Listening room bI recently had 18 solar panels put on the roof and a strange thing has happened. But first, some essential information. While I could afford the solar panels and the inverter I couldn’t afford a storage battery, so I can only run on sunshine when the sun is actually shining. After dark, or when the weather is foul, it’s back to old, expensive mains power. But when the sun is bright and I have electricity to spare from the roof array, well then the excess goes back into the grid and I get paid for it. Admittedly not a lot but hey, it keeps me in postage stamps. Now I have to figure what to do with postage stamps.

Anyway I noticed the other day that my stereo seemed, um, sweeter somehow. The sound was more pure, airier, more fulsomely formed. It seemed to be free of restrictions, flying blissfully without limitation, joyous, carefree, uninhibited – a curlew crying its soft impeachment, a lark ascending. But that night when I played some music to my beautiful other half to let her hear the wonders, all the new sweetness had gone. And yet the next day it was there again. And then I noticed the sun shining brightly outside and the penny dropped. When I run my stereo on clean, green solar power it sounds better, as though someone has lifted a veil from the speakers. But when it runs on dirty, coal fired mains power that all goes straight to the dogs.

Unless you’re brand new to hi fi, like this is your third day, you’ll have realised by now that I’m having a lend of you, just as various hare-brained entrepreneurs have been taking a lend of audio enthusiasts since Edison made his first cylinder. “Tom, wax – really? I can’t believe you’re using wax! Mate, wait till you try shellac!” My favourite was a record clamp made of swamp-soaked ebony that set up sympathetic resonances through the tonearm for greater depth and wider staging. It cost a couple of grand. Seriously.

The key to all of this is something called psychoacoustic suggestion, a condition hi fi salespeople have been using for years. You may really love the speakers you’re auditioning in the plush sound lounge but the salesperson doesn’t, and that may have nothing to do with the sound quality, it may be more about the margin. If so, skilful salespeople will let you listen and say some moderately encouraging words about your choice and then crank up the pair they want you to buy. But before they do they’ll tell you why these speakers are better. They’ll mention the delicate, shimmering highs, the muscular yet quite subtle bass, the accuracy of placement of the instruments across the soundstage. And you’ll hear all of that not necessarily because it’s there, but because the ideas have been placed in your head and you’ll expect to hear it. And, you’ll reason, this person knows more about this stuff than you.

36 Listening roomIf you’re still wavering the salesperson will deliver the killer closing line that I think I’ve heard, oh, a buzillion times in hi fi shops: “I’ve got these at home.”

A few years ago a very successful magazine editor asked me if I wanted to partner with him in a hi fi magazine. He had no experience in hi fi but he knew what sold magazines, and he figured if he could get someone who did know about hi fi on board – that would be me – he’d make us both rich. It was his reasoning that worried me.

“Everything in electronics can be measured,” he told me. “It all comes down to graphs, square waves and numbers, and the equipment with the best numbers wins.”

His logic was absolutely bulletproof. So I spent an evening telling him that logic really doesn’t play any role in hi fi consumerism, a concept he only started to grasp when I pointed out that a Hyundai gets you there just as fast as a BMW, so why do people buy BMWs? I guess it’s called psychoauto suggestion.

Mind you things happen from time to time that restore your faith, indeed make you loyal to the person and the business in question for life. Like a few months ago when my nephew-in-law asked me for some suggestions for speakers around $1000. It had been a while since I’d listened to any so I went into a small but immensely well-stocked inner-city shop and asked a tall blonde with a Norwegian name if she could make any suggestions for bookshelf speakers costing $1000. My experience of shops generally suggested she’d start with something costing $999 and work up to $1500, but the first pair she played cost $599. They were terrific and she was most enthusiastic about them too. I told my nephew-in-law he could spend the remaining $401 on whisky for me. Psychosinglemalt suggestion. It worked up to point, but then the bastard drank it himself.

Published September 2017.