State-of-the-Art Confusion

Suggested headline:  State of the art confusion

(Though my regular column is suspended during the pandemic, we’re running some old ones I thought readers might enjoy. They originally were published in The Idaho Statesman early in my career there. Many are humor columns from the 1980s. In times like these, we need humor more than ever.)

   Try buying a stereo these days.

   I did. My first stop was a department store. The clerk had just transferred from draperies.

  “What do you have in tape decks for around $200,” I asked him.


  “What do you have in cassette decks for about $200?”

  “You mean a deck that plays cassettes?”

  “Now you’ve got it.”

  “Okay. Well, we have some right here, and some under there and some over there.”

  “How much do they cost?”

  “Oh, all different prices, I guess. How much do you want to spend?”

  “About $200,” I said for the third time.



  “Can I look at some?”

  “Well, I guess. I mean it’s all right with me if you really want to.”

  I selected several models in the right price range. They had shiny panels and pretty colored lights.

  “Is this a good one?” I asked the clerk.

  “Yeah, it’s a real good one.”

  “How about this one over here?”

  “It’s real good, too.”

  “And that one over there?”

  “Real good.”

  “Which one is best?”

  “I don’t know. There’s one thing I can tell you, though.”

  “What’s that?”

  “They’re all real good.”

  The next store sold nothing but stereo equipment. The display room was so dimly lit it seemed almost solely illuminated by lights from the electronic equipment. Red, green, blue and amber lights winked from control panels that competed for space on ceiling-high shelves. Two young men stood in the center of the room, nodding solemnly as they discussed the relative merits of various components.

  One of them was the salesman. These days you need a technical dictionary and a second mortgage just to communicate with a stereo salesman.

  “I’m interested in a tape deck,” I told him. “Is there anything you particularly recommend?”

  “I have no idea,” he replied. “It all depends on what you want and what you want to do with it. Are you into tubes or transistors?’

  “Well, all I really want to do is play a few tapes. What’s the difference?”

  “Well, if you’re into high sustained power levels and peak energy transients, tubes are for you, especially if you have a variety of impedances. If you’re into true state-of-the art, though, you want transistors.”

  Not wanting to give the impression of a man who didn’t know what he was into, I narrowed my eyes, nodded sagaciously and asked to hear some music. This would get me off the hook and buy time to find someone who spoke English.

  The salesman put on a tape that sounded like a combination of Igor Stravinsky, Frank Zappa and the latest Chinese nuclear blast. When it was over, I discretely removed my hands from my years, asked for some brochures and went home.

  My ears were still ringing that night while I studied the brochures.

  They didn’t speak English, either.

  A couple of days later, I went back and sought out a different sales person for an opinion on one of the models described in the brochures.

  “I don’t really know much about that one,” he said. “But for only a few hundred dollars more you could have the Stereo 8000.”

  “What’s that?”

  “The Stereo 8000 is the most discerning state-of-the-art system made,” he said in a condescending tone. “It has phenomenal bandwidth, infinitesimal harmonic distortion and delivers a million watts per channel. With the right adaptor you can use it to run your motorcycle.”

  “I don’t have a motorcycle.”

  “It doesn’t matter. We had a guy in here the other day who’d been using his to play sounds beyond the range of human hearing at volume levels you wouldn’t believe. He said he’d been driving the neighborhood dogs out of their skulls.”

  “What would anyone want to do that?”

  “I have no idea. we get all kinds in here.”

  I told him I was a dog lover and asked to hear the system described in the brochure. He flipped a bank of switches and put on a tape.

  “That sounds great. How much does it cost?”

  “The power amplifier is $400, the preamplifier is $300, the deck is $350 and the speakers are $400 each.”

  I quickly added up the cost of the components. They were worth more than my car.

  “Of course we’re running the system through an extra set of bass speakers, a quadrophonic sound unit, a mid-range driver and a high frequency blaster. They cost extra, but just listen to that sound! So pure! So airy! So .. ethereal! You don’t get that with just the basic system.”

  I thanked him and went home to talk it over with my wife. We like to make life-altering decisions together.

  “You should hear the stereo I listened to today,” I said. “It sounds ethereal.”

  “How much does it cost?”

  “Well, if we sold the car and used our savings we could handle it.”

  “Sell the car! How would we go anywhere? How would we get to work?”

  “On our new motorcycle.”

Tim Woodward’s column runs every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on the following Mondays. Contact him at

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