April 2007

Forward to the Past

Modern technology has made countless menial tasks in our lives so much less painful and has brought so much convenience into our day-to-day living. Who wants to boil bath water over an open fire when a 50-gallon tank sits full, steaming and waiting in the basement? Olive oil today serves more as a delightful comestible than for precarious illumination, since flipping a light switch is so much handier than filling a lamp with a precious pasta condiment in order to read this magazine.

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Shindo Western Electric 300B Single Limited Amp

Speaking of food—the only thing on the globe more important than music—how would the modern, on-the-go household manage its helter-skelter meals without the microwave oven? Pop in the tater or the frozen lasagna, and eight minutes later, dinner is ready. But can you remember how much better a baked potato tastes when baked in a traditional oven? The skin should be slightly crisp, not flimsy from steaming, and the inside is flaky, not a pasty goo. And what about a home-baked lasagna? It’s light years ahead of anything you can buy, even the premium stuff from the frozen-food section of the market. Microwaves are handy devices for sure, but they just can’t turn out the same yummy results that a good old-fashioned gas range is capable of dishing out.

What does this have to do with audio and video?

Well, at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, one of the hottest, most talked about demonstrations in the high-performance audio sector would surprise the briefs, or bikinis, off ya. Totally unexpected, the fellows from Tone Imports (toneimports.com) and DeVore Fidelity (devorefidelity.com) were showcasing a nearly $60K audio system using—are you ready for this?—decades-old 78 rpm records as their source material. And though I wasn’t able to witness this first hand, all reports are that these vintage discs of Ellington, Frankie Lyman and LaVern Baker were creating some of the most astonishing music, sonically speaking, to be found among the acres of displays at this enormous expo of high-tech miracles.

Lauded speaker designer John DeVore, who was debuting his new model, the Gibbon Nines (which we’ll examine later this year), explained why the sound of the 78 was dramatically better than that of an LP, not to mention the ever-more convenient CD or MP3. “For one thing, the disc spins at 78 which allows for more real estate for the grooves. But the grooves themselves are deeper which, again, offers more information for the stylus to read.”

And that’s where the newly introduced specialty cartridge from EMT in Germany, the XOD65, imported by Jonathan Halpern of Tone, comes in. It is designed specifically to play 78s; the stylus integral to this cartridge is larger than the typical LP stylus and it tracks heavier—nine grams, according to DeVore—than the typical gram or so found on most tone arms. In addition, Halpern was using EMT’s Jubilee Series Varia-Curve Phono Stereo Control Center as the phono preamp which allows maximized equalization settings for 78s and also incorporates a highly sophisticated scratch filter which effectively eliminates most of the ubiquitous surface noise in discs which are now more than 50 years old, many much more than that. Gary Krakow of MSNBC.com says this about his experience in the room: “I must tell you about one of the most amazing sounding demonstrations I heard at the show. It came from a 78 RPM record. I’m not sure just how old the disc was, but what I heard sounded like it came from a recording session last month...I have to say I have never heard 78s sound so real and lifelike. I now realize that there’s still a lot of music inside those ancient platters.”

Certainly, the exalted level of equipment used in this demo helped
to extract every iota of music from these classic discs, but the point is
there continues to be damn good music and surprising sonics available
from these long-considered-extinct discs. No iPod can equal this
level of sound.

Confirms former Musician editor Scott Isler: “Anyone who’s ever really listened to 78s knows what they can really sound like. Most of the old 78s that have been transferred to LP or CD don’t sound good because engineers and producers feel like they have to lop off the high frequencies to get rid of the surface noise. Doing that just ruins the sound of the music so most people don’t know what they’re missing. They just think all those old records sound terrible which isn’t really the case.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m not necessarily advocating a return to 78s, though I could probably make a case for the 45, considering the amazing quality of sound Mobile Fidelity achieves with their 45 rpm LP reissues, which are absolutely flabbergasting. Again, no iPod-derived music will ever sound as good, as full and as musical.

It is downright shameful that most of us—diehard music lovers though we claim to be are slaves to convenience. We’d rather have the ease of the CD after a long day at the office than be bothered with the nagging LP, which needs attending every 20 minutes, even though the sound of LPs is demonstrably better and far less grating, surface noise be damned. We’d rather have the ease of operation of a good ol’ reliable transistor amp than have to deal with changing tubes every year or two, even though the sound and musicality of tubes is (typically) demonstrably better than transistors, and also usually less grating. This stems from the way transistors distort, which can be nasty, versus the way tubes distort, which can actually often enhance the music.

Just about everyone I know either has already purchased—or is constantly salivating over—a flat-panel television, usually plasma. Yet every writer for any reputable high performance video magazine still proclaims that the lowly old CRT, the television we grew up with, offers a better picture overall than any of the newest, grooviest flat screens. The blacks are better, there are no real burn-in issues, no funky pixel-based motion artifacts. They just look better. But they are not convenient. You can’t hang them on the wall in a room full of sleek modern furniture. They just are not sexy. And who doesn’t want sexy in the 21st century?

Relating all this to music making, some years ago my son took up the alto sax. After he outgrew his first cheapie instrument, I asked him what he wanted to purchase as a permanent axe. At the ripe old age of 12, he replied, “I want a Conn 6M like Charlie Parker had.” He was not going to be satisfied with one of the shiny new horns all his classmates were toting and tooting, so we found a funky old silver Conn, spent some money to fix ’er up and he was off playing like a madman. Of course, with the Conn, his sound was pretty damned impressive for a kid. It was a pain in the ass to maintain and finding a competent tech was difficult, but it was worth it in the long run. A mass-market horn would have been easier and more convenient, but the music would have suffered. Most musicians would agree that the additional care that might be needed to baby vintage instruments is worth the payback in better tone.

I’ve made no secret in these pages of my preference for the sound of tubes for audio amplification. In my bedroom, I have what might be the most revealingly musical system I’ve ever owned: a truly magical three-watt gem. Three watts! The circuit the designer employed for this beauty dates back to the 1930s. Miles never sounded better. Monk playing Ellington—from that old Riverside disc—never sounded more alive, more natural, more real. Like how live music is supposed to sound.

This thing has three tubes, and in the two years I’ve owned it, I’ve changed all of them once. I changed them not because they were dead, but because I could change them. As anyone into tubes—like most of the guitarists reading this column right now—will tell you, tubes do not all sound alike. The fun of owning tube-based gear is that you can swap the bottles around to tailor the sound the way you want it. Have an unlimited budget? You can invest in some “new old stock” RCA 2A3 triode output tubes and get some of the best sound you’ll ever hear: rich, startlingly lifelike midrange, detailed highs and surprisingly taut bass. I’ve opted for some recent Chinese 2A3s which come pretty close to that yet don’t break the bank. Changing the rectifier tube changes the character of the sound in other ways: more weight, less weight, more punch, less punch. A bit complicated, yes, but it’s worth it for the level of enjoyment derived.

I was in a movie theater recently, and when the previews began, I was in shock. It was instantly and painfully obvious that the projected image was digital. It was jerky, pixelated and difficult to watch. I was ready to bolt when the main feature began and it was apparent that the projection device had changed to film. The image was crisp, the colors were properly saturated and the overall sensation was familiar and warm. I stayed for the film’s duration, though I assure you I would have been unable to stomach even the greatest movie ever made had the on-screen image been the quality of those trailers. The theater owner would have cared less if I had walked out complaining of a crappy picture. His concern would have been that those digitally projected movies are a lot less hassle than those cumbersome reels of 35-millimeter film—and who needs hassle these days? Convenience is the key to success and profitability. Technology advances living for some, but others accept that it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.

For me, I’ll stick with my All-Clad pots and pans, my geeky gas range, my tubes, my LPs and my two old Western Electric touchtone phones. And I can proudly proclaim that I have never, ever purchased a microwave oven. Never. Ah! The music sounds so much better with some really good pasta! Homemad, of course! I’ll just listen to some Trane on an Impulse! LP for the 30 extra minutes it takes to roll out the tagliatelle. I’ll have to flip the disc only once during the process. Convenient, no. But superior and delicious, yes.

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