I recently stepped into the home of a man who owns an incredibly impressive audio system sitting front and center in his living room. He had the largest set of speakers I have ever seen outside of a commercial establishment. Overkill? Perhaps, but they were a thing of beauty, encased in custom-made teak cabinets which in turn matched the modern Scandinavian decor of his home furnishings.
Those speakers dwarfed everything else in the room, making it clear that the enjoyment of music is the most important thing to this man. If he owned a TV it was placed elsewhere. This particular room was all about the music.
What was missing for me, however, were the components into which his speakers were connected. I saw nothing to adjust the volume, pop in a CD, etc. It was just those amazing looking speakers and nothing else.
I didn’t actually know this man. I was only in his home because I was with a friend who was dropping off some paperwork. But as the two of them completed their business, I had a chance to ask him where the rest of his stereo components were. He absolutely delighted in answering me. He pulled out his phone, brought up some kind of an app, and punched in a few keystrokes. Within seconds Sarah Vaughn’s exquisite “Lover Man” filled the air. It sounded beautiful and the room’s acoustics were terrific.
The man explained that all of his music is digital and loaded on some kind of software similar to iTunes but apparently much more advanced. He showed me how he can create playlists on the fly by artist, genre, year recorded, etc. From an automation standpoint it was impressive. But for an old-fashioned audiophile like me? It was disappointing. Still, I was a guest in his home, and so I lavished praise on his system and congratulated him. The speakers were to die for after all.
But no dials, knobs or buttons? No big headphone jack in the bottom corner? And most important, no turntable playing that warm analog sound? I looked at this man who obviously spent a fortune on this system, and all I could do was pity him.
This, from someone whose only current sound system is two tabletop radios (albeit one is satellite) and a Sears Silvertone transistor clock radio, circa 1966. Talk about reverse snobbery.
It wasn’t always this way, though. I once had a beautiful stereo system with a Mcintosh preamp¹, Marantz receiver, Garrard turntable, Teac reel-to-reel, and standalone Advent floor speakers. The speakers were Advent /1‘s, which perhaps would make the above man pity me with his own reverse snobbery. I remember how they took all summer to pay for on “the drip” at the Gramophone, a former high-end stereo store in Birmingham, Michigan. I absolutely loved their sound.
Eventually that stereo was sold along with so many other possessions prior to a big west coast move to California about 15 years ago. The theory was that I would buy a newer, more modern system which would integrate with the TV and other video devices. In practice what happened is that we bought a flat screened TV and a DVR that was added by the cable company. CD’s were played using a Wave radio or in the car. There was no integration.
I’ve been without a full-fledged stereo ever since.
But that’s only one part of the tragedy. The real calamity is the near death of my record collection.
Sometime around 1986 or so, I began making the transition to compact discs. To make matters worse, I started to replace everything I had once owned on vinyl and buying it on CD instead. Vinyl records by the carton and box were taken to used record stores and sold for nickels on the dollar. Except for a few sentimental favorites or rarities which I fortunately did keep, the lion share of my records are gone. What I have now is a pittance compared to the original collection.
‘What was I thinking?!“ doesn’t even begin to come close to the remorse I feel for that misguided decision. I spent many happy hours staring at Roger Dean’s artwork on all the Yes albums, the famous Sgt. Pepper cover created by Peter Blake and Jann Haworth, and that cool poster tucked inside the White Album. Album covers have it all over the CD case for sheer beauty and trivia.
Later when I attended college, I learned how useful having a double-album was for cleaning… oh, never mind. That was a long time ago.
My poor dad never really quite understood precisely what I actually did at college. Each fall we would pack up my possessions in the car to return to campus, and a good 70% of the trunk and back seat space was taken up by stereo components and milk crates full of albums. I think I maybe had two small suitcases of clothes, one box of study supplies, and perhaps a razor and some tooth paste.
My priorities were clear and it sure as hell wasn’t the academic curriculum. Or apparently how I looked.
Fast forward to today, more than anything else what I miss about vinyl is that glorious sound. There’s a warm richness in those analog recordings, which for me anyway, beats the digital format. Yes, I enjoy the convenience of playing CD’s in my car, having music on my phone, and joining the six other people in the country who also still use an iPod. Small and light is good.
But I now realize just how much more wonderful that earlier sound was. Yeah, sure, there were “snap, crackle, and pop” hisses in those record grooves. And indeed, we did all celebrate the supposed end of that format when CD’s were introduced. I just think in hindsight that those blemishes are now more of a comfort than a hindrance.²
Recently, to my delight and utter surprise because it happened so fast, Gorgeous and I put in on a successful offer for a new home (more on this in a later post). We are now facing lots of paperwork for the mortgage, arranging for home and termite inspections, and transferring funds from this account to that account. While she is thinking all about furniture, rugs, kitchen cabinets, light fixtures, etc., all I can think about is the later purchase of that vintage stereo system, and where in this new place I’ll be putting it.
Oh, and also the purging lots of lots of CD’s to be replaced with vinyl versions. I’ll forgo the milk crates this time, if I know what’s good for me anyway. I suspect they probably won’t pass the feng shui test.
In honor of the upcoming Record Store Day, I want to highlight two of my favorite bloggers who each devote nearly all of their posts to the beauty of vinyl. They are worth your taking the time to drop by their blogs and checking them out.
Bruce Jenkins at Vinyl Connections lives in Australia and has a huge and varied interest of pretty much every musical genre. Just when I think I know everything about an artist or group, he’ll offer an entire facet about which I was completely unaware. He also occasionally gets off-topic and writes about his earlier life with tales of school, early jobs, etc. He’s fun to read.
Thom Hickey is the blogger at The Immortal Jukebox. Thom doesn’t just write about how much he likes artists, he actually researches their life, where they lived, and the influences and cultural heritages that shaped their music. The reader ends up not just learning about the legacy of a musician, but also the human(s) behind their songs. Thom lives in England, but probably knows more about Detroit, Memphis, New York, New Orleans, and so many other American musical capitals than some of the actual residents of those cities. His posts are always a treat.
So move over Stella, and get yer ya-ya’s out. It’s time to boogie.
Until next time…
¹ Technically the preamp was completely unnecessary since by this time (circa 1979), receivers were more than capable of providing the necessary amplification and power needed for most audio components. So why did I have it? It was cool looking.
² If you need a more technical commentary on the differences between CD’s and vinyl, you can find it here.