As a student, I bought a hi-fi system off a room mate. As you would expect from students, it was cheap and functional. It had a Garrard deck, an Amstrad amplifier and Solavox speakers. It gave me many hours of listening pleasure.
When I left college and got a job which gave me disposable income, I went to an auction and bought a Technics amplifier and cassette deck. These items were high quality, and once they were incorporated into my hi-fi system, it was apparent that the overall sound was improved considerably. Over the years it gave me great pleasure.
Eventually I replaced the record deck with a cd player. The powerful Technics amplifier however, was never fully tested. I lived in a terraced house which meant I could only play loud music when I knew my neighbours were out and the ‘loud‘ was only relative. The Solavox speakers were rated at 30 watts and my amp, 80 watts, so any significant volume created distortion in the speakers. Fortunately, my taste in music was somewhat enhanced by distortion, so I didn’t particularly notice.
Then I got married and eventually moved to a detached house with plenty of room. This meant that the Solavox speakers didn’t need to be suspended from the wall anymore. In fact, I could get some decent floor standing speakers and finally upgrade the weakest link in my sound system chain. A little bit of research suggested a pair of Mission speakers was what was needed and a visit to a dedicated hi-fi shop produced a couple of surprises.
Firstly, I could actually test the speakers in a sound proof room before I bought them. Then, when I said I would have them, the shop assistant insisted that I also buy proprietorial speaker cable which looked and weighed like the stuff they lay across the Atlantic.
When I got the speakers home and wired them up to the amplifier I noticed that the amp had the facility to attach an additional set of speakers. An interesting exercise in comparison presented itself, so I wired up both sets of speakers to do a test. A favourite cd was inserted and I waited for a suitable passage of music to switch from the one set of speakers to the other. When I did, a psychological seismic shock occurred. The Solavox speakers sounded like incomprehensible mush when compared against the Mission speakers. It was a fight between an anorexic teenage girl and a pituitary assisted, super heavyweight, Olympic boxing champion. It was a chasm of quality so wide that I couldn’t actually see the other side of the chasm, and I had a moment of existential doubt.
Did it mean that the pleasure I had enjoyed from the original speakers was now somehow invalid? Were those hours of listening pleasure, ersatz? If I had not directly compared the two products, would this doubt have arisen? Did it matter, now that it had? Should I have looked on the positive side and been happy that I had, at last, discovered a better product and that my listening pleasure would, from now on, be enhanced?
But it gets worse.
Once I had given the Solavox speakers away and just had the Mission speakers connected, another temptation arose.
The speakers are rated a lot higher than the amplifier, which means that I can turn the amp to full volume and the sound wouldn’t distort. And as I now live in a detached house with insulated walls, there is nothing to stop me from doing so.
Except there is. The amp is more powerful than my hearing can stand. If I wanted to listen to music at full volume I would have to wear ear defenders, which obviously, defeats the object. This means that I have an amp and a set of speakers that I can never fully appreciate.
I interpreted this as an, opportunity loss and felt vaguely disappointed. I realised I had come to the end of my hi-fi arms race. To continue upgrading was futile.
Some people will be reading this and, being expert with the equipment available in the hi-fi market, be despairing of my standards. But this is exactly my point.
Isn’t this where we are in our consumerist culture? With its limitless array of choices and upgrades, we go through this process of comparison all the time. We call it progress, but a better description of it is, turning up the volume.
We each have different elements to our lives – work, family, hobbies, goals – and we try to improve each of these areas as we go along – a promotion, a new partner, a bigger house, a more adventurous holiday. At some point though, we reach a threshold. We can’t turn up the volume any more without causing pain to ourselves or someone near us.
Consider the razors currently for sale. Those five, vibrating, individually lubricated blades cut bristles just as well as the original single blade did (and can still do, if they haven’t deliberately down graded the quality). All that has happened is that the volume has been turned up. Adding a sixth blade isn’t going to produce a closer shave but you can be sure it will be marketed as a ‘better’ product.
We live in a society today that has the volume knob already rammed up to 10 and the noise is so loud that we have unknowingly crossed the threshold from excitement into pain. Just look at the evidence in the mental health statistics.
The only solution the industrialised system has to offer is to produce a volume knob with the number 11 etched on it. It’s a mindset that will eventually destroy our ability to appreciation the very things that we claim to value.
It is time to turn down the volume and to listen to the music again, to appreciate the subtle rhythms and harmonies of life. This is my song, but who will hear it, amidst the noise?