Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An Endless, Bleak Expanse of Audio Equipment Geekery

I think this might qualify as the most stupefying, meandering, pointless post I've ever done.

That's saying something.

But following Dzesika's lead for '80s clunky audio equipment goodness, I just bought an old used integrated amplifier on eBay. (She at least had the good sense to write a couple lines and be done; I give thee War & Peace.)

Here's the oddity that leads to this decision. (After that scintillating opening, let the eye-glazing begin.) Back in the day--say, 20 years ago--I had a more-or-less standard stereo setup of Kenwood amplifier and preamplifier with a decent cassette deck and CD player and turntable piped through them, all routed to a fantabulous pair of British KEF 107 speakers. Speakers are typically the weak link of people's stereo setup, so the KEFs are pretty near the whole deal here. The KEF 107s are one of very few speaker systems capable of producing an honest 20 hz without substantial volume dropoff. This frequency zone--which requires the ability to move a lot of air--is crucial to the deep bass of organ music, which, if the real instrument is to be properly represented, is as much felt as heard. I've heard other speakers that sound perhaps slightly more natural or present a better soundstage, but no other speaker I've ever heard comes close to producing organ bass like my 107s. I bought them as floor models in 1991 or 92, and they were still $5000.

(The mighty KEF 107. Not mine, but the same.)

(KEF's odd "coupled cavity" woofer setup that enables such stellar low frequency performance. The speakers fire downward in a carefully-tuned cabinet but the sound exits upward from a screen just below the tweeter-midrange "head." Their inability to produce a strong soundstage probably results from these low frequencies--having to turn a corner, as it were--being out of phase with the higher frequencies, which reach us directly.)

I've been working off that basic setup now for 17 years. As CDs took over from all other media, and as my equipment has aged, I've gradually purged components. The turntable was the first to go, followed not long after by the cassette deck (I had no need for cassettes once I began putting CD players in my cars). My Kenwood amp died after a decade of hard use and was replaced with a used Carver. By 12 or so years ago I was down to just a CD player for source material, and I made an interesting discovery: my Sony ES Series CD player has a variable line output which, as it happens, is the proper current to feed directly into my power amp--thus negating my need for a preamp (which was starting to show its age). At this point my preamp served no function except for volume control; and now it turned out my CD player could cope with that problem on its own.

And this has been my gloriously minimal audio setup now for over a decade: Sony CDP-X55ES running directly to a Carver power amp and thus to my KEF 107s. (There was some question as to whether things would sound OK without a preamp, but I'm here to tell you that the preamp served no sonic purpose, only a switching one--unless, of course, one used the tone controls, which I did not.)

(Another web ripoff photo, the Sony CDP-X55-ES. The tiny knob with the red light on the unit face's right side is my total system volume control! Mine has untold thousands of hours of use.)

(Something close to my Carver. I don't even know the model number. Mine does not have the variable input knobs but looks otherwise identical.)

But since I began putting my music on computer over the past decade, I find I spend less and less time listening to CDs at the stereo and more time sitting at the computer with earbuds. But earbuds are no substitute for a good speaker setup, something of which I am reminded every couple of months when I sit down for a couple hours with the KEFs. And without some means of switching and of moderating the signal into the amplifier, I have no way to route the computer to the KEFs.

A recent rash of new organ CDs convinced me that I need to solve this problem which had been staring me in the face for years. Hence today's purchase: a 20-(or so)-year-old Yamaha A1020 integrated amplifier.

(I think this is right; I've not even seen it yet...)

(I'm not actually sure how old this unit is, but it looks like the Yamaha stuff I knew back when I was paying attention to stereo stuff. I'm thinking there will be a date of manufacture somewhere on the unit when I get it.) I wanted specifically to avoid all the multi-amp, surround-sound stuff that seems to be entirely what consumer electronics have become. Nowadays, "home audio" seems to be synonymous with "surround-sound home theater setup." I'd lament this as a triumph of dysfunctional marketing (selling expensive plastic gear with silly "must-have" features in lieu of simple quality) but apparently nobody buys stand-alone high fidelity sound equipment anymore. Well, except for a small knot of tubeheads who shell out tens of thousands for the REALLY high end stuff.

(But really: does having speakers behind one really enhance anyone's watching / listening experience? No amount of multi-directional sound will convince one that the movie is REAL and that you're actually THERE. On the contrary, I find sounds behind and beside me during a movie to be distracting. This seems like such a marketing-driven gimmick. I get the value of good (i.e. full-frequency) sound for a movie, but "surround sound" seems like expensive quackery. Perhaps I can be convinced otherwise. Alas, this is another post.)

The new unit is an integrated amplifier; that is, an amp and preamp combined in one (most people my age probably owned a receiver, which is an integrated amplifier with a radio tuner included in the same box). I didn't really need an amp since my Carver is still functional, but I decided to go with an integrated amp (instead of just a preamp) for a couple reasons. First, the Carver is now close on 30 years old, and it won't last forever. And second, my desire for the least equipment needed to accomplish the task still lives. I originally got away from integrated amplifiers for supposed reasons of sonic purity: things were supposed to sound better if one kept the electronics isolated one box from another. Well, I've come to think this whole line of thinking is a bunch of hooey. People's ears just aren't that keen--certainly mine aren't.

Another aside: a buddy and I used to chuckle at Julian Hirsch's reports in the now-defunct Stereo Review magazine where he would run blind tests to determine whether audiophiles could tell their beloved tube amps and high-end gear from much more mundane equipment. Like the fanatical beer drinkers who (studies have shown again and again) cannot identify their favorite brand in a blind taste test--in fact, most people perform worse than statistically random; they choose AWAY from their stated favorites!--the audiophiles were consistently unable to pick the equipment blind for which they were coughing up thousands of dollars. I love the brutal honesty of that kind of test. Now most of the world listens to music processed through plastic iPods and computer sound cards; the idea that expensive electronics are required just doesn't hold up (I make an exception for speakers, for which money seems to matter).

I can't have it both ways, I guess, lamenting the loss of good quality audio gear and lambasting REALLY good audio gear. But I think part of it is my pursuit of a listening modus operandi that is kind of 30 years ago. I just wonder if sitting in the dark listening to a blaring Mahler symphony is just not done much anymore. (Or maybe people prefer it in 7.1 surround sound.)

So after the crush of holiday work I'll be able to do what I've not really done in years: sit at the KEFs and wander through my whole music collection. This is one of my favorite ways of spending an afternoon or evening, letting one's fancy dictate, comparing different versions of things and jumping from place to place by whimsy. (I have something like 20 versions of Duruflé's organ works, for example, and it's very interesting and instructive to hear how different performers manage, say, the climax of the Prelude of the Op. 5 Suite.) I've been hampered for a while in this by my CDs being two floors below where my stereo lives, and now I'll be able to sit down with all 35,000 pieces literally at my fingertips. How cool is that?

OK. For no particular reason: The End. (I'm sorry for this one. Really.)


Dzesika said...

Ohhh. Drool.
But why the )#*$ did you get rid of your turntable?

wunelle said...

Ah. I was quite disgruntled with LPs from the beginning, and was a most enthusiastic early adopter of digital media. I began buying CDs before I had a player (and had to take out a loan for my first CD player, a Sony CDP-610ES for $850 in 1983 or so). When I started buying CDs I had only 350 LPs or so, and I gradually replaced them as the CDs (or repertoire) became available. I kept the turntable for a few years of disuse before I divested altogether.

I've only ever missed the large format cover art. Everything else you can have! (Remember the Discwasher? God!)

Dzesika said...

If I were only at home, I'd take a photo of my Discwasher for you. Ha!

wunelle said...

I still remember the little red bottle of anti-static fluid that stored in a hole in the wooden handle, and one put a few drops on the unidirectional fur and smeared them with the butt of the bottle. Then, spin the disc with a finger near the center and wipe the surface...

I recite this for my own nostalgia, a revisiting of a little multi-step motion that I performed five thousand times. And then stopped. I've not even thought of this for 15 years, I bet.

Now even the fiddling with the CD jewel boxes (which always struck me as not well-conceived and executed packaging) is fading away. Everything nowadays is downloaded and menu-driven.

dbackdad said...

Hey, meandering and pointless ... a perfect description of my blog. Narcissism is why we have our blogs. The thing is: we're all equally narcissistic and find enjoyment and comfort in reading other people's blogs. I may not understand everything about your speakers, but your enthusiasm for them is palpable and your writing entertaining. Rave on!

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