Sounds of the Season

it’s beginning to sound a lot like lo-fi Christmas

Mike Paulus, illustrated by Ian Kloster

Here’s a startling confession for you. I’m not really into stereo systems. I’m not an audiophile. I don’t geek out over sound reproduction equipment – not for music, not for TV or movies, not for NPR live streams featuring that foxy Jean Feraca, not for nothing. And I’ve learned to be OK with this.

I know. How can one sleep at night once they posses this information?

Oh, there was a time, long ago in the early ’00s when I used to peruse stereo systems on the web, wishing I had thousands of dollars to spend on amazing sound machines, all of them with ridiculously huge knobs for volume control. Seriously, you’d need two hands to crank these things up.

If you really want to ramp up the “I feel like I’m in a movie” factor, walk through downtown Eau Claire on a snowy December evening while “Let It Snow” jingles out of the dusty old horn-shaped speakers.

But one day, I realized the only thing I really cared about was the way they looked. I probably couldn’t hear the difference between a $10,000 system and a $1,000 system. I assume the $10,000 system would have a volume knob roughly 10x larger. I really only wanted cool-looking stereos which is like buying a couch because you like the way it tastes.

Kind of.

Eventually, I came to a duo of conclusions. Firstly, given my lifestyle (and questionable musical tastes), spending thousands of dollars on a stereo would be an obscene waste of money when there are more affordable spending options available. Like food. And car insurance. And beer.

Secondly, my very best musical experiences have had very little to do with the technical specifications of the speakers. The music I’ve grown to love throughout my life ... I didn’t start loving it because of the stereo system on which I heard it. I listened to that stuff on run-of-the-mill boomboxes and on Walkmans and in bars with less-than-stellar PA systems. If I could jump into a time-skipping DeLorean and secretly replace the Magnavox portable CD player I had back in high school with a turntable handcrafted in a European cathedral by sound worshiping monks genetically bred for inhumanly high ear sensitivity ... would I love the music any more?

No, of course not. And I’d only be listening to Toad the Wet Sprocket anyway, so it’d be a tremendous waste of time travel.

What’s more, there are instances were the craptitude of the speakers is actually part of why I love certain musical experiences.

Case in point: the much talked about music played throughout downtown Eau Claire. Some people love it. Some people hate it. Some people just think it’s kind of funny.

I think it’s both awesome and kind of funny. I actually enjoy strutting down Barstow Street to a Muzak version of Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got to Do With It?” And the tinny-sounding old loud speakers bolted to the light poles are what really make it for me. They produce a special kind of sound that makes me feel like I’m in a movie. They make a quintessential walk downtown that much more ... quintessentialish.

And since we’re smack dab in the middle of the holiday season, those speakers are working overtime on the nostalgic warm fuzzies.

If you really want to ramp up the “I feel like I’m in a movie” factor, walk through downtown Eau Claire on a snowy December evening while “Let It Snow” jingles out of the old horn-shaped speakers. If the music was rich and clear with robust low notes and soaring high ones, it just wouldn’t be the same. Sure it’d be nice, but something would be missing.

There’s got to be some magic in those old time sounding songs. They come out a little thin, like the music is getting pipped in directly from 1945. It’s like the music is getting filtered through a holly jolly Christmastime colander. It’s like there’s a tiny Dean Martin perched on the light pole singing just for you. You’d never want to hear that kind of sound in your living room, but outside on a downtown sidewalk it’s just ... better that way.

Maybe it’s just me. I’m not saying that “crappy speakers in December” is an action plan for downtown revitalization, but I really like them just the way they are. I doubt they’ll be replaced anytime soon and this makes me very happy.

So I guess I kind of am an audiophile searching for the perfect sound to go with the perfect moment. And lucky for me, this one doesn’t cost me a dime.

Press and hold the up/down arrows to scroll.