I’ll get back to a commentary on theology or sexuality or existential angst…for now I just feel moved, as I do after a satisfying romantic encounter, to wax ecstatic about a nice hi-fi system (an archaic phrase I use with relish). I write this in a state that would otherwise be available only through proscribed substances…suffice to say, I really do get off on the sound of this system…a sad commentary on the state of my aimless midlife crisis, but such is the case for small pleasures.
Although it seemed that I was going to be continually fussing with this set-up in that hobbyist’s manner of obsession, I think I’ve now reached a satisfying plateau from which any ambition for improvement would be mere psychological pretension…if only I could reach that stage in my love life, but where the audiophile plateau was very reasonably reachable within the capabilities of my life at this stage, really just a few hundred dollars that have been spread out over 15 years, and too many hours of escapist dives into online conversations about record needles and vintage receivers.
Online, as with all else, there is a seemingly infinite community of people praising, arguing, swearing by and swearing at the virtues of audio equipment. Some are dealers and repairmen (a phrase used with care because one of the best YouTube repairwomen is a trans man/woman (sorry, I’m never quite sure if a trans-man is a man dressed like a woman or vice versa, and I know I could google this question and find out, but I’m being a little stubborn here. The Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie just, apparently, got in some trouble for commenting in a non-approved way on the whole trans question, and defends herself by saying what she was trying to say was beyond the somewhat narrow American discourse on this, as she was relating it to the flexible notions of gender that have deep roots in Igbo society etc…anyway, I guess I’m protesting the American habit of exploding over word usage before wrestling with meaning)…anyway Rosie O’Kelly comments cheekily (I mean this with some literalness) on all sorts of topics, including some very expert work on repairing vintage stereo receivers…Look her up, you won’t be disappointed…funny, just to make sure she’s still there I just did look up old Rosie, who has now pretty much completed a gender transition surgery, and is showing off some expertly done boobs with her girlfriend, both in bikinis talking about a rough night of too many beers (Rosie is funny because she still retains significant manliness in her voice occasionally, but more in her general approach to life, the beer swilling electrician with a basement full of electronic testing equipment and the “wall of power” collection of vintage receivers. And I always love YouTube comments because they are such random expressions of collective id, in this case various, mostly men, commenting on the quality of the boob job and other admiration for this woman who is not afraid of putting it all out there…and then some thumbs up and smiles from a pretty young woman called Jasmine Quinones, and I can only wonder what in the world brought her to this page, but how does anyone happen upon bizarre YouTube videos? I know I shouldn’t call Rosie bizarre, and she’s not, at least when she is focused on fixing vintage electronics. But when she is dressed in her bikini in a living room full of receivers and asking whether there are any marks on her butt from the spanking the night before…at some point you’re allowed to call this bizarre. Anyway, Jasmine was so pretty that I just wanted to find out who she was, and I happened upon another Jasmine Quinones who is a young singer, self taught on guitar, composing thoughtful songs, and full of all that youthful hope, ambition, confidence, and energy that I have lost…and what that really tells me is that instead of listening to old records, I should be at my guitar composing new songs.
Anyway, people comment endlessly on this stuff, and as with all else, there are all sorts of blowhard experts who think this or that about various equipment and their ostensible ability to hear the difference. I’m just going to comment on what I found on the way to my little Lubbock pinnacle.
When I arrived in Madison Wisconsin for graduate school in 2002, I bought a bunch of used furniture and a few pieces of stereo equipment more or less upon arrival. The best finds were a Stanton STR 8-60 magnet-driven turntable and Sony APM 690 speakers, which I bought for two or three hundred dollars total at a used furniture store across from St. Vincent DePaul’s thrift store, where I bought an amplifier and tape deck for something like $25 a piece as well as a whole set of scratched up, dark-stained Victorian-style cabinetry that made for a warm room that I remember fondly in a run-down turn-of-the-century house on Johnson street. I lived there with two rooomates and occasionally annoyed them with loud music.
I’m happy to say that I never really damaged the speakers with underpowered amplifiers, but have since learned that this can be a problem. I started with a very old little amplifier that was totally cool for its Jetson era aesthetic of several knobs a few lights and that’s it. But, while playing Fiona Apple at high volume I heard some distortion and got upset and went to return the speakers to the seller, who with some indignation at being questioned, plugged the speakers into a sexy old receiver with lighted meters and all, and blasted the speakers, and asked if I heard any distortion. I had to sheepishly admit that I didn’t. He patiently explained that my little amp was underpowered and that the 200 watt speakers were drawing too much power. So I learned something, and went looking for a receiver that looked something like his, and found one again at St. Vinny’s. I used that receiver for years, also wholly underpowered, but I never again noticed the distortion it was an MCS 3226 which looked at sounded pretty darn good to me. I’ve since learned that the Modular Component System was sold by JC Penny back when, as one online commentator put it with a sense of bemusement, you could buy high end stereo equipment at JC Penny…funny. But yes, apparently the equipment was made by Technics, and the little 25 watt amplifier did a pretty nice job with rich lows and natural-sounding highs. It was not until years later when I started researching this stuff online that I found out how underpowered it was for the speakers…as the online folks are telling me (and I don’t quite believe them) that you should have an amplifier (or receiver amplifier) of twice the wattage of the speakers, in order to avoid “clipping”. Clipping is when the speakers are drawing more power than the amplifier has so it distorts the signal, and this can be very bad, apparently, to the speakers, especially the tweeters. In theory a large amplifier could “blow out” the woofers, but this would be hard to do at any listenable level on 200 watt speakers.
So eventually I started researching my little MCS receiver, and found out it was well-regarded for what it was, but that there were people who commentated endlessly on various classic receivers of the 1960s and 1970s which was considered the golden age of high quality stereo equipment. While newer equipment I’m sure sounds just fine, many swear that the “receiver wars” of the 1970s led to a level of care and quality control at the leading manufacturers that makes this older equipment still shine. (someone did run a test between old and new, and I think high-end new came out ahead of high-end old, but whatever, I’m going to believe in the “vintage” stuff, especially when it is cheaper than buying comparable new). I found a very nice list of the best old receivers, many of which were brands I’d never heard of and would probably be hard to find, and of those that remained the Pioneer 1250 series and Marantz 2325 and Sansui 9090 units were priced in the $1000s…and among these were the Yamaha CR receivers. Apparently the x00, x10, and x20 (e.g. 1010, 820, 1020, 2020, etc) didn’t have any integrated chips on them, and so are more highly valued, because more repairable, and because there is a sense that at some point, the use of integrated circuitry in the 1980s actually led to lower quality sound. But the best deals were available in the x40 series, that may or may not have an integrated chip but still have the rich “natural sound” of that series. I found a CR-640 on ebay, but whoever shipped it didn’t pack it well and the tuner knob was damaged, so I never got the tuner to work. At 40 watts it was a good bit more powerful than the MCS receiver, but still underpowered for the speakers. The dirty little secret though is that most of these units could put out more than their rated power, and still sounded fine, and that it would be difficult to listen to anything on a sustained basis at more than 40 watts of output, as it’s just too dern loud. But, the Yamaha did sound noticeably better than the MCS, more separation of sound, making the MCS sound muddy by comparison, much clearer highs and a more defined bass. There really is a difference.
Okay, now I’m just rambling. Suffice to say that I eventually purchased a Yamaha CR-2040 with 120 watts, which at about $400 shipped became the most expensive piece in my system. I then, finally did more research on needles, and of course you can go crazy with them too. But I found out that that I already had a Shure N97xE cartridge with a broken needle, so I ordered a new needle, and that was the last piece to put in place. I can’t imagine there is really going to be any difference that I can discern through investment in better equipment. Maybe a new high-priced set of speakers would be notably better, but not worth it. Yamaha CR-2040 receiver, Stanton STR 8-60 turntable with Shure N97xE needle, and Sony APM 690 speakers…with a good record that is about as good as it gets for a home system. I could give lots of details about why this set up is so good, but I’ll spare you. What I will make are a few comments on the Sony Speaker compared to a pair of JBL J2060 that I bought from a guy off of Craigslist recently. I’ll say first that if you are looking for small speakers for less than $100 these JBL’s are excellent. When first plugged them in I put on Keith Jarret’s Staircase album, and they sounded amazing, better than the Sony’s. And, for piano, they might be. They have a really rich mid-tone presence, but don’t compare to the Sony’s on the high and low ends. The Sonys create an airy “live” feel, a little weak on the mid-tones, which can be corrected with some equalization, but that is part of what gives them the natural sound, as the weaker mid-tone creates a sense of ambiance, instead of the more claustrophobic mid-tone emphasis of the JBL’s. What I found out through the comparison is that the Sony tweeters on the high end are really outstanding, bringing out cymbals and high-hats with lifelike naturalness, and the Sony bass is impressive. That being said, the JBL’s have an extraordinary range for little “bookshelf” speakers, their tech specs read 45 Hz to 23,000 Hz. There aren’t that many musical sounds that bottom out below 45 Hz, and you won’t miss anything on the low end from these little speakers. That number for the high end seems unrealistic, I’m not hearing it, but then again, I doubt my 45 year-old ears can hear 23,000 Hz. Ostensibly human hearing is from 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz, and most stereo equipment is labeled fairly generically for that range. Only high-end equipment really has a smooth delivery of all of those frequencies, however, and those that do, often exceed them. Even if we can’t hear below 20 Hz, we can feel it, and like smell and taste, hearing and feeling vibration are integrated sensations, and we don’t experience low frequencies fully unless we can also feel them. At the high end, I’m not sure what accounts for the difference, but there is no doubt that I’m hearing a clearer more realistic bite of snare drums and cymbals and other percussion from the Sonys, so I can’t imagine what the ostensible high end is for them, since I can’t find the specs for the APM 690 speakers. The Shure N97xE needle says it picks up 20 Hz to 22,000 Hz, so I don’t know if it is actually picking up anything beyond those specs, but it was definitely a step up from the N35C that I was using. The other good thing about the N97xE is that it has a very low tracking force, which is easier on the records, and that’s a big reason why I went with it. The N35C is gauged for a very heavy tracking force that is good for DJ work, but unnecessary for home use, and just wears on the records for no reason. The only improvement I might consider to this system would be a Shure VN5xMR needle that says it gets 10-25,000 Hz response. That would be very cool, but it raises questions about whether any but the highest end speakers could reproduce sub 20 Hz frequencies, or highs over 22,000 Hz, and then the question of whether you’d want them to, as some of those really high and low frequencies are just equipment noise that would actually muddy the music rather than improve it. So I tested putting both the Sony’s and JBLs in my living room, hoping to get the rich middle of the JBL’s augmented by the nice extremes of the Sonys, but the whole thing just sounded muddy. Maybe out of phase or something, or maybe the excessive middle just ruined the natural airy effect of the Sonys, which I’ve decided I actually like.
Wow….alright, this is getting stupid…you realize how obsessive this stuff can get…but that doesn’t eliminate the high I get from, right now listening to Joni Mitchell’s live album “Miles of Aisles” which was and I’m sure will always be my favorite Joni Mitchell, because it has most of her best songs in a warm live performance that eliminates some of the stiffness and preciousness of her studio recordings. The songs stretch from the raw adolescent in “Blue” to the buoyant sophisticate in “Carey”…all with the deeply layered brilliance of her poetry…I’d have to write a whole commentary on Joni Mitchell…in fact that really should be another layer of effort for this blog. I could probably write at least 15 really insightful entries on music, maybe more.
Once again, ANYWAY…, here’s what I’ve found out. Records, I’m sorry to say, still sound better. … Seriously, I know there is this whole vinyl-philia thing going on and at some point it just turns into hipster silliness, and I was getting ready to rebel against vinyl, at least for the sake of new purchases, so as to get rid of the silly bulk of records, and to be able to play more than four songs at a time without having to turn over the record. So I did some testing.
I recently attended a magnificent performance of Carl Orff’s cinematic Carmina Burana (dissed as classical music for children etc, but a sophisticated piece of music nonetheless, that deliberately and appropriately builds upon folksy themes and simplified Wagnerian tropes that capture a nice articulation of the earthy themes of the original texts written by defrocked monks living somewhere between the fear of divine judgment and the pleasures of life on earth. I have a scratchy hand-me-down record of this piece from my parents, of Andre Previn’s version with the London Symphony Orchestra, it sounds okay, but the scratches are distracting, and the big-sound moments with choir, percussion and full orchestra sound like a trainwreck at high volume, as if it is just too much sound for one record needle to handle. So I started looking into whether anyone was putting out music recordings at higher quality than CD, and yes, there are several sites marketing “HD” recording of 96 kHz 24-bit digital sound (compared to 44.1 kHz 16 bit sound on CD). So, I bought an “HD” version of Yeree Suh’s direction of the piece that used early 20th century instrumentation etc, and seemed to be a good version. I was disappointed. It may be simply that I don’t really like Suh’s version or the way it was recorded, but when I compared it to Previn’s version on vinyl, I far preferred the natural airy sound of the lp than the HD digital. I guess the only real comparison would be between two of the same versions. I’ve done that kind of comparison before and I’ll tell you about it in a minute.
As for the digital versions, here’s what I can say. I bought Suh’s version of the full piece as 96 kHz 24 bit (mixed apparently at 20-bit for whatever that’s worth). I then downgraded it slightly to 48 kHz 24 bit so that it could be transferred to an iPod, and that apparently is the limit of the iPod hardware, which can play Apple Lossless Codec (ALAC) files at that standard. I also had iTunes convert the original recording to 256-bit compressed AAC, and then just purchased the 256-bit AAC from iTunes online. Interestingly my conversion to AAC was still a slightly larger file than the purchased version. What I can say is that the 95 megabyte uncompressed “HD” 2-minute track played from an RCA mini-plug in my Macbook Pro to RCA L/R plug into the stereo sounded almost exactly the same as the 5 megabyte version of the same track as AAC. I could detect basically no discernible difference. It is possible that in the most dense areas of the music, the high-pitched percussion sounds a little more lively in the HD version, and with really close listening one might be able to detect other areas in which the compressed version loses detail. So, in theory the HD sound should offer a little more dramatic effect, which is probably most noticeable not in classical or acoustic music, but in really dense distorted guitars of heavy metal and various other variations of hard rock. I did this kind of test some years ago with an Aerosmith song, which I have on CD, AAC, and on record. What I found with that comparison, is that the compressed version that I had (I think it was AAC) sounded significantly worse than CD or LP. The compression must made a mess of crunchy sound of the guitars and they just sounded muddy and mushed. The CD, with uncompressed 44.1 kHz 16-bit sound had a very 3D quality to it with lots of separation of every sound, and all in all still sounded pretty good (it did not have that screechy electronic quality of early CDs, I think this was a problem in the first generation of digital recording, when the fine art of digital “dithering” had not yet been perfected, which smears the edges of the music a bit to smooth out any digital artifacts that create that electronic screech. As compared to the CD, the LP sounded a little mushy, a little more concentrated, but also more natural, retaining a quality that still sounded closer to witnessing an actual performance rather than a microscopic inspection of a studio recording, which is the effect of the CD.
So, anyway, I’m not sure what I would find if I compared an HD version of Previn’s Carmina Burana to the LP. For now, I was not a big fan of the claustrophobic quality of the recording of Suh’s performance. Maybe the recording itself just took itself too seriously (as opposed to the fun qualities of Previn’s), and the lack of a children’s choir in the last movement is a big loss to Suh’s version. As with audiophile equipment, there are also lots of commentators on different versions of classical recordings, and at least one counts Previn’s performance to be a memorable one, others call it merely a false classic, and prefer various other versions. For now, between these two, I definitely prefer the Previn version, and still like the sound that rises through the cloud of pops and scratches on the record.
What is interesting, is that once you get used to LP sound, it is easy to listen “through” the scratches, and what you hear is something like a live performance appearing in a ghostly way through a misty sonic cloud of magic that separates you from the long-past performance. It is like a time machine, and somehow the digital recordings, with their antiseptic perfection always just sound like hyperreal simulations (in the Baudrillard sense). So, I hate to say it, but I’m still on the side of vinyl as the gold standard for audiophiles.