We’re consumers…

We’re consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don’t concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy’s name on my underwear.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club.

After our extremely enjoyable trip to Alaska last month, and with my upcoming solo jaunt to Japan coming up, I’ve been trying not to spend too much money.

That aside, I needed to get some new headphones. I’ve been using the same pair of cheap JVC headphones since 1999, which is a pretty good return for the $20-$30 they cost me, but they’re kind of showing their age. Also, the computer is much more of a media center these days, so I wind up listening to a lot of stuff through headphones, so it seemed like going a bit higher-quality might be a good idea.

The big problem… I know bugger all about headphones.

The obvious solution is find people who know what they’re doing. I went to the forums at NTSC-UK, typed “headphones” into the search field and opened the first thread from someone asking a question on the same topic.

That thread had a mention of a site, http://www.head-fi.org/

I should now mention that I can no longer click on that link personally. After I visited it and got my answer, I intentionally blocked myself from opening it ever again in any browser. The people that frequent the forums on that site are on the far side of freaking insane. The kool-aid they’ve drunk has allowed them to think things like “spending $1000 on headphones is reasonable.”

There’s an 24-page thread where the members post photographs of their headphones.

It occurred to me that if I read it for any length of time, I might turn into one of them. This scares me, and I am not scared easily.

On the other hand… people who are that crazy are also terribly useful when you’re looking for information.

A quick browse of the forum led me to a headphone manufacturer by the name of “Grado”, and lots of begrudging admissions that, if you HAVE to spend less than $100 on headphones, their low-end “SR-60” model is your last, best hope. Mind you, they do some rather more pricey models, topping out at $995.

The SR-60 lists for $69.95.

It’s not carried by any big electronics chain. I wasn’t actually surprised by that. The company makes, in addition to headphones, replacement cartridges for record players, which suggests that they cater to a breed of …I should not say “freaks”… audiophiles that probably doesn’t shop at Best Buy.

I called our local Magnolia Hi-Fi. They sell some pretty high end stuff, at least from my point of view, so they seemed a solid bet.

They couldn’t help me. To their credit, they knew exactly what I was asking for and were able to suggest a local store by name. I’d never heard of this store.

I googled it, and that led me to their web site, which gave me a phone number, which connected me to a salesperson who was happy to confirm that they had the headphones I wanted in stock.

There is a concept in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series which I will bring up at this point. It’s the concept of the little shop that you’d never seen before, that just happened to have something weird and magical in it, and that wasn’t there when you went back looking for it.

This store reminded me of that. It was a fairly nondescript store embedded in the middle of a fairly trendy part of Portland. The thing is, they’ve been there upwards of 40 years and this part of Portland has only been all trendy and hip and a Place To Be Seen for a couple of years now. So they’re a weird little store surrounded by all kinds of Hip and Trendy hangouts.

Opening the front door, I knew I couldn’t browse. There were multiple small rooms, their contents made more enticing by not being plainly displayed, there were gleaming metal boxes with meters and dials and knobs and displays. Even more tempting were the gleaming metal boxes with no displays or knobs at all, just a simple power light, their purposes unknown to me but ever so… seductive.

Fortunately, the wall display of headphones was plainly visible and I made a beeline for it. A moment’s conversation with a clerk was enough to get the headphones I wanted lifted down from an unreachable shelf, and I took them to the counter to make my payment and escape.

I paid in cash… $70. The clerk said “I’ll get your nickel” and left me alone for a moment… long enough to let my eyes wander to the contents of the glass case, to rest on a pair of Grado “RS-1” headphones ($695), pull myself back to reality, take the change when offered, and run… not quite screaming… from that den of forbidden delights.

I didn’t look back. I didn’t know if the door would still be there.

Oh, and the headphones? They’re really pretty good. Obviously pretty much anything would have been an upgrade, but these are quite an improvement. I’m hearing subtle stuff I’d never heard before in albums that I’ve listened to for 15 years or more.

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