Listening #179

Dear Reader,

Not long ago, I lost patience with coffee.

Before that, I'd never quite made it to coffee-nerd status, but I had all four wheels on the onramp. A few years ago I got rid of my cheap coffeemaker and switched to a French press, because it was more hands-on. I started buying whole beans instead of ground coffee, and grinding them in the store's grinder, on its coarsest setting. When that wouldn't do, I bought an inexpensive electric coffee grinder. When that wouldn't do, I bought a manual grinder. There was only one brand of bean I liked, and I had to drive 45 minutes to get to the store that sold it. I bought a scale for weighing the beans before I ground them (because measuring spoons are notoriously inaccurate when it comes to measuring ground coffee), and a long confectioner's thermometer for checking the temperature of my hot water (because boiling water is too hot, and "burns" the coffee), and I bought a large Pyrex measuring cup for precisely measuring the hot water because, apparently, none of the world's small-appliance makers can get their shit together and make a French press with water-level markings on the glass.

So every day, as the dog did her early-morning incessant-barking thing, I weighed and ground beans and measured and heated water and went through all this bullshit for one cup of coffee. Maybe two. Coffee that had a lot of sediment in the bottom of the cup, and tasted good only every second or third day.

Then my family and I went on vacation. I left all my coffee paraphernalia at home because I was mad at it, and when we got to our vacation rental I noticed on the kitchen counter a cheap Black & Decker coffeemaker pretty much like the one I used to own, and a bag of ground coffee. On our first morning in the house I made coffee, not expecting much. It was amazing, and there was no sediment in the cup. When we returned home, I threw out my French press in less time than it takes Donald Trump to recycle his inner cabinet, and bought an electric coffeemaker.

The constant drip, drip, drip
Needless to say, there wasn't a hi-fi system in our rental house, nor was there a collection of records. And while it might have been fun, or at least poetically satisfying, for me to say that, during that vacation, I also lost patience with perfectionist audio, nothing could be further from the truth. Although our five days away from home were pleasant and relatively carefree, I found myself hankering to listen to one or two recordings of Elgar's music in particular—not via an iPhone and earbuds or some kitchen-counter Bose Wave CD player, but through my colorful-sounding Shindo amp and a pair of speakers no younger than 50.

So no—this isn't one of my head-shaking, hand-wringing, being-an-audiophile-is-horrible-so-stop-buying-expensive-products columns. This is one of my head-shaking, hand-wringing, being-an-audiophile-is-wonderful-but-only-after-you've-learned-to-trust-your-own-senses-when-deciding-whether-to-buy-expensive-products columns.

There are people who, at every point in their lives, exhibit good judgment as consumers. I'm sure as hell not one of them—and today, as I pause and look back, I see that some of my poorer buying decisions have been made at times when I was cursed with a combination of too little sense of self and too much disposable income. This is actually good news: Instead of meaning that I have very bad judgment, it means that I might have very good judgment, but am simply too stupid to consistently act on it.

Let's use clothing and hairstyles as examples, and let's substitute taste for judgment. When I look through old photographs of myself, it seems that in perhaps 75% of them I look presentable; in the remaining 25% I look like a jackass. The latter are best exemplified by one unfortunate photo that shows a twentysomething me in a buckskin jacket, bell-bottom jeans, a long pageboy haircut, and aviator-frame glasses so large that my surroundings were brought into focus for the benefit of not only my eyes but my cheekbones. Setting aside even the chronological inconsistencies—the lives of Buffalo Bill Cody and Prince Valiant were separated by a gulf of some 1400 years—this was not a good look for me, and may have gone a long way toward explaining my lack of success with women.

How did this happen? I was working full time, and my living expenses were few because I shared a house with four other people—who would have been within their rights to give me a savage beating for dressing like a medieval bison hunter—thus making it all too easy to make frivolous purchases.

Why did this happen? Because, in a moment of weakness (if two or three years can be considered a moment), I forgot who I was and decided I wanted to be someone else. It was, I suppose, the same sort of perfect storm of receding self-esteem that leads some contemporary youngsters to manbuns, ear gauges, and having themselves tattooed with the likenesses of very bad musicians. Luckily, all of my regrettable fashion moves were reversible—although, in my dark hours of the soul, I believe that God has punished me for doing foolish things with my hair by taking some of it away from me.

Transpose the above to the world of domestic audio and you have my music system of 1985, which looked and sounded grotesque in comparison to the system that preceded it. I'll call those systems Goofus and Gallant, respectively.

Highlights of the Gallant system were a Rega Planar 3 turntable, NAD 1020 preamp, and a pair of Snell Type J/II loudspeakers. None of those products was very expensive, yet I loved the way that system sounded—and during the years I owned it, I bought a lot of great records. This was the time in my life when I got into Philip Glass and Marshall Crenshaw, and reconnected with my early Beatles records.


Jason Victor Serinus's picture

Art at his brilliant best.

dc_bruce's picture

Why is it that we step down from our first systems? My first system was a Dyna PAS3x/ Stereo 70, running AR 2ax with a Dyan FM3 tuner, an AR turntable and a Stanton 500e. I won’t bore you with the full history of my many subsequent back steps, but it involves such treasures as a JVC receiver (with a 5-band equalizer!) Design Acoustics dodecahedron speakers and so on.
You gotta laugh, as I did when reading your piece.
BTW, if you want a clean ground, get a big Equi-tech balanced power supply. Not cheap, but not snake oil either. Not that you do digital, but it does amazing things for digital which apparently is very sensitive to the quality of the ground. Run your entire system through the Equi-tech.
If you install a copper ground rod, then make that the only ground for your house. As you know, multiple grounds beget ground loops. With audio gear that produces hum and buzz. With 100 amps of 120 volts ac, that produces much more unfortunate consequences.
Keep up the good work!

mrkaic's picture

How and why would that happen? Can you provide some examples with measurements? What percentage of data packets gets lost or corrupted due to “low quality ground “ in such cases?

Could you please refer me to some EE studies that researched this problem.

Thank you in advance.

mrounds's picture

Highly unlikely that you'll get the references you're asking for, because they don't exist.

However: properly functioning digital gear has a very wide dynamic range and very little distortion. At some point in the reproduction chain, though, it has to run through something analog in order to be heard. Inadequate grounding (though most equipment is fairly tolerant of variations in it) *can* cause noise, at least, in the analog stage. Has nothing to do with digital per se, but if any point in the chain isn't as good as the source, well...

mrkaic's picture

OK, I see. So, it is more of an analogue issue that digital.

Is there a way to measure the quality of the ground in one's house? It is my understanding that it is essentially a decently thick metal rod driven into the ground. I've heard that it could be a problem if the ground is full of mica or similar insulating stuff. What else could cause ground issues on the level of a house? (I don't mean ground loops within devices, those I find easier to understand.)

Thanks again.

mrounds's picture

I can't directly answer your question. I *can* look up some things on the internet that pertain, such as:

Principles of Electrical Grounding paper:
Grounding powerpoint:
Interesting details:

It's a huge area of information, disinformation, and misinformation. If you're really interested in the details, you'll probably find articles here about it with regard to audio(phile) viewpoints, and elsewhere for the bigger picture. This is just a random collection of search results.

Most of the time, it's not a problem. If you're not hearing a low-pitched hum or a buzz with most or all sources, you probably don't have an issue. And digital data is one of the areas where grounding has little or no impact on the signal - though the safety of the equipment might be at risk if it's line-powered and something goes very wrong. Have fun!

BTW, fair warning, I'm not one of those who subscribes to the "power must be cleaned" theory. Most AC-powered equipment, at least if properly designed, will work acceptably with power that's in a normal range of voltages and noise content. For computers and life-critical equipment, it might be worthwhile to get an uninterruptible power supply to deal with the occasional voltage surges/sags and brief power outages that occur, but I don't think most audio equipment falls into that category, and besides most UPS's don't produce anything even remotely like clean power when on battery (computer power supplies don't care).

PS: if you're really worried about the grounding of your house, you might want to hire an electrician to check it out...

Allen Fant's picture

You are always dashing, Art.
Good to read that you once owned my fave loudspeaker-Thiel!

DanGB's picture

At the risk of re-igniting Art's coffee nerdism, I'd recommend he tries the Aerobie Aeropress. Cheap, quick, produces the best coffee I've ever made, far more consistent than a cafetière/French press, small enough to take on the road and easy to wash up.

DH's picture

Aeropress works sort of like a French press, but has a paper filter. Good coffee, without sludge.
Less than $30 at Amazon and other places.

mrounds's picture

Coffee: I long ago rationalized my coffee making equipment to settle on basic "pour-over" equipment: plastic Melitta #4 filter cones, unbleached filters. Heat water in a Sunbeam Hot Shot (chez Walmart) or microwave (slower than the Hot Shot). Pour over about 1/3 cone of fine-grind coffee of reasonable quality. Enjoy. It meets "good" standards for me: I can drink and enjoy it black, and it happens quickly (no waiting for coffee grinding etc.).

First system: in my case, the electronics were not downgraded in later years; started with a little Nikko amp in college that was definitely not hi-fi, and a pair of little 6" Goodman's speakers for the dorm room. Later got a system with a pair of EPI-100's - still have them; best speakers I ever had and even better now after a (very cost-effective, DIY but easy) rebuild using Human Speakers components. Otherwise, I don't see anything now that's affordable and any better than the old Denon & friends that drive the EPI's, so I'll concentrate on fixing the AR turntable yet again... And I might yet consider a Class-D integrated to replace the Denon if I can find a nice inexpensive one - the tiny Topping in the computer sound system (with a pair of Altec 85's) is very impressive.

Great article, too!

mrkaic's picture

Well, It should come as no surprise that one’s taste in audio gear appears to be correlated with one’s choice of transportation.

If you want really good coffee, you have to travel to Italy. Go to a gas station or a train station and you have a good chance to enjoy some of the best espresso ever. For coffee to be good, it must travel through a high pressure machine that is kept warm all the time and makes tons of coffee. You can’t make that at home. It is like trying to replicate the sound of an orchestra with audio gear. It cannot be done.

JoeinNC's picture

True, that.

I’ve never been to an Italian gas station, but pretty much any of the restaurants in my neighborhood make better coffee than I do. Even McDonald’s.

mrkaic's picture

I agree. It probably has to do with the machines and grinders that they use.

philipjohnwright's picture

The Aeropress makes good coffee but is a bit of a faff. For fabulous coffee with very little faff try the Clever Dripper

I have a Gaggia Classic sitting doing nothing since I bought the Clever Dripper - it makes the cleanest coffee imaginable. Cheap device too, even the filters are easy to get.


Faff? What the hell is Faff??

Johnny2Bad's picture

If there is one defining characteristic o my life, it's a need for coffee. I like it all, from boiled jobsite peculators in styro cups that are too small to actually satisfy me, to great coffee made well in a restaurant that cares.

I have three basic coffee tools at home. A Cuisinart electric drip coffeemaker that has the absolutely wonderful feature of a pull-out swinging thingy that you can pour the water in as well as access the basket. No more dripping water all over the counter pouring it into some louvered abyss on the top. Brilliant!

A SAECO 15bar expresso machine that is easy to use and has lasted a decade without more than the occasional cleaning with the little powder pouches sold for the purpose. Cappuccino with foamed milk and a dash of powdered cinnamon, I usually take two in the morning, when the urge arises for something more interesting than the drip coffee.

And finally the Nescafe 3-in-1 instant coffee found in asian markets. Quick and very enjoyable. Proper use is to pour it into a smaller cup than western coffee cups.

As for the boiling water problem with manual drip, french press, or instant coffees, I use the electric kettle and pour a couple ounces of cold water from the tap to tame the heat. Works perfectly.

My first system, which was the only thing I wanted to buy when I had my first earned income, at age 14, consisted of a Sansui AU-101 integrated amp, all 13 whopping watts per channel, a Sony belt drive turntable that emitted all kinds of mechanical crap in pretty much every operating condition with a stylus that I've completely forgotten, and a pair of home-built speakers with Celestion 12" woofer, the venerable Phillips dome tweeter found in many commercial offerings of the day, and a single film capacitor acting, I suppose, as a "crossover".

Paired with an obsessive LP buying habit ... every saturday one or two albums would arrive in the collection ... and I was thrilled. My parents, God bless them, tolerated my a-little-too-loud system far more than probably any parent would, as they saw my obsessive hobby as a safe indulgence (and which led to a job in the industry at age 19, and a much better system - Luxman, Denon, a half dozen cartridges, my favourite being the Fidelity Research FR1 MK III, an Infinity Black Widow arm, and a pair of Tangent RS-2 bookshelf speakers.).

With my first paycheck from that job I bought a Nikon FM camera and 50/2.0 lens, and shot a lot of Kodachrome, Ilford B&W and Kodak Infrared film over two happy decades.

Just writing this gives me a warm, happy feeling, remembering the days of my youth.

Supperconductor's picture

I got some great laughs and enjoyed every word of this post. Thanks!

woodford's picture

you had me until Bruckner.

David Harper's picture

I laughed out loud a couple times reading this and I never do that.I remember Goofus and Gallant in Boy's life magazine, which I read faithfully until I discovered Playboy. I did with stereo what Art did with coffee makers. Decided to stop thinking about (and buying)components and just enjoy listening to music.So I bought a Denon AVR and an OPPO UDP 203 digital player, and I've never looked back.I love this stuff. The Oppo does pretty much everything except make coffee and it does it all flawlessly.I don't care if this stuff is "high end". Six thousand dollar CD players no longer have any place in my order of priorities. Oh, and my speakers are Polk floorstanders. Which I also love as much for what they look like as for their sound. Rtia5's.

deckeda's picture

I told myself that a dedicated gas grill converted into a roaster with an RK tumbler would save me money and deliver better taste. Because that's one of the best consumer-grade/semi-pro setups you can have.

I haven't gone off that offramp, because after watching some YouTube examples of what's involved I concluded that while I understood the "why" of all the minutia and machinations required "to do it right," I probably just don't give a shit, overall.

How incredibly freeing.

Richard D. George's picture

Nice article.

I remember my first real system. It was a very long time ago. Before History was a subject. When the Dead Sea was just sick....

B&O turntable
McIntosh solid state integrated amp. No speaker posts - just clips for bare wire
Advent speakers
Kimber Kable speaker cables - bare ended wire

It was magical to me. I amassed a number of records which I eventually sold.

rschryer's picture

As President of the Montreal Manbun Society, I take exception to your repeated digs at manbuns. You may not have the hair to pull off the genteel hair-art that is the manbun, Mr. Dudley (jealous perhaps?), but we are many who believe the manbun to epitomize the pinnacle of cultural evolution.
Please cancel my subscription to Stereophile.

Robert (The Bob) Schryer
President of the Montreal Manbun Society
(est. November 2016)

Lincolnmat's picture

As the owner of a SOTA Sapphire (NOT Star) with Sumiko MMT arm that I have owned since new in 1988, I wish to suggest that it remains a very musical device. With only the replacement of a belt and cartridges it continues to work well. In fact within the last year I have replaced everything but the table and arm and now have by far the best system I have ever owned. I would say better than many systems I hear at Axpona. I can only think that your combination at the time was unfortunately not the sum of its parts.

With that out of the way, great article!

Belbo's picture

The whole point about coffee in the morning is the time and effort it takes. The end-result makes no difference, it's all about a 15' ritural to get the day started.

Belbo's picture

as always.

jbuhl's picture

My car is a 10 year old SAAB 9-5. Although alduterated by GM I love her dearly and have no plans to let her go. I think you just took the wrong exit ramp at Press Ave with the coffee. Try the Pour Over street, as previous poster recommended. I do recommend fresh ground though as beans oxidize quickly and grinder will be your largest investment.

nomaslarge's picture

that when it comes to coffee Art Dudley, sensitive soul and lover of Japanese amplification, would turn out to be the equivalent of the ossified audio cranks on the vintage forums.... "all this dicking around with Shindo this and eight grand for this, and all you really need is an SX-1010 and a pair of KLH 23s... "

xyzip's picture

Just realized that there are definite connections btwn the coffee world and the audio world. Obvious :
* if you are pretty certain that a digital coffee machine that does everything from Turkish to steamed milk on a net-connected timing system is the way, you are a Sooloos-Meridian MQA audiophile.
* sorry but the Krupps/ Braun Auto user is pretty much still on the creditcard-audio treadmill, getting wack recommendations from that 'really great guy named Ted' down at the mainstreet store, and probably uses rack systems around which those zaftig Audio Advisor models have been crouching or writhing.
* if you're using a vintage Pavoni and only do espresso, you are probably also eyeing the captivating chrome of Dmitri Medviedev's glam listening gear. Your Eames chair is ready, but you are not quite content.
* if you're an Aeropress or Clever Dripper sport, you may be very close, but those giveaway Led lamps built into your tube sockets and the big blue meters on everything in the rack marks you as a new-era McIntosh newb. You are a striver.
* a Hario pourover enthusiast is a thrillseeker, maybe someone who runs Output-tranformerless Russian-power-triodes or something. You are a maverick, and you are close ..
* if you are using the classic plain-old pourover- Melitta?- but have a thousand dollar grinder from Switzerland or Estonia or some other Bond-villain country, you probably also have a lot of Analog and possibly Interstage transformers in your tube gear. You are self actualized.
* at the final stage you use Japanese "Nel" gear for coffee, woodfire-boil your water and have pre-roast aged beans in a million jars on your rickety shelves. You also use bespoke Western Electric amplification and possibly Vitavox or Voice Of The Theater speakers. You generally need not speak or move from the lotus position. Namaste.

PECwines's picture

I realize this is an old column and thread, but I have recently restarted my musical journey/quest.

I could never go back to an electric coffee maker - at least one that I considered “reasonably” priced. I’ve become so picky about coffee that I now drink tea 95% of the time. When I do make coffee, it’s beans ground in a conical burr grinder, weighed out with temperature controlled water in a French press that manages to retain all the sludge. All that aside ...

One of my favourite systems was based on a Bogen RP230 valve receiver (yes, a BOGEN,) a Thorens TD160 table and Smaller Advent speakers. I recall recording a Met performance of Carmen from an NPR broadcast onto cassette that was magical. I have no idea what happened to the Bogen, the Advents or the tapes, though I suspect I’ll unearth the tapes someday and the cassette deck is waiting in the wings. That modest system rocked!

These days I have a DECware SE84UFO which is clearly superior to the Bogen, but the analog gear, both the Thorens, various MM cartridges and a The Source deck all need service so I am reduced to (gasp) streaming, files (both Apple lossless and DSD,) and CDs/SACDs ... the latter of which are passable. The speakers are DCM Time Windows 1A which, while interesting, either need some work or replacement.

But the curious thing is that I am patient ... I realize that the synergies of components and ancillaries such as cables, supports, room treatment etc., take time to sort. I’ll get there, but I have less hair than Art so there may be less time remaining. If all else fails, I may drive down the Thruway from Rochester to Albany to seek sage advice.