Audio File: Finding joy in a time of worry

Musical experiences can help us make it through these days with a smile

After I wrote last week’s column, every day that followed seemed to change the world around us.

Music is a huge part of my life, and naturally some of my first thoughts went to the artists whose futures and livelihoods became instantly uncertain.

If you missed it, my advice was to visit the social media outlets of your favorite local or touring musicians and see if they’re reaching out in some way for help, however subtle. Some are offering instrument lessons via Skype, some are rolling out new merchandise, but it’s likely nearly every musician around here is hurting in some way, and anything you can do will be better than nothing.

But as the days went on last week, it became clear that musicians will not be alone in seeing their income interrupted. Now, everyone who can’t work from home is basically sidelined. And those who can, but usually rely on child care to make that work, aren’t much better off.

If the stress levels of my news-junkie friends is anything to go by, being hyper-informed may also have some drawbacks.

Amid all of this unpleasant change, vigilance and dread, we should create plenty of space for enjoyment. We should enjoy what we have, enjoy who we’re with and we should live in the pleasant side of the moment.

This week, and over the next few, I’m going to write about and relive some great moments of musical joy I’ve had over the years playing with the world’s best stereo equipment.

We begin with a memory from years ago, on a visit to Denver’s annual high-end audio festival, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. I had dragged my friend Colin, a fellow music lover, to the show, and we were moving pretty quickly from room to room, wide-eyeing the price tags and ho-humming the sound to an extent.

But when we sat down in front of a giant pair of Magnepan planar speakers, our pay-attention alarms went off. I closed my eyes to listen, but when the first chop of the mandolin on the bluegrass tune rang out, my eyes shot open and met his. Then the whole band came in, and we were dumbfounded.

W-T-FFFFFFF?!?, we silently mouthed to each other. We weren’t hearing speakers, and we weren’t hearing a stereo. What we were hearing was an actual live band set up 6 feet in front of us. Except there was no band. We couldn’t believe our ears.

In the time since that experience, I’ve heard many planar magnetic speakers, and also electrostatic speakers. I’ve learned that it’s hard to achieve that kind of metaphysical moment without extremely careful positioning of both the speakers and also yourself as a listener.

It requires the right size room, requires the speakers to dominate that room by being out near the middle and the magic zone for that type of speaker, or the “sweet spot,” is relatively tiny. Basically, one person thinks there’s a band there, and everyone else just thinks the music is really good.

If you’ve never heard of planar magnetic speakers before, they are essentially big flat sheets of conductive mylar plastic suspended between or against permanent magnets. “Electrostatic” speakers trade the earth magnets for electromagnets. Both have the characteristic of having low mass and fast acceleration compared to regular speakers, which means they’re accurate as hell.

That combined with proper positioning can help create an experience like my friend and I had long ago.

Next week we’ll visit a memory about a certain kind of tube amp that everyone loves: the single ended triode amplifier. It’s a joy machine.

Stay healthy!