Here comes my nineteenth hi-fi breakdown

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The Independent Culture
I'M WALKING slowly around a hi-fi store, not a place designed to make me feel sick, to make me think that I belong to a doomed society, and I'm looking at some cheapish CD systems, fingering and lightly prodding the pre-set equaliser controls and watching the graphs as they appear on the little screens, tiny yellow dots making curved shapes which I could, if I bought one of these models, see from across the room, even if it was dark, even if the volume was turned down to zero.

Spectrum analysers, that's what they're called, these things that reproduce the sounds you're hearing in visual form, so you can see what it is you're hearing; which, after two or three seconds' thought, sounds like a sweet idea, but begins to sound senseless five or 10 seconds later.

My eye drifts from the wall-mounted stacks of knob-barnacled black plastic and metal boxes and is caught by a shop assistant, who raises his eyebrows, predatory, and takes a pace forward. One of the hi-fi systems, the Pioneer Multiplay, which costs pounds 459, offers three pre-set 'sound field' controls: Hall, Disco, and Background. Also, you can put in six CDs and it will play random tracks for you, which means you can lie back and listen to music you haven't even chosen.

This is consumer choice taken to its furthest extreme, to the point where one of your choices is the option to be robbed of choice - to have things organised for you, as if you were a Communist or in prison. But what I really want to know about is wattage. I want to know about the simplest thing, the measurement of power.

'Need any help, sir?'

'Yes . . . this is 25 watts RMS.'

'Right.'

'So . . . what does RMS mean?'

'Root mean square.'

'Root mean square? What's that mean?'

'I . . . don't know. I'm not a technician. But, um, it's the most reliable measure of sound output.'

I nod, lips pursed; the guy knows he hasn't got a sale. I'm having a hi-fi crisis, but I don't think it's a crisis that can be solved in the traditional way, by going into a shop and buying a hi-fi system. I can't solve this in the way recommended by hi-fi magazines, known as 'upgrading'. Have you any idea what happens when you get into upgrading? You buy a better amplifier, and a more refined CD player, and so on, until one day you go into a store and ask for a pair of 'sub-woofers'.

And what has happened to you then? What kind of person have you become when your interest in music has fragmented so much that you want your bass to be separated into parts, so you can sit on your sofa and contemplate these parts, these little vibrations, as they come at you separately, rather than together, as music?

The shop next door is bigger; more caverns lined with stacked black boxes, most of which are a single black box trying to look like

four separate ones, machinery pretending

to be more complex than it actually is.

'Need any help, sir?'

'Yes. I'm wondering . . . what does RMS stand for?'

'Real music sound.'

'I thought it was root something.'

'No.' He's looking at me with an evil expression.

'It's not root mean square?'

'No. It's real music sound.'

'So this is, the sound you get is . . . real?'

'Exactly.'

I thank him and drift out of the store. I remember my first hi-fi crisis, in 1975, when I was at boarding school. At school, one's hi-fi system, being a visible index of one's wealth, was vital: I persuaded my parents to buy me a Sony turntable, a Sansui amplifier, and Goodmans speakers. This was a conservative, acceptable choice. But was it the right one? I set it up in my bedroom, and tried to imagine that my bedroom was my study at school, so that I could imagine what my hi-fi system would look like at the crucial moment, when it was first inspected by my peers: the silverish deck, the matt-black amplifier covered with knobs.

The important thing was the number of knobs on the amplifier; I chose the Sansui because it covered several functions with a separate knob for each function, rather than a single, roving knob. I had a strong sense of the need for switches, of the way a switch-covered panel suggested technical know-how, expertise, hard-won knowledge on the part of the owner. I used to imagine what I might do if I designed amplifiers for Sansui, or Sony, or Pioneer. I'd add on more knobs, as many as possible, perhaps even try to work in some kind of gear lever. Flashing lights, an option that wasn't brought in for years, would have been the answer to my dreams.

Years later, in the early Eighties, I had my second hi-fi crisis, on a train, when I met an old friend who told me he'd spent pounds 3,000 on a new system. I was impressed.

'I bet your amp looks like a flight-deck.'

'What?'

'I mean, I bet you have loads of . . . of knobs on your amplifier.'

'Well, no, actually. . . '

'So . . . how many do you have?'

'One.'

One? The guy had spent pounds 3,000, and he only had one knob? This was incredible. The point was this: at the top of the scale, in sub- woofer territory, it is more fashionable to have fewer knobs. If you know a lot about hi-fi, if you know so much that you want your bass separated into parts, then you realise that the knobs are a ruse, a con.

Another shop: 'What does RMS mean?'

'Real music stereo.'

And another shop. I'm looking at a system that gives you a choice of 'Arena', 'Jazz Club', 'Stadium', 'Church,', and 'Movie'. I think: how terrible, how foul this will look when it goes out of fashion. People will be hiding them away in their attics. No, I'm waiting until something new comes along.

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