I'm going to take a little detour this morning into one of my other hobbies, jazz....
Well, not jazz exactly. Something related to jazz. Specifically, the gearhead side of audio, or at least a subcategory of it. Partly because I think it relates to a couple of questions that have come up here on T.O.P. in the past few days, and partly because I'm just...preoccupied.
To begin with, I thought I'd explain the origin of the "Befriend a Forgotten Camera Challenge," which you can see the first fruits of here. A day or two before I posted that, y'see, I bought a new toy.
Well, an old toy, actually. And not literally a toy. I bought a rebuilt Marantz "silverface" receiver from the 1970s, the era of my youth. (This is a generic picture, courtesy of classicaudio.com.) I did it on impulse, and I sort of, well, shocked myself. Did I need such a thing? No, absolutely not. Why'd I do it? Because it seemed like it would be...fun, I guess. That, and it was cheap.
If you suspect nostalgia (once amusingly described as "annoying armchair narcissism"), you're probably perfectly correct. When I was 15, the same age my son is now, I worked all summer cutting grass (at $2.50 to $5.00 per lawn) and bought a Marantz 2015, which was subsequently my pride and joy. Unfortunately, it "broke" in college. "Bad cap," said the tech at the local fix-it shop. (Remember fix-it shops?) I had no idea what "bad cap" meant, other than that when he said it, he spoke in a sad, slow voice. Maybe that was just the way he talked. He wanted $30 to fix it, and, alas, I didn't have $30 (alas, a lack). So I sold my previously beloved 2015 to an older cousin, who paid to have it fixed and then put it in a cabinet in her home and used it for playing "easy listening" music* in the background all day.
Twenty years later I visited her and...same music, same receiver, still playing night and day except when she went on vacation. Wow. Good cap.
For me, it's all been downhill since I sold that Marantz. (I have a secret belief that everybody's best stereo is the first good one they buy, and everybody's favorite camera is the one they used the most when they were the youngest.) Anyway, there are sure a lot of old Marantzes to choose from—dozens of models, starting at well under $100 on Ebay. You can also find them at garage sales and Goodwills and flea markets. There are enthusiast websites in the audio world too, naturally, just like there are in photography, where you can parse all the offerings and read peoples' opinions. There's the popular model (2270), the super-duper models (2285 and 2325), and the obscure models the collectors go after—guys who have forty old receivers in racks in their basements and are looking for that elusive rarity. It's not as bad as old Leicas or Japanese rangefinders, but it's the same cult of activity. (Sorry, I meant to type kind of activity.)
Me, I didn't have too much trouble deciding. I always wanted a 2225. Why? Well, because it was one I aspired to but couldn't afford back then. (I didn't cut enough lawns.) What's adulthood for, if not to achieve teenage aspirations?
I bought my Marantz 2225 from a guy named Robert Bowdish, who lives in Grass Valley, California. He's working on it this week, or next. Rob, whom I don't know past a few emails, has a website called irebuildmarantz.com. He, um, rebuilds Marantzes. He does the work part time, but he's been getting what he calls "amazing" response to his work and his website from Marantz silverface aficionados the world over.
To perform a rebuild, he replaces all the capacitors, hand-resolders every circuit board, replaces the old lamps with new LEDs, replaces the speaker protection relay, cleans every contact, switch, connector, potentiometer and slip contact, performs all factory service modifications (plus a few of his own), then does testing and burn-in. As he says on his website, "I was so amazed at the improvement in sound after performing several restorations on my own Marantz gear, it became clear to me that others had to hear their Marantz gear this way, too."
Anyway, that old Marantz is a pure indulgence for me. I know that. Rampant, unregenerate nostalgia. I sit at my computer most of the day, so I mostly listen to MP3's and Apple lossless files on my computer speakers. It's not music we're talking about here, really...it's, well, fun. I figure I'll either have lots of fun with the Marantz and enjoy it immensely, or it will quickly establish itself as proof of a mid-life crisis and six weeks from now I'll be staring at it wondering what in the hell I was thinking. Jury's still out on that one. (I'll let you know what I think when Rob's done with mine and I've actually listened to the thing.)
At least it was cheap. Extremely cheap, if you compare it to what they want for decent-quality audio gear these days. When the commercial photography market collapsed in 1991, I moonlighted briefly as a salesman in a high-end audio salon on weekends. The entry-level, cheap-but-decent brand we carried was called Creek, made in England by a talented designer named Mike Creek. When I hunted up the current Creek top-of-the-line model, I discovered to my surprise that they want $2,300 for it. The next one down goes for $1,600. Times have changed.
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I paid Rob about double what an unrestored 2225 one goes for, but it was still a small amount compared to a new Creek. I don't know how he manages to pay his time, what with the extensive amount of work that obviously goes into his rebuilds—never mind payment for his expertise. Maybe the market just won't allow him to charge more. Whatever, for all that expert work, it's a screaming bargain. (Good thing I don't have a wife to weigh in on that matter. As it is, I can almost hear a phantom wife being sarcastic.)
As you might know if you've been reading me for a long time, I'm philosophically in favor of the restoration of nice old stuff, even if it doesn't make strict economic sense. I once bought a $5 pair of pants at a thrift store and paid $40 to have them tailored. I don't mind taking a $60 Spotmatic and treating the old girl to a $175 CLA, even if I can get a technically "better" camera elsewhere for the same $235. (If I want a Spottie, I want a Spottie. And if I want a Spottie I want a proud, buff Spottie lubricated in all the right places, not some bedraggled flea market refugee.) Sometimes, old stuff deserves respect. That's my take.
So anyway, I figured I'd encourage people to do with old cameras what I did with the old receiver—just pick up something purely for fun and try it.
Are you like me? Do you feel...well, lucky when you find yourself in the grip of a new enthusiasm? I've gone just a little nuts lately immersing in the lure and lore of "vintage" audio. Back to cameras again, that was my goal with the challenge. I've had a lot of fun with old cameras over the years, and I figure if one out of a hundred, or one out of fifty readers make a personal voyage of discovery with a pawnshop or flea market camera and have an experience they find memorably fun, well, my work is done. Having fun is what it's really all about.
'A thing of beauty is a toy forever'
So anyway, it turns out that that Marantz was just the beginning. If the silverface Marantz is just a lark, bought for nostalgia and because it was cheap, then what should I feed it?
A turntable seems natural. I've got a closet full of old LPs, after all.
And this is where I find myself looped back into a familiar old dilemma, a true shopping conundrum. Where turntables are concerned, I'm remarkably...stuck. I'm in a situation that's almost silly, but that has proved amazingly resistant to getting solved.
You see, I already have a perfectly good turntable. Perfectly good on paper, at least. I spent a pretty penny on it back when I had a real job. It's just that for some
reason I've never taken to it. It's called a VPI HW-19 Jr. I bought it new, with
a special-order walnut base (I have a thing for walnut) and an upgraded Mk. III platter...both added, I admit, for looks. The model I bought has a crude, basic suspension (it involves nothing more than a slab of MDF perched on a few Sorbothane pucks), and for some reason it has just never sounded
very good to me—not as lively as the Rega-style el-cheapo deck it
replaced. I keep thinking, maybe it's because it's unsuspended, maybe
it's the arm (AQ PT-8, essentially a rebadged Jelco SA-250ST with a silver phono cable), maybe it's the cartridge (Goldring 1042 MM). Maybe it's because the arm and cartridge don't go together. Who
knows? Having been an on-again, off-again audio enthusiast for 36 years now,
it's been permanently established that I'm never going to completely understand the mystery at the heart of turntables, the guild secrets of which are as arcane as any ancient Masonic ritual.
I was told when I bought it that the VPI was "infinitely upgradeable" at any time. New suspension, new this, new that, no problem, no problem. Anything you want, any time you want it. So I planned to acquire the proper suspension upgrade in due course. Naturally, Murphy's law being what it is, right after I bought it the company that made it stopped supporting it.
So now, every time I think about getting a new arm for it, I first look at the daunting prices for new arms. Starting at $395 for an entry-level Rega RB300, which of course might not even be better than what I have—and the prices go up precipitously from there. (My dream is to find a Technics EPA-100 tonearm on an old Technics SL-1000 turntable in a thrift store, for next to nothing. Then I wake up.) Next I think, well, what's the point in getting a new arm if I don't have the sprung suspension with the separate armboard? But then I look into getting the suspension parts to upgrade it to full Mk. III status, and pretty much everybody agrees that the only way to do that is to buy a used Mk. III (for a minimum of $500 and probably significantly more) and strip the parts I need. That seems silly too. Or at least wasteful. Or at least redundant.
So then I think about selling it and starting over. At that point I research the going prices for HW-19 Jr.'s and calculate the smallish fraction it represents of what I've got sunk into the thing.
I've even considered parting it out. It might actually be worth more that way. I'm just not sure of the morality of that, though. What does the Law of Stuff say? Is there a "thou shalt not desecrate a perfectly good working turntable" carved on the stone tablets somewhere? Still, it would certainly ease my pain somewhat to lose, say, 45% of my investment instead of 70%.
At the end of this process, I always conclude it's cheaper to keep 'er, and I do nothing.
See what I mean? There's not even a good way to get rid of this thing.
I go through this thought process over and over again. Same thought process, each time. Same conclusion, each time. (Metaphor of skipping record too easy.)
So now it sits there, balefully, atop my equipment table, like a high-maintenance trophy wife...gorgeous and sexy but cold-hearted, and getting very little in the way of attention. (I'm assuming all the women in the audience stopped reading this piece long before they made it this far, so I'm not offending anybody.) My point is, where's the fun in a piece of gear that's supposed to be just for fun but just isn't fun?
The VPI has me trapped. I don't care for it, but I can't unload it, and I can't upgrade it. So what to do? Keep hoping I'll be able to buy the proper suspension parts someday? Pour more money into it in pursuit of the fading promise of its alleged delights? Bite my tongue and take the loss?
Long story short (unless it's already too late for that), I started thinking this weekend that maybe I could do the same thing with an old turntable that I did with the Marantz. Do an end-around on my turntable problem. I'm thinking I'll put the Marantz, a "new" vintage 'table, and some vintage speakers in the bedroom and use it as a second system. I'm sure I'll go on listening to my computer speakers most of the time. And if I really like the vintage turntable, maybe I'll get another, better one, and finally replace my VPI.
Does any of this sound familiar? Ever found yourself in a dilemma with stuff? But this is the other thing that relates to something that came up on the blog recently, namely, if you should love the camera you have or whether it's just a tool. I hope to be weighing in on that matter in these pages sometime soon.
Not so fast
Buying a vintage turntable, it turns out, is really seriously daunting when you get right down to it. I already have a hobby, so I'm not going to make a second hobby out of identifying which SME 3009 tonearm is which by trying to evaluate the size of the counterweight from a blurry Ebay photograph, or learning how to mount a Stax UA-7 to an AR XA, or figuring out how not to put a high-compliance cartridge in a low-compliance arm or vice versa. (I will never understand that damn "compliance" business. To match a cartridge to a tonearm, here's what I need: someone to tell me what goes together and what doesn't go together.) I'm not...confident about buying an old turntable. I'd like a nice bargain, sure, but I'd also like it to work right, and not be, unbeknownst to me, a dog that real initiates understand is the one awful variant in a line of nearly identical stellar models, or a great turntable with the wrong headshell on the tonearm, or one that has a missing "guide white" or a hair trapped in the bearing making everything sound awful, that sort of thing. The potential pitfalls are many and varied.
I realize a lot of people go through this with their photographic equipment, too. I feel like I'm reasonably well versed in photography. I do get bored of the technical stuff, but still, I know my way around. I'd rate myself as maybe an 8 or 9 in terms of general expertise. (There are very few true 10's because almost everybody ends up specializing in certain areas they're interested it, to the inevitable neglect of others. The more of an expert you are in one area of knowledge, the less likely it is that your expertise in all other areas will come up to that same level.) But stereo gear ranks as maybe fourth or fifth on my list of hobby/enthusiast interests, and my expertise is maybe a 4 or 5—I read the magazines and I know my way around the subject much better than the average man on the street, but it's not my main hobby and there's an awful lot I don't know. I'm sure there are lots of people who read T.O.P. to whom photography is a lot like audio is to me—a persistent interest and a source of satisfaction, but their second or third or fourth hobby rather than the most important thing in the world to them, and their expertise is a 4 or a 5 rather than an 8 or 9. I sympathize.
Maybe I need an expert, like Rob. I should look for a guy who can sell me an old but reconditioned turntable
for twice or three times the price of the same piece as an Ebay or
garage sale bargain. To me it's worth it to have somebody vet it first
before it gets into my hands. Somebody who knows its a good model,
knows where all the parts are supposed to go, knows it has the right
headshell etc., knows what carts work with it properly, and can tell me
how to set it up if it doesn't sound right. That's worth a lot.
About that crack above about the sarcastic phantom wife? Audio as a hobby is even more relentlessly male than photography is (98% vs. maybe 85%), but every now and then a spouse is heard from out of the background. Here's a line that made me laugh: I was poking about in the archives of an audio forum last Sunday and I came across a long, lively explanation from a friendly-sounding fellow who talked about salvaging a tonearm from one turntable to mount on another, which, it turned out, he'd done multiple times. I found it very interesting. Then at the very end, he closed with: "...This is just my 2 cents and my wife says I should mention that I am nuts."
To which I can only say: bro'.
*Not easy for me!
Featured Comment by Graham Miles: "Mike, your thoughts make me wonder if photography and audiophilia do go hand-in- hand, since both have been alternating passions for me over the years. My first camera was an OM-1 and my first serious hi-fi a Hafler/Rogers/Linn combination. As I was seduced by digital, the analogue sound and film cameras were discarded; replaced by a Nikon D70S and Creative/Ipod clone that pumps infinitely variable playlists around the house. What came as a pleasant surprise was returning to my near dormant reference system which sat in the living room gathering dust; it's an exotic British CD player that feeds music into a pair of single-ended tube amps that are hard pushed to reach 5 watts per channel. Silver cables and high-efficiency speakers complete the setup. My hearing is fading due to age, so I had let this system go dormant in favor of the background music of the mp3 player. Then recently, I picked up a cheap music streamer from Netgear. No longer available it came for less than $40. I could attach it as a source to my tube amps and have access to all the music on my PC. Since I had ripped the stuff at a decent bit-rate, I thought it might sound acceptable and sat down for a test run. I didn't get up for two hours, roughly at a point 10 minutes into Keith Jarrett's Köln Concert. I knew if I didn't tear myself away I would be stuck there all night. I had totally forgotten what this system could sound like and with a happy marriage between digital streaming and 70-year-old tube technology I was quite mesmerized by the experience. I still have the vinyl too. I know it has it's own special beauty. But I can resist it. Happy listening."
Mike replies: Digital source is where it's at both literally (i.e., because that's what everybody uses) and figuratively (because it's both very effective and very convenient). In fact, I think the Benchmark DAC1 (USB) is probably the Component of the Decade for the '00s, simply because it has a volume control, meaning it takes over the preamp function for your digital sources. I chose a cheaper alternative that does the same thing, which I wrote about here, and there are many more expensive USB DACs out there that don't include the volume control, so you need to run them into a conventional preamp.
The Benchmark DAC1 USB. Don't be fooled—it's tiny, only 9+ inches wide. Also available in silver.
You have to be a little careful buying a Benchmark DAC1, as there are three of them. The first is non-USB, and acts as a conventional DAC (digital-to-analog converter, or 1/2 of a conventional CD player, the other half being the disc transport—the part with the drawer that makes the disc spin). With that one, you connect your digital source using the digital-out function on your CD player or transport. The DAC1 USB adds USB connectivity so you can connect to your computer (and the Benchmark uses your computer's built-in drivers, so there's no messing with drivers to worry about). That's the one you want. The DAC1 USB also has the digital inputs for connecting your CD player or transport, of course. And they all have headphone jacks, so they're headphone amps as well.
The fact is, with a Benchmark DAC1 USB you don't need to run to computer speakers at all. You can put it between your computer and a stereo amplifier of any vintage or type (including your single-ended triode tube amps), thence to speakers of any description or location. When comparing the lovely convenience and excellence of a hard-drive based system to a vinyl-based one, the simplification to the end-user is really formidable: that little Benchmark unit replaces not only the line-level preamp, but the turntable and its isolation base, tonearm, cartridge, and the phono stage (since most stereo preamps don't come with that part nowadays). And assuming you're interested in getting the best out of vinyl, you'd have to include the speed-stabilizing electronics as well. The cheapest one of those I know of, for Pro-Ject's turntables, costs $160, and many are more expensive than that, some much more. If anyone thinks it's hard to connect the Benchmark their computer (it isn't—it's virtually plug 'n' play) or find a source for high-quality digital files that goes beyond MP4's and Apple lossless files from iTunes, I sympathize, but consider it in contrast to the difficulty of setting up a turntable and cartridge properly, and there's just no contest. It's like planning a six-city foreign vacation vs. planning a trip to the grocery store.
Vinyl vs. a hard-drive-based music system is very analogous to the difference between 8x10 contact prints and a high-quality digital SLR. Let's see, I can buy a very expensive, large, bulky camera that's difficult to master and has to be used on a tripod, where every shot is expensive and time-consuming to process and 500 exposures a year represents heavy shooting, or I can use a hand-holdable, high-speed camera where every individual exposure costs me nothing and takes no time to process (at least to get it to the stage where I can see it), and the sky's the limit in terms of exposures per year. You can argue all you want about the aesthetic advantages of the 8x10 contact print, but most peoples' choice is not only obvious, it's sensible.
Although I don't read much about this in the magazines (probably my fault, since I don't read all the magazines), audiophilia in general is probably at a crossroads right now. We've been arguing about source quality for 26 years now, since the CD came on the scene. The focus of that argument has usually been CD vs. vinyl, but I seem to remember that even before that, audiophiles were arguing over open-reel tape vs. vinyl, with vinyl usually the loser. What's happened now is that we've all taken for granted the Progress Fallacy—the tendency we humans have to assume that succession is advancement, and that things only improve—and we're assuming that the CD will be replaced by something better. The evidence suggests otherwise! SACD and DVD-A, which were a small but distinct improvement over Redbook CD, fizzled. (About like Quad sound in the '70s or, in photography, APS in the '90s.) Now the home-theater industry has settled on Blu-Ray, and Blu-Ray as a carrier for stereo music would be, as the kids used to say, totally awesome. Except it's not very likely that stereo audio on Blu-Ray is ever going to get here. Certainly, it's not arriving on the scene like CD did in the early '80s. I suspect that at best we'll have multichannel audio and mixed media with music thrown in as a sidelight or an afterthought. That's not what I want—I'm a stereo music listener, period. Don't have a home theater, and am not interested in multi-channel hoo-hah for music, even assuming there will be a decent selection of titles and that the source files would be skillfully implemented for music, neither of which I'm very optimistic about. What I'd like is for Blu-Ray as a stereo music carrier to totally take over from CD, giving me a digital carrier that is better than CD, better than "vinyl done right," better than open-reel tape, etc.—but I won't be holding my breath.
No, the future of audio content appears to be downloading—even for audiophiles. Presumably, as bandwidth goes up, there's no reason why content providers can't make really high-quality music files available, for a price, to those who really want them. There's already a smattering of CD-quality downloads available, but there's no reason to stop there. I predict that in ten years, we'll either be downloading huge, glorious music files over the tubes of the internets, or we won't be getting really high-quality source material at all.
One thing's for sure—the future is not vinyl records, no matter how nostalgic we might or might not feel. But one more thing—you might have noticed that earlier I said there were three Benchmark DAC1's, but I only mentioned two of them. What's the third? Well, it's called the Benchmark DAC1 Pre—and what's so different about it is that it adds a pair of analog inputs! Naturally you still need a phono stage—that's not built in—but the analog inputs allow you to use the Benchmark with a turntable. So as long as you can handle the physical siting of all your equipment (which might not be trivial), you could use a DAC1 Pre as a single preamp for a system that includes your computer, your CD player, and a turntable.
Back to the future!
Original contents copyright 2008 by Michael C. Johnston. All Rights Reserved.