PS AUDIO: “The greatest experience I’ve had with HiFi is listening to my own music on the reference system for Walker Audio, which is housed in the home of the company’s founder, Lloyd Walker, in the suburbs of Philadelphia”

Paul McGowan writes:

The first generation to be born after the dawn of the Digital Age has just reached a maturity and status that fits the label of true consumers. Everyday, we induct more and more enthusiastic new members into the high order of the GLI (Guardians of Liquid Income) that would not be able to recognize the iconic logo of the Bell Telephone Company. By all accounts, this consumer base, which is now “newbie” and small but will be in the majority before we know it, poses a tricky threat to the welfare of the HiFi audio industry and its devotees.

This faction is gathering upon the hill. And though they don’t have the benefit of George Washington rallying morale, early recon suggests that the green banners they carry actually hold his unsmiling mug. Though the time has not yet come, my brothers and sisters, to squirrel away our audiophile recordings and fearfully hide the children inside driver-removed floorstanding four-ways. If we take the time to understand the enemy, and to make the according preparations, we will weather the siege.

To identify this generation’s “digital” upbringing as the cause of the threat they pose to the audio industry is accurate, but also misleading. The debate as to whether audio reproduction is of a higher quality if based on an analog platform vs. a digital one is only auxiliary to our main understanding of this generation’s problem regarding HiFi audio. By now, to refer to a generation as the “digital” generation means so much more than ones and zeros. Digital means fast. Digital means having a lot in little space.

We all experience both lamentation and exalted glee in the changes digital technology has brought to our lives, but no one truly understands the implications for the future. We stand around and talk as though we see trends and projections, but as the Digital Generation comes more into light, chances are great that it won’t resemble what we think it will. But forecasts have great value anyway. We can’t throw on a pair of Sennheiser HD 800s, wrap ourselves in benevolent ropes of silver and oxygen-free copper, and go to sleep in our basements expecting to wake up the next morning to a world not overrun by young, audio-ignorant night bandits. We must try, at least, to gather intel and reinforce barricades.

I am a young, audio-ignorant bandit. I am a member of the feared Digital Generation. By the time I was eight years old, cassette had really begun to die. When I was ten, my Dad brought home our family’s first DVD player. And when I was twelve, kids started to show off their ipods; the cool, new, user-friendly MP3 player. I grew up on the figurative base camp atop the hill during the battle to shape the next thirty years of the audio industry. And, against my better judgement, I have decided to jump ship to the other side. A self-rendered refugee, I wander the dusty landscape of the recording industry alone- so far, that is. (There are talks of others who have joined in the revolt.) I thumb rides across state lines, hoping that one day the right side will win. I come to the forum of PS Tracks to share the insider intelligence I have gathered regarding the renegades. Please protect my identity. I know they are looking for me.

The first thing that needs to be accomplished in order to achieve a unilateral peace agreement between both sides of the 21st-century sonic conflict, is to bridge the qualitative gap which exists in the landscape of today’s audio industry. HiFi groups have become ensconced in luxury niche markets, while a proliferation of mobile/compact digital gadgets have been flushed into the mainstream like a cloud of  rat poison cocaine preemptively dumped in the waters between Miami and Columbia before a raid by drug enforcement hawks. In the industry’s defense, this model of production may have been instated out of necessity.

Obviously, the nature of HiFi audio demands a niche-market strategy, and companies have found that the only way to really make money in audio is to sell crappy wares at cheap prices to the mass market. But the return of the mid-range model is the only way to save HiFi. (Encouragingly, PS Audio seems to be leading the way in the resurgence of mid-range audio, adujsting some of its products to fit a wider variety of consumers). A bridge between the significantly different production conditions and philosophies of LoFi and HiFi must exist. If we can create a bridge between the Niedrigen Bereich of the LoFi Lunkhead Rebellion and our Republic of the Aurally Enlightened, generations-to-come would gladly follow the pathway out of Gaul and into our colorful city of bass, mid, and high-range. If we stack enough integrated-amps, shelf/reference loudspeakers, and micro-system components on top of each other, we’ll have built  a ladder from the bottom of the industry to the top that only Jacob could have imagined. But once we’ve gotten the new recruits on board, how do we keep them from falling into remission?

In my mind, the experience of listening to high-fidelity audio systems themselves is the greatest weapon we have in the fight to protect HiFi. We have the advantage of not needing to tell people what we mean. We can show them what we mean. The greatest experience I’ve had with HiFi is listening to my own music on the reference system for Walker Audio, which is housed in the home of the company’s founder, Lloyd Walker, in the suburbs of Philadelphia. For about three years, I have accompanied my father every couple of months to Lloyd’s house. Most visits we sit in the kitchen, drink coffee, and candidly talk with Lloyd and his wife Felicia, the Vp of Walker Audio. Eventually, there would be a lull in the conversation and everyone’s eyes would turn slowly toward the direction of Lloyd’s listening room. And I’d sheepishly glance at my Dad, and at Lloyd, and there would be a “Hey you guys wanna…” moment. Lloyd would ask if I’d brought any records, and I’d say that I had, and then Lloyd would growl “Well let’s go listen to em’ then!” in his matter-of-fact Texan air.

The main attractions of Lloyd’s listening room are the Walker Audio products themselves, but for a novice audio enthusiast like me, everything in the system and the room is an experience. Lloyd employs the use of two Rennaisance mono tube amps from Red Rock Audio. The exposed tubes of the amps give the impression of the many glowing eyes of a mahogany monster. When I’m in the house, I always feel as though there is an extra presence looming over the visit. Before any music is even played, Lloyd’s system, capable of producing some of the highest fidelity playback in the world, commands its own atmosphere. The Walker reference setup employs a pair of Usher Be 20 loudspeakers whose cherry finish is as benevolent as their sound. Hearing music that I find personally relevant played on this system is an experience I’ve found, at the risk of sounding trite, to be borderline spiritual.

On my first encounter with Lloyd, he treated me, a lowly teenage punk, with the same respect and attention I imagine he does prospective distributors or buyers. I felt bashful and out-of-place being sat down in his plush leather recliner positioned in the system’s sweet spot. Still chatting, Lloyd removed a record I’d brought in a canvas tote bag from its sleeve and cleaned it. He played the whole first side on Walker’s Proscenium Black Diamond turntable. When I’d observed the system before listening to it, I’d expected the sheer magnitude of its output (I’m talking in terms of more than just ohms and watts) to negate any of the positive effects of the preservation of clarity and removal of distortion that I was sure it could produce. I was wrong. The system was loud, but it sounded crystal clear and I felt as though I could sit there listening for hours. The mahogany beast had delivered its goods without any harshness. It may as well have grinned. No one else in the room did, but the Walker reference system knew that day that it had hooked its silver-soldered claws deep inside me, and it wasn’t letting go for awhile.

The Birth and Death of the Day, by Explosions In The Sky, off their 2007 double-lp “All of a Sudden I Miss Everyone”, was the first song I played on Lloyd Walker’s reference system:

After the music ended, and the aura had left, Lloyd remarked something to the affect of “that’s not bad, I kinda like it.” And soon after, we said our goodbyes and I headed home with my Dad.  Walker’s Proscenium Black Diamond turntable, the one I’d modestly sat and listened to that day, was named the tenth most significant turntable of all time by the Absolute Sound magazine in a list published this September. I listened to my music on it on a casual afternoon and received commentary from its creator without knowing what the level of work I was hanging around. Giving audio experiences like the ones I’ve had with Lloyd to the next generation is the best way to keep them next informed about and, for some, involved in high-fidelity audio.

I’ve learned many things from my afternoons at the Walker house, where Lloyd walked me through the replacement of a capacitor in a loudspeaker I’d brought to him, and where he sat me down and explained some basic concepts of electrical engineering to me. But the most valuable knowledge I’ve gained from my quarterly visits has come from the reference system. After experiencing recorded music reproduced at the highest level in an environment that encourages questions and the search for new understanding, I now possess a baseline understanding of HiFi that I bring to every experience with audio I come across, large and small. I know what a record can sound like, and I know the basic parts and machinery required to step onto the path toward producing that sound. With this knowledge, I dictate my consumption in the audio industry in a manner that is informed, and directed toward the same goal as that of the manufacturers. And at the end of the day, it’s not just about audio, or even industry. It’s about educating and caring for a generation that can foster in itself a respect for detail, craftsmanship, and out-of-the-box thinking. If these virtues are not celebrated and shared, our beloved audio industry will be the least of our concerns. Before it is too late, before we have a rebellious uprising on our hands, let’s direct some attention to creating the modern Jacob’s Ladder; and the young, ignorant bandits and I will try our best not to tear it down.