O Pioneers

We got back from a relaxing cabin vacation in Tioga county, Pennsylvania last Friday. As someone who teaches Thoreau often for my Literature and Environment course, I was thinking of Henry David a lot while in our small cabin near a lake. The message from Walden that seems to resonate with me and my students the most is his advice that we simplify, always simplify our lives.

Simplicity can be a hard row to hoe today. Too many distractions, too much clutter. If we want to practice what Thoreau preaches, we need to do so in small steps and tiny gestures. Allow yourself to inch towards the goal of simplicity. I will give you a mildly absurd case in point. Let’s talk home stereos.

For about 10 or 12 years my living room has played host to a set of Jensen surround sound speakers and subwoofer. It is a tiny living room, and I suppose I was initially drawn to the fact that the front, center, and rear speakers were tiny and innocuous, and the subwoofer could be hidden behind an armchair, safe and out of site. Somehow I had gotten caught up in the notion that 5.1 surround sound was a good thing, that my movies would sound better and the music would sound all enveloping, or something. Here’s the truth: the speakers were a hassle. The subwoofer was muddy, the connections between speaker and audio amplifier were iffy and unpredictable. Sometimes when turning up the volume loud, the amp would cut out and go into “protect mode”. Often I would forget to turn off the subwoofer and discover days later that it was still on, sucking power and generating needless warmth.

I can count on two hands the number of transcendent listening experiences I had with those speakers over the last decade: the SACD of the Carpenters hits which was mixed for 5.1 sound, a couple of Dylan SACD’s, a Nanci Griffith concert DVD, a couple of classical albums. That’s about it. Mostly they were so frustrating and unpredictable that I tended not to use them.

Okay, back to the story. I’m back from vacation on Friday, feeling all simplified and rested. On Saturday, I had to go to Best Buy for a replacement cell phone for my daughter. This was like going back to the belly of the beast. I wanted to be back among the trees and bald eagles again. Then an impulse overcame me to make the best of a bad situation. What could I do to simplify the home electronics situation in my house?

I brought home a new pair of Pioneer SP-BS22-LR Andrew Jones Designed Bookshelf Loudspeakers (Info and specs here), hooked them up, and tested them for a couple days.

I’m not really an audiophile (can’t afford to be), but the Pioneers are the best speakers I’ve ever owned (this is coming from a guy who always loved his Panasonic Thrusters speakers, so caveat emptor, though I’m not the only one: you should check out the many positive reviews on amazon). The soundstage and depth of field is amazing. The bass response obviates the need for a subwoofer. The frequency range is balanced and full. When paired with my Bellari tube amp and vintage Dual 506 belt-drive turntable, piped through an old TEAC receiver, vinyl records sound deep and silky. Suddenly, I want to use my living room to listen to music again. CD’s sound rich and full too. Happy camper.

I promptly disconnected and removed the surround sound speakers. They will find a home at a Thrift store soon. We’re keeping the subwoofer around because it prevents the dog from hiding his bouncy ball in hard to reach spaces. But it won’t be turned on anymore, and I’ll never worry again about forgetting to turn it off.

Yes, I know, Thoreau would be laughing at me by now. This isn’t really living the back to nature simple life by a long shot. Point taken, but what I said above about taking small steps in the right direction is worth remembering. In economic terms, for an affordable price, I got a pair of stereo speakers that should last for many years (hell, my old Thrusters are still going strong after decades of use). And I subtracted five surround sound speakers from the equation, for a net simplicity gain of three. And I realized something about myself. I don’t “need” surround sound. Stereo is simpler to maintain. Two speakers in a left/right soundfield is good enough for me. It’s what I grew up on. It’s what I’m used to. There’s comfort and familiarity in that. Small steps in the right (and left) direction.