Domestic audio is based on two simple processes: transforming movement into electricity and electricity back into movement. Easy peasy.
Audio engineers have been doing those things for ages. Have they improved their craft to the same extent as the people who, over the same period of time, earned their livings making, say, automobiles and pharmaceuticals? I don't know. But if it were possible to spend an entire day driving a new car from 50 years ago, treating diabetes and erectile dysfunction with the treatments that were available 50 years ago, and listening to 50-year-old records on 50-year-old playback gear, the answer might seem more clear.
If you travel along Route 20 in upstate New York, you might see the hitchhiker my family and I refer to as the Old Soldierso called because this slightly built man, whose age could be anywhere from 55 to 90, is always dressed in a military uniform from some long-ago campaign. When we first saw him, his topcoat suggested a recent return from Chateau-Thierry; in more recent sightings, the old man has taken to wearing the trim khakis and sharply creased legionnaire cap of the late 1940schronological zigzagging that made me think, at first, that this traveler was aging in reverse.
Memory mitigates adversity.Lucius Lactantius (ca 240ca 320 AD)
Pity the aging perfectionist, the happy diversions of whose younger dayswashing records, oiling turntables, leveling equipment racks, cleaning tube pinshave now become hated chores. And this from a man who used to redo his Roksan Xerxes setup every few months, just for "fun."
Whether the subject is hi-fi equipment, films, restaurants, power tools, or condoms (see the April 2005 "Listening"), reviewing should be off-limits to the perennially unhappy. I'm reminded of that dictum by the flap over the recent film Identity Thief, which was savaged by reviewer Rex Reednot because the film is weak, but because its star, Melissa McCarthy, is heavy. Reed, whose career as the Paul Lynde of film reviewing was punctuated by a starring role in a flop called Myra Breckenridge, mentioned in his review McCarthy's size not once but numerous times, thus exposing himself as a bullying hack who wields his harshest criticisms not when they are merited but as unconscious expressions of his own personal anguish. Hate speech of any sort is the crayon of the unhappy; that is doubly true of people who write for a living.
Volti Audio's Vittora, a borrowed pair of which now sit at the far end of my listening room, is a great loudspeaker and, at $17,500/pair, a seriously great value. After a few weeks with the Vittora, I find myself convinced by the naturalness, momentum, and force that it found in every record I played: This is surely one of the finest horn-loaded speakers made in the US.
The closest I've come to airing my thoughts about live vs recorded music was in the "As We See It" of the December 2005 Stereophile, "Resistance Is Futile," in which I put as many miles between the two as I could. I described live performances as works of art that exist only at the time and place of their making, variables from which their ultimate impact can never be separated; and music recordings as works of art in their own right, albeit ones that require a great deal more from the listener in order to succeed to their fullest. People respond more positively to live music not because it sounds more real, but because they understand, consciously or not, that any performance is a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Swiss Precision: The Story of the Thorens TD 124 and Other Classic Turntables (2007), by Joachim Bung (reviewed in April 2008) also tells the story of Fritz and Marie Laeng, the couple who founded Lenco, Switzerland's other turntable company. Thanks in equal parts to Fritz's engineering talents and Marie's business acumenher idea to sell turntables through a popular book-and-record club is remembered as the company's turnaround pointLenco swiftly became one of the most successful and well-regarded makers of hi-fi turntables through the 1960s and early '70s. Then, almost as swiftly, Lenco went from having three factories in two countries to vanishing from the scene with scarcely a trace . . . but that's another story for another day.
Monday, January 14, was a difficult day for the abandoned amusement park that is my body. In the morning, I packed two Lamm ML2.2 amplifiers into their wooden crates and wrestled them outside for collection by some unlucky air-freight courier. After that, I backed up my car to the tiny front porch of our house so I could unload a pair of 1966 Altec Valencia loudspeakers I'd collected the day before: in excess of 100 pounds each, just like the crated Lamms, but considerably larger.
Beethoven understood the pathos of the gap between idea and realization, and the sense of strain put on the listener's imagination is essential.Charles Rosen
Bass, like sex, is something most young men desire in excess: To the novice, quantity trumps quality, and as long as he can hear from his playback system the deepest sounds of an orchestral bass drum or five-string electric bass (low string tuned to B-0 or C-1), he is completely satisfied.
Let's say you're lucky enough, or just plain old enough, to have bought a copy of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood on January 12, 1966. Let's say you're lucky enough or just plain smart enough to have held on to it and kept it in perfect shape for the past 47 years. And let's say it was one of the first 500 copies, which the author signed. If so, congratulations: For once in your life, even the smuggest collector can't claim that his copy of a book is "better" or more valuable than yours.
Sad though they may be, Flat Earthers endure in getting two things right: In any music-playback system, the source is of primary importance; and in a music system in which LPs are the preferred medium, the pickup arm is of less importance than the motor unitbut of greater importance than just about everything else.
By the end of last month's column I'd invested a total of $290 in acquiring and refurbishing a 55-year-old Rek-O-Kut Rondine Jr. turntable. In the weeks that followed I spent just a few dollars more on some small partsone of which sprang from a technology that I don't believe existed in the 1950sthat made small but welcome improvements in the performance of this outwardly simple player. I'll come back to those improvements in a moment, but for now let's get started on putting Junior back together again.
For the qualities I most value in a music systemimpact, substance, texture, color, and, above all, the ability to play lines of notes with a realistic sense of momentum and flowthe venerable Garrard 301 and similar well-made turntables with powerful motors and idler-wheel drive are the sources to beat. Unfortunately, good-condition samples of the Garrard 301 and 401, the Thorens TD 124, and any number of exotic EMTs have become scarce and ever more expensive.