“The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo” by Garrett Hongo (Courtesy Pantheon Books)
Courtesy Pantheon Books

The Poetry of Building the Perfect Sound System

Award-winning poet Garrett Hongo describes his decades-long quest to create an ideal audio setup in his book “The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo.”
By Brian Libby
March 10, 2022
3 minute read

Depending on your level of enthusiasm for audio, reading about stereo equipment can be intimidating, perplexing, or both. After all, the gear is a topic that’s typically weighted down by technical jargon around preamps and progressive scans, dome tweeters and damping, clipping and chrominance.

In the new book The Perfect Sound: A Memoir in Stereo (Pantheon Books), award-winning poet and University of Oregon creative writing professor Garrett Hongo moves past equipment fetishization by chronicling his decades-long quest to build the ideal sound system, which he describes with accessible, entertaining aplomb—and slips in moments of cultural, personal, and music history along the way. While Hongo’s tastes are fairly eclectic, ranging from jazz to rock to doo-wop, it’s opera that creates the technical issues that initiate his hunt: Even great stereos, he learns, often aren’t refined enough to honor the voices of legendary sopranos performing an opera’s climax.

Hongo’s journey takes him far and wide. He listens to arias performed at Italy’s famed La Scala opera house (an inspiration for Cartier’s recently redesigned flagship in Milan), and considers the soundtrack of his own life, which includes the crashing waves heard on the beaches of Hawaii as a child, the Joni Mitchell albums he listened to as a teenager, and the notes of Billy Joel’s piano, which Hongo played on his car radio during long drives on the freeway when he was beginning his career as a poet. He also meets with blues musicians, collectors of age-old audio gear, and designers of contemporary tube equipment, who share their strategies for achieving sublime sound.

But Hongo’s search is far from a glorified shopping trip. Instead, it’s fueled, in part, by a more universal story: an effort to feel closer to his father, a fellow audiophile who, in the years before he died, delighted in vacuum-tube amplifiers as he was starting to go deaf. That’s not to say that Hongo doesn’t like his gear. Readers learn, in somewhat granular detail, about the speakers, amplifiers, and CD and vinyl players that he considers for his setup, and the reasons for the ones he ultimately chooses.

In the end, Hongo’s refusal to settle for anything less than a transcendent listening experience helps him to develop his own voice as a poet, and to create a sense of satisfaction, fulfillment, and freedom in life. “It wasn’t just the music I sought,” he writes, “but what was within it.”