Friday, April 7, 2017

Buy a CD player in 2017?

Last week, I wrote about reconsidering compact disc, and possibly giving it another whirl (or should I say spin?) in my system. Since that time, I haven't come to any hard and fast decisions. The only thing that seems certain is that if I were to try seriously using CD I'll have to upgrade hardware. And I've been wondering this week exactly what sort of upgrades I might pursue. Which brought a rather shocking thought: I might seriously consider doing nothing more than another CD player.

Some would say I'm crazy to consider a CD player. It's 2017, not 1987! Today's audiophile often goes with system centered somehow or other around a DAC. It may be a standalone DAC, or it may be integrated into something else (like an amplifier). That DAC will work with a wide range of digital sources.

Past that, modern digital systems often do away with the spinning of the CD entirely. Many have totally embraced some sort of file server mentality for dealing with CD. Every CD they owned was ripped, and stuffed only a computer hard drive. From that point, any time the CD is played, it is played off the hard drive.

As of a couple of years ago, the modern DAC model was the direction I thought I'd head in if I ever did anything with digital again. It seems more sensible since it gets far more capability than merely playing CDs. I don't see myself wanting to rip all my CDs—even though I have a small collection—but a computer could be more convenient for playing favorite recordings (particularly in background mode). And...sealing the deal, or so I thought, was how cheap DACs have gotten. It's possible to buy a new DAC for less than some new budget CD players.

Given that one can buy a DAC for less than a CD player would make the DAC a better buy. Or so it might seem. But the question that I'm wondering is how much would a DAC cost that I'd be willng to seriously listen to? I've heard a few inexpensive DACs here than there. I have been impressed in some ways, but nothing I've heard has really grabbed me. None of them compelled me to make them a "must buy." None of them really made me want to run all my favorite CDs through them. And I even ran carefully selected tracks through one DAC I heard.

Meanwhile...a CD player from Arcam (not super high end, but also far from rock bottom budget) did impress me in the late 1990s. And that CD player was fed a CD I'd bought just to have a CD to take to audio dealers. I never heard that CD before that day, and yet there was something that made me want to listen. (Interestingly, that CD has since become a favorite. But it's a problematic CD in that it can be painful to listen to on bad equipment.)

Since price is a major consideration, I've started wondering if I wouldn't be better off with a CD player. Admittedly, a new, budget CD player probably wouldn't be much more involving than a budget DAC. But there are a lot of used CD players floating about, and sometimes quite attractively priced. It might be possible to find a CD player I could actually listen to priced at a level that would buy a DAC that I'd be less inclined to listen to.

With a CD player, of course, one loses functionality of other digital sources. (Unless one gets a CD player with a digital input. But those are higher priced than I'm interested in at the moment.) I likely to really do much beyond CD at this point? CD is what is available really cheap on the used market right now. CD is what my library stocks. High resolution audio interests me—but I have a hard time getting past the price of recordings. I've been too spoiled, I guess, by used LPs. And, speaking of LPs, a lot of the newer releases that interest me have also been released on vinyl. It's more expensive than digital, but a few extra dollars here and there isn't the end of the world.

One worry with a used CD player is reliability. I've had pretty good luck historically, and when I spend real money, I tend to be cautious. So I'm not hugely worried about buying "someone else's problems." I am guessing I wouldn't use the player enough to really make wearing it out a huge worry. (Indeed, if I got heavily into running CDs as background, it might make sense to get a CD changer for that purpose. Goodwill always has a selection of CD changers that are good enough for background.)

At this point, I have no idea if I'll pursue a CD player. At least, it's an option, and it may be a good option for the moment. We'll see.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Reconsidering CD

Recently, I have been thinking maybe—maybe—I’ll give CD another chance.

In a way, it’s strange that I’d think of giving CD another chance. I’ve frankly been an analog die-hard my entire audiophile life. Vinyl has never come back as far as I’m concerned simply because it never went away. Indeed, I had a good system for nearly ten years before I started seriously playing with CD—and even then, I went with a used, dirt cheap budget CD player, and it was used very much as a “second format” once the novelty wore off.

Past this this, it’s also worth noting that CD is a dying format. Why bother with it?

Actually, being honest, a major reason why I’m suddenly interested in CD is entirely because it is a dying format. CD is less and less popular, and thus the used market is flooded with CDs, which are priced at next to nothing. I have seen prices as low as a quarter each. In some cases, a CD may sell for much more than a quarter—but still be considerably cheaper than any LP edition of a given work. (Classic jazz recordings are a good example.) From a view of building a music collection on the cheap, the CD has become what the LP was 25 years ago.

At the same time, however, I see one big problem to pursuing cheap CDs. My current digital hardware is...uh...lackluster. It is adequate for background music much of the time, and it’s acceptable enough that I occasionally (but only occasionally) seriously listen. So if I were to give CD another shot, I should also plan to do hardware upgrades.

Needless to say, upgrades mean spending money. Unfortunately, at this point in my life, I need to spend money wisely. I am not the Mobile Home Audiophile because I’ve found a mobile home has the best possible acoustics! I frankly wonder if I’d see enough return on cheap used CDs to justify hardware upgrades. (Of course, with digital upgrades, I’d be able to do things I can’t do now. Such as playing high resolution digital files. But, again, I’m not sure it would be worth it to me—at least until I have the budget to be able go on a high resolution audio recording shopping binge.)

It also doesn’t help that I remain quite happy with analog. Even if there had never been a rebirth of vinyl, I’d survive. I had no trouble finding worthwhile music to listen to during the nearly 10 years I did nothing with CD. Yes, I sometimes wished I could play a newer release. But there was a lot—a lot—of worthwhile music on old LPs.

In the end, I keep flip-flopping on whether I want to give CD another chance. One day I think yes, and the next day I think no. We’ll see what happens in the end, I guess.

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. 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...