Gramophone Dreams #1

My best old friend, "David Ray of Today," dropped out of school when he was 15 so that he could stock vegetables on the night shift at the IGA in a small Illinois farm town. By the time he'd turned 25, he owned five houses, 25 Cadillacs, and a barn full of knickknacks.

David chose to work nights so his days would be free to buy objets d'art at the local Salvation Army store. He bought Fiesta Ware, Bakelite radios, homemade quilts, and locally fashioned tin chicken-feeders. The quilts had to be hand-sewn and in perfect condition, with no stains. The radios had to work, have all their knobs, and their Masonite backboards had to be whole and unbroken. Most important, none of these things could cost over $5. He collected so many dishes that we called him Teapot Man. He called his scouring of thrift stores "checking the traps." David Ray never sold the things he loved; he got rich simply by thinning the herd—"You know, one ol' barn can only hold so much."

In 2002 I was living on a boat, low on cash, and my lifetime collection of LPs was stacked on skids covered with blue tarps. I decided to thin my herd. Unfortunately, I did not get rich. I got $2500 for about 10,000 records, and the buyer complained: "Not enough British pressings."

For the next decade, I lived blessedly unaware of LPs, turntables, damaged styli—and high-end audio. I bought tons of CDs and played them in my Oppo CD player driving my Creek integrated driving my wall-mounted Rogers LS3/5A speakers. I played music from my iPod and my Kenwood tuner. I bought downloads from iTunes and listened to Pandora radio. My newly minted, retired-from-audio brain focused simply on what music I wanted to explore next. One musical interest bled into another, with nary a thought about good sound.

Then, unexpectedly, my main teaching job evaporated. To survive, I pulled wires with my electrician friend Komuro, but I didn't much like crawling on beams 50' in the air. I decided to give audio another try. It had been over 10 years since I'd worked in audio professionally. To catch up, I started reading Stereophile, and blogs like Michael Lavorgna's AudioStream and Steve Guttenberg's Audiophiliac (CNet).

Getting respooled
To get started, the first thing I did was experiment with computer audio and high-resolution downloads. This stuff appealed to me immediately, because it sounded good and it took up zero space. I live in a small apartment, and file-based music solves all the storage problems I've struggled with since living on that boat. The more I investigated, the more I realized that, in the last decade, high-end audio had rapidly morphed into what I now call our invisible record collections.

It used to be that when friends came over, I'd ask them, "So, what do you want to hear?" They'd poke through my CDs, pick one, and hand it to me. "How about this?" That ritual vanished, as more and more of my discs turned into files on my iPhone and computer. Hard drives had upstaged my CD player. And then . . .

Making the invisible visible
I found some nice classical LPs in the trash by my house. A month later, I bought some $3 jazz records at a stoop sale down the street. Very quickly, I had about 30 black discs in good condition, but no turntable, and no money to buy one. Noticing my desperate lack, a fellow community gardener—a retired DJ—offered to loan me his Technics SL1200 with Shure M44-7 cartridge. All I can say is, Wow! I hooked it up to my little Fi phono stage, and within minutes was back in love with LPs. The next day I was at Academy Records, buying vinyl.

I had forgotten just how much raw, simple pleasure playing LPs could incite. I love the printing, the ink, the pictures on the cardboard covers. I like the sexy feeling of pulling a disc out of its jacket and slipping off its inner sleeve. I enjoy the sensation of the turntable spindle penetrating the disc as I plop it down on the rubber mat. What I most enjoy about playing old records are the memories they conjure up of my youth.

Returning to vinyl after so long away reminded me to slow down, be extra mindful, and try to respect the entire act of listening to music at home. CDs, streaming radio, and iTunes continue to bring me knowledge and pleasure, but they don't stimulate my heart or memory cells as directly or as intensely as does the venerable gramophone record.

Nowadays, I have dates with black discs and am getting to know them intimately. I bought a clean bunch of 45rpm singles at Housing Works for $1 apiece, and let me tell you one t'ing, mon, you ain't heard nuttin' 'til you've heard the Animals doin' "We Gotta Get Out of This Place" from a little disc wit' a big hole (45rpm, MGM K13382). Through the Shure and Technics, Eric Burdon's voice was strong and richly textured in a way I had not experienced since 1965, when this record was released.

Chas Chandler's bass line, and John Steel's wooden drumstick hitting his brass cymbal, sounded real and solid in precisely the way I remembered them coming out of jukeboxes. I felt the thickness of the cymbal, and the diameter of each bass string as it was plucked. Astonishingly, my thoughts were transported back to the 1960s. I remembered hippie chicks in microbuses, I smelled pot, I thought of my beloved Janis and Carlos Santana—and I felt angry about the war.

This surprisingly vivid 45rpm experience motivated me to parallel-wire the Shure into mono—just to see if these 45s would sound better when played in a slightly more original way. And they did. Besides a noticeable reduction in surface noise, the bass had more body and the midrange seemed more transparent. The sound felt more forceful and direct. Playing these discs in mono gave me a weird, unexpected side pleasure—I felt as if I were reading some early edition of Baudelaire in French. I felt proud of myself for doing this easy experiment in mono. Imagine me reading hi-toned French literature in the language and the paperbound format it was created in. Mono est mon amour.

Miyajima Spirit Mono
Inspired, I thinned my herd of rusty amps by trading them for an old Thorens TD124 turntable with an SME tonearm. I installed an Ortofon 2M Red moving-magnet cartridge ($99), and not only did those stoop-sale LPs become more enjoyable, my obsession with black discs returned in full force. Within days, I had three separate SME headshells: one held the Ortofon Red, for stereo playback; a second had the Shure M44 wired for mono, with a 3mil conical stylus for playing 78rpm records; and, hoping for even more deluxe mono playback, I acquired a true monaural cartridge: a Miyajima Spirit Mono. Work? Sleep? I began staying up late playing records and buying discs on eBay.


doak's picture

Passion is nearly always a very good thing.

Thanks Herb.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

...does it take most of us SO many years to filter out the BS, fashionable trends, tribal pressure and upgradeitis. If I knew at 16...well, you know the rest. In Japanese art it is better to do a small thing well than a big thing poorly. I think mono vinyl is just that. Lately, I too have begun to find many stereo recordings distracting. The less spread and hard channel panning, the more I can focus on the music. Oddly, changing my listening position to VERY near field with a wide speaker angle has helped create a more stable and focused audio image. The near field position also limits room/speaker interactions and gets me closer to the studio microphones.

Rick Tomaszewicz's picture

As an experiment, I dropped into our local music store and listened to several active studio monitors. Despite one of them being pro grade and popular among producers, I was surprised at it's high value to price ratio, compared to home audio gear. Clearly one step much closer to the studio microphone. And, it was not overly analytical, as so many claim studio monitors are. It was very neutral and easy to listen to. It allowed me to hear very deep into the recording. Is it time for Stereophile to be reviewing such equipment as an alternative option in the service of getting us all closer to the music at a more reasonable cost? I know that Audiostream reviews high end desktop monitors, but here I'm talking about full sized, active, stand mounts which replace a lot of boxes connected by wires.

nanana's picture

seven inches and a great big hole, satisfaction guaranteed...

IgAK's picture

Hi, Herb,

We actually met a long time ago, when you, Komura, Slagle, Blackie, Morrison, and other of our ilk were to be seen in the same places. The story of your journey from and to vinyl is amusing to me as one who has watched this happen to others as well. Lucky me, I never gave up my modest but carefully chosen collection despite all the other formats I have at hand. Instead, I've done odd things like mod all my turntables and arms to arrive at my present motorized and remote controlled VTA setting arm that lets me set VTA correct to a fraction of a thousandth in moments for every record to notations on a tiny post-it on the inner sleeve, there from the first time that record got played since the system went in. Like that, just to get the general flavor across.

Anyway, I have also acquired along the way a few more records in much the same sort of way you describe. Among them are a fair number of classical mono pressings that I rarely listen to if ever, being a fan of a 3D soundstage that is the province of stereo. Contact me, they could use a home where they are more appreciated, and the vacated space put to other use.


LucretiaAsh's picture

Thank you for sharing this page of his biography.I am currently working on one interesting music project for and would be grateful if you could share any other related articles so I can use them for my research.