Listening #19 Pageth Twoeth

The beguilingly named model 15-2163 ($23.99 in the Shack's current catalog) is designed to be installed on a rooftop or chimney, but having it in an attic is almost as good. In fact, to someone like me, who's pathologically afraid of heights, having it in the attic is vastly better. I lifted the antenna into the space above my listening room, carefully unfolded it, and cobbled together a mounting arrangement that allowed all six elements to function more or less unimpeded, with enough access that I can manually change its direction whenever I feel like it.

Now, for its part, the Tivoli Model One table radio can be used as a separate tuner, simply by connecting its record-out jack to any pair of line-level preamp inputs. (The former is a 1/8" stereo jack, even though the Model One works in mono only; RadioShack's model 274-883 adapter, which costs $5.99, turns that jack into a pair of female RCAs—call them Davida Sarnoffs—so you can use the stereo interconnect of your choice.) In this mode, one simply turns the volume all the way down to silence the Tivoli's built-in amp and speaker.

Make no mistake: The Model One isn't just a cheap toy that surprised everyone by turning out okay. It's the Rega tonearm of table radios—a product that seems to have required a serious investment in design, materials, and construction techniques, and whose makers seem to have gambled on recouping their investment not by selling it at an outrageously high price but by selling a crapload of them. A look inside the Tivoli's rugged enclosure reveals a properly geared tuning knob, a decent-quality loudspeaker and reflex tube, heatsinks for the power-supply regulator, a frame-type transformer with a custom metal shield, three chunky circuit boards, wiring that's at least reasonably well-dressed and -routed, and, all in all, many more discrete components than ICs. And that's in a product that retails for less than some "high-end" audio companies charge for a single cable riser. Cripes.

Tivoli doesn't publish any specs on the Model One, but I think the thing must have at least decent selectivity, given the cleanness and lack of ambiguity with which it pounces on every station. I love the sensation of tuning them in with that analog dial: tactile nostalgia. Even the look is right: My sample of the Model One has dark brown knobs on a light gray-beige faceplate, and the enclosure is a plain but pretty solid walnut wrap—which is to say, the Tivoli Model One has been calculated to remind older hi-fi enthusiasts of the great AR and Advent audio products of yesteryear. Some may find that cynical, but it's okay with me, especially considering how good it is inside. I only wish the Model One could be made in the United States of America instead of the People's Emerging Markets of China.

The combination of the Tivoli "tuner" and RadioShack antenna has been nothing short of wonderful in my system: a flexible, great-sounding monophonic source for a combined price of only $124, plus a few bucks extra for 75-ohm cable and miscellaneous adapters. This little setup has helped me discover a fine classical music station in Syracuse that puts out a quite decent signal and tends to program music a bit more challenging than the average ultralight classical FM pap. ("WDUD, where you're never more than 30 minutes away from Pachelbel's Canon or a Rossini overture!") In fact, with the external antenna, the Tivoli's analog dial is fairly loaded with clean, strong signals from one end to the other. That might not sound like a big deal to you city slickers, but remember: I live way in the northeast corner of New York's charming Butt County, where goober rock like Lynyrd Skynyrd and Journey is still standard FM fare. Seriously.

And let's face it: This is not a terribly good time for pop radio, just as it's not a terribly good time for pop TV. Popular entertainment in general has now been thoroughly commoditized, and I can't help but be astonished by the way American audiences have devolved to where slickness, flash, and a peculiarly dimwitted sort of sexuality are sufficient to impress them, and have supplanted originality and freshness as the coin of the realm in just the last 10 or 20 years. The very success of garbage like American Idol—not to mention the fact that its contestants have proceeded to stardom and beyond (urp)—should be enough to convince you that pop is dead, smothered under the dimpled cellulite of an American public that has allowed its collective cultural intellect to necrotize and die, rather like a bedsore.

Anyway: If you don't derive most of your listening pleasure from classical, jazz, or real (read: not Lucy Kaplansky) folk music, then buying a tuner—any tuner, even a cheaply brilliant package like the Tivoli-plus-RadioShack setup described here—may at best be a whopping waste of time, and at worst a step in the wrong direction (defined for our purposes as: toward hell). People who live near good college stations may differ, with good or great reason.

But let's close on a positive note: It's a good, if rare, work of art that makes us look at the world in a different way. Similarly, it's a rare audio thingamabob that makes us listen differently. (Even a good record player can go only so far...) For the right kind of listener, a good tuner—especially a good mono tuner, where the musical content can be counted on to outweigh the sonic filigree—can do just that. Rating: Indispensable, maybe.

Speaking of radio...
You might be interested to hear that, when I'm not busy writing audio reviews and "left-wing articals" [sic], to quote one recent, anonymous critic, I spend some of my spare time writing my own crank letters, to the editors of the print and broadcast outlets I either enjoy or don't.

Recently I shared my feelings with National Public Radio yet again. Longtime readers will know I find the amateurish engineering and newsreading at NPR's affiliate stations to be inexcusable. And I continue to wonder why it is that most of what passes for "humor" on NPR is so damned precious. (Listening to the interminably unfunny sound effects on A Prairie Home Companion, I can't help but assume that the audience's applause light has been replaced with a titter sagaciously light.)

This time, I had a specific series of news reports in mind. Nina Totenberg, NPR's Legal Affairs Correspondent, was spinning out a string of stories about the late Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackmun, and padding each one by crowing about how she was the only broadcast journalist given access to the recently released Blackmun Papers. I considered this bit of self-promotion to be jarring and a waste of valuable air time, especially for a news organization that prides itself on being a notch or two above the network swill (which they may once have been). I wrote in to tell them so.

Imagine how smacked was my gob when I got a terse—and hilariously misspelled—e-mail the next day from Nina herself, who apparently does not respond well to criticism. Not that anyone does, of course. Hey, in less than two years at Stereophile I've been referred to in letters to the editor as a "terrorist," a "tin-ear," and a "smug Philistine"—and those were just the ones from the magazine's founder. So it's from personal experience that I speak of the need for public people to behave like public people, and to indulge in a bit of righteous skin-thickening before they allow gracelessness to diminish the quality of their work in the public eye [—or ear].

I continue to respect Totenberg's accomplishments as a reporter (if barely: I wish she'd risk her precious access and start asking tougher questions of the Supreme Court), but I was astonished by her unprofessionalism. Rest assured, I'll let it serve as a personal reminder for the next time I'm tempted to press Send before thinking.