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Hey, Hi, it’s been a while! I guess I’ve been morally and mentally overwhelmed by the sheer awfulness of everything lately, but fear not, my legion of loyal readers, I’ll soon be back to ranting about Trump and SCOTUS and January 6 etc., but what brings me out of my torpor today is a funny little story about my stereo. Just a funny little story, is all.

Now, those who’ve followed this column will know of my lifelong obsession with audiophile grade stereo components, and I may have mentioned at one point that among my most prized possessions is one of these things, a legendary Mark Levinson 390S CD Processor:

That’s a CD processor, mind you. Not a mere CD player. Yes, yes, today everything is streaming, and WiFi, and compressed digital files played over Alexa and all that, but those of us who cling to purist notions of stereo sound aren’t just in love with things like the above-pictured unit, we worship them as deities. We bring them offerings from the harvest, and sing them softly to sleep at night. The sheer, mind-bending, soul-satisfying sonic performance of something like the 390S, when paired with the proper amplification and speakers – remember, kids, every single link in the chain must be a similarly exotic auditory masterwork, no exceptions! – is simply beyond the comprehension of unwashed, boorish, dismally regular folk (not you, dear reader, I’m sure, but you know, the others). Not to be all snooty about it, but let’s face it, when it comes to music reproduction, most people are complete and irredeemable rubes, like yobbos eating steamed, mustard-drenched hotdogs sold out of dubiously unhygienic street carts, as observed with a mixture of sadness and contempt by we cognoscenti as we peer through the tinted windows of the Michelin Star eateries that serve as the only places we’ll ever take our meals.

Audiophilia at this level comes at a price. Yes it does. Guys like me, we pay it. Through the nose.

Then the pain starts, which leads me to today’s funny little story.

My wife likens these things to orchids, though from where I sit they’re more like Indy cars. Yeah, they go like nobody’s business – when they go. The thing is, they sometimes need the most thorough and delicate sort of upkeep from the most highly-trained sort of pit crews, and if you’re expecting to treat them like Toyota Tercels, and simply hop in, turn the key, and off you go to the grocery store, you’re in for a rude awakening. That’s not how these things work. There are probably 5th generation fighter jets that require less TLC. You have to handle them just so, reverently, gently, like the 1961 Ferrari GT 250 California that Cameron’s dad treated as a first-born son in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, driving it only rarely and otherwise touching it only with a diaper.

So, dismayingly, heartbreakingly, the beloved Levinson, despite its incredible build quality and huge price tag, has repeatedly given me fits. It had to go back to the factory within months of first buying it, and a few years after that it developed issues with its analog outputs, following which, one very sad afternoon, it flashed ERROR upon loading a CD, after which it coughed out not just the disc, but a couple of grey plastic and ceramic parts that were clearly key pieces of its internal mechanism. It wasn’t just rejecting the disc! It was vomiting out its guts! Yikes! It was long out of warranty by that point, of course (query: when a piece of electronics costs as much as a used Mercedes, why in pluperfect Hell does it ever go out of warranty?), and repeated attempts to get it fixed locally resulted only in successive bouts of violence being done to it, until finally I sent it off to this fellow I deal with in Germany, a vintage audiophile equipment dealer who’s pretty much Gandalf when it comes to exotic stereo components. It cost 600 bucks just to send it to him, but what was a poor, music-loving, equipment-worshiping sap to do? It had to get fixed. It was a veritable technological unicorn. Irreplaceable. A lifetime commitment. A solemn responsibility.

It took a few months, but back it came, fine and dandy for the longest while, until just a few weeks ago when, distressingly, heart-rendingly, it started giving me more problems. Much as before, though in a different way – the drawer loading mechanism crapped out again. No dramatic expulsion of little clamps and cogwheels, this time, but still, near total loss of function. You’d push the eject button, and the drawer – a razor-thin rectangle of brushed aluminium that normally slid forth like a samurai sword being drawn from its black-laquered hardwood scabbard – wouldn’t come out at all, or maybe it’d pop out a little bit and then scoot right back in, or sometimes get stuck halfway, only to make an awful internal scraping noise when pushed back in manually. Basically, it was by all appearances comprehensively feeked.

Ever the optimist, I tried things like adding silicone lubricant to the tray edges, but no dice. Maybe one time out of five, it’d come out OK. Maybe not that often. This wasn’t merely frustrating, understand. When it failed, it was actually sad, like watching a multi-kabillion dollar racehorse with a broken leg struggling painfully to stand back up, while I sat there sweating through the desperate contemplation of popping a cap in my beloved, now crippled Man O’War, and that just won’t do, will it? I mean, it got so I was nervous just to try – would it work this time? Would it get even worse? – and reader, the last thing I need when I go to load a little shiny disc into my oh-so-expensive stereo, an activity that’s supposed to bring me the purest joy and relaxation, is a bout of acute anxiety. That’s not pleasurable. That’s not what I was going for, was it, when I went out and spent a king’s f*#@ing ransom, all giddy at the prospect of the world’s most elegant black box. And it was elegant – by Christ, it was a gorgeous thing and all, but if it won’t even load a disc, what’re you gonna do? Fuggedabouddit, right? Because listen, the capacity to first load and then later eject a CD is kind of the sine qua non for a frigging CD player, is it not? If it won’t do that much, then there’s nothing for it really, unless you can stomach yet another agonizing, time-consuming, expensive, and perhaps unsuccessful repair, failing which you’re loading your little pal into the car for that last sad trip to the vet to get the Big Needle. Sorry, Secretariat, we had a hell of a run there, but now I guess it’s the glue factory.

I could barely face either option.

After waiting a few weeks, hoping that it might right itself, somehow, I concluded that the mechanism must need replacing, or at least an expensive and hugely inconvenient repair somewhere outside Canada, the outcome of 18 odd years of going in and out, in and out, which I guess isn’t so surprising, especially when this chapter in the whole sorry saga began, recall, when the frickin’ thing shed parts out its front and nobody but my wizard in Germany could get it going again; and I wasn’t about to spend another 600 bucks sending it back across the pond. Nossir, especially not when the odds appear fairly good that some depot-level luggage monkey in a shabby uniform will simply trash it en route (you should have seen what they did to the last couple of components I shipped over – it looked like they’d dropped them out the back of the van in the middle of the autobahn). No costly repair, then, no, not another time. So, crap. Shit and shit some more. Reluctantly, I decided to yank my beloved, beautiful, $US 7,000.00 ML 390S (big, fat 2004 US dollars, mind you) from the main floor rig and replace it with another unit, a technically inferior, far less breathtaking, yet acceptably sleek and shiny, reputedly excellent new Audiolab CD transport:

…which is by all accounts a brilliant piece of kit, widely praised by the tweako audio cultists at WhatHiFi, Stereophile, and all those other audiophile porn outlets, and which would mate perfectly with my equally boffo new high-end RME ADI-2 Digital-to-Analog Converter:

…thus, if we’re being honest with ourselves, resulting in an audiophile combo that would almost certainly sound indistinguishable from the Levinson, despite costing only 1/3 as much. This had to be the case, both on general principles, and because the new units represent about 20 intervening years of digital technological development, to the extent you buy into the assertion that the processing of Redbook-standard CD digits can still be improved upon. I guess it’s possible. The golden-eared audio tweako cultists think it is, anyway.

So I did it. This is, you will understand, a huge effort; the logistics of replacing any one component in a complex, multi-layered, multi-interconnected system like mine are almost prohibitively daunting, about the equivalent of performing a heart transplant, but I took the painful plunge. In went the Audiolab, out came the Levinson, which I lugged not to the vet, but up here to my third floor “treehouse”, to be plugged into my secondary stereo, where all the misfit toys get put out to pasture, just for old times’ sake, because dammit it’s a Mark Levinson 390S for the love of Christ, and the drawer still works sometimes, and not even I’m driven so far ‘round the bend by grief and disappointment as to leave it out front for the scavengers. Not the Levinson. Like I said, lifetime commitment, in sickness and in health.

Then – and only then, after I had it all wired up in the treehouse – I decided in almost whimsical fashion to take a one-in-a-billion shot and search the inter-web, see if anybody else ever had the same problem and had a plausible fix. The thought might have occurred to me earlier, I guess, but it wasn’t apt to matter much, since, what, I’m going to find a magic answer on the net? Not frickin’ likely! When does that ever happen? Has that ever worked for you? Anyway, even if there was some sort of theoretical mechanical fix, I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it, would I? It’s not like I have a Mark Levinson parts bin handy, besides which, despite close examination, it’s not even immediately obvious how you pop the lid on the tank-like 390S, even if some sort of internal lube job or something was otherwise possible. Plus c’mon, what’re the chances? Really? I ask you.

Well…one Google query and about .002 microseconds later, I find this on an audio tweako cultist message board:

Sure, sure, yeah, right, but then, I reckoned, why not try it anyway? Maybe, however vanishingly small the likelihood, buddy wasn’t just blowing smoke. What did I have to lose? Who cared if it didn’t work? Wouldn’t cost nothin’, and acts of abject fatalism are, you know, my sort of thing. A specialty, even.

So fine, let’s see now, turn off the power, depress the eject button, then power up, and wait…

It worked.

Instantly, and completely, it worked. Upon following the steps, the front panel of the Levinson lit up with big block letters saying CALIBRATE, and then the unit autonomously rolled the drawer in and out a couple of times before pronouncing itself done and happy. Swear to God, you could practically hear the frigging thing emit a contented little sigh. All better! Whew! Thanks, buddy, I needed that.

Now, you need but feather-touch the eject button, and out the drawer slides, no worries. Another light touch, and back she glides, smoothly and unerringly. Time after time. Every frigging time. It’ll slide in and out quite happily all day, if you want. 

So there it sits, in my third floor rack, looking at me balefully and all but asking me out loud, “Hey, when do you take me back downstairs?” As if. As if that wouldn’t be a huge effort. As if I have it in me to do a second transplant procedure, just like that. As if it isn’t physically and spiritually draining to horse the 50 pound Levinson up and down four flights of stairs (don’t drop it!), and then undertake all that exquisite wiring and unwiring. You think I exaggerate? Here, let me show you something – and note, this isn’t my main stereo. This isn’t even my secondary, third floor stereo. This is just the auxiliary recording complex I have next to my computer:

Those are all wired and cross-wired together. Here’s the block digram:

What do you suppose it would take to haul one of those boxes out of the middle of the pile, and replace it with another one, bearing in mind that each weighs from 25 to 50 pounds, and I only have two hands?

I could weep just thinking about it.

Feeling all better are we, M.L.? Good, good. When are you going back home? I don’t know, buddy. Sorry. I just don’t know.

2 comments on “The Agony of Audiophilia (Cont’d)

  1. Just love your story! Reminded me of my father, who was equally interested in best-sound quality back when the only speakers that could deliver were at least a foot across – so he built huge (gorgeous) speaker cabinets to hold 4 of them, and in the middle was the reel-to-reel and phonograph table, top quality. He then invited his buddies who got busy recording and dubbing in. It certainly was a good way to listen to Carmen before my mother took me to the Lyric Opera for my 12th birthday. Johnny Mathis and Bob Dylan’s first album sounded great too, in our living room of the 60’s.


    1. graemecoffin says:

      I, too, maintain a much-loved reel-reel machine!


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