Awhile back, Henry Rollins wrote a feature for Stereophile, a monthly rag for hi-fi enthusiasts and nerds. Henry is hardly a nerd. To wit this statement, he wrote in his article entitled “I Am an Audiophile”: “People can hurl any epithet they want about the snobbishness they think audiophiles retain. Let them drink their wine from boxes. The sound of my Bob Ludwig-mastered pressing of Led Zeppelin’s Houses of the Holy coming through my system cuts through their contempt like Toshiro Mifune’s katana blade!”
Them’s fightin’ words, and I love it. Henry addresses the listeners of his KCRW radio show as “fanatics,” and Henry himself is a music über-fanatic. I am, too. So even though I don’t listen to Scott Walker records with my volume turned up to 4 o’clock, as audiophiles, Henry and I have plenty in common and I feel kinship. In the world of audiophilia, there is the ineffable search for what is known as the ‘high-end,’ which translates to the best audio system you can (or cannot) afford. For audiophiles, the high-end quest rarely stops. However, Henry Rollins, the devoted audiophile that he is, has reached the pinnacle.
Henry and I both have utility systems for auditioning new product, meaning all the CDs that come to us via KCRW every week. In his impassioned pursuit of musical discovery, Henry also makes a point of purchasing at least three new pieces of music per day—both on vinyl and CD for redundancy, depending upon how he’s listening and what type of sound system he has available to him. Anyhow, some decisions I make semiotically: if I see cover art with backlit permed hair à la Twisted Sister, it may be fine for some, but that’s not my style. I can’t use that for my show. Past that, my method involves separating CDs into three categories:
- Worthy and deserving of another audition.
- Really like it—mark tracks on jewel case with sharpie. Revisit on my reference audio system.
Henry and I aim for #3 (above). We want to be completely enveloped by the music we love. We don’t wander into the kitchen and put dinner on the stove or in the microwave while listening. The real music auditions are held while sitting in the ‘sweet spot’ between speakers because we are that serious about music. The French—and I love them for this—have a word for the music lover: melomane. The Anglo-Saxons, being bent on rules and piety and distrust of secular humanism and the arts, don’t have such a word. Likewise, the French have a Minister of Culture; we Americans don’t.
With this kinship in mind, KCRW’s Design and Architecture show host Frances Anderton and I drove up to Henry’s Hollywood Hills pad to do a special feature on hi-fi. It took months of planning to make it happen because the peripatetic Henry is always on the road (he was about to embark on a long trip to the ‘-stan’ countries: Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, and maybe another -stan.) Henry has an insatiable curiosity, which is immediately apparent when you listen to his radio program or read his writings.
We first entered through a massive, black, steel gate worthy of Xanadu, climbing up a steep, narrow driveway that led us up to the structure: a humongous gray, concrete bunker—one hell of a man-cave or his “hovel,” as Henry calls it. Henry’s assistant greeted us at the front door to his audio Shangri-La and showed us into his cavernous living room, which was very sparsely decorated, save for framed band posters lining every inch of wall space, and a sofa that his audio specialist had perfectly positioned in the sweet spot. Facing it were his Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers, standing over six feet tall and weighing in at 662 pounds…each! Moving these would give you a hernia, even if you worked out at Gold’s Gym regularly. Astride these giant speakers were two VTL Siegfried Reference II monoblock amps that were coupled with Henry’s TL-7.5 Series III Reference preamplifier and TP-6.5 Signature phono stage.
My own hi-fi is far more modest but just as purposefully chosen. I purchased my first decent system in 1973 and have been upgrading ever since. As I wrote in a previous blog post, I currently have handmade Japanese Air Tight monoblock amps and an Air Tight preamp/phono stage, a Linn Sondek turntable with a Benz cartridge, a modded Sony XA 5400 ES CD player, and Focal Scala Utopia speakers. This set-up is perfect for my listening room, which is considerably smaller than Henry’s but great for enjoying my music. So in today’s world of soon-to-be-extinct CDs and the digital advances of MP3s and smart phones, many of you may be wondering why enthusiasts like us even bother with such costly, cumbersome equipment. Henry says he’s on a “personal crusade to save the ears of young people,” but also, that he firmly believes the artists and recording staff who slaved countless nights to produce the five minutes of music we listen to deserve the proper respect of “giving their music the best possible means to fill the air.” Well put, Henry. So what makes hi-fi audio systems like this worth it? Audiophiles listen for a number of things:
- Clarity: is the quality of sound clear?
- Lack of distortion or coloration, especially as applied to speakers.
- Definition: can we audibly distinguish the different instruments from one another?
- Sound stage: what is the audio picture? Do we feel as if we’re in the third row at a jazz club or concert hall?
We first listened to the Kraftwerk classic, “Trans-Europe Express,” followed by tracks from Tinariwen’s Emmaar and Miles Davis’ On the Corner. But the real thrill of discovery for me came when Henry played a Scott Walker collaboration with thrash metal band Sunn O))), titled “Brando” off their recent album, Soused (4AD), which has earned its place as Henry’s favorite album of 2014 for its musical brilliance. Walker’s affecting tenor set against the band’s industrial backdrop sounded like the Arms of Krupp factory or maybe a runaway freight train. The sound off Henry’s speakers was colossal, enthralling, and all-enveloping! It felt as though the speakers themselves had disappeared, and I had time traveled to audio nirvana. I was completely engrossed in the music, purged of all wandering thoughts, and just present with the music. I can honestly say that I’ve never experienced music in such a way. I entered another psychic realm altogether and was both soused by the experience while still being sober enough to judge.
Here’s a trailer for Scott Walker and Sunn O)))’s Soused album, just to give you a sense of what they sounded like on Henry’s Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers.
Kraftwerk’s “Trans-Euro Express.”