Perfect Sound Forever: The Secret Function of High End Stereos

If you want to, you can see pretty much any band that ever existed playing live, as long as they aren't too dead. You could see the Doors, with Ian Astbury from the Cult as Jim Morrison or perhaps Queen, without Freddie but with Paul Rodgers from Bad Company. It gets worse: Rick Buckler, the drummer from the Jam has joined a Jam tribute band called The Gift. The whole of rock and rolls back catalogue is on the road, fuelled on pure nostalgia, haunting motorways like zombie ghost ships.

It is as though time has collapsed and everything that every happened since Bill Haley is happening right now, somewhere not far from you, with extra nights added due to popular demand.

Stuff whose vitality was ephemeral has suddenly been granted longevity, seasoned with reverence. Often, acts will recreate a particular album or experience. The Who - what's left of them - played a replica of the set list of their seminal 'Live at Leeds' album at the very same venue. There is something for everyone: Roger Waters, Sparks, or perhaps Teenage Fanclub playing Bandwagonesque front-to-back. It's as nostalgic as those TimeLife compilations that are flogged on obscure shopping channels in the dead of night, but it also has a heightened sense of event whose subtext is the critical reappraisal of important artists.

The venues they play also confer a new sense of cultural value on the artists. London's Festival Hall has seen Brian Wilson, Morrissey, the New York Dolls and all kinds of other pop flim-flam stride (or more likely shuffle) across its stage. The seriousness of proper concert halls provides kudos like white space in coffee table catalogues. (They also provide comfy seating for rheumatic bones.)

A cynic might suggest that it is just the music industry maximising return on its back catalogue, rather than developing new artists (an expensive gamble risk that averse accountants who run the industry would rather avoid). Nevertheless, we invite all of this upon ourselves. Perhaps this is because the subtext is actually a personal issue. By ramping up the critical appraisal we acknowledge and mark significance of our teenage years. Some kind of validation conferring historical significance to those carefree moments, which slipped away, like tears in an ocean. It's not the band we want to see, but ourselves.

Baby Boomers might want great sound and comfortable seats - but they still want to feel that edgy thrill of their teenage years. Instead of seeking out new thrills with youthful abandon, they have instead refused to let go of that moment. They have remade the world in their own image. You can see it in the deathly serious music magazines, in coffee table books, in the re-masterings, re-issues, re-packaged formats. In McCartney and Jaggers knighthoods.

This same impulse finds physical form in the shape of high end Hi Fis. I'm in the South Moulton St branch of Bang & Olufsen where I'm endlessly opening and closing the sliding glass lid of the BeoSound 4 (1650 GBP) by waving my hand near a sensor. Next I'm pressing a brushed stainless steel button that activates the opening mechanism of the BeoCenter 2 (2850 GBP). The metallic crescent facia splits in two, an arm raises a glass disk revealing a depression for a CD. These exquisite pieces of engineering are fetish objects whose aesthetics and mechanics are hypnotic. 'Nice action' I find myself saying to the assistant in admiration of the supple robotics.

There is no irony in the listening to bootlegs like 'The Velvet Underground Live at Max's Kansas City' - which was taped on Brigid Polks Sony 124 cassette recorder as she sat at a table chatting to friends - through super-expensive high fidelity Danish systems with gold plated plugs. Don't laugh - it's not ridiculous, it's a forensic replay searching for some moment where we might find ourselves revealed - before we betrayed ourselves, before hollow emptiness consumed us, before we became hideous parodies of our beautiful youth. We use it to chase authenticity, to perfectly reconstruct a moment that has long passed. The BeoSound4 is a way of clutching at time as it washes past you, and quite as fruitless.

These B&O devices use design to amplify not just music but also sensation. In spite of their aesthetic minimalism, they turn a simple act into a complex exchange. The triangular relationship between you, the music and the mechanism that delivers the music leaks together into a single indistinguishable experience.

As we age, memories of youth become ever more significant in our own personal mythology. Two thousand pound stereos are a way of externalising that significance. Perhaps that's why these B&O machines look like the control panel on a particularly swish time machine. The lightness of touch by which you exert control means it feels almost like your desire is transmitted telepathically. The LED displays illuminate from behind black glass - a conceit which dematerialises the stereos components. It suggests that the machine operates with a different set of physics, that materials can behave in unexpected ways. Maybe it suggests that it can do the same to space time fabric: Rewind: lost loves; Pause: innocent utopian dreams; Play: the sensation of youthful sap rising through your limbs.

Posted by sam at August 31, 2006 12:25 PM


The drummer from the Jam is actually called Rick Buckler. Not Butler.

And now, I didn't meet him down in the tube station at midnight.


Posted by: Mark on September 4, 2006 3:51 PM

Amazing how spellcheckers alter names isnt it? Perhaps all names should be vetted by the Microsoft dictionary before being comitted to a birth certificate. Ive edited above - Thanks

Posted by: sam jacob on September 4, 2006 6:47 PM

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