Listening #73

I was walking through the woods one day when I happened on a large, flat rock near the base of an old ash tree. Conditioned as I am from such rambles with my daughter, whose interest in wildlife echoes that of my own childhood, I bent down and lifted one end of the rock, hoping to catch a glimpse of some exotic creature or another: perhaps a delicate ring-necked snake, or a plasticky-looking red eft. The rock came loose without too much effort and teetered on its broadest edge, but before I could let it flip to one side, I recoiled in horror: There, amid the millipedes and ant larvae, was a cluster of teeny-tiny, nasty-looking old men, writhing in such a tangle that I couldn't even count them. They were bespectacled, to a one, and mostly bald—I could tell quite easily, despite the berets worn by some of them—and each pair of feet was shod in a teeny-tiny pair of off-brand Birkenstock copies, with thin, shiny black socks underneath.

Needless to say, I was revolted.

They hissed and spit so violently—the little men, not the sandals—that their eyes bulged from their sockets, as spittle whipped from the ends of their repulsively long, red tongues. Though it was clear they were angry to see me, I couldn't tell if they were more vexed at being uncovered, or by the fact that they'd remained disuncovered for so long. Never mind: Before my thoughts on the matter could take form, the quarreling of the angry little men filled the afternoon air.

"That's not grunge, you moron—that's crackle. CEDAR won't remove crackle..."

"You're wrong! CEDAR is perfect, you tin-eared fool..."

"CEDAR is perfect, but you're wrong to like the Stanton cartridge: The Shure is superior..."

"The Shure is garbage, just like all those moving-coil cartridges are garbage. Give me an Empire 108 with a blunted stylus or nothing at all..."

"No no no! Listen to me! There aren't any 78 records that actually run at 78rpm, but I'm the only person left on Earth who knows which ones run at which speed..."

"Forget that. All the grooves had different widths, so you can't just use a 65µm stylus: From March '36 to January '37 they were 90µm, then in February they got smaller again..."

The teeny-tiny men may have had little use for me, but they obviously loathed each other: The sheer persnicketiness that poured from their mouths made me sick to my stomach. What, I wondered, could have worked them into such a lather? I had to find out.

"What are you little creeps arguing about?"

The bickering stopped all at once—like throwing a switch, I thought—at which moment I realized just how loud they'd been, and how blessed the silence was without them. Then the smallest dwarf separated himself from the tangle, stood up, gave a little bow, and said, in a surprisingly courteous voice, "We inhabit a popular newsgroup dedicated to 78rpm records."

"'Popular'? You make your hobby look repulsive!"

"Not at all—it's extremely popular: There are nine of us."

"I see. Well, is your group dedicated to classical music, or folk music, or—"

"You misunderstand: This has nothing to do with music—although Cyrus and I are fond of Spike Jones, and Sam over there enjoys listening to Paul Whiteman."

"That's right," said Sam, "although I prefer novelty songs and comedy routines..."

May God forgive me: I let go of the rock. By the time I heard it drop back into place, I was on my way out of the woods.

Preaching the word
Thus steeled, I determined to do everything in my power to save the shellac records of the world from the people who collect them, and to bring the 78rpm gospel to those record lovers who stand the greatest chance of getting it: people like you, who not only adore music but who understand and crave and actively seek the most intensely memorable home listening experiences they can find.

Elitist? You bet—not to mention self-righteous, censorious, condescending, truculent, niminy-piminy, and twee. But I won't let self-knowledge stop me now, because I've been to the mountain, I've experienced the musical séance of playing 78s on appropriate gear, I've heard Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Bill Monroe, Django Reinhardt, and Bing Crosby played back exactly as they were recorded (ie, direct to a 78rpm disc), and I've felt the indescribable frisson of rediscovery every time I've played my own 78s, undiminished by age or repetition.

And guess what: When I visit most of the 78rpm websites out there, with their nerdy prose and their TRS-80 graphics, none of that musical excitement—none of that wonder—comes across at all. It's like meeting the curator of a great museum, or the librarian of a private collection of rare books, and finding out that they'd rather be sitting in Shoney's with a Senior Citizen's Bottomless Cup card in one hand and last Sunday's Parade in the other.

Don't believe me? Here's what to do: Log on to the Internet, plug "78rpm records" into the search engine of your choice, and note the one phrase that appears, in one variation or another, on almost every site you'll find: Click here to find out how you can listen to your old 78s in perfect CD sound!

Holy cream of crap. While you're at it, please tell me how I can enjoy the Jaguar XK120 experience without having to touch a steering wheel. Or maybe there's a pill that can approximate the intoxication I'd get from a glass of the 1982 Domaine du Broustet without the drudgery of my actually having to taste it.

The luxury of luck
I admit, of course, that I'm speaking from the perspective of the luxury of luck. Within the past year, I came to own one of the world's finest turntables for spinning 78s: a Thorens TD-124, now in remarkable condition. Soon after that, I reviewed and ultimately purchased an equally suitable tonearm: the reissued EMT 997 ($4295). Then, a few months ago, Jonathan Halpern of Tone Imports loaned me a sample of EMT's dedicated 78rpm pickup head, the OFD-65i ($1500), along with the EQ-10 monophonic phono preamplifier-equalizer ($3000) from Swedish manufacturer Sentec—and, in the course of so doing, Halpern brought along a few gems from his own shellac collection, which started me down this road to enlightenment.

Though they pale in comparison with some of the current best sellers in high-end audio (and, concomitantly, in these pages), the prices of the above-mentioned toys are not insignificant. If there's a cheaper way through the gates of heaven, I'd like to find it—and I'd hope to tell you about it. So I've decided to embark on a survey of my own, beginning with 78rpm-specific phono preamplifiers.

As audio terminology goes, phono preamplifier is inadequate: Modern examples of the genre are expected to apply not only voltage gain to a phonograph signal but equalization as well. Most of you know that already—but over the years, I daresay the precise reason for doing things that way has become muddled in the retelling. Some unmuddling is in order.

Up until 1925, music was recorded and played back acoustically, with a practical frequency range of approximately 500Hz–3kHz: less than three octaves. Electrical recording made it possible for engineers to capture a much wider range, but there was a catch: The newly developed cutter heads and phono cartridges were electromagnetic devices, and thus subject to Faraday's Law, which suggests that an increase in velocity must, perforce, result in a proportional increase in the intensity of electromotive force. (Actually, the Law does more than just suggest this.)

To understand how that applies to our little world, consider a 1kHz sinewave of constant amplitude that's been carved, by some unseen hand, into a record groove; imagine also an electromagnetic cartridge, the stylus of which is tracing that groove. Now, taking care to keep the amplitude of those modulations constant, imagine increasing the frequency to 2kHz. By doubling the frequency, you've also doubled velocity: The stylus is now covering twice as much "ground" as it did before within the same unit of time. Consequently, an electromagnetic cartridge will produce double the voltage at 2kHz, compared with 1kHz, even as the original groove amplitude remains constant.

In fact, starting at the lowest reproducible pitch, every doubling of frequency—every new octave—would produce double the output voltage from an electromagnetic cartridge, given a constant groove amplitude. To store 10 audible octaves would be to double the voltage 10 times. That would be crazy.