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When I was 11, my father brought home the voice of tenor Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) in a three-LP box set whose faux leather cover and sepia-tinted photos I admired over and over. When he put on the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, I exclaimed, “Daddy, I’ve heard that before!”

“Yeah, you broke it when you were 2,” he replied.

I was weaned on opera. With all that Italianate passion bubbling in my blood, reconnecting with the voices of Caruso and Galli-Curci felt like coming home. While Elvis, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and then Donovan soon joined them—I used to blast Little Richard at a high enough volume to drive my mother out of the house—it was with Caruso, and then Joan Sutherland and Leontyne Price, that I whistled arias day after day.

When stereo arrived, my mother designed a custom cabinet for two coaxial speakers and a Garrard turntable whose arm was so heavy that it could have done double duty as a weapon. “Look, honey,” my father would say as he put on Enoch Light and the Light Brigade’s Provocative Percussion. “First it’s in the left speaker, and now it’s in the right speaker. Isn’t stereo amazing!” Soundstaging? Who knew from soundstaging?

In 1961, my high school music teacher asked, “Who wants to get tickets for Joan Sutherland’s debut at the Met in Lucia di Lammermoor?” It’s amazing that my arm remained in its socket as my hand shot up and I screamed, “Me!” To this day, I remember how Miss Dietrich’s face turned white as everyone began stomping their feet, demanding another encore in the middle of the Mad Scene, and the old Met’s 5th tier began shaking up and down. For the next six years, until I dropped acid in an Amherst College fraternity house, Sutherland’s debut reigned as the peak experience of my life.

Shortly after I headed to college with my father’s $200 Magnavox record player, I checked out a late-career Maria Callas Rossini recital to try to find out why everyone in High Fidelity, Stereo Review, and the New York Times was talking about her. Every time Callas hit a climactic high note, her voice wobbled so badly I broke out laughing. But I sensed I was missing something. Then, in my senior year, alone in my dorm room, I put on Callas’s famed 1953 recording of Tosca. I didn’t know the music, so I waited and waited until, some time after tenor Giuseppe di Stefano sang Mario Cavaradossi’s great aria, “Recondita armonia,” a strange, muffled vocal sound emerged from the background. Before I could figure out who it was and what they were singing, the voice moved closer to the microphone, and I simultaneously discerned the name “Mario” and saw sparks fly before my eyes. “Oh my God, so that’s Maria Callas!” I said to myself, as the unbridled rage and fury that defined one aspect of Callas’s artistry touched me in ways I never expected opera to touch me.

As someone who has always felt emotion in music and perceived the voice as a portal to the soul, my one goal in life was to have a sound system that would bring me closer to the point of creation of the artists I love. I didn’t care about a fancy car—I drive a ’94 Toyota Corolla, and one of its door bolts just fell off—or a house (until I saw too many of my friends evicted by landlords trying to get around rent control), but I did want to get closer to the point of musical creation, to hear more glow in Elisabeth Schumann’s golden highs and more nuance in Lotte Lehmann’s expressive voice. That was heaven.

Fortunately, I had friends who worked in record shops and could give me sale prices. Wherever I journeyed, boxes filled with opera LPs followed. When I lived communally, there was a guy who, when everyone was away, would put on my recording of Beecham’s La Bohème and cry his heart out. Then he’d go back to working in the auto plant. That was a time when I was convinced that the world was made of tangerine trees and marmalade skies. When I participated in psychedelic therapy sessions at the Institute Wilhelm Reich in Mexico City in the summer of 1976, I gave the institute’s director a copy of an Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Seraphim LP and found myself tripping on Mozart and Bach.

I’d never heard the words “high-end” or “audiophile” back then, but when Julian Hirsch declared that fancy cabling can’t make a difference, I sensed he was wrong. Then I discovered how better cabling transformed my AR speakers. When I’d stay with friends, I’d give them better speaker cables as a thank-you gift.

My taste has changed over time. Heartfelt singing, whether joyful or sad, affirmative or furious, classical or rock, touches me equally, and the visceral power of a symphony orchestra speaks as deeply as a solo instrument. As long as I can sense truth through the notes, I am fulfilled.

To me, high-end audio is not a hobby. It’s an essential pathway to the emotional and spiritual truths I seek through music.

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