Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Will Crain: Answering The $11.95 Essay Challenge

Posted by Trott

[Editor's Note: Will Crain has answered the $11.95 Essay Challenge and will be awarded $11.95! You could be next! Send your essay to pfsh AT palacefamilysteakhouse DOT com.]

Stereos I Have Known
One music lover’s long and tortured relationship with home audio

By Will Crain

When I turned 12, my uncle gave me his old stereo system. Far from the boomboxes, component systems and the iPod I would later own, it was just an amplified record player and a couple of speakers covered in simulated-wood paneling. The spindle had a second stage on it so that when one album side finished, another could fall down on top of it and the tone arm would start playing the next record without making you get up and flip anything. My copy of “Electric Ladyland,” with Side A and Side C on one disc and Side B and Side D on the other, was made for record players like this. But the most remarkable thing about the stereo was the speakers. They were shaped like upright cylinders. The speaker cones were directed toward the ceiling, while a plastic cone pointed down at them, apparently in a futile attempt to disperse sound around the room.
I didn’t have any records, so a friend gave me some: Styx’s “Paradise Theater,” Blue Oyster Cult’s “Secret Treaties” and a Chicago album which was made to look like a candy bar. But before long, I had albums I liked better, ELO’s concept album “Time,” “The Best of Blondie,” the Cars’ “Shake it Up,” the Pretenders’ first album and the Beatles “Red Album” compilation.

After my wife and I moved last month, I set up my stereo in a new apartment for perhaps the twelfth time. I find a comforting sense of ritual in the whole ordeal: finding the best place to stack the components – out of the sun so the records don’t warp on a sunny day, where the system is not so visible from the windows that it might tempt burglars, but with enough room to allow lingering over the equipment to pick the right music and to adjust volume, treble and bass – and then finding spots for the two speakers to optimize stereo separation and penetration of the apartment without disturbing the neighbors.
This time, I didn’t feel a pressing need to get the stereo system set up so that I would have something to listen to while unpacking boxes and hanging pictures. I had a boombox in the dining room and a handful of CDs I had brought in from the car and a computer in the study to listen to thousands of songs with iTunes.
Nonetheless, as I have said, I enjoy the process, and so I set up the stereo in an out-of-the-way corner. I put the speakers on the floor (we have no neighbors downstairs) on either side of the couch. We can hear the music throughout the front part of the apartment and I found it pleasant to lie down and feel the bass under me and hear the left channel by my head and the right by my feet.
After a couple of days, though, I noticed that the CD player was skipping. It would stop halfway through a song and jump ahead to the next track, as if it had a limited attention span. I thought it might be merely a problem with dust, and so I opened the tray and blew into the interior several times. No effect. This CD player, an inexpensive Kenwood I bought eight or nine years ago, has had a similar problem in the past, and when I unstacked it and looked at its back I saw a sticker from a repair shop where I had last taken it. I remembered that the repair guy had explained to me that I may as well just buy a new player because they were so cheap these days that it was hardly worth fixing them. I had him fix it anyway. Not this time.

I can’t remember what happened: Perhaps I wanted a system with a cassette recorder as well; maybe I had learned that simulated-wood paneling was no longer in fashion and had demanded something sleek and modern; maybe my uncle had asked for the stereo back after his first son was born. For whatever reason, my father picked out for me a new system with three components: a turntable, a combination tuner/amplifier and a cassette deck. We set them up on some wall-mounted shelves in my room. My father had to get out his power saw to cut a new platform for the turntable because it was too deep for the shelves.
All the components were of a matching silver, although they were from different brands -- American or Japanese companies that I had heard of, at least. The speakers were made of wood, with unfashionably brown grille cloth, but somehow these colors were acceptable for speakers. To change radio stations, there was a wheel that turned so delicately and smoothly that I glided from KRQR “The Rocker” to KWAK “The Quake” just to feel it.
I turned this wheel all the way to the left to listen to the college station KUSF late on Saturday nights and early Sunday mornings, when the program “Rampage Radio” played heavy metal by Iron Maiden (I preferred the original singer, Paul Di’Anno, to Bruce Dickinson), Saxon (with lead singer Biff Bifford) and much more obscure recordings like the demo tapes of a Swedish teenager named Yngwie Malmsteen. (The host pronounced the name “Ing-Gwee.”)
I had a little simulated-wood Sony Dream Machine clock radio by the side of my bed, but I would push my mattress across the floor of my long attic room in order to listen to “Rampage Radio” on headphones as I fell asleep. Sometimes I would set my alarm to wake up early and listen to the show’s final hour, from 5-6 a.m., when the host played all satanic metal from the likes of Mercyful Fate and Venom. Then I’d get up, get dressed and go to church with my family.

I thought about just plugging my boombox or iPod into the stereo, but that seemed tacky. This time, I decide to take the plunge and buy a new CD player. I called up and searched for “CD player” and was immediately overwhelmed by the choices, very few of which suited my needs. There were boomboxes, CD walkmen, complete bookshelf systems, “nostalgia” systems designed to look like old radios or Victrolas, professional DJ systems with dual wells that allowed turntable-like scratching techniques. Among the component CD players, there were models that included CD burners, models that advertised that they would play CD-Rs, CD-RWs and mp3 discs. There were models that played the new SACD format (for surround-sound systems) and models that played the HDCD format (never heard of it). There were models that played 100, 300 or 600 CDs, and there were models that were made to look like Wurlitzer jukeboxes.
I decided to visit some stereo stores to see some of these things in person. My first stop was the Good Guys, where I walked past an armed guard to be assaulted by 100 blaring radios and TVs, all tuned to different stations. I had been to this same store a couple of years before, but it now looked shockingly different. The middle of the floor was dominated by rows and rows of digital cameras. The far end was all flat-panel TVs. Where there had been tuners and amplifiers and cassette decks, there were now dozens of DVD players. I looked a little harder and found attractive bookshelf systems and hideously ugly boomboxes that looked like some kind of cross between a Transformer and the Michelin Man. Tucked away in a corner were exactly one model of cassette deck and two models of 5-CD carousel players. Both cost somewhere around $150, which, if I remember correctly, is close to half of what I paid for my Kenwood. But I couldn’t see the difference between the two models, and I was sure I had seen the same things online for under $100.
Eber’s, the independently owned stereo store on Market Street, went out of business last year, and the only other independently owned shop I could think of specializes in audiophile equipment that I can’t afford, so I went to Best Buy, the big-box chain store that sells computers, washing machines, CDs, DVDs, cameras, TVs and countless other things in addition to home audio components. It had some CD players that held 100 discs or more, but no more options in the kind of CD player I wanted than did Best Buy. I returned to online shopping.

The metal phase passed, and I fell deeply in love with Led Zeppelin. I wore a “Swan Song” T-shirt. I read “Hammer of the Gods.” I drew the mystical symbols from “Led Zeppelin IV” on my notebooks. I listened to the debut almost every day, “II” and “III” weekly, “IV” (a.k.a. “Zoso”) and “Physical Graffiti” often. I devoured “Houses of the Holy.” I enjoyed “In Through the Out Door.” I even listened to “Presence.” I got a Walkman and lay on the soft carpet in my parents’ bedroom, singing along to “When the Levee Breaks” until they came home, heard me wailing and ran to see if I was OK.
I also liked prog, primarily Yes and Rush. Yes made full use of the stereo spectrum. One song had an interlude where you could hear the sounds of someone walking up a spiral staircase, with the signal gradually moving from the right channel to the left and back and then to the right again. I picked up a graphic equalizer Radio Shack, but I knew that I had installed it incorrectly when I listened to that Yes song on my Walkman and the footsteps clomped up the stairs in mono.

My sister recommended the Web site of J&R Music World in New York, and finally I felt that I was getting somewhere. I set my sights between the obscenely expensive audiophile components (is there really such a difference in pieces of equipment that read the same sets of ones and zeroes?) and the cheaper Sony models, and I settled on a respectable Denon 5-CD carousel. I looked it up on eBay and found one with a warranty, from a licensed dealer, and bought it for less than I would have paid at a store for the Sonys.

When I went off to college, my mother gave me a small, all-in-one system with a cassette player, a cheap turntable and a CD player. It was my first CD player, and I broke it in with the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul.” I was surprised to find that the Beatles CDs followed the U.K. album track listings and therefore had different songs than the U.S. albums I had been listening to for the past five or six years. I bought Elvis Costello’s “Blood and Chocolate” and marveled at the sound of the long, quiet intro to “I Want You” stripped of the pops and cracks of vinyl.
But the turntable was a problem. When I got to my dorm room, my roommate and I set up his turntable on top of our dorm-room refrigerator and plugged it into his cassette-only boombox.
I didn’t have to deal with such problems for long. I lived off campus my second year of college, in a big house with a bunch of irresponsible housemates. I came home from spring break to find that a party had gotten out of hand. The little stereo was in pieces on the front lawn.

My current component system was together over the past 20 years or more, beginning with that system my father picked out for me, added to when I bought a new CD player to replace the dorm-room system, and replaced one piece at a time until nothing remained from the original set-up. It consists of 1) My father’s old Sony tuner/amplifier; 2) a Sony dual-deck cassette player/recorder that I bought a few years ago in order to duplicate my own demo tapes; 3) some Sansui speakers that my father bought in Japan when he was in the Army more than 35 years ago; 4) a Technics record player that my friend Andy was going to throw away; and 5) the now-defunct CD player.
The tuner has unsightly buttons instead of a smooth wheel. I rarely use the tape deck. (I threw away more than 100 cassette tapes when we were packing for the move.) The record player’s cover tends to fall off its hinges. The components are a mismatch of early ’80s silver and ’90s gloss black. The speakers don’t sound particularly good, but they don’t sound bad and they’re made of solid wood, with attractive wooden grilles. And they’re as old as I am, which makes me feel sort of protective about them.

I always had CD players that played one disc at a time. It’s one thing to have a stackable spindle and listen to a double album without having to get up more than once, but it’s another to listen to one album after another without thinking about it. I’ve never even used the auto-reverse feature on my cassette deck. It seemed somehow disrespectful to the artist to treat his or her vision as interchangeable audio wallpaper.
Or that’s what I might have thought at home. I used auto-reverse all the time in my car’s tape deck. I made lots of mixed tapes to listen to in the car and some of them didn’t have a fast-forward moment on them anywhere. Yo La Tengo’s “I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One” is too long for one 45-minute side of an album, and so I put it on either side of a 90-minute tape, with some songs from a Matador compilation filling up the remainder second side. I left that tape in the deck for three months before I realized that I had not hit the eject button and that it therefore must have become one of my favorite albums.
But eventually I got a new car with a CD player and I’ve hardly touched a cassette tape since.

I got an e-mail from PayPal this morning: my payment has cleared and the Denon should be in the mail soon. But I can wait. I’m in the home office, sitting at my computer and iTunes is set to random play. I just heard Belle and Sebastian and now I’m hearing an old R&B ballad, “You’ll Lose a Good Thing,” sung by Barbara Lynn. If the living room couch was in here, I’d be tempted to lie down and close my eyes while listening to the music, all 9.7 days’ worth of it -- albums and mix tapes, vinyl records and cassette tapes, components and proper speaker placement, all my responsibilities be damned.


 StephenMP said...

I greatly enjoyed this $11.95 essay. But Will, regarding the Led Zeppelin albums: What about Coda? Did you not also buy a copy of that? I did, during my adolescent Led Zep phase. It's got another Bonham drum solo on it! A sequel to "Moby Dick"! But it's not as good, so they put a bunch of cheesy flanging on it to try & make it sound "cool."

10:45 PM, September 28, 2005
 Simone said...

I like any comment that makes use of the word "flange".

...or "flanging".

9:34 AM, September 29, 2005

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