An Audiophile's Guide to Surviving Holiday Chaos

And How to Give Back While Doing So

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An Audiophile's Guide to Surviving Holiday Chaos

The holidays can be a scary time of year for many audiophiles. Unlike other types of social gatherings—dinner parties, shindigs, birthdays, et cetera—the holidays present a unique time during which control of one’s living spaces is relinquished. It’s not quite proper to dictate where family can and cannot roam, sit, explore, or curiously peek, and any attempt to do so only comes off as entirely autocratic. The chaos of multiple generations packed together, kids rummaging through every cabinet, and general wreaking of havoc can be overwhelming—especially for us audiophiles, what with our endless tweaking and perfectionism. Soon enough we’re clenching sweaty fists and fearing the worst. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

For most of us, our stereos are located in the living room—because, you know, that’s where people live. Besides the kitchen, this is where people want to be during the holidays, right in the thick of it. This also means that your pride and joy is a big shiny beacon of temptation for every unwashed hand, a siren just begging to be touched by inexperienced members of the family. There’s a very natural impulse to shove the speakers against the wall, to cover components, to batten the hatches and prepare for the coming storm. Resist this urge at all costs. Yes, things can go awry, but if you take a little time to involve everyone in the process, you can minimize the risk of damage to your system, and even eliminate it altogether. If your stereo is in a separate room, we will get to that in a bit.

Let me digress for a moment. There’s a prevalent misconception that younger generations no longer have the capacity to understand and appreciate high-end audio; they’re too busy listening to iPods, playing video games, or surfing the internet to care about vinyl records and the glow of tubes. This notion couldn’t be further from the truth. Everyone loves great sound. People may prefer the convenience of the devices that produce low-quality sound, but no one has ever said that they prefer poor sound quality. The current vinyl renaissance—not to mention the DACs, headphones, and digital music downloads flooding the market—is almost entirely derived from youth interest. Sure, the ultra-expensive gear is still the purview of vanguard audiophiles, but the current trends are driven from the bottom, not the top. Yet, because these trends are dichotomous in nature—nostalgia for the methodical physicality of vinyl mixed with the on-demand universality of digital—it can be difficult to determine where youth stands with regards to hi-fidelity. Let’s set the record straight: Today’s youth want great-sounding music everywhere, 24/7. They just might be a little misled as to how to attain it, which presents a golden opportunity to start them down the life-long, highly addictive path of high-end audio. That said, fostering the next generation of audio enthusiasts is a two-way street. In order to truly expand the ranks of our hobby, experienced audiophiles must be prepared to take the time to teach the uninitiated—and what better time to do it than the holidays?

The first thing to do is to accept that your guests are there to celebrate each other, not your stereo. If your speakers are set in a spot that may see high traffic, move them back just a bit and widen the soundstage as much as possible, while preserving a slight semblance thereof. If your current listening position is a single recliner, replace it with a couch that can accommodate a few extra people and toe the speakers at the edges. Imaging will be sacrificed, but the increased width will allow multiple people to enjoy and experience soundstage without the limitations of a narrow sweet spot. It’s always annoying to have three people on a couch, and only one person gets the benefit of imaging while the other two hear nothing but left or right channel. Set up your room accordingly, and your guests are much more likely to engage with the nuances of the stereo, without the pressure of shifting positions.

Inevitably, glasses of wine and sundry drinks seem to always end up on top of speakers. There must be something primordial and alluring about this particular spot, as if it were a pedestal for every forgotten libation. I like to leave an anti-static LP inner sleeve on top of my speakers; not only do they protect the speakers, they won’t soak up condensation like paper sleeves or pieces of cardboard will. I’ve even used older issues of TAS (I know, it’s sacrilegious), but this was a mistake: a magazine left atop a speaker looks like it is there to be read, and people seem to always pick them up, read them, and then they end up somewhere else, leaving your speakers exposed once again. I have an audiophile friend who uses plastic wrap, but I don’t like the idea of something that may leave residue clinging to my speakers. Whatever you use, make sure it’s something that won’t transmit moisture, isn’t worth anyone’s time to peruse, and stays in place. I’ve never had anyone leave anything on my components (well, there was one time an acquaintance left an LP on top of my tube amp, and by the time I discovered it, the record had turned into a warped piece of Dada art), but they may leave a drink or two next to your components if your rack has extra surface space. Scatter some record brushes, a mouse (not the kind that scurries around), interconnects—or anything else that isn’t flat—around your components to dissuade a stray drink from ending up in a bad spot. No one will actually pick up an item, move it, and then set a drink down. If you see someone leave a drink, food, or anything else you wish to be elsewhere, kindly offer him or her a coaster and a chance to sit down for a quick listen. The key is to dissuade the actions that cause accidents, not establish rules—no one likes rules during the holidays.

As far as music goes, select five or so records that have universal appeal—not just for adults, but for the kids as well. Remember, the younger the individual, the more likely they are to be receptive and pursue high-end audio. In my experience, if a 50-year-old hasn’t gotten into stereo gear before this point, it’s pretty unlikely that it will happen. Make sure your music selection isn’t too dominating, or else you run the risk of creating a shouting match in order to be heard—that’s never fun. I like The Lumineers’ eponymous debut album for its rustic roots-revival style, which seems to always please; Kopecky Family Band’s Kids Raising Kids for its uplifting folk-rock hymns; The Rosebuds’ Loud Planes Fly Low catchy tunes; Mighty Mountain’s infectious and aptly named The Romantic & the Mystic; and my personal favorite, Van Morrison’s Moondance, which will have everyone tapping along in no time. If holiday music is a must, maybe switch it up with an album from She & Him; poor grammar aside, it will be a refreshing change from the classics that are played to death during this time of year.

If you’re a vinyl fan like I am, the physical act of cueing a record is the single-most gratifying—and terrifying—time to engage the uninitiated. But this is your chance to really show someone what hi-fi is all about. Gather your prospective students and let them pick out the next album, preferably from the five you already selected, and show them step-by-step how to properly remove a record from its jacket, how to handle it while placing it on the platter, how to align the tonearm and cartridge along the outer matrix, how to cue it, and ultimately enjoy the wonderful sound your system produces. Don’t stop there, though. Tell them about the plinth, the platter, the tonearm and cartridge; teach them about each component and its exact function. Make sure that your excitement and passion for hi-fi stereo is translated in a way that captivates, rather than sounding like a monotonous lecture. It’s always best to show them this process during the first record, but then to let them play a record by themselves so that the information will stick. Not only will they be more engaged and more likely to remember everything, the mystery of analog will be thrilling and fun. How does a microscopic groove produce such wonderful sound? Well, now’s your chance to enlighten. If your main source is digital—whether CD or music server—the process is basically the same. The key is to let your guests select and play music. I guarantee at least one of them will end up joining the audiophile world, and that should be our number one goal. 

Speaking of proper storage and handling of records, it’s time for a little holiday refresher course. If your records aren’t in protective sleeves, make the investment and buy some. For inner sleeves, I like the Mobile Fidelity Original Master Record Sleeves ($20 for a pack of 50; mofi.com), which are three-ply anti-static. For outer sleeves, I go with whatever I need at the time of purchase: Some double-LP gatefold records can be pretty thick once everything is wrapped up and sometimes require a bigger outer sleeve. The best option is to buy several packs of each size to accommodate your current collection and future purchases. Whenever I buy a new album, I remove the disks and place them in inner sleeves, return all original sleeves (unless they are the standard paper kind) to the LP jacket, stick the jacket in a fresh new outer sleeve, then slide the disks with their inner sleeves inside the outer sleeve, not in the album’s jacket. This configuration allows easy access to your vinyl, while protecting the album jacket from splits and tears caused by removing and inserting records. In his must-own book, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, Robert Harley even suggests cleaning new records before playing them once. I agree for the most part, though if you still have older records that have never been cleaned and properly stored in inner- and outer sleeves, start with those. Despite what the anti-cleaning community might deem as an unnecessary chore, cleaning older records will improve sound quality, protect styli, and ensure that any fingerprint residue from improper handling of records is removed before it “sets.” But this is a time-consuming task best completed well before or after the holidays.

I mention all of this because you will be teaching newcomers about your high-end system, so make sure to lead by example and handle your records properly. Pinch the outer matrix of the record, remove it from its sleeve, and then hold it between the palms of your hands. This will allow for the greatest control while placing it on the platter, especially if little hands are attempting this for the first time. Though some people like to balance a record in one hand between the outer- and inner matrices, this is difficult—if not impossible—for the inexperienced, and will certainly lead to a dropped record or two. Show them how to properly place the record, and always use cueing; the last thing you need is for someone to emulate picking up the tonearm with a finger and potentially scratching your record or bending a cantilever. Same goes when flipping a record. Again, make this a fun experience and take your time. If it seems rote, the nascent audiophile might not bite.

If your stereo system is in a dedicated listening room, it might be slightly more difficult to drag a bunch of guests from the action. On the other hand, don’t lock the room and keep people away from your gear. After all the food and conversations have been consumed to the point of lethargy, ask the youngest member of the family (within reason; under six or seven might be a bit too young) if they would like to pick out a record or play some music from their portable device. Yes, their iPod might not be hi-fidelity, but it’s a segue into the real lesson, which is our goal. Plus, this is an innate means to protecting your stereo. It’s human nature to want to do the things others tell us not to do, so instead of limiting access to such an intriguing room, make it part of the festivities. It’s all right to set some limits, but let the excitement build and promise that they will get a chance to listen to some amazing music, even if the music they choose isn’t what you would normally play in order to show off your system. Sharing and giving back are what the holidays are all about.

Amazing sound is contagious. It’s our audiophile duty to expose as many people as possible to high-end audio, both young and old—but especially the young. If we don’t foster the next generation of audiophiles, Hi-Fi will die out. We can’t wait for converts to stumble across our hobby; we must actively cultivate in others the passion we feel, without being overbearing or overly particular. The holidays present an incredible opportunity for us to give back and share our love of high-quality sound. Take the time to set up your system accordingly, and give the gift of audiophilia during this holiday season.