Yes, I admit it. I’m a crazed, old school audiophile/stereophile, with a passion for bulky, hugely expensive equipment that the modern millennial has no use for, and doesn’t even know exists. I’m the last of a dying breed. I’m a frigging stegosaurus. Not for me the ear buds and smart phones with their streaming of thousands of compressed digital files. Not for me the renting of music from all-powerful central scrutinizers who may or may not decide one day that my favourite song isn’t worth keeping around, and whose many thousands of songs on my playlist will go poof in an instant, the second I stop paying them their monthly Danegeld. Unh-uh. I’m going to own my music, dammit. It’s going to be right here in my house, stored on physical media, even if that media is hard drives and USB sticks. It’s going to be high quality, CD or better, way better, right up to Direct Stream Digital – no compression, no “perceptual encoding” that throws away the data I’m presumed incapable of hearing. It’s going to issue from great big speakers in wooden cabinets, powered by great big amplifiers that weigh fifty pounds each, supplied by players that weigh almost as much, many of them pouring the music forth from high grade analog tape.
A real stereo isn’t something you lug around in your pocket. A real stereo looks like this:
From the backside, it looks like this:
And it’s interconnected every which way so that the schematic looks like this:
That, kids, is a stereo.
Obsolete? My ass. You would say that, since you plainly don’t know Jack Shit. What modern listeners with their little wireless earbuds don’t even begin to understand is that modern technology represents only an advance in convenience, nothing else, and a major degradation in sound quality. The stereo pictured above, which yes, is the actual thing sitting in my living room – dual racks (holding a total of 21 units) that my wife and I refer to as “the oil rigs” – comprises a mix of vintage and ultra-modern pieces representing successive states of the art, beginning about 1980 and culminating in digital file players bought within the past couple of years. The thing that most people seem to find incomprehensible is that the oldest of these units – a tape deck so aesthetically pleasing that it’s the audio equivalent of a 1966 fastback Shelby GT 350 Mustang (compare and contrast):
…sounds just as good as the ultimate digital device, a web-enabled Sony HAP-1ZES digital hard disc unit. No word of exaggeration: just as good. By 1980 the humble analog cassette deck had been developed to the point that it boasted a frequency response of 20-20,000 Hz., the theoretical limit of human hearing, with advanced noise reduction providing a signal/noise ratio approaching 80DB, and negligible wow and flutter, complimented by vanishingly trivial total harmonic distortion. Coveted Nakamichi units, like the CR7 that I own, which easily go for $5,000 in good working order, have bias adjustment capability that can improve the sound over the digital source. You don’t believe it? I’d have you over to my place to take the Pepsi challenge, except if you’re the sort who knows so little about such things, I don’t really want you in my house. I’d say no offence, but on the other hand, yes, please do take offence, jackass.
Of course, and admittedly, all of this is highly inconvenient, and vintage electronics are prone to breakdowns that are often impossible, and always highly expensive, to fix. It’s agony when something goes wrong. Heart-breaking. Soul-destroying. It makes me want to tear my own teeth out with a pair of rusty pliers. Yet when it works – oh boy, when it works. You’ve never heard music until it’s played over an old school stereo like mine, with B&W Nautilus speakers, powered by hand-built Bryston amplifiers.
Now, if by my reckoning you’ve never really heard the music you pipe directly into your ear canals via tinny little plastic inserts, that’s just fine by you, I know. I get it. You couldn’t care less. Sound quality the way I define it means nothing. You love your wee little ear buds and your smart phone. Music to you is like processed cheese slices. It has no special place in your heart. That’s cool. It’s a free country. You get to be that way. Live and let live, and all that – it’s not just a good idea, it’s the law, and I’ll abide by it.
You’ll pardon me, though, if I continue to sit off in a corner with the last few members of my vanishing species and wave the banner for glorious stereo sound. You can mock me for the expense, for the trouble, for the frustration, but don’t you dare be enough of an ignoramus to think there’s no good reason for loving what I love. You go ahead and listen to your stuff on your smart phone. It’s like you’re watching Lawrence of Arabia or Apocalypse Now on the little screen of the same diabolical device. I’ll stick with my cumbersome 70 mm Dolby surround version, projected in cinemascope on my huge screen here. When the film breaks or the projector burns out, I will indeed succumb to despair. But when it works…oh boy, when it works.