Wayne Donnelly died this past February at the age of 77. The proximate cause was congestive heart failure, but in fact he'd been dealing – heroically, I always thought – with a devil's brew of serious ailments for nearly a decade. Over the course of his long career, Wayne had written for many audiophile publications, but Enjoy The Music.com was his last and longest gig. Wayne's equipment reviews – typically of the most esoteric tweaks and components – were prized for their lucidity, authority, his gracefully crafted prose and precise diction. After all he was a former graduate student in 18th Century Literature, an age that prized rhetoric above all other skills. Like the masters he studied, Wayne could be judicious, profound without a hint of pretension; his reviews were full of sparkle and wit, hugely entertaining. I read Wayne's reviews less for the equipment under discussion (which I could never have afforded) than the sheer pleasure of his writing.
But Wayne's true genius was his gift for friendship. Once you'd been chosen as a friend, Wayne took up an active interest in every aspect of your life – especially your stereo system. Wayne and I met at a mind-numbingly boring faculty party at Northwestern University forty years ago. He was then a doctoral candidate, and I a newly hired lecturer. We somehow wound up sitting beside each other and struck up a conversation. It turned out we had something in common: we both read the British music magazine Gramophone, and just like that, a friendship was born. Back then I firmly believed that audiophiles cared more about their precious and overly expensive equipment than they did about serious music. An evening spent listening to a soon-to-be ex-acquaintance's system only seemed to confirm these suspicions. He played me a series of brass and percussion records that featured bongos and castanets bouncing back and forth between the speakers. The effect was merely annoying; I faked a headache and fled.
It was Wayne who finally and at last disabused me of this notion. He could admire the craftsmanship that went into a solidly built piece of equipment. But he clearly loved music too – and all kinds of music; classical, jazz, blues, rock, folk, you name it. A wise man once said, "There's more great music in this world than we'll ever get a chance to listen to." That may well be so, but one look at Wayne's music collection would suggest that he was at least giving it his best shot.
One night not long after we met, I invited Wayne over for supper. Soon after the meal, I was dismayed to catch Wayne frowning, as if he couldn't quite mask his displeasure. At first I thought it might have had something to do with the Swedish meatballs I'd overcooked. Only later did he admit that his discomfort came from the trial of having to listen to the Bruckner symphony I'd played him over my cheap speakers with their tinny high end and flatulent bass. The very next weekend he insisted on taking me to Audio Consultants in downtown Evanston, and I went home with a used pair of Dynaco speakers and a Yamaha receiver. All at once the music I was listening to sounded richer, more vibrant and intense. So maybe technology and music weren't so incompatible after all.
Over the years, my evolving system would go through many upgrades, each one superintended by Wayne's discerning judgment. And I wasn't alone. Every friend I know profited from his advice and encouragement – and sometimes too, his generosity. He had a special talent for leading us to exactly the right component at a price we could (sometimes barely) afford. And he didn't just provide this service for friends. His tenure as a salesman at Audio Consultants left behind many satisfied customers. In general he was happy to advise anyone who had the good sense to listen to him. He was truly our sonic Guru, the Johnny Appleseed of our stereo systems. Wherever he went, good sound systems blossomed in his wake.
A mutual friend recently posted me John Prine's new CD ("The Tree of Forgiveness"). "When Wayne died I somehow failed to grasp that he would no longer be there to share new discoveries and mutually satisfying events," she wrote in her letter. This was something all of Wayne's friends had in common. Whenever I discovered something new, I would always share that discovery with Wayne. Friendship was all about sharing, learning, talking, and sometimes even arguing. Wayne had a penetrating intelligence that ranged over a wide field of interests – art, dance, cinema, sports, politics, history, literature. He could discuss with equal authority the travails of his beloved, hopeless Chicago Bears, the intricacies of a novel by James Lee Burke, his longstanding admiration for the early films of Terrence McNally, his vivid memories of Suzanne Farrell dancing in Ballanchine's "Jewels," the latest performance by the Chicago Symphony, his favorite Warner Brothers cartoons and the sorry state of our national politics. All of this went right along with Wayne's voracious appetite for experience – for food, wine, travel, the occasional "taco fest" with its regimen of tequila. I once asked Wayne if he could summarize his philosophy of life in a single word. He thought about it for a while, and then answered, "More!"
That last week in February, we both knew the darkness was fast approaching, and said our goodbyes. I clasped his hand, and told him how grateful I was for his friendship. "I wouldn't be the person I am now had I not had you for a friend," I said. He gave me a wry smile and murmured "I hope you mean that in a good way." Even at the end, he still had his sense of humor.
Wayne wrote his bio for Enjoy the Music.com....
I grew up in an "anti-musical" environment. My mom was a sweetheart, but her idea of good music was Lawrence Welk. My stepfather considered any music intolerable noise. I've been merrily overcompensating ever since. Starting with rock 'n roll in high school, I plunged into folk, jazz and classical in college, got deeply into the blues during graduate school in Chicago, and I've been an unrepentant music junkie ever since. I use that term because there's nothing more necessary to me than daily doses of music. My favorite instrument is the female voice in all its infinite variety, but my most-often-attended live events are at my beloved Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which I attend virtually every week during the season, mixing in numerous chamber and solo piano recitals. During the summer Chicago offers more high-quality musical fare for free than any other American city: the excellent Grant Park Symphony plays 31 concerts at Millennium Park on Michigan Avenue.
It's the music that drives my passion for audio. While I admire elegant design and engineering, my principal demand of any system, component or recording is that it gives an emotional connection. I'm intuitively a right-brain listener, seeking beauty and pleasure -- but reviewing equipment also demands attention to left-brain analytical matters.
As an equipment reviewer my interests diverge. On one hand I'm fascinated by cost-be-damned attempts to create audio art of transcendent performance. But as someone who always had to work for his money, I delight in equipment that combines good value with musicality. I also like to explore tweaks that make things sound more musical. I write about all those areas for Enjoy the Music.com.
A few facts: I live in a spacious 12th-floor apartment in an historical building (built 1891, the same year the Chicago Symphony was founded), within easy walking distance of the city's major cultural venues. Now retired, I was for 15 years a communications consultant and writer for high-tech Silicon Valley companies including Apple, Sun, Oracle, Cisco, Adobe and many more. In addition to logging countless hours in front of my speakers, I attend about 80 live musical events per year. I'm puzzled by the many reviewers who rarely attend live concerts. How do they know how well a system tells the truth about music without maintaining a sense of how the real thing sounds? Previous review gigs were with The Absolute Sound, Fi, Ultimate Audio and Listener magazines.
System & Environment
Analog sources: VPI Aries 3 turntable with VPI single-motor rim drive, JMW 10.5i pickup arm, Classic aluminum platter upgrade, TNT feet, SDS speed controller, VPI periphery clamp and Millenium Silentor LP center weight; Steinmusic Aventurin 6 moving-coil cartridge; McIntosh MR-78 FM tuner
Digital sources: LampizatOr Level 4 tube DAC with NOS 6900 output tubes; Strinmusic-modified Grundig Fine Arts CD player as transport; Windows computer, Jriver software
Loudspeakers: Analysis Audio Amphitryon planar/ribbon dipoles upgraded with Bybee Internal Speaker Bullets; outboard passive crossovers upgraded with Bybee SE Bullets
Speaker Cables: Waveform Fidelity GS III
Powercords: Waveform Fidelity GS III; Bybee Crystal Series
Digital Cables: Steinmusic SP/DIF, DanaCable USB
Environmental Treatments: Bybee Room Neutralizers; IPC Room Equalizers & Room Energizer; Steinmusic H2A & H2B Harmonizers with black, white & blue Magic Stones; Steinmusic Blue Suns; Synergistic Research Acoustic ART; Shakti Haallographs
Power Conditioning: ExactPower EP-15A voltage regulator; Bybee Holographic Power Source
Accessories: Arcici Suspense Rack; Sanus A/V rack; Ginkgo Audio isolation platforms & turntable dust cover; Steinmusic Super Natural Signature & Super Natural Plus isolation footers; Bybee Golden Goddess plug-in RCA Interconnect Bullets; Bybee 3-D Holographic Interconnect Tails; VPI HW-27 Typhoon vinyl washing machine; Auto Desk CD lathe; AudioTop Digital, Vinyl & Connect cleaning products; Millennium M-CD Mat & Marigo Ultima carbon fiber damping discs; Millennium Silentor LP center weight; Steinmusic Maestro resonance-control lacquer; IPC Disc Energizer; Steinmusic DE-2 Disc Demagnitizer; Steinmusic CD Plus disc treatment; Shakti Stones; Furutech DeStat & DeMag; Bybee external Crystal Series Speaker Bullets; Weizhi Precision graphite speaker footers.