Thursday, September 8, 2016

Remembering the family audio system

A "Throwback Thursday" memoir

As threatened, er, promised a while back, I decided to write about the audio system my parents had when I was young. It was not an audiophile dream come true. But it had importance for me. It is the first system I remember. And it was the one that we used for many years, and made the idea of playing records a normal thing.

The system was a wedding gift. It was pretty simple: a cheap Garrard record changer (probably very low end, if not absolute rock bottom of the line), and a Panasonic stereo receiver and speaker system.

The receiver and speakers were an integrated system. One speaker actually held the receiver electronics. A lot like powered monitor speakers of today which often put the electronics inside one of the speakers. If I recall right, however, there was an option to use the receiver with totally different speakers via a jumper on the back panel.

The Panasonic was also probably very low end. There was exactly one input on the back panelm usable for tape or ceramic phono cartridge. But, even then, there were plenty of useless features included. There was motorized tuning. (Might be helpful if there was a remote of some sort, but there was no remote. It would have been faster and better to just tune manually, rather than stand by the receiver, holding the tuning button down.) There was a gauge that showed the "balance". Presumably it indicated where the loudest sound was coming from. Which you could tell by ear pretty easily.

On a plus side, though, the enclosures were pretty solidly made, and were probably real wood.

My parents apparently had the system as stock for about a year, and then upgraded. Someone they knew added a different cartridge--a Shure M44, I think--and a phono preamp. Such phono preamps were not rare--I've seen them advertised in old ads for people like my parents who upgraded to a moving magnet cartridge on a system that was too low end for a moving magnet cartridge input. But I like to think my parents were ahead of the times--they had a "phono stage" before 1970!

And that was the last upgrade that system ever saw. There never was a tape deck. (Even though I tried to sell my mother on the idea of a cool looking Panasonic 8 Track deck that looked like it was from the same era at a neighbor's yard sale!) There definitely was never a CD player. The only change that ever got proposed was a new record changer. The old changer never worked as a changer in all the years that I remember. That was probably for the best as far as preserving records was concerned. But I recall my father seeing an ad for a record changer on sale at Radio Shack. We didn't get it, and it's probably a good thing as far as record life was concerned. (Particularly since that changer was a BSR with a ceramic cartridge.)

This system probably would not win any audiophile awards, although aspects were probably better than a lot of mass market dreck of today. Certainly the build quality was better. I suspect the Garrard was also a better turntable than any cheap mass market turntable of today. It was idler wheel drive, so it would probably have had better speed stability than today's rock bottom belt drive turntables. My parents also probably did well in getting that Shure cartridge--I have to think if nothing else it was gentler on records than whatever was there originally. It would have sounded better, too, at least in absolute terms. Whether the better performance was noticeable through the Panasonic speakers is another question.

But even though the system wasn't audiophile dream, it did get used. It might have been used more if it had been a better system, of course. But my mother apparently played records pretty much daily while I was enjoying supervised play time as a small child. Later, I can remember her listening to records some evenings after dinner. And my mother started broadening her musical horizons when that system was still in service. So...as I say, that system has value in that it established the idea of playing records as a normal, every day thing.

The system lasted until I was a teenager. And then the problems started. The first problem was that my mother decided to move the system to a real stereo stand. Up to that point, it had lived on our dining room buffet. (I have no idea why it ended up there... I have to wonder if it wasn't originally a move to keep the system out of my reach.) The stereo stand looked nice--real wood!--but was not super solid. So the record player started skipping. (This was before I knew much about the care and feeding of turntables. Today I'd take one look, and at least have a pretty good guess what the problem is!) Then, not long after, the receiver picked up a hum--probably a failing power supply capacitor. So the system fell silent.

After the system was taken out of service, I had some idea of using the changer for 78 RPM records, but it was one of those projects that I never got around to doing. The closest I came was trying it one time. I think I ran it through a console mono unit I had (using the old phono preamp that my parents had used). I didn't have a 78 RPM stylus, but didn't care--the record was a battered, last survivor in a set of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2. Battered record aside, however, there was something that grabbed me. Was there something in the system--the idler wheel drive turntable or the tube amp in the console--that better served the music than the 80s rack system a few yards away? (I'd speculate yes, but can't answer for certain.)

No matter...while I'm sure I'd find that system my parents had appalling to my audiophile ears of today, there is a certain amount of sentiment. I have many happy memories of listening to records on that system.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Smartphone headphone jacks going away

Rumors flying about the Internet claim that the Apple iPhone 7 will have no headphone jack. So iPhone 7 buyers, be prepared to pry open your wallet for either new headphones, or an adapter.

And Android users...quit laughing at the iPhone users. You're probably next to lose a headphone jack. (Indeed, at least one Android phone has no headphone jack today.)

The reality is that the headphone jack will be going bye-bye on phones sooner rather than later. No headphone jack can mean thinner phones. No headphone jack could also good for the phone battery—the battery could probably be smaller and yet keep the phone powered longer.

And it's argued that audiophiles could benefit. Digitally connected headphones might sound considerably better than similar headphones powered from a headphone jack. Headphones won't be at the mercy of the limited headphone jack power, or “it was on sale when we designed it!” phone DACs. Headphones could also benefit hugely by being designed as a system, where the headphone will be matched to a known DAC and a known amp.

But a part of me mourns the passing of the headphone jack, anyway. There is huge convenience in having a standard that works across a wide range of equipment...from home to portable, and old to new. I've used my Grado SR60 headphones on everything from portable CD players to 1970s stereo receivers. It works on everything I've tried with (even if they could sound better with some sources, of course). And I've never needed anything more than a cheap adapter.

The transition away from conventional headphone jacks come at an interesting time. Currently, I'm using a $20 RadioShack “Its Just a Phone!” special. But I contemplate off and on moving to a smart phone, partly to have a portable music player.

A few months  ago, I was sorely tempted by a smart phone that was on clearance at a local store. It was a Windows phone, and since few want a Windows phone, it lingered...and lingered...and lingered. As it lingered, the price kept dropping until it hit something like $15. It hit something like $15. I had a struggle: that was a cheap price for a phone that got good reviews on the Internet, but I have zero interest in a Windows phone. Plus, of course, there was the question if the price would drop under $10. Answer: no. The two people in America who are interested in a Windows phone apparently stopped by that store. Either that, or the store gave up and tossed the phones in the Dumpster, saying: “Enough is enough!”

More recently, I've been having car troubles, which means I have had to use the local bus service to get around for the last month or two. The more I use the bus, the more I think it would be nice having a smart phone. I could do light Internet surfing. Plus I could listen to my own music, rather than the noisy bus engine, or that passenger who spends a 45 minute trip loudly arguing with an imaginary companion.

Assuming I did get a smart phone, there would be the temptation to keep any headphone purchase simple. Something “good enough” for background. Simple means cheap. I am, after all, the Mobile Home Audiophile. But it would be interesting to have headphones that could connect digitally, and—hopefully—perform better with a smart phone than standard headphones plugged into a standard jack. After all, I am the Mobile Home Audiophile.

We'll see what happens, I guess.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Thinking about my late mother

Recently, I've been thinking of my late mother. She was not an audiophile, at least not in the standard sense. But she could hear the difference quality audio makes. More on that later...

My earliest record playing memories involve the family stereo system. I may talk about this system for some Thursday Throwback Memoir. For now, suffice it to say that it was pretty much rock bottom. My mother played records a fair amount when I was young, low end system or not.

I have memories of some evenings when she'd sit in the darkened dining room listening to a record. I have one memory of us playing one record one day when I was home from school. Was I sick that day? Vacation? I can't recall—all I can recall was that day we played a record. She once told me that she'd often play records while supervising me as I played as a very small child.

What impresses me now is the diversity of her record collection. Some of it might cause some to roll their eyes—she had several 1970s Neil Diamond records. But there was also Beethoven, Carmen (her favorite opera), and flamenco guitar. As the years passed, she got very interested in a variety of world music.

Listening to some of her records helped me cope the month after she died. Some were old favorites she'd had since forever. Some were actually ones she'd never listened to that I'd bought for her at a yard sale. Her health was seriously bad at that point, but buying those records represented an act of hope—maybe things would get better. As it turned out, they ended up being more for my healing than they were for her.

As I commented before, she was not an audiophile, but she did appreciate quality equipment. As I mentioned before, I dragged her along with me when I went to hear my first good system when I was a teenager. She was more likely, I thought, to be taken seriously than an obvious high school student. And, at the time, she was talking about a new audio system. Not at the Linn Axis level, but it made a good excuse to go and hear one.

Funny thing, but I don't think she expected to hear much difference between a Linn Axis-based system and what she was used to. And yet, she immediately heard a huge difference. Proof that you don't need to be an audiophile for years, or have rarefied golden ears, to hear a difference. At least between “good quality” and “mass market dreck.”

Indeed, looking back, I'd trust her reaction more than mine in one way: she was less likely to get seduced by technological claims. She had about zero interest in the technology—all she cared about was playing records.

This last thought reminds me of something else: she never, ever had a CD player. Part of this was likely a dislike of modern technology in general. She also never had a computer, or, for that matter, any number of other modern gizmos. But she was convinced about the performance of LPs on a good system. Her only expressed interest in CD was probably a nod to “new releases” and also the thought that there might be value in a CD changer for background applications.

She also never had a quality system that was hers and only hers. I think I may have had an idea of upgrading what I ended up with, and sending the old pieces her way. But...there were zero upgrades. Plus her health started deteriorating about the time the good system appeared, and not long after, she wasn't able to live alone. Given that, it was just more practical to have one good system that could live in the living room. (As opposed to audiophiles who have a good system under lock and key. And then a cheap system the troublesome people they live with family can use.)

My mother has been gone for many years now. But I still think of her, and she still has influence on my audiophile life. She was the one who made playing records routinely a normal thing. Her willingness to expand musical horizons was a good example. And I'm indebted for her endorsement of quality audio. She could hear the value, and knew the importance of buying quality. Unlike my grandmother, who upon hearing about high end audio (particularly the prices), said something sarcastic like: “What are you going to do? Just listen to records all the time?”

I miss my mother, but at least the memories and a legacy lives on...

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Tuesdays won't be the same

Last night didn't feel like Tuesday night.

As I mentioned before, I have participate in a record listening group. Every Tuesday, we meet and play a record from start to finish. This, however, has ended for a summer break. This is not entirely unexpected—the same thing happened last year. The hypothesis is that attendance is likely to be low during summer. Most people will likely be busy taking advantage of the Seattle area's five minute long summer by taking vacations, road trips, various outdoor activities, and so on. With all this going on, they likely won't have the time or enthusiasm to attend an indoor record listening event.

The break is understandable. But...I will miss this event. Tuesdays won't be the same without it.

As I've thought about it, what I'll miss isn't so much playing a record from start to finish. I can do that on my own. I will miss hearing new-to-me records, but I can also do that on my own. I've got records I've never played, and I can undoubtedly find thousands more in local used record shops.

No, what I'll miss is the interaction with others who have some interest in playing recordings on quality audio systems.

Such people are fairly rare. Indeed, I have known very few people even aspired to have anything better than a Bose Wave Radio, or maybe Japanese component home theater system. So it's fun seeing people who have, say, a Rega turntable instead of a Crosley. It's also fun talking with people who have some interest in playing a recording, and not just for background.

Fortunately...the summer break is only for the summer. At some point this fall the group will resume meeting weekly. I just have to survive the next four months. Hmm...maybe it's time to dig out some of those records I've never played...

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Tape recording

A "Throwback Thursday" memoir

I've been thinking about tape recording a lot this week. It's probably because of an article I read that mentioned that Monday was the 70th anniversary of the first public demonstration of tape recording in the US. A huge event—tape changed the audio industry forever. It was both good and bad—it gave flexibility to recording companies, but helped open the door for the overly processed recordings we all know and hate.

Tape also had a profound influence on home users, particularly the humble cassette tape. Indeed, cassette tape was a major format for teenagers when I was growing up in the 80s. Indeed, I imagine some teenagers then had a record collection of exactly zero, but had countless tapes. Teens of the 1980s could use cassette everywhere, unlike records. One could play tapes at top volume on the family stereo system when the parents were out. One could take tapes over to a friend's for that wild Friday night party. One could play a tape in the car while cruising around town. Or one could play a tape in class on a Sony Walkman in hopes of drowning out that boring teacher's lecture.

My cassette listening was limited to home. I didn't have my own car when I was in high school, and for some reason I think Walkman was prohibited at school. I don't even recall having any interest in having a Walkman.

For that matter, I wasn't much into prerecorded cassettes, unless there was no other option. Almost all the prerecorded cassettes I had back then were some sort of “low-fi” voice material. For example, there was a period I was interested in old time radio, and cassette was the common distribution format for old radio shows.

Most of my music tapes were recorded myself off of records I owned. Indeed, I was a good example of another trend of that era: the person who'd buy a record, but immediately record it onto tape. The tape was the daily driver format; the record was a seldom-used master format.

One vivid memory of that era was getting blank tapes. A local college's bookstore—where I shopped for mundane school supplies when I was in high school—had a huge barrel full of blank BASF Type 1 tapes. It seems to me they were cheaper than other tapes, plus these tapes served me well—I don't recall ever having a BASF tape fail on me. So I could go in and get a new notebook I had to have for dreary homework, and stock up on tapes. And, if I were really lucky that day, they might have a display of records on sale. (Records were not a routine item, but every now and then they'd have specials. I think they were routinely remaindered records.)

That college was also probably my introduction, indirectly, to tape in the first place. During the 1970s, my mother did some study there, and at some point she had to  get a tape player to handle some spoken word tapes. She got a cheap portable Panasonic, and I remember her surprising me with her purchase. She started playing a Neil Diamond tape (which she presumably bought with the recorder), and brought the player into the dining room. How cool! A little black box plays music! No stereo needed! Fortunately, I wasn't an audiophile then, so I didn't notice how bad the sound quality was!

As far as I can recall, I surprisingly never did much with mix tapes. Actually, it might be more accurate to say I did nothing. The closest I came was when I helped my mother tape some of her favorite records—she was sold on the idea of putting the wear on tapes. The tapes often had blank space at the end, so my mother's idea was fill up the space with a favorite song, which might come from a different record.

These home recorded tapes helped keep some music available for the period right  before I got my first good system. At that time, the only audio system I owned was an old mono console unit that was a conversation piece in my bedroom. I had an old tape deck lying around, too, that turned out to be electrically compatible with the console. It was probably not the best sound possible, but the alternative was no sound.

My interest in cassette tape ended about the time I got my first decent audio system. Indeed, I had half-known that would happen—I figured that once I had a good turntable, I'd be more interested in playing the record itself. And, as the local dealer pointed out, record wear was not a huge issue when one uses a good turntable. Indeed, I remember once asking the dealer about LAST record preservative. His response was along these lines: “I don't carry it. We carry turntables like the Linn, and when you have a Linn, you don't worry about record wear. Records don't wear out on a Linn.” Perhaps he'd overstated the case...but record wear definitely is less of an issue on any good turntable, be it a Linn LP12 or Rega RP1, than, say, a 1970s console stereo BSR. (Old joke: BSR stands for “Bound to Scratch Records.”)

So when I got a decent system, the cassettes were a casualty. I kept spoken word tapes. The music tapes I'd recorded from records a few years before went bye bye. I can't say I really ever regretted that decision, although it might be interesting to play one now just to hear how bad a tape recorded on the rack system I used in the 80s sounds to my audiophile ears of 2016!