Why I’m Buying My Wife a Dark Side of the Moon T-Shirt for Christmas 

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Sitting in our living room with the inward-facing French doors open to let the cool evening ocean breeze waft in, I cued up my audiophile system for some chill, trip-hop, loungy/electronic jams as my wife and I had a rare chance to sit down and catch up on the often-ignored topics of the day. The lights were low thanks to the Crestron lighting control. The fireplace was flickering on its dimmest setting, and the music was playing from Sonos (Pandora’s very good Thievery Corporation playlist in this case) through my Anthem STR stereo preampPass Labs XA-25 Class-A power amp, and a gorgeous pair of white Bowers & Wilkins 802 D4 loudspeakers.

And my wife says, “This doesn’t sound anywhere near as good as last night!” 

My wife is becoming an unexpected audiophile so I feel compelled to get her a Dark Side of the Moon T-Shirt for Christmas
My wife is becoming an unexpected audiophile so I feel compelled to get her a Dark Side of the Moon T-Shirt for Christmas

“What did you just say,” I retorted in a state of audiophile astonishment? She went on to say, “It doesn’t sound as clear.” And she was completely right! Earlier in the day, I pulled the $10,000 Pass Labs XP-22, two-chassis stereo preamp from the rack and reinstalled my Swiss Army Knife DAC-Preamp-Room-Correction solution, which for $4,000 is one of the best stereo preamps anywhere near its price in the market today. The resolution on the Wayne Colburn designed Pass Labs XP-22 is simply amazing, but could it be heard by the supposedly untrained ear? You bet, as the differences are noticeable. 

My wife and I have been together for more than 20 years now. She has seen and heard every permutation of my audiophile systems over the years, but she’s never had a technological comment this honest or this telling before now. I asked her if I needed to unbox the Pass Labs and put it in the rack for permanent display, but when she heard how much money I’d need to invest in that upgrade, she decided to let me take it to Greg Handy, who reviewed the one-chassis, $6,100 Pass Labs XP-12 preamp for us. Right this second, Greg is in a better position to make a meaningful electronics upgrade in his system than I am. I still have a little bit of the cost of my Pass Labs XA-25 Class-A power amp on my main credit card, and start-up publications like this one make cash dollars a pretty high premium, especially with credit card interest rates at around 22 percent.

Here is the less-than-perfect audiophile setup where my wife became an audiophile
Here is the less-than-perfect audiophile setup where my wife became an audiophile

The next morning, I was on a walk down at the beach (I pass Baywatch Headquarters every time in case you needed a geographical or historical clue as to where I get my steps in every morning while yapping about audiophile this-that-and-everything). I was talking on the phone with reviewer Paul Wilson. I told him my story and he started laughing, as nobody knows the audiophile’s path more than Paul. He has built one mighty system over the years. 

What we ended up talking about was how sometimes you need The Take-away Close (to use sales jargon) to really realize what you have in terms of performance in your system. When adding the Pass Labs XP-22 to the system, it was pretty obvious that the small details were really clear sounding. In my review, I noted how I could hear just how analog Eddie Van Halen’s stomp-box pedals sounded on Van Halen II from 1979. I own some of these vintage guitar effects and they are a lot of fun, but to hear them sound that much more resolute, three-dimensional, and lively was an ear opener when the Pass Labs XP-22 was in the loop. Was the sound terrible when I went back to the Anthem? Not even for one second was that the case, but it wasn’t as detailed sounding as with the much more expensive preamp in the loop. 

This brought me to coin a new phrase: “The Joni Mitchell Close,” which implies that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, as one of her most iconic songs suggest. As a reviewer, you simply can’t keep every component that comes along. You need to share with other reviewers (I am able to do this with some on my staff who live nearby, which is additionally cool) or send the product back to the company, who might need the component for dealer promos, tradeshow displays, or who knows what. When that juicy, truly awesome audiophile component goes bye-bye, there often is a sonic price to pay, and in this case even my wife could hear it. I could too, but I never thought that, even without prompting, she could too. 

The differences in many top-level audiophile components end up being more about sounding different, not better or worse. Tube preamps can sometimes sound a little bit colored, but also come with a soothing sonic warmth that is comfortable sounding and pleasing to the human ear. Some higher-end DACs have that highly resolved in-the-studio sound when others have filters that allow them to be a little bit less in-your-face or sonically truthful. You might not be getting all that your reproduction of the master tape has to offer you (no matter what digital audio format that you choose to listen to) but the overall experience is a little more sonically digestible. All sorts of high-end audiophile components have different sounds, with few being bad, per se. Some are more to your liking and others perhaps not as much, but the difference is the fun part of the evaluation. The hunt for the sound that you personally like the most is the core of what this hobby is all about and why it is so much fun and worthy of such extreme investments. 

Often even audiophiles don’t realize what they’ve got until it is gone – aka: the Joni Mitchell effect

What was reassuring to me was that in a hobby that is all about finding the Nth degree of performance, which can be very small – all but for the price –there was much more room for meaningful improvement in my system. That means that I have a lot to look forward to as I make upgrades over time, assuming budgets will allow it. Will I ever sell my Anthem STR preamp? I doubt it, but you never know. That preamp does it all and does it all pretty damn well. To best this world-beater preamp, you need to spend more than double and you lose all of the whiz-bang technology that makes the Anthem STR so flexible and cool. 

The time that I spent with the Pass Labs XP-22 in my system reminded me of the world of race cars. I learned long ago that if you want to make your Porsche go faster, one of the best ways is to accomplish your goal is to make it lighter. You can remove the air conditioning, carpets, and radio. You can take out the speakers, the floormats, the spare tire, and even replace the metal Porsche badge with a sticker to get that tiny little bit of weight. Can anybody feel the effect of a few ounces less weight in a race car? That’s a solid no, but when adding up all of the total weight removed, you can see a measurable difference in performance. Audiophile systems benefit from the same multiple-upgrade effect, it turns out. All of the little stuff is little on its own, but when combined, the small changes aren’t so small anymore. 

So, with the holidays approaching, I can skip the Hermes bag or the four-inch Jimmy Choo shoes for my wife, as I have something better for her this year. I’m getting her a vintage, highly worn Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon T-shirt. She will don the same duds that many of an audiophile attended AXPONA or Capital Audiofest or Rocky Mountain in. She’s got the ears, it turns out. Now she just needs the outfit, and she will be ready to join the growing ranks of female audiophiles. God knows, she’s heard enough of this gear over two decades of having to put up with me. Now she’s calling out the specific differences as if she is now has the lexicon of an audiophile-grade sommelier who truly knows and can appreciate the value of a very high-end audiophile component. Regardless of the price, isn’t that the fun of the hobby? I think it is. 

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Hoyt Maulden

You might want to clarify.
I hope you weren’t listening via Pandora?

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