MUSIC Musings – AN INTRODUCTion & Interview With Dr. Adam Riess.

Meet Lenny Mayeux, MoFi Distribution’s National Specialty Audio Manager. Lenny will be conducting a series of interviews with anyone from rock stars to rocket scientists (or close to that!)

Hi-Fi: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship MoFi. It’s “Ten Question Mission”: to explore interesting, new people. To seek out new music and new hi-fi gear. To boldly go where no music lover has gone before!

Today’s interview is going to be out of this world! It is with Dr. Adam Riess. He is an American astrophysicist and Bloomberg Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute. He is known for his research in using supernovae as cosmological probes (I have no idea what that means? Sure sounds smart). He has shared both the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy and the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing evidence about the expansion and acceleration of the universe and he was awarded the Einstein Medal and won a MacArthur “Genius” Grant in 2008, but – to me – he is just my Hi-Fi Buddy, Adam.

Photo: Doc Riess – from The Hubble It’s NGC 691 and NGC 1015 and the hosted major supernovas in 2005 and 2009.

LM: Thank you for taking the time away from the Hubble Telescope to give our MoFi Friends something new to read, Adam. I want to start out by saying that every time I talk to you it is just a fun-filled conversation about music and hi-fi. However, knowing your job is serious and can change the direction of scientific thinking, I just really want to know…why didn’t you choose to go into the music field or selling hi-fi because it seems to be a passion of yours? I mean…yes, OK…your intellect is on par with Einstein, but wouldn’t you rather be Robbie Robertson? That’s why I don’t have a Nobel in Physics…the muse of music was just too strong (that’s my version, at least).

AR:  Everybody has different talents and passions.  Sometimes the talent and passion align and that leads to a great career choice.  In my case I have no talent in making music, but I immensely enjoy listening to music!

LM: When you and I talk, we seem to have very similar musical sensibilities – 70s Classic Rock – and it got me wondering how you got started with your journey into hi-fi and being a music lover?

AR:  Like a lot of people, I love what I grew up on and that was 70’s (and 80’s) Classic Rock, the soundtrack of my youth. 

LM: I noticed that you are always seeking new knowledge about what is the latest gear or what might be on the horizon, so I was curious if you thought your scientific training – to seek out evidence or undiscovered truths – is why you are open to the search for the “Sonic Holy Grail”?

AR:  I think so.  My curiosity to understand what is possible in the Universe carries over to similar questions in hi-fi.  What are the ultimate limits to sound quality?  What holds us back from getting there?  Are Aliens listening through better speakers than mine?

LM: The question above led me to this one. The audio industry seems to attract people with a scientific/engineering bent, but – in my dealings — most have a very hard time accepting something they cannot quantify or measure through their own professional experience or schooling, while discounting their own personal experience; for example, I deal a lot with Engineers and, even when they acknowledge they hear a difference they prefer, if they cannot find supporting evidence in measurement, then they tend to deny their own experiences. Yet, you seem so open and ready to recognize/accept that there are some unknowns that you can hear without requiring a complete understanding of why it is better, and have an ability to just trust your own senses; for example, you clearly recognize the sonic benefit of power cords and resonance control, which distinguishes you from Engineers, but I don’t know if it is unique to you or your training. Therefore, my question is: Is this something you were born with or do most Physicists have it from their training?

AR:  I have no problem accepting that our ears are just incredibly sensitive instruments that evolved to quickly let us tell the difference between the wind rustling or a tiger breaking the grass.  The miracle of hi-fi is that we can capture sound in tiny electrical signals produced from pressure variations, store them, then replicate the sound by moving the air mechanically sourced by playing back the electrical signals so that it sounds real!  It does not surprise me that the details of this chain matter to the level of realism.  People who rely fully on measurements assume they can corelate these with the realism and beauty but there is no physical law which says this must be so.  Can you measure the beauty of a singer’s voice from an MRI of their vocal cords?

LM: Even though I was trying to keep an “Out of this world” vibe with my questions, I do have to drag you back down to Earth with the requisite “Desert Island Record Question,” so what do you think you could listen to for that long? You know what, for you, I’m gonna make an exception and ask it like this, “If stranded, in a distant galaxy, on an unknown planet, with a breathable atmosphere (and electricity, of course…ha!), what’s your one CD you can listen to forever?”

AR: That is very hard.  Since my research involves measuring the expansion of the Universe I would insist that there must be an increasing space for more recordings.  However, I never tire of hearing the brief life’s work of Jim Croce.

LM: Enough with the Physics tie-ins from me because I bet you want to get down to the music! So, you seemed to be excited to hear I was at MoFi, so you’re a fan, I would assume. What is your favorite MoFi recording?

AR:  This is harder than the Physics GRE!  However, I gotta say the MOFI self-titled James Taylor SACD, “JT” and Simon and Garfunkel, “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”, are right at the top.

LM: You told me, in the past, that you only listen to digital playback. I have to tell you, the minute you told me that, all it did was motivate me to try to get you into analog, so you could experience our MoFi One-Steps. This made me realize I was being very presumptuous; you surely started out with analog, as did I, so what was your first turntable? (Not to make you feel bad, but Captain Kirk spun vinyl! And, I’m not too sure, but I would bet it was the Blood, Sweat, and Tears MoFi One-Step that he brought with him into the future!)

AR:  I am embarrassed to admit, but like many, I had one of those all-in-one stereos from Radio Shack in the 1980’s made to look like separates with fake seams that included a turntable, cassette deck, and 8-track!  That was my first turntable.

LM: If you had could materialize any MoFi “Original Master Recording,” that is not currently in our catalog, what would it be? Mine, Van Morrison “Moondance.”

AR:  If you get Van Morrison “Moondance” in classic MoFi fashion I would want to add some of his other additional titles like “Tupelo Honey” and “Saint Dominic’s Preview”

LM: Out of curiosity and to touch on the subject for our audiophile readers stuck indoors is, “What was your first rig that would be considered hi-fi?”

AR:  NAD integrated and CD player, and B&W 700 series monitors bought with some of my MacArthur Prize money. 

LM: What is your hi-fi rig, of late?

AR:  Wilson Audio Alexia 2 speakers, Audio Research Ref 160 Monoblocks and Reference 10 preamp, Esoteric P1X/D1X digital stack, and various Shunyata power and Transparent Audio signal products.

LM: I just want to really thank you for this, Adam, and I really want to thank you for your work keeping an eye on the cosmos and your ears tuned to MoFI music!

Photo: Dr. Adam Riess