How About Another Renaissance?

By Geoff Woods

 

How many times have we heard the expression, “Everything old is new again,” or “There’s nothing new under the sun”?   How about this one, “I’m so far behind, I think I’m in the lead.”  Maybe that one’s just me.

Now, as I approach the half century mark on this planet, it’s become easier for me to see things that have come and gone do often come around again.  We call that “retro”. Unfortunately, not everything comes back though.  In fact, just the other day at the shop, the boys and I were waxing poetic about our misspent youth in the video arcades, and the vitally important role the local video rental shop played in our social development.  Of course, there are many things that SHOULDN’T ever come back – like mullets, huge shoulder pads, and an embarrassingly large number of the bands that I’m slightly ashamed to say I did listen to in the 80’s.

But whether it be pure nostalgia, or a realization that maybe we’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater a few times (and we should make an effort to get that baby back again), there are some things that give “Retro” a really good name.  The Camaro, Mustang, and the Challenger – for a good first example.  They are all doing a great job of teaching young North American men all about proper muscle car envy.  Post Modern architecture, furniture design, and even some clothes can all remind us of the cyclical nature of great style too. TV shows like The Goldbergs, or Stranger Things capitalize on our tendency to look back with fondness and that’s good.  And obviously music.  I recently took in a Sheepdogs concert, and that totally pushed all my happy sense-memory buttons.  If you’ve never heard the Sheepdogs, give them a listen.  I bet you’ll get it.

What about Vinyl!  Nobody is happier than myself about the rebirth and rejuvenation of vinyl and the record store.  When I was in my late teens, the record store was one of those special places where I didn’t feel like a stranger from another planet.  Now 30 years – and a number of formats later, the venerable turntable has once again achieved its deserved place of honor in the style-conscious living rooms of music lovers. In fact, some of the turntables available these days not only deliver an exquisite musical experience, but are easily as beautiful as any sculpture or art object that you could otherwise clutter up a flat surface with.

So now, I would like to propose another retro revolution.  Perhaps more accurately, recognize it.  This time it’s with speakers. Are you ready for it?  Here goes. . .  They need to get big again, and we need to embrace it.

Now, not DOMINATE THE ROOM big, just “This is a space for music and I belong here” big.  I will admit that many of the big speakers of old were, well UG-LY.  Forty years ago, the equation was simple:  bigger box equals bigger bass, and pretty much every speaker manufacturer had us dancing to that tune.  As a result, there were a lot of big ugly speakers out there.  Then came the advent of mini-subwoofer-micro-satellite speaker systems back in the late 80’s, and we threw the baby out with the bathwater again.

Remember the demonstration where the smooth talking, mullet sporting, shoulder padded salesman played music through what looked like a pair of tower speakers, then he’d remove the tower speaker façade to reveal tiny little cube shaped boxes perched on poles to the surprised oohs and aaahs of his captive audience?  What was unfortunately missing from that demo was a decent pair of tower speakers that one could compare to, but let’s not dwell on that now.  It was a revolution. Almost every interior designer on the planet, and much of the female population immediately got on board with the idea of eliminating big speakers from the home.  Almost to a point of religious fervor.  Interior designers and significant others developed a vehement bias against the concept that a device that brings music into our home, (and thus enriches our life), should be in any way visible.

Now, before I alienate every interior designer and spouse (including my own), let me just clarify my thoughts by saying that some of you do understand that speakers don’t get big just for the sake of taking up more space in the living room. My point is, I think we need to officially take the next step and acknowledge that the space taken up by a full-sized quality speaker in the home, rightfully belongs to the speaker, and that is good. Why?  Because the speaker serves a great and noble purpose, and that purpose is important in our lives.  Spiritually, artistically, and aesthetically – they have great value.

Go with me here. Aesthetically speaking, interior design doesn’t begrudge the existence of a sink in a kitchen.  You can’t have a kitchen without a sink, but let’s be honest, as a rule, sinks are not “pretty”.  Yes, you might be able to find some inordinately high priced artistic blend of sculpture and plumbing by Blanco that your interior designer will effusively gush over, but at the end of the day, whether it’s made of stone, steel, or porcelain, it’s still a spokes model for the sewer that has been built into a counter top.  It has a pipe sticking up out of it and a hole at the bottom.

By comparison, let’s look at a speaker:  not a gateway to the sewer, but a window to a beautiful view of the world.   It can soothe us when we’re anxious, it can inform us of current issues and events, it can motivate us to dance or call us to action, or simply put a smile on our face and a bounce in our step.  Every day.  In the same way that a kitchen cannot be a kitchen without a sink, I would argue that a living room has no life worth living without great music, and that comes from great sounding, proudly full-size speakers.

Today, we embrace the easy availability of music that modern life affords us.  If we go back 150 years, the only way to get any music in your house was to bring musicians into your house; as a result, it was something that was only enjoyed by the super-rich and only on special occasions.  They took up some space too. Then came the gramophone (talk about ugly!  They have a kind of antique charm now, to be sure, but . . . no, scratch that.  They were just ugly).  Then in the early half of the 20th century we started to see big console radios arrive in the home. Roughly the size of a refrigerator on it’s side, but styled to fit in with the living room decor of that era. A meaningful piece of attractive furniture for the day (perhaps some still a bit ugly by today’s standards) – nobody was judged harshly or looked down upon for having one.  It was a sign of success in fact, ushering in another new benefit of a modern society.  People were now able to enjoy the luxury of music and information on demand in their home for the first time, and they understood that modern equipment that occupied space was required to make it happen.

These days it can seem that the very idea that you would allow a music reproduction device to occupy space in your room is something to be ridiculed.  But often it’s because people have an image in their head of what that old console, or speakers looked like half a century ago. Nowadays, there are so many beautiful and different styles of speakers out there, that anybody who takes the time to look should be able to find something to suit their taste and appeal to their sense of visual design.

But again, to get there we first need to acknowledge that the full-size speaker DESERVES to have a dedicated place in our homes.  The amount of space they occupy—and the amount of investment that they represent—are a direct reflection of how important music is in your life.

I used the term Renaissance in the title of this article as a direct reference to my current favorite speaker – made by the Electrostatic Speaker company Martin Logan.  Big, and worth giving a listen to for no other reason than to remind us how lucky we are to live in this day and age where an incredible level of music reproduction in the home is so easily attainable.  They are simply amazing.  I opted for these full-size speakers in my home because they are brilliant sounding, and that is a function of their design/size. I couldn’t be happier with the sound or looks. I have no qualms about dedicating the requisite floor space they assume, to be rewarded with the enthralling musical experience they always deliver, on a daily basis.

There will always be those that will argue that a speaker need not be large, or even visible.  While it is true that speakers can be built into walls or ceilings or minimized into something the size and shape of a water glass sitting on a counter, it’s nowhere near the same experience.  If you could, honestly get the same performance out of a $199 Bluetooth enabled stocking stuffer that’s wedged between the vase and a lamp, I’d shut my mouth, pack up my shingle, go buy a squeegee and make my living on the corner of 17th Avenue, but the cold hard truth is that the level of the experience is fundamentally different.

To illustrate, let me go back to the plumbing analogy:  As Charlize Theron showed us in the film “Monster,” all you need to get clean is a small sink in a gas station rest room, but that’s not what we WANT!  We want a luxurious soaker tub or a glass walled shower with an 8-way adjustable massaging nozzle, and no self-respecting interior designer would ever try to talk us out of it.  By way of comparison, a little Bluetooth widget simply can’t do what a free-standing pair of full size speakers can do – both visually and sonically. In the same way that trying to fill a giant soaker tub with an eyedropper would ultimately prove futile, trying to fill an 1800 cubic foot or larger living room with rich warm sound from something the size of a can of coke will leave you just as cold.

Let me wrap my call to arms up by addressing if there are any decent custom install solutions for those that still feel speakers should be heard and not seen.  To that, I do have to answer a qualified yes.  Qualified by three very important caveats:

1) Preparation.  We need to think about it when the room is being built. Wires need to be run to the exact right locations before the drywall goes up,

2) Placement.  Careful thought needs to go into where the speakers will be and how they will project sound toward the finished listening area – without restriction. Arranging the furniture in the space later is not a good plan, it’s a lack of one. And finally,

3) Price.  High quality speakers cost what they cost. So, good in-wall or in-ceiling speakers are also not cheap. If the floor standing speakers that you like the sound of are $3,500 for the pair, you simply can’t expect to find an in-wall solution you will like for $800.  And even then, the very best built-in speakers still won’t match the imaging and performance capabilities of a free-standing tower speakers, because a speaker’s sound is so massively affected by its cabinet, and no high-quality speakers are made out of drywall for very good reasons.  Besides, you won’t be able to take those great sounding speakers with you if you move.

So, for all of these reasons I say, let us embrace the Renaissance of bringing breathtaking music via properly large speaker into our home again.  A beautiful, stylish pair of speakers needs to be warmly embraced in our living rooms again, the same way we happily welcome a beautiful piece of art, Persian rug or a remarkably comfortable, yet inexplicably expensive chair.

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