This is Michael Fremer. He's listening to "Avalon" by Roxy Music on his $US350,000 stereo system. It sounds excellent. He's a bit crazy, but if you love music, you need him.
Fremer, if you have yet to decipher this, is an audiophile of the highest calibre. Literally millions of dollars of premium audio equipment have passed through his listening room under review for Stereophile magazine, and he's been obsessing about vinyl since he was four years old, memorising the labels of his parents' 78s. A man who, when digital recording and reproduction methods began to surface culminating in the compact disc's takeover as the predominant music format, became a figurehead for the vinyl superiority movement, staunchly advocating its greater tonal resolution over a CD's 44.1 kHz max. (See this MTV clip for Fremer in action, circa 1993.)
In short, a species of human I had never known prior to hanging out with him in his New Jersey basement listening room last week, and a species, frankly, I was sceptical of in just about every possible way.
Upon getting picked up by Fremer at the train station near his home, my fears immediately began to feel all too real. It was but a minute or two into our car ride from the station that a rant on Walt Mossberg's inferior review of the Airport Express, Apple's music-streaming mini-router that Fremer and I both enjoy in our home systems, begins in earnest:
"If he's not going to tell people how it sounds, then what's the fucking point? Don't step into my world, Walt!" And so on, referencing multiple emails of complaint he actually sent to Walt. I am definitely thinking "uh oh" at this point.
But then, settled into the lone leather chaise in Fremer's basement audio temple, nestled right in the sweetspot of his $US65,000 Wilson MAXX3 speakers, I hear the needle drop on Air's "Run" from Talkie Walkie. It's a song I've never heard (kind of fell off Air after overusing Moon Safari considerably), but one that I'm now listening to all the time. Because, with all honesty, I have never heard anything like that song played on that stereo system at that moment. Ever.
The song ends, and after emerging from an opiate-like haze, I hear a hiss. And yes, while the record was playing, I heard a pop, a crackle or two. Isn't this as high-end an audiophile system as they come? Shouldn't the sound be of such purity so as to sustain life in lieu of water for days on end?
I mention this slight—very slight, but noticeable—hiss to Fremer, and it's probably a frequency that 50 plus years of rocking have eliminated from his spectrum. He doesn't even care. This is when I start to understand.
After hearing I'm a Bowie fan, Fremer drops into his near limitless stacks and spins a pressing of "Heroes" with part of the title track's chorus in German. I'm giggling with pleasure at the frankly obscene level of detail I hear (Ich! Ich werde König!), but of course, I'm hearing the pops and crackles that a 30+ year-old record is likely to have. Shouldn't a $US350,000 stereo system be completely free of such impurities?
"It's like when you go to the symphony, and the old men are coughing—same thing," Fremer says. Necessary impurities. Reminders of being in the real world.
We play my solid 256kbps VBR MP3 of "Heroes" off my iPod; it sounds like shit. Free of pops and crackles, yes, but completely lifeless, flat in every way. This is the detail that matters: Audiophiles are basically synesthesiacs. They "see" music in three-dimensional visual space. You close your eyes in Fremer's chair, and you can perceive a detailed 3D matrix of sound, with each element occupying its own special space in the air. It's crazy and I've never experienced anything like it.
It is within this 3D space where the audiophile lives and operates, and spends all his money. Fremer himself is the first to admit that it would only take $US3,000 to $US5,000 to build a system that will be deeply satisfying to most music fans. On a scale of 1 to 100 completely of my own devising, let's put this system at around 85. Now, imagine that you've tasted 85, and you want to go higher; you want Bowie's cries of kissing by the wall to inhabit the most perfect point in your system's matrix, and Brian Ferry's back-up fly girls on "Avalon" to flank him just beautifully. That, friends, is where you might end up paying hundreds of thousands.
Our little scale, unfortunately, is logarithmic, in that going from zero to 85 doesn't take a lot of effort or money, but going from 98.6 to 99.1 by swapping out a $US2,600 AC power cable for a $US4,000 one becomes a justifiable end. We did exactly that, and I strained to hear any difference at all (more impressions of our test will follow later in the week), but to Fremer, the difference was abundantly clear—not necessarily better with the more expensive cable, but different, a warmer, fuller sound, as Fremer described it.
The point is, people like Fremer can not only hear the difference, they crave it. I walked into his listening room expecting to discern absolutely zero difference in the comparison tests we had planned, swapping out speaker cables that cost as much as a meal at the best restaurant in New York for another set that cost as much as a year of undergrad at Harvard. I actually did hear a tiny difference. But to people like Fremer, that tiny difference becomes a mind-boggling disparity, and it's worth paying for if it means a few decimal points closer to perfection. Unfortunately, the logarithmic curve is asymptotic: There is no ceiling. Fremer will be the first to admit that this type of dragon chasing is not and should not be for everyone.
This obsession with tiny differences explains Fremer's fevered defence of analogue music sources over digital. Two anecdotes from the past are particularly illuminative:
The first is his memories of rushing to the record store in 1979 to pick up Ry Cooder's Bop 'Til You Drop, the first mainstream rock release to be recorded using an all-digital process, which at the time was being lauded as the next big thing. But upon getting it home and dropping it into his high-end system, the results were not good:
"It made me feel horrible!" he remembers. Even though it was played on vinyl, Fremer could already detect some missing elements in the 3D audiophile space that just weren't there. "And it's not like I was a digiphobe at this point—I had no reason to be. I was as excited as anyone to hear this."
The second was the first public playing of a compact disc, to a room full of expectant audiophiles a few years later. While they breathlessly applauded the first track played from the then refrigerator-sized device, Fremer was horrified. He heard the same flatness and lack of detail in the 3D audio world he loved to inhabit. "I felt...weird. My hands were shaking. All I could think, then, was WE'RE FUCKED!" A few days later, a new, custom-printed bumper sticker was slapped on Fremer's car: "COMPACT DISCS SUCK."
And thus began a long battle, and thankfully, it seems to have ended happily. Both with the advent of SACDs—which Fremer is a great fan of, proving that he's not hung up on nostalgia; it's all about sound resolution, maintaining all the peaks and valleys of recording—still a viable format among audio junkies, and the greater acceptance and continued life of vinyl, Fremer is a happy man these days. "I'm on top of the world right now. I set out to save vinyl, and we did it."
Because the thing is, Fremer loves music first and foremost. The audiophile I had feared was one who cares far more about the overpriced gadgetry than the actual music. This is not who I ended up meeting. This man listens to music and makes sure it was recorded with the best fidelity, that the intents of the artist have been preserved. And thank God he does, because we certainly don't.
I listen to most of my music on downloaded, compressed, lossy MP3s, and so do you. But even if you can't hear the sound quality, we need someone like Fremer up on that wall, a preservationist of archival recordings and an ombudsman for new recordi ng techniques, because one day you'll want to hear it, and it'll be there because of audiophiles.
These guardians in and outside of the recording industry ensure that, whether it's in a movie theatre tomorrow or in your own home listening room on some far off future date, you'll be able always get back to a recording that expresses every frequency, every ounce of warmth and life, of the original performance. Because if you can hear, it, if you ever get to live in that 3D space, you'll be glad Fremer helped defend it.