Listening #205: John Fahey, Naim NAC 32-5, Naim NAP 250

During my first attempt at college, I lived in a dormitory where my next- door neighbors had an informal trade in pharmaceuticals; their most ardent customers were my neighbors across the hall. One of the latter was a fellow named Pete, a good-natured guy (if a bit sanctimonious in his disdain for music he considered insufficiently bluesy) whose heavy rotation list was, at the time, topped by John Fahey's The Voice of the Turtle. I merely disliked the record the first time I heard it, but in the days ahead I came to loathe it. I found it repetitive, masturbatory, technically inept, and dead boring. Pete hated my music, too.

But at 18, I was an insecure listener. I projected my own pretensions onto every musical artist I encountered—and so it never occurred to me that some of Dylan's best songs were intended as humor, or that at least half of Robbie Robertson's songs didn't mean jack shit, or that listening to Led Zeppelin was okay because it was fun.

That was almost a half-century ago; in the ensuing years, I learned to love a lot of music that was lost on the teenaged me.

I have also learned to forgive myself—for that shortcoming, at least—although lingering embarrassment prevents me from disclosing all of the great composers and writers and performers whose stuff I didn't get the first or sometimes even the second or third time around. The fact is that, at 18, I simply hadn't listened enough, read enough, or lived enough to grasp all of what I was hearing. I hadn't snuggled enough babies or mourned enough elders or done enough heavy lifting in the times between.

John Fahey didn't cross my radar again until 5 or 6 years ago, when a record store opened in the rural village I then called home: an unlikely occurrence that served only to strengthen my belief in a loving God. During that merchant's brief time in Cherry Valley, NY, I bought some wonderful records—ones that remain among my very favorite, snatch-from-a-burning- house LPs. Chief among them: a copy of a reissue of John Fahey's first album, Blind Joe Death (Takoma C 1002, footnote 1), a collection of original and traditional instrumentals performed solo on a steel-string guitar, recorded in 1959 and, remarkably, rerecorded in 1964. When I saw it in the bins, I remembered how much I enjoyed the Fahey-curated-and-produced Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music, Volume Four (2 CDs, Revenant 211), so it seemed I should give his own compositions and performances another try.

I'm awfully glad I did. This time around, I wasn't hung up on the surface details—the consistently out-of-tune guitar, the lack of polish in the playing, the near-absence of any real development or improvisation in these repetitive and at times downright drone-y pieces—and was now able to focus on the intensity of the performances, and the apparently unique way Fahey melded blues and folk purism with his own slyly trippy take on simple ballads, laments, and hymns. (Or maybe the latter quality had been there all along, and Fahey just knew how to bring it out?)

Yes, I still wonder about the out-of-tune guitar. Was it a deliberate attempt to mimic the recordings left behind by itinerant musicians whose poor-quality fretted instruments couldn't stay in tune or intonate properly? Was his indifference toward playing in tune part of some semi-unconscious ritual he used in preparation for his performances? Or did he consciously invent punk folk decades before the emergence of punk rock? I don't know. Wondering is fun, but answers to those questions aren't crucial to getting John Fahey's music. For me. Anymore.

It probably wasn't my status as an audiophile that led me to finally appreciate John Fahey, but it surely had something to do with my status as a record collector—and in my mind those two lives are linked. And that leads me to wonder: Which performers or composers or entire styles of music did you have to keep coming back to before you got it? Which records did you hate as a kid that you now love as an adult? Please let me know (, and if you don't mind, I may wind up putting your answer in this space a couple of months from now.

Cryo Me A River
My life as an audiophile can be divided into six distinct eras:

ERA I (1966–1969): My family's (monophonic) Webcor record player, which I annexed: the rare sin for which this Catholic feels zero guilt.

ERA II (1970–1981): Various humble component systems purchased with funds from my first precollege part-time jobs.

ERA III (1982–1985): The high-end era begins with my purchase of a Rega Planar 2 and winds down with Conrad-Johnson electronics and Magnepan speakers—all very good in their way. But halfway through this era was a dip in pleasure when I somehow wound up with a SOTA Sapphire turntable (with a record clamp so badly designed that the user had to distend the suspension springs every time it was applied), Spectral DMC-5 preamp, and BEL amp: a combo that sounded Godawful through a pair of Thiel speakers.

ERA IV (1986–1995): Flat Earth Artie: Linn LP12 and Roksan Xerxes turntables, Naim electronics, early Epos and ProAc speakers. A good time musically and sonically, if just a wee bit cultish.

ERA V (1996–2007): Low-power tubes and Lowthers—about the latter, the less said the better—and then, beginning in 2000, moderate-power tube amps and Quad electrostatics.

ERA VI (2008–PRESENT): Low-power tube amps and speakers that aren't Lowthers—first Audio Note AN-Es, which I still admire, then various horns.

I love where I am. The hi-fi I have now, which I'm listening to as I write this—Garrard 301 and Thorens TD124 turntables (I still mean to dedicate one to stereo and the other to mono, and I still can't decide which should be which), EMT, Ortofon, and Denon pickup heads and cartridges, an Auditorium 23 Hommage T2 step-up transformer, Shindo Monbrison preamp and Cortese power amp, and 1966 Altec Flamenco speakers, with Shindo, Auditorium 23, and Luna cables—does everything I want and need: color, texture, touch, force, flow, momentum, and scale, plus a pretty wide frequency range, convincing spatial performance on stereo records, and enough clarity and freedom from gross colorations that I can review gear with it.

Looking back, the only things I miss from time to time are my Linn-Naim-ProAc system and that original Roksan Xerxes (all of said products having been sold a while back) and my Quads (which I still have but don't get to use very often: There isn't room in this house to maintain two full-size systems). I miss the Webcor a little, if only for its simplicity and portability, but it didn't sound nearly as good as the portable KLH stereo owned by my best friend's family.

The worst part of my job is the steady stream of disruptions to that system (although the results are often happy-making, as with the Ortofon SPU Century, Air Tight ATM-300R, etc.). The best part of my job is that I sometimes get to travel back in time and revisit individual products or whole technologies I used to live with. So it was in late summer 2019, when I received not only a generous loan of a mid-1980s all-Naim amplification system but a damn good excuse to take my Quad ESL speakers out of mothballs (footnote 2).

Footnote 1: Only 100 copies were pressed of the original 1959 release; virtually all were given away, some to reviewers and folk-music archivists, others by sneaking them into record-store bins.

Footnote 2: I actually keep them in vacuum-pack mattress bags: Dust and Quads really hate each other.


Bogolu Haranath's picture

"Definitely, effusively and highly recommended" ........ That is what KM said, after reviewing Naim Uniti Nova integrated amp :-) ........

jimtavegia's picture

From the recording end one can think of all the possible combinations of mics, mic preamps, (cables, why do I even bring THAT up) that were used, whatever the acoustics of the recording venue were, good or bad, the condition of the recording console, and other variables, it is no wonder that one system may not be enough.

The condition of the tape machine, properly serviced? New or old tape? Were the levels too hot or too low? These are the kinds of thought that could make us all wonder how some recordings sound as good as they do. You even brought up the condition of the instrument(s). It is all a part of it. I just watched a video of the huge collection of guitars that Vince Gill owns. A whole variable color of sounds there.

With the extra time I have had over the holidays I have been watching much music off YouTube of performers I admire. Getting to watch them perform decades ago, many on transfers from black and white film, has been great fun. I am finding that watching performers is as much fun as the audio only part. The audio quality is far lower, but I can still enjoy it.

I remember back playing DJ (mostly 78's) to my ailing father when I was 6 & 7 on an old flip-top RCA changer with a swell 8" duo-cone speaker in a beautiful mahogany cabinet ( the best part of the equipment) to be as important as anything I listen on today. It never occurred to me, or my musician father, that others were enjoying the same music on much better gear from the likes of AR, Bozak, Altec, Harman Kardon, Fisher, Garrard, SME and others. When your world is small you just don't know about such things, you just enjoy what you have.

I have 3 very modest system, but many more with all my headphone options and headphone amps. I have the ability to change the presentation at will, much like what you have done and find that some combinations work better then others. It is no different that when I have some bass heavy music I cannot use my Audio Technica ATH 50X and 40X headphones which make the presentation even worse with their added bass response. I then move onto my AKG's.

Thanks for the great read.

Anton's picture

You are spot on.

yuckysamson's picture

....All just went apeshit after this article was posted.

Nothing like validation. Great writing, Art. Also great to see a man of life and experience readily set foot back into his river's headwaters and acknowledge the purity found.

tonykaz's picture

I remember getting a close look at Naim gear at 1984 Summer CES in Chicago ( in the LINN Room ) while the Linn people were removing the ceiling loudspeakers .

I loved Brit. Electronics back then. As a Consumer I could've owned Naim gear, I still can if I could find 120v versions. ( eBay has a smattering of Naim listings, mostly 220v ).

I'm also dreaming of some Sugden gear.

This is a heart warming story ( for me ) about Naim & Quad, a beautiful piece of literature that lures me back to 1980s from the first quarter of the 21st Century where Shirt Pocket High performance Audio Systems can easily scale up to Room Filling performance.

I loved the 1980s World of Koetsu and 33.3/45 Direct to Disc, VPI turntables, Electrocompaniet Electronics and thousands of 33.3 Vinyls.

This Article alone made this Stereiphile Issue worth having, thank you.

Tony in Venice ( Iowa )

Ortofan's picture

... possible exception of phono cartridges, no advancements have been made in the technology of sound reproduction equipment during the past half century.

Now, excuse me while I go fire up the Fisher Custom Electra console.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AD may like the new McIntosh MTI100 all-in-one, integrated turntable, $6,500 ....... AD may consider that McIntosh turntable as an advancement :-) ........

Bogolu Haranath's picture

AD may also consider the new MAG-LEV Audio, magnetic levitation turntable, $2,900 (with phono cartridge), as an advancement :-) ........

Ortofan's picture

... acceptable to AD because the platter isn't driven by a hockey puck.

Bogolu Haranath's picture

In that case, AD may not like the new Andover Audio Model One, all-in-one turntable (starting at $2,500), either :-) .......

Ortofan's picture


grantray's picture

Reverend Robert Wilkins wrote that song, word for word and note for note. Keith and Mick just took credit for it in the liner notes and in the royalties. And before the song was Prodigal Son, Wilkins sang it as That's No Way to Get Along.

Old Audiophile's picture

Just read this piece of nostalgia with great relish! Brought me back to the days when recorded music first hooked me and eventually and ultimately pushed me to audiophilia (not the journal) like all of you folks. Can't remember the make & model of the first record player I had but it was a small tabletop-type thing. To this day, I remember being at my grandmother's house when I must have been 7 or 8, playing "The Battle of New Orleans" by Johnny Horton on that thing, over & over again, probably about a dozen times in a row, at least, because I just fell in love with that song for some reason. God Bless Her! My grandmother who was no more than 20 feet away in the kitchen at the time, no doubt preparing yet another delectable feast, never complained once! Wish I still had those old 45s! Also loved listening to those old records on my folks' Grundig Majestic 7028 console. Beautiful thing! It had an AM and shortwave radio receiver built into it. The VTF of that tonearm must have been half a ton. Little did I know at the time. One of these days, I'm going to wrestle that old Grundig away from my sister, put it in my living room and revere it for the priceless piece of history that it is. Eventually, after 8 track tapes, I was able to afford my first foray into the entry level world of audiophilia, a Philips 212 Electronic TT, Sansui 2000x receiver and Studiocraft speakers, which quickly gave way to Ohm C. Still have the Sansui. Still works but needs to be overhauled. And, as they say, that's the way the whole thing started! Happy New Year to all of you and may the music be with us always!

volvic's picture

Speaking of Naim, today, January 14th, marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Julian Vereker. I cannot believe 20 years have gone by. I miss those early Naim days, its products were simply far more interesting than they are today.