Today, for the first time in many years, I was able to indulge myself in a great pleasure. I listened to a vinyl LP on a high end audio system. Cue sighs of pleasure and rapt enjoyment.
Once upon a time, back in the day when matters of quality over convenience were actually important, I suppose I could have been classified an audio snob. My stereo was the envy of everyone in my dorm. It was the centerpiece of my first apartment. I bought LPs imported from Japan pressed on the heaviest virgin vinyl, which I diligently cleaned before each playing. I owned an anti-static ion gun to ward off lint and other contaminants. On first listen, new albums were meticulously archived to costly metal particle tape to best preserve my audio investment, and all of my music was played through speakers that would make any recording engineer proud.
It was an effort to play a record; something you “did” with a purpose — “I’m going to listen to records,” which entailed flipping through the large colorful cover in your collection (each a work of art in their own right) looking for just the proper selection, pulling the sleeve from the cover, sliding the record from the sleeve, and carefully cueing up the vinyl on your record player. Waiting, then, for the music to begin after the outer groove has completed a few scratchy revolutions. Playing music was almost a personal accomplishment, and you had the feeling that you had a role in making this glorious sound fill your room.
Way back when, audio equipment didn’t come built into your computer, and wasn’t purchased at Walmart, Target, or Costco. There were all kinds of places to buy stereo components: Pacific Stereo, Leo’s Stereo, Mad Jack’s… Audio stores popped up in malls, hi-fi shops were scattered all over town, and — if you risked the ads found in the backs of audiophile magazines (there were once many!) — discounted audio equipment could be yours (sales tax free!) from retailers all across the country. Selecting audio equipment was a serious endeavor on the same scale as shopping for a new car. Research was required. Experts were consulted. Listening trips were scheduled. Each component was selected, matched, and integrated to provide the ultimate listening experience.
Then came compact discs. A job with superhuman demands. A 60,000-plus song iTunes library.
Ah, convenience! I could call up any song at any time with just the click of a button. Stream playlists from my office to the living room. Pause. Duplicate. Rewind. Yay!
Trouble is… for the most part, the audio quality of the music I was listening to was every bit as poor as it was convenient. Basically, the sound was “good enough” for the circumstances — listening at work, in a coffee shop, on the run. Busy, busy busy! Music to mask the rest of the day, no matter how thin and muddy that music might sound. How sad.
Yeah, yeah… I know, you don’t have to listen to digital music through substandard audio gear, but — let’s be honest — that’s how most people listen to music in our Brave New World of audio infidelity.
But let’s get back to the present and my blissful experience of listening to an actual record album…
About a year ago I left that “job with superhuman demands” and decided to embark on a career as an artist and writer. No longer would I be stuck in an office or a lab; I’d be free to listen to music in the comfort of my own home. For the most part, I split my work day between my upstairs office and the photography studio I’ve built in the guesthouse outside. Luckily, the quality of the audio produce by my iMac is surprisingly good (better, even, than “acceptable”). So, while I’m adjusting photos, working on videos, dashing off an email, or writing blog entries about classic audio, my ears are happy. Audio in the studio, however, has been another matter. Yes, I was able to get music into the studio via wifi from the iMac, but the equipment there to amplify and actually play the music was… woeful. And given that music is an essential part of my creative process… it suddenly became abundantly clear that my home was due for a complete Home Audio Makeover.
Bear in mind that I use the term “makeover” in the most literal sense. I’m not one to rush off to a high end audio shop (few that there may be left standing) and solve my problem by plunking down thousands of dollars on brand new equipment. Nay! Not when I have perfectly (?) good equipment sitting around the house gathering dust. So what if this equipment dates back to my college days and (in some cases) has not been powered on since the Clinton administration? Audio quality is one thing, but aesthetics is quite another, and — let’s face it — all this old equipmnet just looks completely COOL!! I could restore it! Rebuild it! Bring my audio equipment back to life!
First on the agenda would be the stereo receiver I’d purchased as a college freshman — a Sansui G5000. The receiver is beautiful! Wooden case, brushed aluminum and glass… a wide, backlit tuning dial and glowing LED’s that look awesome in a dark room. Just the thing for listening to music in my bedroom. Alas, this wonderful piece of vintage audio had long ago been boxed and pirated away to the attic; the victim of newer technology when I “upgraded” to NAD separates (which are really great audio components, but visually have all the warmth of a Stanley Kubrick film).
To my great and immense pleasure, after hauling the box down from the attic and plugging everything in… it still worked! Yay! However, the FM tuner wasn’t at all accurate, consistently sticking on a local station that brought great offense to my ears, and — horrors! — the magical, twinkling lights were NOT working! Clearly, this was not acceptable. My beloved analog receiver deserved better. Like a vintage automobile found in a dusty garage, it cried for restoration.
Unfortunately, audio repair in 2011 is not as simple as dropping your equipment off at the local high end audio retailer. Few repair shops exist, and most “repairs” amount to swapping out soulless printed circuit boards. I would need to find a true audio technician. A Leonardo Da Vinci of electronics. A Jonas Salk of capacitors and resistors. Luckily, in San Diego, such master technicians exist in a small shop called Classic Audio Repair in North Park along Adams Avenue. Each time I’ve been to the shop there has been a line of audiophiles waiting patiently for the doors to open at 10:45 (yes, 10:45 — not 10:30, not 11 o’clock), each lugging tube amps, turntables and speaker cones in hopes that their vintage piece of retro audio equipment can live a better life.
The shop owner, Fred, liked my Sansui receiver and deemed it “a superior piece of equipment” before launching into a exacting soliloquy offering his opinion of the sad state of today’s stereo components. Two weeks later, my beloved receiver was back in my hands with the tuner spinning smoothly, the lights glowing bright, all the pushbuttons and knobs clicking just as I’d remembered in college.
I setup the receiver on a table in my bedroom along with a pair of exceptionally nice (and very affordable) Energy RC10 bookshelf speakers that deliver crisp, full sound — not that I’m actually delivering crisp, full sound to the speakers… to be honest, I’m mostly using the receiver to listen to the radio while I read, or to play music streamed to an Apple Airport Express from the iMac in the next room. Not super hi fidelity, but music played by a real stereo component instead of a box better suited to crunching numbers and browsing the web. Kind of the musical equivalent of burning real wooden logs in a fireplace, as opposed to flipping a switch and watching a blue flame of burning gas flickering over ceramic “logs.”
Two weeks ago I took another piece of vintage college-days equipment into Classic Audio Repair: my Technics SL-1700 MKII direct drive turntable with an ADC cartridge. The turntable hasn’t worked for years, as the ON button had jammed and the mechanism that lifts the tonearm at the end of a record had quit working. The cartridge also needed a new stylus, as the needle had been bent from my habit to “back cue” records from my days working as a college DJ (yay, KCPR!).
Unfortunately, as Fred explained, the automatic tonearm cueing function on these units had a tendency to wear out over time, and replacement mechanisms had long ago been discontinued. That said, he would be able to disable the automated cueing behavior and essentially convert the turntable to function manually.
Yes! This means that I have to place the record on the mat, physically lift the tonearm, move it over the record, and carefully set the needle down onto the grooves. At the end of the record, I have to listen to that beautiful end-of-the-record scritch, scratch of the inner groove, and lift the tonearm back to its resting point. Playing recorded music doesn’t get any more retro and hands on than that, and I love it!
And today the work was completed.
I brought my trusty turntable home and set it up in the living room where the audio equipment is hidden inside a dilapidated green cabinet that looks as if it was rescued from a Burmese rainforest. That’s also where I keep the aforementioned NAD amp and tuner, along with a Sony CD player from the very dawn of the digital age, and miscellaneous other equipment that would be completely foreign to anyone born after 1990. The equipment from this room is connected to a pair of what quite possibly may be the best speakers known to man: JBL 4311 Studio Monitors in gorgeous mahogany cabinets. “Back in the day” these were the must-have speakers for every recording studio in the world. Radio stations used them in their sound rooms. Pete Towshend owns them and recently went to extraordinarily great lengths to recover his when they were stolen. JBL 4311s are like a one-of-a-kind vintage guitar or a pair of well broken-in running shoes. Once they are right, they are right, and there is simply no replacing them.
So that’s what I had at my fingertips this afternoon when I sat down in my living room with a stack of Record Day purchases to “listen to records”, something people just don’t really do anymore. More people should. It’s really fun. And music sounds so much more alive and “real” when a needle is gently settled into a groove and played through a a nice system in a big room.
I think I might open a record store. Wouldn’t that be fun?