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.

Classical Music’s Gateway Drug

Until February 2 the logo picture in the upper left corner will be the cover of one of my all-time favorite records, a 1971 recording by the BSO of “The Planets” by the English composer Gustav Holst. I am surprised and pleased that Deutsche Grammophon is putting the LP back in print, and my pre-ordered copy will be here on Friday.

“The Planets” is categorized as a suite, and not a symphony, but for all practical purposes a symphony it is. I first heard the Steinberg BSO recording of “The Planets” at the start of my freshman year of college. My roommate Brad played his copy on my then-new Dynaco A25 speakers, and I was totally blown away, as the old saying goes.

The legendary Dynaco A25 speaker, made in Denmark.

I certainly wasn’t unfamiliar with Classical music, but I did not yet have any Classical records in my collection. The previous April I had been in Boston Symphony Hall for the first time — not for a BSO concert, but with my girlfriend to see Randy Newman, whose warm-up acts were Sandy Denny and Martin Mull!

With my girlfriend, the same month that we were in Boston Symphony Hall. Dig that crazy tux! She made her dress for the prom. I was handed a swatch of fabric and told to match it, so I did.

The suite was only 60 years old when I first heard it, and it was unlike any other symphonic music I had ever heard. “The Planets” inspired me to buy Classical records — on budget labels — almost exclusively for a while, including Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos and some Mozart Symphonies. Deutsche Grammophon isn’t a budget label, and for Christmas that year I requested my own copy of the Holst album. My mother worked in Concord, Massachusetts, and she bought a copy at a small record shop in the center of town. I was very excited and appreciative on Christmas morning, and I played the LP many times during the semester break.

Thanks in part to my generation’s embracing of “The Planets,” as well as the popularity of John William’s “Star Wars” score, Holst found his way into the standard symphonic repertoire. I still play my Christmas present from Mom, but those grooves have a lot of mileage on them, and I’m looking forward to having a new pressing. As YouTube sound quality goes, this transfer of an original copy of the LP is about as good as it gets. The record is in excellent condition, and the guy who posted it used a $700 Nagaoka MP-500 phono cartridge.

Caught in a Mechanical Rice Picker

I feel like Mr. Spock in “The City on the Edge of Forever.” Why? Because yesterday I had the first of at least two, and perhaps three, surgeries to remove melanoma skin cancer from my head.

A huge bandage, at least an inch thick, now covers the open wound, that the dermatologist said is “very large,” being about the size of a quarter. So I’m keeping a stocking cap handy, in case the doorbell rings, to cover my head. In a couple of weeks I will undergo plastic surgery to make myself more presentable.