A collection of short stories and journalistic commentaries depicting my simple life
and how I fit in with the modern day universe of our times

EXPERT NOISES




              In this modern day and age, the one and only firmly fixed guarantee in life is that experts can truly get right up your nose. And now, thanks to modern technology, they can also get right into your ears (anagram of arse, a well known cavity from which most experts often speak).

            I am talking about the world of high fidelity stereo (hi-fi), which has been playing very hard to get lately. I suppose it’s the same with any form of science in its infancy. Much like computers, war or medicine, but recent hi-fi miracles have been wrapped in a veil of incomprehensible mysticism and described in a jargon unmatched for unintelligibility since Milton Friedman (much like computers, war or medicine).

            Let me state here and now, at the very start that I have always been a bit of a hi-fi freak myself. Even as a school boy I used to save up my pocket money to buy the very best, state of the art, American hi-fi magazine - Playboy, and would spend hours drooling over its photographs. Of glossy amplifiers and sleek speakers thank you very much. I think there were some boys in my class who bought the magazine for entirely different reasons; apparently the short stories and the interviews were highly thought of, but they were usually ignored by us purists.

            After the time I’d spent looking at all that equipment worth thousands of American dollars, I must now say that my very first gramophone/record player/turntable/predecessor of the earliest form of CD player, was a bit of a comedown. It was called the Dansette and cost all of £13, and all it did was play records, smell of warm plastic and look fairly tidy in a two tone grey.

            Actually, now I come to think of it, the fantasy world conjured up by Playboy magazine made several aspects of reality look dreary by comparison: I seem to remember that my very first girlfriend was not a tanned, leggy blonde, did not have perfect teeth or even a staple in her navel. But to be fair, she did play records, did smell of warm plastic and looked fairly tidy in a two tone grey (her school uniform), so I couldn’t really complain. By a complete coincidence her name was also Dansette and she had a younger brother called Ferguson. However, I digress.

            The point is that the true hi-fi freak looks upon a Dansette in the same way that Lewis Hamilton would regard a hoola-hoop. Simple to operate, but extremely unrewarding and very, very lacking. All the Dansette did was to play the record while you listened to the tune. After a time, the limitations of the system grated somewhat and I got fed up with listening to the Electric Light Orchestra whilst it sounded as if it was playing inside a tin bath at the bottom of a disused mine shaft.

            So, a few years later, I ‘upgraded the system’ (a technical hi-fi phrase meaning ‘parted with ten times the amount of money intended’), (very much like in computers, war or medicine). What I ended up with was, according to the salesman, the hi-fi equivalent of a Mercedes-Benz, though I now realise it was merely an old Ford Escort with new seat covers. Anyway, the upgrading process left me with the feeling that I had gained some considerable expertise, since the experts had got so far up my nose as to imprint themselves on my frontal lobes.

            So while in expansive mood relatively recently (1970’s), I bought a few modern hi-fi magazines, because I wanted to keep in touch and because the shop had sold out of Playboy. I was astonished to find that in just a few short years, the whole hi-fi world had moved on without me. Latest developments clearly showed that my new ‘system’ was less than half a notch above the old Dansette, and had the same resale value of the old hoola-hoop.

            For a start, it was no longer the done thing to just put on a record and listen to the tune. Oh no, in those days there were at least eighty-one other things that had to be listened to first. Some of them were fairly easy to understand: for instance, it can’t be that difficult to listen to the turntable (which produced ‘rumble’). Similarly it must be fairly easy to listen to the amplifier: after all, the amplifier is the bit with the ‘volume’, ‘bass’ and ‘treble’ knobs which, with a bit of judicious twiddling, can make almost any orchestra in the world, sound like the Electric light Orchestra in a tin bath down a disused mine shaft.

            My difficulties started when I read that one particular tuner (radio) had ‘excellent low-level ambience cohesion’ but gave ‘a shade too much splash on the transients’. How do you actually begin to listen to something like that?

            From there on in, my credulity took an all time basting. On the next page, a critic actually reviewed the sound of two differing turntable mats - one made of a tacky plastic on the world renowned market leader, the Linn Sondek LP12 and the other made of glass on the close runner-up the Rega-Planar 2. He could somehow easily distinguish the ‘bass extinction and lack of tonal accuracy’ that were greatly improved by the glass mat. Or caused by it, I forget which. Two pages further on, another critic fully evaluated the sound of a new kind of connecting cable with gold plated cores compared to which ‘ordinary cables were muffled and gave a much less open sound’.

            I could read no more. Suffering acute intellectual indigestion and flatulence, I gave a much more open sound of my own, and rushed upstairs to my hi-fi Ford Escort. I put a record on and listened very hard to detect the distortions due to the counterbalanced Shure SME series III, tone-arm bias compensator, the cartridge mount, the record cleaning brush and the speaker cabinet veneer. The music sounded much like this: pya-dadda-POM paduddidi-FATAM; but then it always had. But now I was worried. Was that didi of the paduddidi a true tonal harmonic or was it lacking in upper-mid-range definition? Was there a thinness of the mid-band? And if there was, was there meant to be? Should I bash out another £800 merely to read afterwards that the London Philharmonic were renowned all over the world for the thinness of their mid-band, and had collected many gold medals for the thin didis in their paddudidis. And then what about the wow and flutter, the tape hiss, the mains hum? Was belt drive or direct drive the best way forward?

            By the end of the afternoon I had convinced myself that I could actually hear the glue in the speaker cabinets. I was certain that I could detect a flattening of the treble roll-off, brought about by too much machine oil on the amplifier on-off switch. I could feel the noise created by the rubber feet on the cassette deck. I could sense the mid-bass distortion caused by my daughter's Marmite fingerprints on the tuner dial.

            That was way back then in the seventies, and you would have thought with the onset of new digital media that everything should have been well and truly sorted. But alas no. Each new technology brings forth its own inherent problems and whenever we part with our hard earned, getting on for millions, we know that our new piece of kit will already be obsolete by the time we get it home. So why all the fuss? Did we really need to learn more and more about the shortcomings of our systems, when all we really wanted was a tune?

            I put it to you now, that all our accumulated knowledge from the hi-fi purists, is nothing more than pure unadulterated bull. A clever ploy by the gurus of the hi-fi industry whereby an ingenious strategy of marketing, involving the slagging off of a company's own products, implores us to rush out and buy the very same company's latest products. Be they still sub-standard in some newly devised manner. Absolutely pure genius.

            And where has all that new found knowledge really got me? I ask myself. Today, as I sit writing this piece surrounded by the best hi-fi kit that money can buy, I now turn my attention to my latest acquisition, the hearing aid. The absolute pinnacle of my hi-fi career. And I recognise the feeling of aural paranoia brought on by all my earlier ‘training’ in a flash of déjà-vu. It is like being back in front of my old Dansette again, hearing nothing more than squeaks, whistles and thumps above the roaring of blood in my head through my reddened ears, and being told I am actually listening to the Electric Light Orchestra playing in a tin bath down a disused mine shaft. The hell I am, I think to myself. I am more probably listening to the label on my underpants.

            This discovery is of great comfort to me. I find it highly reassuring that both new computer driven forms of hi-fi and medicine (and probably war too), now have so much in common. Apart from the fact that war and medicine are probably still marginally cheaper, the nonsense, the jargon, the bull and the obvious lying are all exactly the same. And while my new hearing devices don't play records anymore, they still smell of warm plastic and look fairly smart in a more modern two tone pink rather than grey. And that’s what these so called experts would have us believe, is progress.



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