How can music build muscle?

by Gautam Raja

My friend P ran a popular restaurant for a long time, and then spent many years working as a consultant. People he knew who loved to cook would often come to him for advice on starting their own restaurants. His response was always the same. Never do it. “Running a restaurant has very little do with food and cooking,” he would tell them. “It’s a heartbreaking business”.

Jobs usually look different from the inside. This is why I’ve been circumspect about finding a job in one of my two dream industries. It’s only three weeks into working for a high-end audio dealer, and I’m having even more fun than when I started. (The other dream industry would be cycling.)

My quick inside view of the high-end audio industry is that there’s a lot of heavy lifting. Literally. This is not a job for someone with a bad back. A Wilson Sophia speaker, for example, weighs 72kg. Getting one up even a couple of steps is a workout. An Audioquest power conditioner is about the size of a fat briefcase, but weighs 37kg, and has no handles. It’s fun trying to get that onto a rack. We recently installed a pair of power amplifiers that weigh 61kg each, though they did come with handles.

Most of this is ridiculously expensive gear, so my other expectation was of customer lifestyles. I assumed that people who buy $100,000 audio systems live in the mansion on the hill, with ocean vistas, and crunchy sweeping driveways. And so far, while we have been to one such house, most audiophiles lead pretty normal lives. On my first day at work, we visited a customer whose house gave no clues outside, or in the rest of the home, that the front room had been turned into a $180,000 home cinema. The rear speakers alone would be an unattainable dream as main stereo speakers for many audio nuts.

Another customer lived in a house not too different from one we rent. In the front room were two giant speakers, and the wooden TV unit contained a range of expensive American vacuum tube based electronics, in the same cubbies most of us fill with books and magazines, and assorted DVDs. The next time you run into your neighbour, look at him carefully (it’s usually a ‘him’). He could be an audiophile, walking unchallenged among us.

I recently read a March 12, 2014, Forbes interview of Sandy Gross, who co-founded Polk, Definitive Technology, and GoldenEar. He was asked about a trend in the audio industry he didn’t like. His answer: “The disappearance of high quality specialty retail stores that can demonstrate the gear as well as provide expertise and advice.”

I’m proud to work in a store, almost an institution, that has demonstration systems everywhere, and the ability to provide customers with informed choices. And I like that the owner happily fires up the $500,000 flagship system even for people who have come in to buy a $1,600 Technics amplifier.

We accept luxury with such ease and openness when it comes to televisions, cars, jewellery, gadgets, and travel, and yet are so reluctant to treat ourselves to good sound at home; ready to call the entire industry a scam. High-end audio has a big branding problem. Done right, music at home can captivate you, move you to tears, keep you sitting on the couch till 2am playing “just one more track”.

Too few people know this, and too few people realise just how much they are missing from their music when they assuredly say, “I don’t have the ears to hear the differences.”

First published in Gulf News, October 11, 2016