The Persistence of Vinyl

“Audiophiles don’t use their equipment to listen to your music. Audiophiles use your music to listen to their equipment.” — attributed, possibly erroneously, to “Dark Side of the Moon” engineer Alan Parsons

I don’t think of myself as an audiophile, I prefer to think of myself as an enthusiast. Most of my gear is really old. I don’t buy new stuff very often, and when I do it’s chosen carefully and at a really good price. But saying that, I’m reminded of a friend at a Star Trek convention who once pointed at someone he knew wearing a Spock costume with pointed ears and he said, “I’m not a fanatic, he’s a fanatic.” He said that while dressed as Captain Kirk, with his hair suitably combed.

But back to hi-fi. Long ago I tried, and eventually gave up, getting excited about CD players. My first, an inexpensive Philips-Magnavox unit, lasted maybe a year. A more expensive Sony CD player was better built, and it was much faster at loading, playing, and scanning, but then one day it stopped working.

So I thought maybe a high-end deck with superior dual D-to-A converters and a top-of-the-line output stage would sound better and maybe even last longer. Wrong! The two really expensive models I bought were demo units — a Sony ES and a Pioneer Elite. The Sony failed after a couple of years, and that was when I got the Elite, and it also broke after a few years. On top of that, I can’t say either one sounded particularly superior to what I’d used before. New or used? Didn’t matter. Expensive or cheap? Didn’t matter. So I gave up on chasing a “better” CD player and decided that they are, like VCR’s, a disposable commodity. I feel the same way about computers.

I should stop here and explain the exception. The thing the more expensive players did better than the cheap ones. I was at a high-end hi-fi store in Cambridge, MA, listening to a CD on a pair of then-new Spica TC-50’s that I’d read about in Stereophile Magazine. As a piece of music faded out, I asked the salesman, “Hear that? You hear what’s happening? There’s a grainy sound drifting from right to left. What is that?” He had no idea what I was talking about, so I used the A-B repeat button, and after a few times he heard what was very obvious to me and my big ears. “I don’t know what that is,” he admitted. Later, in another magazine (I think it was the late Leonard Feldman’s now-defunct “Audio”), reviews of CD players began to include a “fade to black test.” Cheap D-to-A converters had poor low-level linearity. That was the noise I had heard. The Sony ES and Pioneer Elite didn’t have that problem, so I was right about the value of superior D-to-A converters, in at least one regard.

I loved the styling and build quality of the Pioneer Elite. It felt solid and luxurious, like a German sports car, so when it started to sputter and screw up like the Sony ES had I made an effort to see what the problem was by opening it up and taking a look. The tray worked fine, the disc started playing, but then after a while the laser began skipping all over the place. A lens cleaning disc didn’t help. Maybe the focusing chip was failing? Whatever was wrong, it wouldn’t be an easy or inexpensive or even guaranteed fix. I was so disgusted I taped the remote on top and donated it to a flea market at an annual charity event in town, with a note that said, “NEEDS WORK.” Here is an example of one, from an eBay auction, of course:

Pioneer Elite PD-73 CD player

So this takes me back to my project that I still haven’t started yet, replacing the belts in my Sony CDP-CX335 300-disc carousel. I bought the thing at Best Buy because it could hold 300 discs. No other reason. If the carousels were still made I’d buy a new one, but they aren’t so I’ll give the repair a try and, heck, I’m retired. Fortunately, Sony sells the belts required to fix the thing. It’s going to be a complicated job, but in a way I’m looking forward to tackling it.

Meanwhile, I’m having a lot of fun with my LP record collection, and I’m waiting not only for the re-issued Holst Planets LP, but for a new phono cartridge to be delivered. It’s the Grado Prestige Green, one of the models covered in this video series. This guy is a blast! He captures the spirit of what’s good about this crazy hobby, and about YouTube as well.

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Blog of Douglas E. Pratt

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