Twilight of the Tweaks

There's a devil in Eddy Mir's speakers. Well, maybe not in them. Perhaps it's underneath, slithering around in the wafer-thin gap between the chassis of the right speaker and the four-legged platform that elevates it to waist height. The demon might have wrapped its evil hands around the steel posts of the speaker stand itself, pulling them slightly askew. It could even be winding through the pile of the short, sky-blue carpet, preventing the speaker stand's three sharp spikes from penetrating the fibers and adequately anchoring the whole works.

Mir kneels beside the speaker, his face a mask of concentration. He heard the fruits of the devil's handiwork the last time he sat down to listen to his high-end stereo system. A faint, yet noticeable distortion. A dulling of the treble, a muddying of the midrange, a thudding of the bass. Changes in sound that would be imperceptible to most ears, but not to his. One or more of the so-called Five Devils was spoiling his pristine listening experience, and the only way to track them down was to take the whole system apart, piece by piece.

He thinks the most likely devil is vibration or acoustic interference, which is why he's holding a carpenter's level, with its tiny vial of lime-green liquid, next to the columns of the speaker stand. "See, I level it on the column," Mir says in his thick Cuban accent. The Canadian-built Totem Mani II speakers themselves are not large, perhaps eighteen inches tall. They are two feet from the back wall, one foot from the side wall, and toed in -- angled toward the center -- exactly fifteen degrees. Through trial and error, Mir has found that this configuration creates the least amount of acoustic interference (another of the Five Devils) in the twelve-foot-by-fourteen-foot space that used to be his bedroom, in his parents' home. He lives with his wife and college-age daughter in a house about fifteen minutes' drive away but maintains his stereo sanctuary here.

The speaker checks out as level; the devil must be inhabiting the rubber-like Sorbothane feet that absorb energy between the speaker and the stand; he always thought they were too pliant, allowing too much lateral movement to the speakers. This vibration may interfere with the normal pulsations of the speaker cones, resulting in the aural distortion Mir detected. He has experimented with thumbnail-size disks of thin cork, which he cut out himself. He didn't notice any improvement, so he's staying with the Sorbothane until he can figure out something else.

He then checks the steel rack that holds his components -- digital-to-analog converter, CD player, preamp, cassette deck, AC purifier, in descending order -- and finds that it is tilted ever so slightly backward. "See?" questions the compact 44-year old, letting out a single nervous chuckle as if to apologize for so blatant a flaw.

Pointing to the Lightspeed AC purifier, Mir explains that it smooths out the current before any power is supplied to the components -- spikes or troughs in the power flow, Mir says, are another problem, one that can introduce a noticeable distortion to a system's sound. He bends down to pick up another, similar black box, one that isn't yet hooked up to the system.

"This thing, it orientates the electrons of the current. They are in chaos," he explains, making circular gestures with his small, active hands. "This makes it coherent. What it will do to the stereo is, it will sound very ... it will give body to the music. It's very subtle. Some people say that this is baloney. But it works great."

The world of high-end stereo has a name for such enhancements: "tweaks." This term is also applied -- sometimes with affection, sometimes with derision -- to people who use these techniques. Given the number of gadgets he employs, and given that he has personified his sonic adversaries as diabolical forces, Eddy Mir would qualify as a tweak among Miami's insular community of fellow travelers.

Every piece of his $22,000 stereo system (a modest total in the high-end realm, but a lot of money for a Metrobus driver like Mir) has undergone some sort of modification to defeat the Five Devils -- vibration, electromagnetics, radio frequencies, acoustic interference, and AC current.

"This is a hobby. It has many tricks; it takes dedication," Mir cautions. "Otherwise, you're going to spend a lot of money, but if you don't know how to set it up, you won't enjoy the true potential." He folds his arms and gazes at his beloved hardware. "I can still get more out of it than what I'm getting now."

The vast majority of Americans are not aware that evil spirits are sabotaging the sound of their stereos. Most don't even realize that brand names like Mark Levinson and Pass Labs exist. But for true audiophiles, the combination of boutique-manufacturer equipment and just the right tweaks means a listening experience of a smoothness and vibrancy most stereo owners can't even imagine. But for the stereo-mad, even those not out in the tweaky realm, anything but a high-end system, perfectly adjusted, can sound like fingernails on a chalkboard.

"Most people are brainwashed," says Steve Zipser, owner of Sunshine Stereo, a custom-installation and mail-order operation he runs from his Miami Shores home. "They see magazine ads for Bose, Sansui, Sony, Kenwood, Fisher, Infinity. Popular mass-market brands. They go into their local Circuit City or BrandsMart, and that's the best they'll ever see. Occasionally, those customers will call a Sunshine Stereo. Once they walk into a place like this, we can show them a whole new world of audio. They sit down and they're just totally mesmerized."

How good is the experience? A well-put-together high-end system can create vivid aural illusions, giving a sense of the size of the bass drum, the position of the horn section, whether Ray Charles's lips were touching the microphone when he delivered a line. On a moderately priced, say, $3000 high-end system, much of this will still reveal itself. So is it worth the time and money (tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars) required to achieve this remarkable, enhanced clarity? To the lover of sound, it is.

Miami's smallish circle of stereo buffs -- the South Florida Audio Society was founded two years ago and now has 50 dues-paying members -- has been served by an even smaller cluster of retailers. For the past three decades, these specialty stores have provided this obsessive subculture with access to the well-made and often ridiculously expensive (a pair of Eggleston speakers costs nearly $15,000) gear their hobby requires. These stores, notably Sound Components in Coral Gables and Audio by Caruso in South Miami, also function as unofficial clubhouses for stereophiles. The haughty elitism of the sales staff chases away the uninitiated, and the audiophiles can hang around and discuss burning issues such as tube circuitry vs. solid state, CD vs. analog, and the relative advantages of arcane tweaks such as drawing along the edge of a CD with a Magic Marker to reduce laser leakage from the disk.

But now the audiophiles really have a vexing problem. As committed as they are to high-end audio, their purchases alone have been insufficient to keep their precious clubhouses financially afloat. In order to endure, the highest echelon of stereo retailers has seized upon a growing trend in the mainstream stereo marketplace, the home theater craze, as an avenue for increased cash flow from people who wouldn't know a CD transport from a D-to-A converter, or Mozart from Mendelssohn.

"It's not to say there aren't retailers and manufacturers who dedicate themselves to music and quality and beauty and truth," says Don Caruso, owner of Audio by Caruso. "But they're becoming fewer and farther between. It's becoming much more difficult for them to survive." Miami retailers agree that competition with chain stores such as Sound Advice -- and with each other -- has grown more fierce in recent years, but the high-end retailer's most confounding adversary has been a change in American culture. As the American consumer has become saturated with video, the World Wide Web, and other multimedia, the allure of simply sitting and listening to music has faded.

To demonstrate the beauty of Sound Components' top-of-the line home theater system, Mark Goldman fires up A River Runs Through It, finds the scene where Brad Pitt catches the big one, then hits the dimmer.

"Listen to the music, the clarity of the dialogue," he exhorts, pulling up a chair as the store's most sumptuous demo room fades to black. The system is close to the pinnacle of audio and video technology; with a price tag near $150,000, it had better be.

Though the picture, which emanates from an overhead projector onto a 120-inch screen, is impressive, it is the sound that is truly extraordinary. As the butchly winsome Pitt is pulled downstream by the big ol' trout, the five-speaker setup (right front, left front, center, right rear, and left rear) delivers not only the rousing musical score, but also the splashing water, the whine of the reel, the footsteps of Tom Skerritt and that less-handsome kid along the bank.

"Notice how the music and the effects don't interfere with each other," Goldman intones when the theme begins to swell. At the denouement of the scene, when Pitt pops up out of the river to reel in the exhausted fish, a very faint whirring of the reel can be heard in a long establishing shot. When the film cuts to a closer shot, the whirring is more clearly audible. The beginning of that sound in the previous shot certainly would have been lost had it been coming out of a TV speaker. The sound technician responsible for that effect is surely a fan of high-end home theater.

Cool as this system is, the idea of incorporating a video image with high-end stereo would have been considered sacrilege through most of the store's history. Sound Components was founded in 1974 as Peter McGrath's Sound Components. McGrath, an accomplished recording engineer and aficionado of classical music, had previously worked for a high-end store in the Chicago area; when he moved to Miami, he founded a retail outlet for the kind of little-known, American-and European-made stereo equipment that best showed off the music he loves.

And though there were plenty of techno-freaky tweaks involved in the high-end audio hobby back then, McGrath's sworn mission was to sell great stereo systems as a means to an end, not an end in themselves. "These things were created for people to re-create a musical experience," he says, "not to have a lot of esoteric crap lying around your living room."

Even while pursuing this high-minded mission in the high-end arena, McGrath managed to stay in business for nearly twenty years while quickly building a national reputation for his store. His combination of musical taste and technical acumen made him one of the leading lights of the industry. Wes Phillips, equipment reviews editor for Stereophile magazine, says one of the standards for his publication's accepting a new brand for review was its presence on the shelves of Sound Components. "It was one of the five or six top high-end stores in the country," Phillips says, "and it was because of Peter."

But McGrath, by all accounts, could be single-minded and temperamental while trying simultaneously to elevate the level of Miami's musical sophistication and sell equipment. Steve Zipser, who worked as a Sound Components salesman for three years in the late Seventies, says McGrath's sometimes abrasive approach to the customer was tough on business. "We would chase him out," Zipser recalls. "'Peter, leave, we want to do some business.' He'd walk out and go do his recordings, and we'd go make the sales and make the place run."

Even the initiated ran afoul of McGrath's withering condescension. "I went into Peter McGrath's with an old turntable under my arm, and he was sending me out the door," recalls Ray Seda of Coral Springs, a long-time audiophile and president of the South Florida Audio Society. "'Oh no, we don't deal with [that brand],' he said."

"The truth is that nobody liked Peter McGrath, really," says Eddy Mir, who is also a member of the Audio Society. "When you went there, if you didn't show you were very knowledgeable he'd put you under a lot of pressure."

Not that McGrath was alone in alienating customers. "Most of the personalities of the dealers in the higher-end equipment, these are screwballs, these are not sociable people," says Mark Berkley, a Miami attorney and high-end stereo owner. "They are arrogant, supercilious; they talk down to you. You have to establish yourself as being one of the brotherhood by throwing the lingo around intelligently before they'll even talk to you."

Despite such complaints, no one denies that McGrath helped put Miami on the high-end audio map. He's been out of the retail side of the business since 1994, which was a difficult year for everyone associated with Sound Components. Peter and his wife Susan, his business partner in the store, severed both their personal and financial ties that year. Susan McGrath ended up with majority ownership of the business; Peter's name was removed from the store (though it remains on some of its brochures). McGrath continued to pursue his recording projects, eventually becoming the national sales rep for a speaker manufacturer.

Steve Zipser, after spending some ten years working for New York City's legendary Lyric Hi-Fi, returned to Sound Components in 1994. The thick-set, affable 50-year-old recalls the "bad vibes" surrounding the place then; another employee remembers that Zipser "clashed with Peter." Zipser left after only three months and went on to start Sunshine Stereo, which he and his wife Gigi Krop operated out of their Collins Avenue condo in Miami Beach until buying their home/showroom in Miami Shores last year.

In June 1996 Mark Goldman, who had been McGrath's lead salesman for four years in the late Eighties, left his job selling speakers for Wilson Audio and bought a majority interest in Sound Components. The business now operates under a philosophy far more pragmatic than McGrath's.

"We really try to work on making the store approachable," says Goldman, a trim man in his midthirties with bright blue eyes and an even brighter smile. "We recognize that when you walk in and you're confronted with a whole bunch of product lines that are kind of off the beaten path, it's very intimidating." The brightly lit, ground-floor storefront just off South Dixie Highway in Coral Gables is not too welcoming to look at. It is rather starkly decorated, with unfamiliar names like Audio Research and Melos emblazoned on the equipment. Goldman stresses that the more inviting atmosphere comes from the friendlier approach of his salesmen on the floor.

The intimidation that once came from both the equipment and the sales staff created the cliquish ambiance of Sound Components, making it a haven for true audiophiles -- or, as Goldman likes to call them, "hobbyists." The greater part of the store's clientele these days, Goldman says, consists of "professionals who have a beautiful home, a beautiful car. Everything in their life is high quality, and they want to have that same level of quality in their audio system."

And though he acknowledges the store's history and its continuing support from rabid music lovers and serious tweaks, Goldman knows there are not enough of these people alone to keep him in business. "We're not interested in going after the really lunatic fringe of audiophiles," he emphasizes. "I'm much more interested in making this attainable to a husband and wife who want to buy their first surround-sound system."

McGrath, a bespectacled 49-year-old with jet black hair graying at the temples, is glad to be out of retail. And he emphasizes that Goldman and his staff are doing a "wonderful" job running the store that once bore his name.

"They're nicer to people, probably, than I ever was," he says. "I was a bit of an insufferable snob, I guess. And they're not. They really view what they do as making it accessible to anyone who wants it. They're not burdened with a lot of my preconceptions about who is justified" -- he laughs at this -- "and that's to their benefit."

Which isn't to say he's happy the equipment he once demonstrated for its reproduction of a symphony orchestra is now reverberating with the roar of the T-rex in Jurassic Park. "The very term 'home entertainment' is something I have difficulty with," he says. "I'm a narrow-minded bigot. I believe in art. I don't believe art is meant to entertain; I believe art is meant to elevate -- the good and the bad, the pain and the joy that comes through art. And most of us simply want to be entertained. Facile," he spits with disdain.

"But I'm just complaining about the past," he says with a smirk. "They are the future. My only regret is that the culture doesn't sustain what I would have liked to have done."

Some high-end audio stores are enthusiastically adapting to this changing marketplace; others are resisting the trends. This dichotomy parallels the countless internecine debates that have racked the audiophile subculture through the years, creating a bunker mentality among some of the hobby's extremists. And while stereo lovers have been trading tubes and arguing whether solid-state and digital technology were worthy of admission into the high-end ivory tower, the rest of the world has embraced not only CDs but surround-sound systems.

The tenacity with which the stereo-mad hang on to their anachronistic technology varies. Ray Seda says that CD systems have equaled the sound quality of LPs in only the past six months or so. Steve Zipser says digital drew even three or four years ago; Eddy Mir says it was only within the past year.

What was (or is) the problem with CDs? Those interviewed for this story have thrown around terms such as "thin," "tinny," "hollow," "mechanical," and "godawful" to describe the relative quality of compact disc recordings when compared with LPs. Those who favor records say CDs emphasize the bass and treble at the expense of the midrange. But in most cases the advantages of CDs -- durability, uninterrupted play, availability -- along with improvements in the technology have converted all but the most radical of audiophiles, including most of the tweaks. Mir, for example, no longer uses a turntable.

The CD vs. LP debate also exposed another, perhaps deeper rift among enthusiasts. In his 1994 tome The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, stereo guru Robert Harley describes two kinds of listening: "critical listening" and listening for pleasure. All audiophiles engage in some critical listening when trying to optimize their systems, keeping ears peeled for tonal balance and distortion throughout the high, middle and low frequencies. Some -- mostly those whom Zipser describes as "whacko-tweakos" -- engage in nothing else. In the chapter "Pitfalls of Becoming a Critical Listener," author Harley cautions, "Once started on the path of critiquing sound, it's all too easy to forget that the reason we're involved in audio is because we love music."

McGrath, a symphonic recording engineer who has categorized music as "classical, folk and god-knows-what," says that there are plenty of audiophiles who don't know or care anything about music. It is these people, he maintains, who have stoked the flames of the digital/analog debate, causing "what has been irreparable damage to the relationship between the music lover and the people who tweak."

By insisting that analog is superior, McGrath says, the high-end industry, especially through forums like Stereophile and the Absolute Sound magazines, has made music lovers who want to buy new music -- available only on CD these days -- feel like second-class citizens. "What are you left with? You're left with the tweaks, who had no interest in music in the first place," McGrath declares.

Don Caruso is an avowed music lover, but his position in the CD vs. analog conflict is in line with that of the tweakier end of the audiophile continuum. The interior of Audio by Caruso, a second-floor storefront on South Dixie Highway across the street from the Falls, certainly bespeaks a bygone era of stereo. A brochure near the cash register declares, "Stop Digital Pollution." On the wall behind the counter is an airbrush painting of a woman's hand, complete with bright red nail polish, guiding a phonograph needle into the grooves of a gold record.

The proprietor himself, a slight, wiry fellow clad in navy slacks and a blue- and green-striped shirt fastened with faux mother-of-pearl snaps, is perched behind his counter, legs crossed, arms folded. As an afternoon downpour taps on the plate glass windows, Caruso stares through his thick wire-rims and contemplates the fate of the high-end stereo industry.

"We are, I think, as a culture, doomed to repeat our errors," he says morosely. "I'm waiting for another world war at this point. We don't seem to learn from our previous mistakes, either socially or technologically."

So what are the egregious errors in audio that Caruso equates with global conflict? The advent of solid-state circuitry, which was followed by "another step down," the compact disc, whose sound he describes as "artificial." (He adds that the improvements in CD technology -- higher sampling rates, for example -- are "not as great as we have been led to believe.") But the real enemy in all this, Caruso says, can be summed up in one word, which he keeps repeating in his soft, throaty voice: marketing.

"I don't see more shoppers, I see a different shopper -- the one the marketing people want to have," he says. "The one who doesn't think, who doesn't research. There's probably been somewhat of a decline in the audiophile side of the industry; they've been replaced by the consumer interested in surround sound-systems for television viewing and multiroom background-sound listening."

Caruso, like everyone else, has been forced to diversify into the home theater arena to survive. He also sells far more CD equipment than analog; he has even developed his own customized CD player component, a high-quality tube circuit that amplifies the CD signal after it has been converted from digital information into an analog signal. But he's not going gentle into that good night. "I'm probably more of a diehard in terms of maintaining a prominent interest in the audio side than other dealers are willing to be. For a salesman on the sales floor, it's easier for him to go with the flow to make a living," Caruso says.

He is also aware of his reputation for being somewhat aloof, but he makes no apologies for his approach to selling the equipment he loves. "If someone comes in who has obviously been led down the marketing path and has a lot of misinformation, and I try to help them see through that, a lot of people by their nature are offended," Caruso says. "I have never hesitated in offering something contrary if I thought it was in the direction of truth and beauty."

Through his continuing preference for tube, analog, two-channel, and audio-only systems, Don Caruso is bucking trends not only in the mass market but in the audiophile community. Wes Phillips of Stereophile notes that his publication's circulation has swelled to more than 80,000 in recent years, while he has seen the number of hard-core audiophiles around the country dwindle. Even the tweak magazines are no longer writing just for tweaks, but also for home theater buffs and conspicuous consumers. And the competition for new customers is heated; Caruso, Zipser and Seda all concur that high-end audio is a much more cutthroat business now than it was ten years ago.

While he acknowledges the reality of the marketplace, Phillips does express some reservations about the domination of home theater over the high-end audio business. "A great home theater is hard to fault on an aesthetic level," he allows, "but as wonderful as it is, it doesn't quite give me the out-of-body experience that listening to fine music does, the sense of being possessed by greatness, of communing with Beethoven's spirit for a few minutes."

Visit any audiophile's home for a listening session and you'll very likely find yourself plunked into the comfy chair, couch or loveseat that occupies the "sweet spot," the rarefied zone where the stereo system serves up the most delectable ear candy.

On this day, though, Peter McGrath is ordering his guest out of the sweet spot, the couch facing the sizable speakers in his Gables living room. "Stand off to the side and look this way," he says, pointing to a spot at the edge of an Afghan rug and indicating that the listener should face parallel to the coffee table with the front speakers on his left.

Though now two years removed from retail, McGrath is still intimately involved with high-end audio. The front speakers of his system are Egglestons, the brand for which he is national sales manager. And the sublime sounds of Respighi's The Pines of Rome pouring out from these speakers are provided by the Florida Philharmonic; McGrath is the recording engineer for this orchestra, as well as for the New World Symphony.

While the music coming from the left and right speakers is fantastic in range, timbre, and quality, what makes this display truly awe-inspiring is the sound coming from the two speakers at the rear of the room. And this technology isn't like any surround sound currently available, including the newer Dolby Pro Logic systems, which extract the surround sound from two channels of information. This is a true, discrete, four-channel recording: instead of left and right, you have front left, front right, rear left, rear right. The recording was done with a single microphone, and the effect is truly eerie. When someone in the audience coughs or moves around, the listener can pinpoint the exact position of the offender.

"My audiences have to get better," McGrath says, only half-joking. "This is not audience participation. This is not virtual reality."

It is, however, a disorientingly accurate representation of the concert-going experience. When one stands at the side of the living room with eyes closed, the dimensions of the Au-Rene Theater at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts become quite clear, as the rear speakers convey the reverberations of the orchestra's instruments from the back and side walls.

After the piece's climax, when the timpani player is finished rattling the listeners' rib cages, McGrath stops the master tape on its reel-to-reel, switches off his customized four-channel digital mixer, and speaks in hushed tones about the technology he has just demonstrated. The surround-sound home theater systems he so loathes might just turn out to be a Trojan horse for this four-channel marvel. To his knowledge, McGrath is one of only two people in the country currently pursuing this technology.

"I'm very excited at the prospect that we can take something that's already made its way into homes, the idea of having speakers behind you, and turn that into something that will provide for a startling improvement in musical realism," McGrath says, his hands clasped.

And four channels, McGrath notes, can only be conveyed digitally, in a format such as digital video discs (DVD). (A commercially available DVD system, with a price tag usually between $500 and $1000, could play such recordings, but no four-channel audio recordings are currently available.)

"If we accept that four-channel is an advantage that neither tweak, audiophile, or anybody else can dispute, then that kills the digital vs. analog debate, because analog, by definition, is two channels," he pronounces with obvious satisfaction. "We now can maybe see this divergent path of the music lover who's been made to feel like a second-class citizen suddenly finding a home again."

"That's why the whole concept of audiophile and high-end audio is at a really critical juncture right now. And if we do it right, we might be able, for the first time, to intelligently marry the dreams and aspirations of people who truly love music with the technology -- without a lot of the baggage that kept us apart. It can be done.


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