In which I buy new speakers, part 1.Posted: June 29, 2014
I woke up late this morning, which has been a recent phenomenon in my life after many years of rising early even after long travel or nights out and as soon as I woke up started listening to NPR and cleaning the mess from a dinner I’d cooked for my friend Cantona two nights before. I’d given up on a nearly lifelong ritual of listening to NPR while performing household tasks in favor of cheap television over the course of my time in Berlin. Strangely, the NPR service was horribly glitchy for years and still cuts out or stalls frequently, whereas many of the legal and illegal purveyors of streaming video are limited only by available bandwidth. And this difficulty in accessing NPR was more than just annoying, it was alienating; the technical glitches seemed indicative of some more general trouble I was having with the experience of being foreign to the place where I lived, but also, increasingly, to the place where I was from; I learned recently that the State Department limits postings to three years because after that time people almost inevitably begin to sympathize more with the country in which they live than with America. And I’ve been nearly five years in Germany altogether, and have spent most of my adult life studying its literature and culture. Add to this the fact that the six-hour time difference between Berlin and the East Coast means that, in the morning, you’re always choosing between hearing the somewhat bizarre programming that runs on NPR at 2:00AM or hearing, quite literally, yesterday’s news, and the whole experience started to seem bitter and melancholic.
At some point, though, I decided to reject this particular incarnation of my “homelooseness,” to steal a term coined by James Wood in a great essay in the London Review of Books this past February. The NPR player has improved over the years, and the steady diet of bad television was providing my super-ego with far too easy a source of reproach. The one advantage of all of the bad television, though, was that I rarely gave a shit if I couldn’t hear a few lines of dialogue because my computer speakers weren’t loud enough to compete with the sink or the washing machine. But somehow with NPR these constant interruptions came to fester and reinforced my conviction that I would likely also get a lot more out of the music I listen to with a proper set of speakers. And well, I had disposable income, and so I disposed of it, this time through the purchase of a pair of Audioengine A5+ Premium Powered Speakers. I hadn’t wanted, initially, to spend so much goddamned money on a pair of speakers. My needs, I figured, were simple: it had to be loud enough to hear dialogue over the washing machine, and simple enough for me to take with me wherever I might go. I wanted something decent, certainly, but also figured that any set of speakers more powerful than my laptop would constitute such an immediate improvement to the quality of my listening experience that there was little reason to spend more than a hundred or so.
I turned, as I always do when I’m contemplating some electronic purchase, to The Wirecutter. It’s a great site, if you don’t know it. The whole conceit is that they recommend a single product in a variety of categories as the best purchase for most consumers, and the recommendations are based both on exhaustive analysis of the existing review for a category of products and on independent testing. This appeals deeply to some part of the ethics and aesthetics of consumerism with which I was raised; responsible consumers, I was taught, are informed and make wise decisions after careful deliberation. It’s hard to see any real ethical virtue in consuming this way rather than more spontaneously– in either case the chances that your purchase will depend on the exploitation of any number of workers and will contribute unnecessarily to the degradation of an already fragile environment are basically 100%, so thinking that my obsessive research regarding any purchase that costs more than $50.00 somehow exculpates me from the guilt of modern consumerism is kind of like thinking that it’s better to hit your wife if you use a proper 1-2 combination. But whatever. I want shit sometimes. I’m a terrible person. So is everyone else. A particularly nasty bit of modern marketing will remind you of this if you somehow forgot: “Hier bin ich Mensch hier kauf ich ein,” runs the slogan of the German drugstore DM. Loosely translated: “Here I am human, here I go shopping.” Many Germans recognize the ad, though, as a play on the most famous line in Goethe’s Faust: “Hier bin ich Mensch, hier darf ich’s sein.” Again, roughly: “here I am human, here I am allowed to be it.” So we used to have Faust declaring his humanity. Now we buy toilet paper and laundry detergent. Same same.
Anyway, I wanted some speakers, so I turned to the Wirecutter’s article on computer speakers. First, let me say this: I consider myself a connoisseur of snobs, which is something you get to be when you’re as pretentious as me. And, in my personal estimation, audio- and oenophiles are in constant competition for the title of the very worst kind of snob. So I was a bit annoyed, initially, that the reviewer The Wirecutter had chosen to recommend computer speakers, Brent Butterworth, is clearly a hardcore audiophile. Here’s how he describes himself:
As Stereos Expert for About.com and an editor and writer for numerous audio-focused magazines and websites including Sound & Vision and Home Theater, I’ve been testing speakers for more than 20 years.
By my reckoning, I’ve conducted more blind speaker tests than any other journalist in the U.S., including a recent evaluation of outdoor speakers for the Wirecutter. I even built a custom modular audio switcher just for the purpose of blind testing. And I’ve also done lab measurements of hundreds of speakers; here’s an easy-to-understand primer (PDF) I wrote on that topic. In fact, I did lab measurements of the speakers tested here that you can see on the About.com Stereos page.
I mean, why would you lab test speakers? I just need to know how they sound, which presumably you can tell me by using your ears. But I’d actually bought a set of computer speakers on this guy’s recommendation about a year before, when I made the ill-advised decision to try living in the States again for a while. And they were awesome. Unfortunately those speakers are in the States and I don’t know when I’ll be able to collect them. Also, they have been discontinued, so I figured I’d just buy whatever he recommended and would be similarly pleased. But here’s the thing: his current pick, the M-Audio Studiophile AV 40, may well sound amazing, but they’re ugly as sin. I mean, I feel like owning a set of those things would give me acne. Plus, I have a sneaking suspicion that they’d explode if you tried to play anything other than death metal, Grand Theft Auto, or porn through them.
Still, I found it hard to give up on the idea of buying those speakers, because, like I said, that whole ethic of consumerism thing. They fulfill their designated function very well and at a reasonable price! They’re a smart purchase! And what? You pay more just for a pretty case? So superficial. Well, I am, it turns out, very superficial, because I just couldn’t reconcile myself to the idea of owning speakers that look like they should be sitting in someone’s mom’s basement, right between the samurai sword and the sex doll. Butterworth’s step-up pick, on the other hand, the Audioengine A2+ Powered Speakers, look like the kind of speakers that play Al Green while the model/graphic designer you met at the gallery drinks a post-coital prosecco. And generally these speakers are beloved. But some people had their complaints. Butterworth, again:
I agreed that the A2+ had the clearest, flattest midrange and treble response. Voices and most instruments sounded extremely natural, and overall the A2+ performs like a real high-end stereo speaker. But then there’s the bass. It certainly had more than I expected from 2.75-inch woofers, but still, most of my deep-bass test tracks overwhelmed it, even when I was sitting just 3 feet away with the volume turned down a bit. I also found that the other speakers easily played 3 to 6 decibels louder; at 6 feet, the A2+ simply doesn’t produce enough volume.
Given that my initial standards were, “I should be able to listen to NPR while I wash the dishes,” and “it should sound better than the speakers on my MacBook,” you’d think this wouldn’t have worried me particularly, but of course it did, and so I spent the majority of my leisure time for something like a week reading reviews of different stereo systems, and the more I read about different speakers, the more I came to hate audiophiles. The first reason I came to hate them was because the more I read the more anxious I got about my possible dissatisfaction with the luxury good I was intent on purchasing. Take this line from a review of the PSB Alpha PS1 in Sound and Vision: “Aside from the predictable bass rolloff—inevitable in a speaker of this size—the Alpha PS1 offered a well-proportioned balance of frequencies with more top-end air than you’d expect and generous (but not excessive) detail in the presence region.” I didn’t know that I was supposed to expect top-end air at all! Which leads me to believe that I’ve been setting the top-end-air bar far too low all of these years, and that I’d likely be enjoying my life a whole lot more if I had higher expectations in that department. Detail in the presence region, on the other hand, is something that I’m aware of missing on a regular basis, but I don’t think that any pair of speakers is likely to resolve that problem.
At any rate, I nearly abandoned the project altogether a couple times, which is basically how I spent the last three years not buying a bike. But then the morning NPR routine being basically impossible without some kind of speakers convinced me that I should pull the trigger, as the phrase goes. Plus, I had money I hadn’t wasted yet, and that always makes me anxious. So I ended up buying the Audioengine A5+, which, though neither as small nor as sexy as the model below them, were promised to be loud and very, very satisfying. And so I managed to more or less drain my bank account to stem my anxiety about bass rolloff, which is a phrase I almost understand.
Next Time, on the Not-So-Young and the Anxious: Unboxing, Adorno, etc.