The Ultimate Fi

J. G. MITCHELL is a librarian in the British Columbia Provincial Library of Victoria. This is his first appearance in the pages of the ATLANTIC.

Jason was unhappy. He knew as he listened to the four speaker systems in front of him and the two on each side of him and the three behind him that with his present components he could not hope to produce really, really high fidelity sound in his listening room. He could no longer shrug off the fact that his matched superrealistic multidirectional magnastereophonic reproduction system could not honestly be said to be giving him the truly faithful concert-hall realism he had read about in advertisements.

He tried to make peace with himself. He fought back the growing ache that pulsed from the region of his liver, a familiar pain that had immediately preceded each previous expansion of his electronic equipment. He tried to make peace with his yearning and his liver. But bicarbonate and old records are a poor balm for the aching spirit and the discontented ear of the chronic audiophile.

Still, he took down from the sterilized, dustproof shelves and removed from its six plastic envelopes and put on the turntable the famous — justly so, in view of the relatively primitive fifteen-track recording process available when it had been made — the famous record of the Indianapolis motor race of 1967. And for a time the sound of the cars ricocheting around and around the room was sufficiently and agonizingly realistic to temper his discontent.

Only for a time. Even with superrealistic multidirectional magnastereophonic reproduction one could not go on interminably listening to recordings of automobile races. And, although the roaring illusion of the Indianapolis track could be sustained by sound emanating merely from all four walls of a room, from speakers all around the listener, the full, spatial richness of a symphony orchestra could never be brought faithfully into the listening room by wall speakers alone. Audio experts in all the magazines emphasized the absurdity of expecting high fidelity sound from speakers merely on the four walls of a room. Did Jason, they asked in advertisement after advertisement, deliberately shut out any of the glorious sound waves at a live concert by sitting in cotton batting and by wearing a down-filled sound absorber for a hat?

To achieve genuine concert-hall realism, Jason knew that he would have to convert to the new extradimensional system. He knew that to approach the final fidelity, to experience the moment of electronic truth, he would have to install additional speakers in the floor and the ceiling, and worse — although he was growing accustomed to doing it — would have to scrap his present collection of discs in favor of the new seventeen-track records that were beginning to appear in the shops. It would be expensive, but, oh, it would be worth the outlay to hear the 1812 Overture sounding as Tchaikovsky had meant it to sound (or would have meant it to sound if he could have envisioned an orchestra of three hundred players and four combined brass bands all jammed into Jason’s listening room, together with the bell towers of the Kremlin, Riverside Church, the Ottawa Peace Tower, Big Ben, and the Little Church Around the Corner, and, in addition, the sound of five honest-togoodness nuclear explosions, used in the finale in place of the more common naval barrages laid down in earlier recording sessions). It should be stunning, he knew — the sound pouring over him not only from sources in front of him, behind him, and on all sides of him, but also from above and beneath him, as in a concert hall, beamed down on him from the ceiling and up at him through the broadloom.

Through the broadloom. Well, the drapes had gone, and the overstuffed furniture; now it had to be the rug. Perched on a scientifically designed, square, highly polished, sound-refracting Klapschinged stool in the very center of his barren listening room, in order to not have anything aurally harmful between himself and his reproduced music, Jason felt an honest regret at the thought of parting with the rug. It was the final link with his old way of life — his wife having gone with the lastbut-one conversion — but part with it he knew he must. Sentiment, he admitted, had never done much for a room’s acoustics.

Jason broke the Indianapolis Speedway over his knee — records once again being made breakable to facilitate the inevitable change-over from improved system to improved system — and he started off to arrange the terms for purchasing his new components.

When he was halfway to the supply house, a dreadful thought stole into Jason’s consciousness: what if the total complement of seventeen matched speaker systems, seventeen amplifiers, seventeen preamplifiers, and seventeen post-preamplifiers; the nonrumbling, nonwowing, nonfluttering, synchromatic, infinitely adjustable turntable; the quadruple viscous-damped, superlight, ballbearing-balanced, straight-grained nonresonating tulip-wood tone arm; the platinum-plated cartridge with the four and a half diamond styluses — what if all of this magnificent assemblage still would not turn the listening room into Philharmonic Hall?

“Ridiculous,” Jason said out loud. It would have to turn his fourteen by twenty-two foot listening room into Philharmonic Hall. With sound pouring out from all four walls, the ceiling, and the floor, there was no further improvement that could be made; the dimensions were used up. It had to give him the ultimate in sound. He left a $1500 down payment with Harmony House Sound Systems, Ltd., on the two new amplifiers, preamplifiers, post-preamplifiers, speaker systems, cartridges, and the album of the 1812 Overture recorded at the Los Alamos proving grounds.

It took only four weeks for his listening room to be reconstructed. When all the additional components were in place, Jason stood — the stool had had to go, too— to hear Tchaikovsky. It was overwhelming, quite overwhelming. Jason was happy at last.