Recently, I was asked to come to Grinnell College and talk to a group of students regarding high end audio equipment. The person who invited me, Ralph Helt, is a long time friend and a former audio/video dealer from Des Moines. Ralph is now the head of AV Services at Grinnell College. When he explained to me the students were really into audio equipment, I jumped at the chance. These days, it's not often you'll find young adults who are into good audio equipment and good sound.
First of all, if you don't know much about Grinnell College, it is a small, yet prestigious liberal arts college located in the middle of Iowa - very close to where I grew up (see map). The college has about 1500 students and most of them come from wealthy families from out east. About a quarter of the students are from overseas. But as Ralph told me, "The foreign students are probably more 'American-ized' than the American kids. They're all neat kids."
What a lot of people probably don't know is that Grinnell College has a lot of money. The market value of their endowment assets is close to $1.5 billion dollars easily making it the college with the highest endowment assets in the state of Iowa. In fact, they have the 36th highest endowment in the United States rivaling the endowment assets of some very prestigious colleges and universities across the nation.
A lot of the money was generated by the financial prowess of Joe Rosenfield, a Grinnell College alumnus and a trustee of the college. Rosenfield struck up friendships and financial relationships with Warren Buffett of Berkshire-Hathaway fame, and with Robert Noyce of Intel fame (and also a fellow Grinnell College alumnus) long before those two men became famous. Rosenfield's savvy investments and relationships with business leaders guided Grinnell College to its present day endowment - the largest per student endowment of any liberal arts college in the U.S.
With that said, the campus at Grinnell College is simply unbelievable. The buildings are either new or completely updated. Housing for the students is immaculate. The athletic facilities are top notch and the equipment they have for teaching aids in the classrooms are top of the line.
Here's an aside to show you how much money the college has - I had to go to the restroom before I did my little talk and demonstration. I walked into the men's room and was astonished to see that the floors and walls were made out of marble! A college restroom made out of marble! I was just blown away. It was nicer than some public restrooms I've been in at five-star restaurants or hotels. I almost expected there to be a washroom attendant in the place.
I was asked to give a lecture about high end audio equipment and was asked to bring along some things to listen to. The system I assembled and took with me - a Cambridge Audio 840A integrated amplifier, the matching Cambridge Audio 840C CD player, a pair of Focal Profile 928 loudspeakers, as well as Shunyata power conditioners and power cables, and Tara Labs speaker cables - is not what I would call "high-end". But at just a tad over $10,000 for the whole system at retail, it's a lot higher end than most people's systems at home. And it sounds damn good for the money.
The group of about 20 to 25 kids, as well as some faculty members and workers at Grinnell College, assembled on a Friday afternoon around 4 p.m. and I gave my presentation on "Audio 101" - a look at the basics of audio. Then I talked about the differences as to why the gear I was demonstrating was better than the stuff being sold at most mass merchants. And then we got in to the listening aspect of the presentation.
The room I did the presentation in had state-of-the-art equipment for visual aids, computers, and industrial audio. But it wasn't conducive to good sound. I had a lot of trouble getting the speakers to sound right - getting the image of the speakers to sound like there were no speakers in the room. After finally moving the speakers out a little further, the image became transparent and the speakers literally disappeared.
We listened to a number of things from classical music, to soft jazz, to hard rock, to world music, to funk and rhythm and blues, to hip-hop. I was actually pretty impressed with some of the music selections the students brought in to listen to on the system. And they all had pretty good ears - it was pretty amazing. They really understood the nuances of what they were listening to.
By the way - I was recently turned on to recordings made by Mapleshade Records, a small eclectic record label out of Maryland that specializes in classical, blues and traditional jazz recordings. Some of the recordings are breath-taking in their sound. These recordings are some best I've ever encountered. And the performances of the artists are absolutely great, as well. Even if you don't have a good audio system, I still recommend going to their site and at least buying their sampler discs.
Many of the students rely upon iPods or their computers to listen to music. I did a demonstration using an iPod hooked into the system and showing them the difference of playing a track of compressed music from a Mapleshade disc on an iPod and then playing the same uncompressed track on the CD player. The looks of astonishment when I "A-B'ed" the two sources showing the sonic differences between the two was worth the time I put in to this little event. Even Ralph, who has been associated with audio for over 30 yeas, was blown away by the demo.
Little by little, the crowd began to dwindle after I did my presentation - which lasted about an hour and a half - and then the subsequent demonstration of the system, along with the inevitable questions and answers. By the time the last kid left the room, it was 7:45 p.m. All in all, it was fun and exhilarating to teach these kids about audio. They all seemed to get a kick out of it. Let me just say it was a lot better than trying to do the same demonstration to a bunch of tired and bored audio guys.