Music matters to nearly everyone, at varying degrees, which is why we are surrounded by it everywhere we go. For a smaller group of people, like me, it is a passion. Trends in music compression has deflated expectations for the quality of reproduced music, which is sad, but thankfully also reversible as high-resolution digital streaming becomes more widely available. Truth be told, the vast majority of people have never heard a true high-fidelity music system — and don’t know what they are missing. I strongly believe that how we experience music has a lot to do with how deeply we appreciate it, which is one reason why Definitive Audio’s annual Music Matters event, is so exciting to me.
A World I Never Knew Existed
My passion for music started early — and my love affair with the equipment used to reproduce it quickly followed. I bought my first record — a 45RPM of Bill Withers’ “Lean on Me” (not a bad place to start) — when I was in the 8th grade, in 1972. A few more 45s followed, but soon I graduated to the hard stuff — 12-inchLong Plays (LPs). That said, my initial album purchases weren’t very hard — Looking Glass, Jim Croce, Bread, Cat Stevens — some fairly lightweight stuff of the period, acquired at the local dime store for $2.99 worth of my paper route money.
Toward the end of that pivotal year, I discovered the communal aspect of listening to music. One of my classmates heard that I bought the Three Dog Night album, “Seven Separate Fools” and lamented, “That’s lightweight junk” (or more colorful words to that effect). I asked him what he meant and he invited me over to his house to listen to some “serious” music. So I went and heard T. Rex, Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, and Alice Cooper pour out of his speakers. In one afternoon, I’d been exposed to a world I never knew existed.
That’s a big part of what makes an event like “Music Matters” so thrilling: the shared experience of discovering new music. That’s not to say we’ll be treated to a vinyl copy of Slade’s “Slayed?” at Music Matters, but if someone asks… I can bring mine.
From there, my passion for music went into hyper drive. One of my next purchases was Chicago V. Those who only know the later Chicago might say the record has more in common with my initial pop purchases (and I probably bought it with that expectation, given its hit single “Saturday in the Park”). But that record was a revelation. Still is. Great music never goes into the past tense. Fluid, driving jazz, inflected blues guitar (the late Terry Kath is truly one of rock guitar’s unsung heroes), soaring multi-part harmonies, intricate arrangements — this was a record that blew apart the boundaries of my musical experience. I haven’t put those boundaries back up since. Duke Ellington once said that there are only two kinds of music: good and bad. That’s been my only guide.
Submerging Myself in Great Sound
There was one thing still limiting my music experience: my audio system. I was listening on my folks’ “console” stereo — a bulky, all-in-one cabinet, which sat in our living room. My buddy had a hand-me-down component stereo in a loft above the detached garage, which he had fashioned into his listening/party area. As a teenager in 1972, this was heaven on earth, or at least in suburban New Jersey. He could crank his stereo up as loud as he wanted. The speakers were carefully placed several feet apart, which created an immersive sound. Honest to goodness stereo! It crushed the console we had at home and, of course, its parental volume limit. It was magic!
I resolved to get my own stereo, which started out modestly and then grew in scale. It eventually grew so much that I had to convince my parents to let me move to an unused room downstairs. There, I could really let it rip and began assembling a system that would let me hear Rush’s “2112” in all its mystical hard-rock glory, capture John Bonham’s (Led Zeppelin) crushing drum sound, Noddy Holder’s (Slade) firehouse siren vocal roar, and soar off into auditory space with Pink Floyd. It truly was a prolific period in rock music — The Allman Brothers Band, Steely Dan, Queen, ZZ Top, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy, Yes, Genesis, Bruce Springsteen, and so many others whose careers launched in this short space of time and who have gone on to musical immortality.
Despite my relative isolation, there was no way to escape the volume of my stereo. How my poor parents put up with it, I have no idea. When the time came for me to head off to college, we had to pile all of my gear and records — nearly 300 at the time — into the family station wagon. I must have only taken a pair of jeans and a couple of T-shirts, in addition to my stereo. Of course, wagons were 36-feet long back then, which helped.
In college, I discovered the blues and jazz, and poured more of my modest discretionary income into improving my stereo. There is no question that I spent an exorbitant amount on my music system — and I never regretted it. My passion for music has taken me to nearly every corner of the world, metaphorically speaking, over my lifetime.
Turning My Love for Music Into a Livelihood
In my college years, I worked in a local audio shop to support my habit. Upon graduation, I found myself in the midst of a recession in the early 1980s. So, I returned to retail, thinking I’d do that for a short time while I figured out my next move. But, in fact, my time in these shops led to a four-decade career in the audio industry. It’s safe to say that music doesn’t just matter to me; it’s defined my life.
I often say that there is a sacred aspect to the high-end side of the audio industry. From the pioneers of the business in the 1950s to today’s best companies, the ambition of the top designers and brands is to preserve the integrity of the artist’s performance. My friend and audio electronics designer, Alan Clark, once told me that he would have loved to be a musician, but found that circuit design was another avenue through which he could contribute to music. Most of us in the business share a similar story.
A new recording from a favorite artist is like a letter from home.
I often reflect upon the fact that I’ve had a decades’ long relationship with many artists whom I’ve never seen live or have only seen a handful of times. My connection is mostly or entirely through recordings, yet it matters hugely. A new recording from a favorite artist is like a letter from home. Many great artists are no longer with us, but we are still blessed with the fact that they were captured on tape or hard drives and can be experienced indefinitely. Imagine only being able to read about the sound of The Beatles, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, Duane Allman, and thousands of others — and not being able to hear them. That’s a depressing thought, but thankfully not our reality.
There is a profound difference between hearing this music and experiencing it. The best systems transcend time and space. They recreate a living reality that’s unique and powerful. And yet, as great as their sound is, these systems also create an experience that feels intimate — as though your favorite artist is playing right in your living room.
I hope you have the chance to experience this feeling first-hand at Definitive Audio’s annual Music Matters event or by dropping by either of their showrooms. May this lead you to countless hours of exploration and enjoyment beyond the event (and your parent’s roof).
Doug Henderson has had a four-decade-long career in audio. He is JL Audio’s Senior Vice President, Home Audio and the former President, B&W Group North America. Doug believes that music is a limitless passion – whether that is playing the guitar, enjoying a live performance, or experiencing a favorite recording in his listening room. He also has a passion for photography, which can be viewed at www.douglasandrewhenderson.com.