Listening #141 Page 2

All three of us were delighted. Not only do we love that song; it was one of the numbers performed this year by my clarinet-playing daughter's high school marching band (really!). But afterward, when the deejay had moved on to the usual Mötley Leppard junk, I thought: We own that Led Zep album. Why didn't we just think to put it on—and get equally excited?

That's the thing about listening to music on the radio: Someone thought of it for us. It's exciting when someone else plays music that you know and enjoy. It's like when your father says he's going to take you out for ice cream—it's 1000 times better than just walking into the kitchen and taking a carton out of the freezer. Even if the stuff in the freezer is HÑagen-Dazs and the stuff at the drive-in is full of chemicals and air, the latter is a special kind of good.

So on one level, to write about radio is to write about the psychology of listening—an idea that applies equally well to every other playback medium. Yet on another level, radio enjoys a distinction that virtually no other recorded-music medium can boast: the potential to expose the listener to new material, and to coax the collector into coveting it. Here, broadcasting has surpassed even the printed word: It's one thing to read about an obscure recording—Charlie Parker's 1946 "Lover Man," the young John Coltrane's "Hot House" of the same year, John Lennon's first demo of the decidedly profane song that would become "Sexy Sadie," Jascha Heifetz's recording of Arthur Benjamin's Romantic Fantasy—and perhaps come away with a distorted idea of its worth. It's another thing entirely to hear it.

9114listen.2.jpg

Broadcast stations on which one can rely for such revelations are thin on the ground. I have, more than once, used this space to declare my love for Columbia University's WKCR—but the only way this country boy can regularly hear that New York City station is via the Internet. That's a shame, because decent-quality broadcasts sounded better through the 47 Laboratory Midnight Blue than MP3-quality Internet radio does through any USB digital-to-analog converter of my experience. The 4730 was clear and believably crisp without undue brightness, and while it didn't have the sweetness of, say, a McIntosh MR-65, it performed admirably with weak signals, ultimately pulling usably clean sound from a greater number of stations than the Tivoli Model One I normally use. And the 4730 looks a lot better, and was more fun to use.

Yoshi Segoshi of Sakura Systems, the company that distributes 47 Laboratory's products in the US, says that availability of the Model 4730 tuner is limited, given the relatively small number of variable capacitors ordered for its construction. Since I can think of no other currently manufactured tuner that is equally desirable—and, yes, my reckoning includes a notoriously expensive beast whose famous designer fails to inspire my confidence—perhaps Junji Kimura can be persuaded to order another batch.

Loving distortions
Here's something I used to know: I used to know that photographs of old people in their youth always look like old photographs. Baby pictures of old people are always black-and-white photos, often printed on paper with a scalloped edge. They tend to be little photos, too: For most people in those days, big prints were too expensive.

After that, every age has its own look, and every look has its own age. Undersaturated, hue-challenged color photos are from the 1950s. Oversaturated, ill-lit Polaroids are from the '60s. Those crazy-ass textured prints are from the '70s. Each look had its own distortions, and each had its charms.

But time doesn't linger as long as it used to. Recently I spent time visiting a family member at a senior living facility—one of the nicer ones, intended for people who are more or less independent. Everyone who lives there has his or her own apartment, and next to everyone's apartment door is a small bulletin board, whereon residents post photos of themselves, wedding photos being especially common. When I last wandered those halls, something made a lasting impression on me (I promise, this won't be one of those awful Family Circus–style ghost-grandma things): Some of the wedding photos looked jarringly modern to me. As it turns out, I am now old enough, and the technology of photography has sufficiently leveled out, that inter-era distinctions are narrower than before. I suppose the day will come when it will be difficult for the layperson to date an image based solely on the idiosyncrasies of the medium.

Then it occurred to me: In domestic audio, this sort of leveling-out happened longer ago. Every week, I hear a new-to-me music recording that was made in the 1940s or '50s, the realism of which has never been bettered.

A few weeks ago, my record-collecting friend Jeff Friedman brought over some LPs and 78s for one of our semiregular monopaloozas. About an hour into our listening session, he asked me to close my eyes while he put on a record that would, he believed, astonish me from here to next Sunday. I did as he asked, and within a few seconds I heard the familiar "One, two, three, four" that kicks off the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There"—but it had never sounded so forceful, present, and downright real. I opened my eyes to see that Jeff had, indeed, brought to my home an early UK copy of the Parlophone LP Please Please Me—in mono, of course. It sounded about three times as convincing, exciting, tactile, impactful, colorful, and engaging as the CD version from the collection The Beatles in Mono; the stereo version on my Capitol Meet the Beatles LP of the same album isn't even on the same planet.

Some folks would proclaim that, in comparison with any CD version of Please Please Me, Jeff's mono LP is distorted. Although it's an unusually clean copy, one can, at times, hear a trace of surface noise alongside the music. Its monaural mix—pressings of which sold, in their day, for up to a dollar less than stereo albums!—deprives the listener of the exciting spatial effects that some audio mavens consider the most important goal of a high-end audio system. It is also subject to wow, warp-wow, flutter, and varying degrees of tracing-error distortion—and if Stereo Review still existed, its writers would warn Jeff and me that Please Please Me and every other vinyl record in our possession will suffer drastic physical damage with each successive play (never mind that our decades of experience as record collectors and phonophiles have shown that that is horseshit). None of those distortions affect today's modern stereo CDs, which are perfect—except, of course, for the jitter, the inadequate word length, the inadequate sampling rate, the digital-filter–induced phase shift, the ineffectual error-correction, the delamination, the susceptibility to minor scratches and swirlmarks, and the polycarbonate cases that splinter when you look at them. Oh well.

Yes, everything distorts, and different things present different kinds of distortion. To accept or even embrace distortion is not to love it, but rather to understand that the technology of music recording and playback is a continuum—and a nonlinear one at that. Some find beauty in every bead on that string, while others pitch camp where they are happiest; either approach is fine.

ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
brenro's picture

Having grown up in that area I'm sad to see WOUR not mentioned. Having not lived there for several decades I don't know if they're still on the air or what they've morphed into but in the early seventies glory days of FM radio it was a truly awesome radio station.

otaku's picture

Is a great FM stereo receiver really any better than a decent HD Radio receiver?

Timbo in Oz's picture

The bit rates are very low, so no a HD rcvr can never sound as good as FM at its best can sound.

otaku's picture

After I made the post, I looked up the bit rates and you are probably right.

jmsent's picture

..Simply because no company has used one for well over 30 years. But custom designed? Who is going to make such a part with such a small production run? And what can be done to it that hasn't already been done? It's technology that was pretty much perfected by the 1930's. Such parts can be found in the inventory of many a surplus parts supplier, and given the design and construction of the adjacent pcb, the whole circuit strikes me as a fugitive from some old piece of low to midlevel audio gear. No tuner company worth its salt would put out something at this price point with a 3 gang tuning capacitor. Middle of the line 70's stereo receivers had at least 4 gangs, and upper line stuff had 5 or more. Each additional gang resulted in better selectivity and sensitivity. I'd love to hook up my old Sound Tech 1000A to it and check out its performance. Given what I see, my expectations would be low. Doesn't stop it from sounding good, as long as you're not in a crowded metro area, where the marginal selectivity and poor image rejection would likely overwhelm the thing.

jgossman's picture

I don't know much at all about tuner tech, but that this tuner doesn't look nearly as robust as what was found in nearly every silver faced Pioneer reciever of the 70's.

Which is not to say it doesn't sound excellent. Just that like much of 47 Labs gear, it looks a little chincy.

volvic's picture

I will reserve comment until I try it, don't doubt jmsent's observations but we don't see tuner reviews that often, think the last mention was last year and even that wasn't a full review. We have been fed a steady stream of DAC's and all things streaming most of which have frankly left me cold. I would have liked to have learned more about the quality of the tuner's sound; depth, imaging etc, vis a vis other models Naim Nait or Accuphase. But FM is so barely spoken off these days that it was nice to see a tuner review.

ChrisS's picture

Until I hear this tuner, I can only say that of the 47 Labs gear that I've had experience with, the sound and build quality is exquisite!

Lofty's picture

Aside from this 47Labs unit the only other new tuner design is the Bel Canto FM1. Bel Canto claims new implementations of dsp imbue this tuner with "superb analog output performance". Anyone know?

volvic's picture

A gorgeous looking tuner that reminds me of the early Naim Naits, have seen reviews - all positive, although they say very sensitive to antenna placement in one review. Have to go hear and compare.

Metalhead's picture

Looks nice, but I will take a Marantz 10B please, or maybe a tube McIntosh tuner!!!!

volvic's picture

Ok, then I will take a Burmester, or Naim Nat 1 or 2 olive. Have a Linn Kremlin but think either of those mentioned can best it.

mhardy6647's picture

I am very pleased to see a new (analog!) tuner at this late date!
In fact, I was extolling this new product in response to a cogent thread on the topic ("why so few AM/FM tuners on the US market") at www.audiokarma.org

I came back to peruse Mr. Dudley's Stereophile write-up to refresh my memory -- and only then did I notice the rather crude looking cabinet work on the first product photo in the column. Looks like a spray-painted Hammond box :-(

That's OK for homebrew but rather inexcusable, I'd opine, for a $1500 commercial, "boutique" product. That said, I would like to give 47Labs (famed as they are for their aesthetic sense as well as for sonics) the benefit of the doubt and assume that Art received a preproduction/"beta" sample!

Here's hoping...

Timbo in Oz's picture

To wit? - A good external 'multi-element' / 'directional antenna with gain' on the roof (or in the loft), and a rotator, and a rebuilt vintage tuner with better selectivity than 3 gangs can give and better indication of your tuning. And probably have enough over for someone install the antenna and cable, or DIY.

Is it a fashion item?! Because the only aspect of it that is high end is the price.

Luckily classical FM is fine down here, for the moment.

http://www.abc.net.au/radio/player/beta/#live/classic

Program guide?
http://www.abc.net.au/classic/music-listings/?date=2014-09-04

They still do live broadcasts using simple miking, too!