In a perfect world, all a serious record lover would need to enjoy music at home would be a single source component, one or two loudspeakers, and one good integrated amplifier. Speaker wire would be given by the dealer, free of charge, to any shopper who spent x number of dollars on new gear. Cable risers would come in cereal boxes.
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.
In late 1996, as Listener magazine entered its third year of existence, the Spendor SP100 became my reference loudspeaker, and would remain so for a considerable time. My decision to try the SP100 was influenced by John Atkinson's review of its antecedent, the nearly identical Spendor S100, in the December 1991 issue of Stereophile. But my purchase decision came down to two things: The SP100 did virtually everything one could ask a modern loudspeaker to do, requiring in the process far less amplifier power than usual. Just as important at the time, it sold for only $3300/pairwhich explains how I could afford them on the spotty salary of a teacher turned fledgling publisher.
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.
Loudspeakers have been commercially available for nearly a century, yet those whose drive-units are mounted to baffles of intentionally limited width didn't appear in significant numbers until the 1980s. That seems a bit strange, given that the technology to transform large boards into smaller boards has existed since the Neolithic era.
Apart from a 2004 column in which I made cruel fun of the angriest (footnote 1) complaints I'd received to that pointan entertaining if lazy template I hope to re-use before longI've done little to acknowledge the mail I receive every week, most of it thoughtful and positive. I'm especially grateful for the nice letters I get every time I write about vintage audio, as I did in Stereophile's August issue ("Five vintage loudspeakers you should hear before you die"): The art of music is best served by an open-minded approach to playback gear, and I'm encouraged to think that some Stereophile readers actually understand that.
I can imagine the gaiety and mirth that filled the halls of the electronics industry in the 1950s, as engineer after bespectacled engineer realized that the transistor would soon consign to the outposts of oblivion those ancient technologies that had preceded it. Before longsurely no more than a decadethe hated vacuum tube would vanish from the Earth, along with the tube socket, the tube tester, the tag board, the high-voltage rail, and that lowest rascal of them all, the output transformer. What a jubilant time!
The next-to-the-last demonstration I heard at RMAF 2012 was among the two or three most impressive. Doing business as Volti (it means to move forward) Audio, Maine resident Greg Roberts builds horn loudspeakers that seem to embody both the superb craftsmanship and musical impact of America's finest vintage-audio products. His newest, the Vittora ($15,000/pair), is a three-way loudspeaker with a horn-loaded 15" bass driver, horn-loaded 2" compression driver for the midrange, and horn-loaded 1" compression driver for the treble, with passive crossover networks, stepped attenuators for the mids and trebles, and an all-plywood cabinet in a choice of veneers. Based on a brief audition with EMM Labs digital source components and a BorderPatrol S20 single-ended 300B amp ($13,750), I can only say that the Vittora is, if anything, underpriced. My first question to Mr. Roberts was, "Who do I have to kill to borrow a review pair?"; we're still working out the details. . .
Hawaii-based Emerald Physicsa company I hadn't heard of until RMAF 2012demonstrated their own US-built loudspeakers and electronics with a Peachtree Audio novaPre preampD/A converter playing music files from a laptop computer. Emerald's CS2P open-baffle loudspeaker ($2990/pair) works as a dipole below 1000 Hz, with a 15" woofer and a horn-loaded 1" tweeter. The retail price of the system I heard, including the Peachtree unit; the Emerald Physics CS2P loudspeakers; Emerald's DSP2.4 active outboard crossover/EQ unit ($850); and the company's EPI100.2 100Wpc digital amplifier ($1600) was under $7000, not including computer and playback software. While far from perfectthe bass wasn't especially taut, and there was little in the way of the sorts of texture and tone I cravethe performance was clean, spacious, and satisfying.