Not-So-Giant Steps

I'm a thirty-year-old puppy doing what I'm told And I'm told there's no more coal for the older engines,"—Andy Partridge, "Train Running Low on Soul Coal"

"[We] know the truth of this: We would likely live happily ever after with a system from nearly 60 years ago. An idler-drive turntable, some Marantz electronics, and Quad ESL-57s can be very satisfying. The main improvements to be made are not necessarily in the area of musical enjoyment, but rather boring old reliability."

Charley Hansen of Ayre Acoustics, who made these observations in an e-conversation two years ago, gives himself too little credit: He and many of his colleagues have not only made playback gear that's more durable than average, they've also succeeded in making playback gear that's safer to use and more portable, and that excels in performance areas where the gear of 60 years ago was often weak: noiselessness, timbral neutrality, the re-creation of 3D space, and realistically wide bandwidth.

Yet much of today's gear suffers by comparison in reparability—what else can we conclude from junkyards filled with portable music players, midpriced electronics stuffed with now-obsolete solid-state devices, and saddest of all, five-figure CD players. Today's gear has also taken similarly backward steps in some performance areas where the gear of 60 years ago continues to excel: impact, color, body, drive.

Monolithic agreement on which aspects of reproduced sound are to be preferred over others is neither necessary nor even particularly admirable. Audio-loving individuals are free to choose for themselves which criteria are most important to them—and, given the variety of gear on the market, new and vintage alike, the domestic-audio market of today offers something for everyone. Myriad points of view on the relative merits of, say, spatial performance and dynamic impact are only to be encouraged. But when it comes to serviceability, there's only one acceptable point of view: products whose makers can't or won't repair them more than 10 years after their date of manufacture are junk.

In last month's Stereophile, in my most recent of an ongoing series of reviews aimed at hobbyists preparing to buy their last digital-disc source component, I wrote about the Bryston BCD-3 CD player. In gathering the background material for that piece, I asked Bryston's James Tanner about the third-party disc transport—typically, the CD-player component most subject to obsolescence—used in the BCD-3, and he assured me that Bryston buys them in sufficient quantities to keep those players playing for many years to come: a good thing. (I also find it reassuring that Bryston has their own US service facility, as opposed to farming out repair work to an outside contractor, as is done by many manufacturers and distributors of very expensive gear.) Props are also due to Audio Note—whose managing director, Peter Qvortrup, says he's stocked literally hundreds of their preferred transports—and Luxman, which has taken the extraordinary step of designing and manufacturing their own transports. These people make perfectionist audio look respectable.

Sadly, other manufacturers of note have left customer support on the scrap heap—also the final resting place for their megabuck CD players, some made as recently as 2004.

I've spent some time scouring the Web for horror stories about some of the more notorious tits-up CD players, and what amazes me are the excuses some consumers make for these manufacturers. Mostly, they boil down to "Gosh, computer chips are improving so fast, it's no one's fault my CD player can't be fixed." Sure, your 20-year-old, $1500 Apple laptop can't be serviced because too few people are willing to pay to restore such a thing to the performance standards of 20 years ago. But for consumers who, in 1997, spent $20,000 on a CD player that's now deader than Julius Caesar's dog, restoration to the performance standards of 1997 is all they ever wanted. But they can't have it, because someone declined to buy a few hundred extra Philips CDM4 transports when they were still available, and is now unwilling to spend a dime on the engineering effort required to retrofit a contemporary substitute.

How strange that, by comparison, if one of the genuinely rare tubes or passive parts in any of my Shindo Laboratory amps or vintage products should fail, I can find replacements and effect a repair without a great deal of trouble or expense. CD player excepted, nothing in my playback system is likely to be scrapped—ever.

What can you do? As always, vote with your dollars. Before you buy any expensive audio product, call its manufacturer and ask them what measures they take to guarantee future supplies of replacements for parts that are subject to mechanical wear or thermal stress: not only transports, but motors, output transistors, output modules, integrated circuits, and tubes. (I mention tubes last because, between military surplus and the many tube factories presently operating in the black, tubes are kinda not the problem right now.) But I would approach with caution—or not approach at all—the many manufacturers who've abandoned their expensive CD players but are still in (profitable) business and still make good-sounding gear. If they've screwed their high-rolling customers once, they may well do it again.—Art Dudley

volvic's picture

I remember reading another periodical where the reviewer had purchased a high end DVD player from a well known Canadian hi-fi manufacturer. The unit used a laser that was discovered to have a high failure rate. That player failed thereafter and no parts were available, leaving that $8,000 (if I remember the cost correctly), as a very expensive door stopper. I don't know what if anything was done about it, but if the company shrugged its shoulders and claimed it was out of their hands, I would surely be one angry customer. Yet there are companies that do the opposite; every Burmester product whether it is 30 years old or just 3 can be repaired as the company makes sure they have every available part for each unit they have made several times over. How refreshing!

Similarly years ago when I owned my Linn Karik/Numerik I found out that Linn ran out of lasers and could not source them. To their credit they found a solution with another supplier that could work. To this day I still buy Linn. Similarly YBA to this day can still service my CD1A but I have been told to a point, if a certain product is proprietary, then it is possible that they may not be able to find it, especially since ownership has changed hands.

It is inevitably a roll of the dice when you purchase these products, manufacturers with great service records might run out of parts from a third party supplier and might not be able to accomodate you. The issue of being able to accomodate is where the true test of customer service comes in. To be told that you got 20 years out of your CD player and don't expect it to be repaired would immediately force me to reconsider ever purchasing from that company/retailer. Thank God these days we no longer have to rely on CD machines to play our discs; computer audio has been a great leveler.

tonykaz's picture

It's a nice slogan for a Magazine!

We consumers can attempt product knowledge depth but we tend to find greater attraction to the "Sizzle" aspect of product ownership. After-all, shouldn't we be driving VW Beatles or Jeeps? ( since 1947 )

Trendy stuff breaks!

Plus, we manufacturers need "Repeat" Sales, we require our products to 'expire', go out of fashion, rust-out, be too expensive to repair, to be completely "Stale" by the 11 year mark so that our "Loyal-Repeat" Customers can take 'advantage' of all the NEW Engineering Advancements out-there: Driverless Cars, Electric Li powered Cars ( Green & Clean ), etc.

Besides, if all you want is a reliable CD Player; you can have that from a simple Sony Walkman CD Player, which is available at nearly every Garage Sale for $5 cash.

We know the CD drives & Hard Drives in our Computers are gonna fail, it's a Fact-of-Life and a darn good "As We See It" topic. My next iMac will have a Solid State Memory and my next Music Source will be a Cloud.

What I wasn't prepared for was the Failure Rate of my Koetsu Phono Cartridge collection, phew, that was an expensive series of failures but Vinyl Phono is the priciest part of superb home audio. ( get rid of the records and all the paraphernalia and a person can have superb Audio in a Shirt pocket : AK 240 ).

Our Luxury hobbies aren't free, we'll be spending a rather "stiff" amount to support many of the lovelier, i.e. owning a Cessna, owning Vinyl playback gear, owning Italian Cars, consuming Single-Malts, Travel-Golf get-aways, married life to a pricy loving spouse, Political support for Bernie Sanders, etc,etc.

The worst bit of un-repairable is the Medical type.

I'm say'n : "Nice work, Mr.Dudley"

Tony in Michigan

Ortofan's picture

... for $20K back in 1997?
What would such a player be worth today?
Assuming that a replacement transport is still available, what would that repair cost?
Likewise, after 20 years, all the electrolytic capacitors probably need to be replaced, as well.
Are you willing to undertake the cost of that service, too?
If not, why moan about the unavailability of a replacement transport?

volvic's picture

I think Krell had one for close to $20k back then. I recall being offered one for a lot less to use as a DAC but could no longer use the transport as the laser was no longer available, so did not purchase. I think capacitors if not proprietary can be replaced quite easily, I remember speaking with one of the former Krell service men in CT who told me some of the Krells would require regular re-caps because they ran so hot. In the grand scheme it wasn't that much money, he said. But a laser assembly, that's another animal, lots of people bought expensive units that couldn't be replaced after 2-3 years of use.

Ortofan's picture

... cost $9K - was there a more expensive all-in-one unit?
An Accuphase DP-75 was $10K.
Were either three times better than a Sony CDP-XA7ES for a mere $3K?

The availability of replacement capacitors isn't the issue so much as the labor cost to replace them all. A typical CD player might have 50+ caps to change. What would be the charge for that job and would it be better applied to the purchase of a new player?

volvic's picture

I remember seeing a Krell in the 90's in Canada approaching $20k, can't remember which one, maybe it was just the currency conversion. But I do recall the CD12 by Linn in the late 90's worth 20k, I think Sonic Frontiers had a very expensive unit as well and wasn't there some amazing looking Japanese CD player that cost close to $30k? 47 Labs perhaps? The caps depend on the techie and how much they charge.

Ortofan's picture

... it.

But was it an order of magnitude better than the Sony?

Then there's this Marantz player about which JA states the "measured performance indicates that its intrinsic resolution is better than is needed by the CD medium. That it can offer this level of performance for just $350 is astonishing."

volvic's picture

I heard it several times and back then, was the best I had ever heard. I never heard the Sony but owned a CDP101 and several CDP111 all of which were not cheap and problematic from the beginning but nowhere near the Linn, the Sony's are of course first generation. The good news is that Linn will be able to supply parts for the CD12 as they stocked many as soon as they learned they were no longer made. The bad news if you own one, it can now be trounced by much cheaper computer audio.

daviddever's picture

The long-term stocking of replacement Red Book-optimized CD-DA mechanisms may not, by itself, be a reasonable approach to maintaining repair stocks; some mechs suffer from static friction when immobilized for an extended period of time, so there are no guarantees–even if the manufacturer intends on supporting the product long into the future.

Those manufacturers, on the other hand, who chose to implement designs using commodity mechs (i.e., CD- or DVD-ROMs) or provided some form of digital inputs (SPDIF or USB) on their digital disc players will be perceived as visionaries, even if the original players themselves were mediocre at Red Book playback: their products will continue to function as source components long after the last optical disc has been played.

Much of the specialist hi-fi industry's added value is predicated upon what might be qualified as extreme optimizations (e.g., single-beam laser pickups, unobtainable ICs, etc.) that ultimately provide less bang for buck in the future, compared to simpler, competently-engineered products.

Streaming media products, on the other hand, may appear to offer better bang for the buck, as the moving parts have been significantly reduced, but this is predicated upon the manufacturers having planned for the demise of the streaming modules themselves (worn-out flash, dead CPUs, etc.).

Spla'nin's picture

Thanks Art from all of us who mistakenly thought surely Sony would be able to support their higher end product if it had an issue. I still have a DVP NS9100ES taking up space in my closet that needs a transport that is 'no longer being made' that I can't quite bring myself to tossing out. Still hope some enterprising after market repop will show up as it sounded great (modwright version)

Golden Ears's picture

It was sad when I learned all the extrusions for the high end car amplifiers that McIntosh had as parts were literally dumpstered when the Japanese tech had to move back to Japan. McIntosh used to pride itself in having most of their production units still in use. However when Charlie Randal of McIntosh took over Fine sounds ( a grouping of companies like McIntosh, Sumiko, Sonus Farber, Wadia, Audio Research, Pryma) Servicabilty has fallen.

As a sound tuner, for many years , one thing many of the best sounding digital source demo rooms at audio shows had in common was a Wadia 860 or Wadia 861 CD Player. Those two models had magic, sounding way better than the Wadia 830 . The 8XX SERIES came with a promise of future proofing and long range service . I bought my 860 in 1994, had it upgraded to take 24/96 streams in 1998, in 2010 I added USB inputs, and even upgraded it with Steve Huntley a former Wadia and Audio Research employee. It still IMHO is one of the best sounding digital units I have heard in terms of image accuracy and proper tone and weight. Nothing gets human voices more accurate digitally. Well Charlie ordered all of the 8xx parts to be dumpstered. No more belts, no more lasers.

Why? Maybe because none of the current McIntosh or Wadia units sounded nearly as good. Maybe to force another purchase once it breaks.

Well the only thing "broken" was the promise for long term service and upgrades. McIntosh WAS THE SYMBOL of AMERICAN AUDIO SERVICEABILTY ... so was Audio Research which USED to stockpile tubes to ensure that the same magic sound could be had forever... in the words of inspector Jacques Clouseau "not anymore" .

Audio Research also canned their top service technicans who knew all of the odd things about legacy gear, so,you can now expect longer repair times, higher bills, and a greater chance that a few pieces won't be fixed which could have been repaired prior.

Yes it could be said that what stops sales of new gear is all the overbuilt older gear that won't die and continues to be serviceable .... but that is a farce. For instance I bought a 1966 H H Scott 233 integrated tube amplifier that in 2014 was still working using the original vacuum tubes – and in fact all of the Telefunken 12ax7 tubes still work today. I say that this hobby has a chance to grow because these older units are the seed crystal for forming new systems. When the cost of getting any taste of the high end goes above $5000 in a "first" system....only the weathly will buy and there are fewer wealthy people as wealth concentrates.

Doctor Fine's picture

But does this problem of non-repairable gear exist anywhere but in Art Dudley's elitist world of obscenely overpriced "rare elitist products"?
If you refuse to beat your speakers to death they may well last your entire life if the surrounds aren't made of decomposing vegatable matter.
Which is a good reason to purchase really fine speakers that are modular and can fit a variety of the rooms you will inhabit for the next 50 years. Think Watt Puppys and subs.
Power amps? Really. When is the last time a really well designed transistor power amp up and died on anybody? And if it did how much you wanna bet there is a newer version available as replacement for cheap.
Most tube circuits WILL be around forever.
You just need a tech who knows circuit design and a supply of tubes. Stockpile a few extras is my suggestion.
I could go on and get into the problems associated with weird one piece CD players with transports too rare to contemplate but only someone looking for trouble would not prefer a stand alone DAC.
And last time I checked DACs were sounding better and have nice MQA and so forth as reasons for replacing a busted old unit.
So as usual Art Dudley is merely braying the "Elitist Raison d'etat" that explains in a patronizing way---why YOU must only purchase handmade rare items of great beauty built to LAST FOREVER if you are serious about this hobby.
To build it in a modular, easily replaceable manner including a few "spares" as is done in the recording industry---why that is HERESY.
It should last FOREVER or it is junk.
Poppytwaddle, Mr Dudley.
Poppytwaddle I say sir.