Keeping the Audiophile Faith

Photo: Carl Thomas Hriczak

It's 9:45 on a mid-September weeknight in Greater Toronto. Having spent the evening reveling in the glory of her 9th birthday—candles blown out, presents open, pleasantly full of Wegmans' Ultimate Chocolate Cake—Our Birthday Girl has one additional request:

"Can we please play 'Happy Birthday Polka'?!"

Emily's referring to a 10" 78rpm recording by Tex Williams, on a red-label Capitol I brought home for $1, mainly for the near-mint outer sleeve it came in. The first time I played it, she was sitting on her bean bag chair, counting the change from a jar of coins over and over and making notes and drawings on her sketch pad. As the stylus settled into the surprisingly noise-free disc—it looks worse than it sounds—a descending passage from the flutes was joined by fiddle and (early) electric guitar in what could pass for postmodern Boccherini. Williams then crooned: "Happy Birthday! This is your day / but we have all the fun! / Gather 'round the piano / And let's harmonize a tune . . ."

Emily jumped up and started dancing: "I love this song!" She's a Weird Al Yankovic devotee, and if this record isn't a direct ancestor to the great Alfred's output, I don't know what is. The sound is A-plus, too.

To watch Emily derive so much joy from a 78 is to return to my own audio-loving roots. It's history repeating itself—in a good way, for once. When I was her age, I was blessed to have audio experiences that shaped me into the audiophile music aficionado I am today. Equipment my family couldn't otherwise afford was given to us—by none other than family friend and noted pianist Glenn Gould.

I have no memories of Glenn: He passed away when I was 10 months old. Yet the sound system he left us led to my lifelong obsession with music, sound, and circuitry. Our Marantz 2230 receiver has been functioning flawlessly every day since 1973; I no longer use it for amplification, but it remains my daily-driver FM tuner. Imagine that: In my 37 years, every day, save for travel, I have listened to WNED-FM through the 2230. I refer to it as my older sibling: If gear could talk, oh! the stories that receiver could tell . . .

Around 1995, I began to get serious about high fidelity. I began picking up and thumbing through and eventually buying copies of Stereophile. And in December 1996, I read Michael Fremer's review of the Rega Planar 3 turntable. I hungered for better LP sound. I saw the price: $695. I could and I would afford that.

I had my goal. I saved every paper-route penny from then to the summer of '97, and by mid-July, I was the proud owner of a Planar 3, complete with a Grado Reference Platinum cartridge. But it didn't begin well. The tech, if you want to call him that, badly misaligned the cartridge. I was almost in tears when I heard how much worse it sounded compared to the demo. The shop offered to loan me a DB Systems protractor, and days later I was tracking distortion-free. I didn't know about VTA and SRA yet, and there was a height mismatch, with the stylus raking at about 87 degrees. Still, it was so much better than the aging table it replaced that I enjoyed the combo until 2002.

Then, after reading Art Dudley's never-ending ode to the Denon DL-103 cartridge, I put one on the Rega, and it's been my go-to since. After raising the arm with Rega's 4mm spacer, the SRA is spot on. I'd venture to say that if someone were to design a turntable around the Denon and not the other way around, the result would be a Planar 3. It's another of those matches made in heaven.

Incidentally, it's historically significant to own a Rega Planar 3 in Buffalo-Niagara: The glass platter was pioneered in Buffalo by the Kurtzmann piano company. A phonograph designed by them in 1920 featured a platter nearly identical to the one Roy Gandy uses. It only played vertically modulated records and had a "permanent" sapphire stylus, as well as a see-through case with a top plate made of glass.

The equipment I can afford these days is not that of sonic platitudes. I cherish every piece I can bring to (or order from) my home, even if none of it reaches as high as Class B. No matter. We are enjoying our music with great detail and a decent amount of tone and touch. Perhaps someday our financial fortunes will improve and we can go for the Clearaudio Goldfinger cartridge, or maybe a Lyra Atlas or Ortofon MC Anna. Until then, it's a delight to read about these divine creations, and to feel comrade-ship with the staff of a publication that has a cherished place in our hearts and home. My equipment may not be exciting, but what we do with it every day is exciting. Here, hope abounds.

Footnote: Carl Thomas Hriczak is a freelance photographer and private music educator. He photographs people and teaches piano in the bi-national Buffalo-Niagara region.

Anton's picture

Don’t fall into the trap of that phony “high end” BS Veblen terminology.

I bet your system sounds awesome! Look at the joy it brings you!

When we start stratifying our hobby, we create dissatisfaction and lose joy.

Thanks for a great piece!!!!!

Bogolu Haranath's picture

"In every life we have some trouble ....... But when you worry, you make it double ........ Don't worry be happy" ........ Bobby McFerrin :-) ........

jeffhenning's picture

Today's equipment, especially speakers, are the best stuff ever when it comes to bang for the buck.

Personally, after spending a few years as an audio engineer, I'm all about hearing the exact replication of the master tape rather than a colored version of that. Hey, that's just me wanting ultimate fidelity.

That doesn't have to be you. Also, some of my favorite music was recorded and produced under less than perfect conditions.

One of my favorite albums is, and mind you that I'm a rock bassist, is the Count Basie Orchestra's "April in Paris". Unfortunately, it was done in mono. It has everything you would want in a recording except stereo. My copy is the remastered, gatefold CD with the original record label on the face of the disc. When I turn people onto it, the thing that kills them is the dynamics. It seems at a polite level, then the full brass section blares in for a stab and it knocks them out. That was the beauty of Basie. Incredible!

There are absolutes in high fidelity, but most of those are not within the reach of the common man. With speakers, you can, though, get close if you are willing to go the DIY route and do it for much less money, but it is a lot of work. Most people lack that level of expertise or drive in this area.

Regardless, you can buy a fun, driving car for way less than a Ferrari or a Bentley.

A bit before he died, I bought a pair of kit speakers for my step-dad. It took me a couple weekends at his Jersey Shore house to build and finish them. He'd sit and watch me working on them on the porch ("They better sound good!"). His old Marantz speakers were falling apart from the salt air and age.

Told him I was going to give them a proper, glossy finish after he had the chance to break them in.

"Don't bother, they already sound great!"

ConanAV's picture

While you probably bought that Wegmans Ultimate Chocolate Cake in the Buffalo area (since the company doesn’t have any stores in the Toronto area), it was probably made at the Wegmans central bakery here in Rochester, NY. While all of us in the US and CA can enjoy Denon and Rega only a fortunate few of us can enjoy Wegmans.

DaveThreshold's picture

Once again a very nice background story and perspective from Stereophile. To me, the best value for the dollar today is VINTAGE high-end audio. I use the Threshold Fet-10e line preamp, with their Fet-10e phono pre, both with gold-plated boards. It is an absolutely stunning combination for front end electronics. I paid about $1,600 for them from eBay, and I have not looked back. I bi-amp with a Threshold S-450e for the top end and an S-350e for the bass. I have owned eight pieces of vintage Threshold gear, and only one amp has had a bad switch, but that amp still works when you finagle it a bit! In electronics/years, that is one problem in about 280 years. Further, IMO, speakers are 90% of the sound that we hear in any system.

jimtavegia's picture

High end can cost as much as a house. I remember back to an AD comment about someone who wants to get into vinyl and the origial P1 TT from REGA...affordable as for anyone who has a job.

It doesn't need to be a Garrard 301 or a SME model 12 to provide great fun.