Ken Kessler: Amusingly, I am one of the most unforgiving people you’ll ever meet, and I don’t look at life in shades of grey. Life is too short, so …..”

Previously published on July 22, 2012

As is the nature of hi-fi as a hobby, audiophiles choose sides … even when they’d rather not. That’s just the way it is: the audio community is painfully and ludicrously either/or. Me? I’m of the sort who doesn’t find, say, a love for crime novels and a love for biographies of blues singers to be mutually exclusive. I like both chocolate ice cream and vanilla, Ferrari and Lamborghini, McDonald’s and Burger King. Does that make me indecisive? Wishy-washy? In audiophile terms, yes. In human terms, I’d be described as having “catholic tastes.” And the either/or situation we’re forced to address in hi-fi? Surprise, surprise: it’s analogue versus digital.I just don’t see them any longer as rivals. Wake up, guys: they’ve been living side by side now for decades.
Amusingly, I am one of the most unforgiving people you’ll ever meet, and I don’t look at life in shades of grey. Life is too short, so there are just three categories on Planet Kessler: good, bad and insignificant/non-existent/not-worth-bothering-with. To me, people are either wonderful or they’re assholes or they simply don’t matter. There are no degrees. I love something, or I hate it, or I’m completely ambivalent – no in-between nonsense.

Conversely, I am not a monomaniac (in the original sense, nothing to do with mono vs stereo!), and I would never want to live in a world where there is only one choice to be made.

During a recent panel discussion/Q&A session at the high-end show in Los Angeles, sponsored by Stereophile magazine, I replied to one question with the seemingly horrifying admission that I wouldn’t feel deprived if I suddenly found myself only with CDs in my system. That was tantamount (to some) to treason, as if I was saying that I preferred it to LP, or that it was better than LP. WHICH IS NOT WHAT I SAID. Read my lips, OK? If I found myself with no sounds whatsoever, then I’d feel deprived.
But I had to admit – yes, with an audience – that living with CD circa 2006, with players like the Audio Research CD7 and the Musical Fidelity kW25 and a few others from the likes of Ayre and Wadia and Pathos and SimAudio and Muse, is hardly torture. And that’s without even addressing the inescapable reality that lots of new albums – wonderful new albums – are not available in LP form. So the sane person makes the best of it by playing those CDs through the most natural-sounding CD players one can muster.
Conversely, LP playback never ceases to amaze me. Every time I sit down to listen to an LP, usually with the SME 30 or SME 20/12 turntables, with either the ClearAudio Goldfinger or Koetsu Urushi cartridges, I am reminded of the elder format’s ineluctable superiority, and in so many ways that it’s neither funny nor subtle. I wallow in the sound of vinyl. It reminds me with every rotation why I got into this business in the first place: because it drives the music straight to my heart, via my ears.
But after 23 years of this digital vs analogue nonsense, I am growing tired of comparing or contrasting the two. Why? Because they are no more comparable (nor mutually exclusive) than bicycles and shampoo. It’s only audiophiles who think that they are.
This is not 1983. The LP is no longer under threat; CD itself is under threat from downloads. But what no-one admitted in the first place is that NOBODY IS FORCING ANYONE TO USE CD. Wake up! It was never a threat! It didn’t kill off the LP! So why is it still the cause of so many heated debates, so many arguments? Don’t we have better things to do, like actually listen to music?
We’re not talking about opposing cures for cancer, nor rival and incompatible solutions for dealing with criminals, nor conflicting attitudes about housing nor single-parent families nor peace in the Middle East. We’re talking about two modes of music playback. Which is even less important than discussing two modes of transport. (Bus vs plane? Plane vs ship? Car vs feet?)
But it is our passion. And when we’re not worrying about saving the whales or where John Prescott put his schlong (I know of an AC outlet …), some of us are blessed with the free time to obsess about less life-challenging matters such as hi-fi.
Far be it for me to criticise anyone, especially my good friend Michael Fremer, for dealing with the vinyl LP in a near-religious manner: Mikey is totally sincere. And he’s usually right. And, yes, I’ve been known to pontificate and hector about matters that clearly don’t warrant the same passion as peace on earth. Yes, my pulse has raced and blood pressure increased when defending Decca cartridges, or while attacking Paul Weller. Why? Because, just like the audiophile who loses sleep over the direction of his cables, I care. And that’s a good thing, even when your friends and/or enemies take the piss out of you for it.
To me, “anorak” is not an insult. It’s an observation that some cares deeply enough about something to want to know it intimately, experience it fully and then tell the world about it. It’s what keeps magazines from publishing mistakes that then enter the lore and become facts. It’s what keeps manufacturers on their toes. Anoraks and geeks cure diseases and invent wonderful technologies. Above all, anoraks and geeks spread the word.
Which is what I’m doing here. Even though audio has dominated my life to the point of near-illness, I still love it. I just want to see it put into perspective. I want its positive virtues – the sheer pleasure it provides to listeners – to take on greater significance than the minutiae that has driven normal people away from hi-fi.
Remember that the next time a “civilian” asks you about buying some hi-fi equipment. Assume that, unlike you, the person seeking your advice is normal. That all he or she wants is to listen to some music in a fine and rewarding manner. Do not dazzle them with science they won’t understand. Do not drop names they have never heard, nor price tags they will not comprehend. Do not talk about cables that cost more than a week in the Seychelles. Above all, do not bleat on about CD vs LP, let alone CD vs iPod, or you will scare them away. And the last thing this passion of ours can afford is a dwindling number of recruits.

2 thoughts on “Ken Kessler: Amusingly, I am one of the most unforgiving people you’ll ever meet, and I don’t look at life in shades of grey. Life is too short, so …..”

  1. A number of “don’ts” with regards to helping civilians Ken. What should the positive stance be?
    Personally, I’d tell them to get a Quad system, providing they could afford that most reasonably priced of gear, and just enjoy the music.
    (I am not of course referring to the valve and electrostatic stuff, wonderful as that may be.)
    P.S. I have you to thank for the review, which resulted in me purchasing Spendor S100’s, still performing wonderfully.

  2. Without reading David Aston’s comment, I was thinking about what I’d recommend to a civilian, and was preparing to type “My advice would be to buy Quad”. In my mind’s eye ‘the civilian’ who cares enough to spend money on an audio system is a person of taste with a much nicer house than mine, and an elegant and understatedly-furnished drawing room with the space to put some big old speakers. The older I get, I perceive these speakers to be the only sort that can give effortless sound ‘out of the box’ so to speak and, reading around the subject of narrow vs. wide baffles there’s good reason to think they really are fundamentally better than today’s slimline floorstanders. So a Quad amp, some old fashioned box speakers, and then here’s where I deviate from the thoroughly traditional: the most minimal, yet maximal, audio source is some sort of concealed digital streaming box controlled by a tablet e.g. iPad. All your music collection instantly accessible, with beautiful coloured artwork reproduced on the screen, and a gateway to Spotify et al. The Meridian Control 15 is along the right lines, but seems a little clunky compared to the latest tablets that literally cost £100 these days. I would imagine that the average civilian could put together such a system without too much difficulty, and with Spotify Premium they would instantly have all the world’s music on tap.

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