you spend on your turntable,” we’re talking “how much did you spend on your turntable’s tonearm” territory, and the answer to that can be as much as $35,000. Audiophiles can rattle off dizzying lists of specifications for every component in their systems.

Music lovers tend to spend just enough on equipment to get a good sound and hopefully ensure the lives of their records. As neophyte music lovers we all had cruddy gear–department store all-in-ones with auto changers that dropped once pristine albums onto hard plastic turntables. These were the Crosleys of their day, and I didn’t know a kid (including me) who didn’t have one in his or her bedroom. But those of us who evolved from casual music listeners to music lovers eventually saved up money and bought component systems. My first good stereo, purchased in 1983, cost me close to a thousand bucks: $500 for the receiver and speakers, $300 for the turntable, and $150 for the cassette deck. The audio fidelity of my new system was separated by light years from that of my junky little Emerson record player. It was like going from a transistor radio to a symphony hall.

Back then I had a good buddy whose father was an audiophile. Entering their music room was a bit like Indiana Jones finding himself in the inner sanctum, the golden idol glowing inside a single shaft of light. That’s actually not much of an exaggeration: Every connection in his dad’s system was gold, which is a much better conductor than whatever was inside of my thousand dollar system. His turntable’s plinth was made from some exotic hardwood that was polished to a glossy finish; his speakers were the size of small refrigerators. His system had to cost ten times what mine did, but the audio fidelity of the two stereos was separated by inches. It was like going from a symphony hall to a larger symphony hall.

Any audiophile would disagree with this assessment because of megahertz and cycles and wattage and blah blah blah, which is really the difference between audiophiles and music lovers: The latter spend up to the point that their ears are satisfied, specifications be damned. The one point that the two groups agree on, though, is that the compressed music people stream through their tiny earbuds and smart speakers sounds like crud.

But that doesn’t mean that music lovers don’t blow money like a drunken congressman. We just spend it on media: records, CDs, and tapes. Audiophiles buy these things, too, but they approach media much in the same way that they buy equipment. They will only buy specific pressings of albums because this one was pressed at such and such and that pressing came out of factory so and so. Just a few weeks ago I was hanging out at my local record store when a dude brought a Mobile Fidelity copy of Billy Joel’s The Stranger up to the counter. “Great album,” I said, because that’s what you say in a record store when somebody is about to drop 50 bucks on a record.

“I hate it,” the purchaser said, and then he launched into a lengthy explanation about megahertz and cycles and wattage and blah blah blah while I smiled and nodded and tried not to look baffled that he was going to go home and listen to a record he hates because it will sound great on his system.

This all probably sounds horribly critical of audiophiles, but that’s not my intention. They’re just enjoying a different hobby that is superficially related to mine. An audiophile would flip through my records and see junk; a music lover would see gold (well, maybe silver). It’s a bit like the difference between people who like to drive cool cars and people who like to build cool cars. “How can you not know the gear ratio of the rear end of your own damned GTO?” the builders ask. “I don’t know, I just like to drive it,” the drivers reply.

There’s a life lesson in all of this, but I can’t quite tease it out. It’s something to do with tribalism, I think, or the notion that while we may be superficially talking about the same topic, what we value dramatically shapes our perceptions of that topic. While you’re on YouTube with your earbuds and audiophile guy is sitting in front of his six-figure stereo system with refrigerator-sized speakers, what you have in common is that you’re both listening to “Just the Way You Are.” You can either embrace that commonality or bicker about what separates you.

I don’t know, maybe not. The one thing I’m certain of is that I should get up off of this daybed and file some records. They really pile up when you’re a music lover.


Categories: op-ed

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2 replies »

  1. My turntable in my music room is an Ion brand. If I had a $1000 turntable I’d be afraid to play used records on it. Lol. I spent a while making videos for The Vinyl Community on YouTube. It was always interesting to see the array of turntables people used.

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