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Positive Feedback ISSUE 30
march/april 2007


by Doug Small


For months now I have promised this tongue in cheek article about the virtues of having a "b" system (always a small letter) to compliment the much adored "A" System (always a Capital Letter). Editors hate writers who flout deadlines without apology. I hereby apologize.

That out of the way, let me walk you through the delay, which in some way illuminates the A/b systems dichotomy I face. Truth be told, I am writing to you dear reader without conclusion, possibly even without understanding. Bear with me if you can on the journey of understanding, maybe, just maybe there is something we can learn (or unlearn) together.

It was some six months ago I ran into "Reverse Polarity." Yep, sure enough some of my precious records sounded terrible on both systems. Pretty much the same on my friends systems, too. Bad recording, I thought. Maybe so, but I took a giant step and started switching wires out of the back of my amp to my speakers. Most of the time I was patient enough to shut the power down, but on several occasions I blew out the slo-blows.

Thank goodness for fuses. If, like me, you are reminded more regularly than you would like by your spouse about whether or not you really need that thing, here's a little secret about when fuses blow: Look depressed, and if you can manage to be angry at "it" without laughing, just tell your spouse "the thing is broke. Sorry, Honey, but I have to replace it." On the sly pull off cover, install new fuses, sell on Audiogon, enjoy new stuff.

I digress; back to polarity. Well, anyhow, my Zeppelin II sounds MUCH better with the speaker wires reversed, it's just that I can't get back there all the time to pander to the needs of one album (I'm listening to the CD now which I don't think is as good as the correct-polarity vinyl.)

Clark Johnsen—scholar, engineer, writer, listener, etc.—offered to me his treatise on the subject, The Wood Effect, which goes into great detail about the whole subject. At least I understood something, I thought. I recommend you get the book if any can be found in his attic(1). I went on a tear re-listening to my record collection now numbering several thousand, and I do not mean compact discs which in some circles are referred to as "records." I mean vinyl. I note on each album whether or not the polarity is, for my "A" system, normal or reversed. Additionally I have developed a 10 point grading system and note what I think of each side of each album reviewed. Eventually I may even have listened to half the collection. My record heir (yet to be named) will receive a ton of albums in the 8/10 range and a few pounds of 10/10s.

And so…

And so the listening began. It has for you, too, I'm sure. You have favorites that you listen to for background. Other pieces you listen to in a darkened room, eyes closed, meditative state, favorite beverage nearby in volume that will not disturb your reverie, i.e. enough to get you through the session without having to return to the fridge or garage as the case may be. My wife calls this "sort of listening like you are in church." I think she means listening in awe and rapture of the message.

If you are like most of us, being in church is hard to do as a steady diet. Light-hearted and frivolous listening is just as important as those few reference recordings in our collection's inner circle. To follow the church metaphor a little further, before listening to a record I wash—it, not me. The current iteration of holy water is the three-stage regimen described in these pages recently entitled Vinyl Nirvana. Pardon my slight to music recorded onto hard drives and the digital format. They are not to my liking as a rule. I am in love with washing the vinyl, putting the vinyl in new inner sleeves, putting the jacket in a new poly outer sleeve and enjoying the cover artwork, holding the jacket as I listen. Computers and CDs just don't return love the way a record does.

Back to the Church of the Holy Sounds. I estimate I spend twenty minutes preparing myself for the first forty minute listening session in the morning. I clean the records while warming up the system on something else; this something else is usually a CD, so that the amp and cables have the proper electron flow and I'm not listening to what one might call a "cold wire." My routine looks something like this: me hobbling through the living room on a crutch or cane (wish I'd had the good sense to build a sound room when designing this place) complete with electrostatic speakers, high ceilings, lots of glass and hardwood floors and walls irregular in shape. I spend at least twenty more minutes every day moving the speakers an inch this way or an inch that way. As soon as I figured out that the plants in front of the picture window absorbed some of the outlaw sounds, my wife moved them away. Back to reflections. I move chairs around—not the one I sit in mind you, no it's all the others that play a part in the overall sound quality of the room. And I move them back before she returns home from work each day. I keep very busy apparently "doing nothing" each and every day in the name of good sound.

If all this weren't bad enough, I have been experimenting with the components of the "A" system. New interconnects, new speaker wires, new power conditioner, new CD player, new amps (remember the fuses??) et cetera. So, editor, and dear readers, one of the main reasons for the delay in this article is that I wanted to let each piece settle a while before I proclaim it officially part of the "A" system. However, I'm afraid that a year or more might pass before everything is stable, so on to the nut of the whole dissertation: "A" vs. "b."

As a glimpse into the recent past I offer ten simple reasons to have a "b" system.

10 Reasons to have a "b" System

10. Offers a place to recycle your "A" system when you go to A+ if you can swing a whole system upgrade or conversely the "b" stuff is easier to part with in a sale when the A system needs to be fed piecemeal.

9. Allows your friends to "really" hear the nuances of one recording. "You can't really make out the cymbals on this system," you can say or "the sound hangs in the air much longer on this system," or whatever you feel is important in the playback of your favorite sounds.

8. When you think you want to go somewhere else it's easier than going all the way to your friend's house in the next county or state.

7. You have a testing ground for the DIY "fixes." Mistakes don't require you to refinance the loan you already have out for the acquisition of the A system.

6. It isn't so intimidating for a newbie to consider building a system like your second system (or, wait just a second, buying yours).

5. You can have a theme, e.g. "Here's where I play the Heavy Metal LOUD" or this is my "Vintage Sound Room."

4. To play those damn records which have the polarity "reversed" (must make sure to align the "b" system opposite to the A system). In my humble opinion this ought to be a "c" system though.

3. Offers someplace else to go without leaving the house to be alone with your music, presuming your "A" system is in a public part of your dwelling. This is a corollary of Reason # 8.

2. Acts as a staging area for new equipment. When your wife asks "Where did THAT come from???!?" you simply say, "Oh that stuff was in the other room. I've had it over a year. Didn't you notice?" COROLLARY to reason #2 is you can burn in your new equipment here without disturbing the "nearly perfect" sound of the A system.

Anything else?

Addictive behavior is never really understood rationally. We just make up excuses because it's better than confessing that we "need it." All our reasons hold water in much the same way any other compulsive activity might. We hold dear a series of logical circles to justify our behaviors. For example, why is it our best friends (who we might never have met) have Audiogon in common?

"I drink to help stop the shaking," pretty much sums it up for me.

All the above nine reasons aside, I now come to the Ultimate Conclusion for having a "b" system.

Drum roll please… #1:

With apologies to the Elaine Benes character in Seinfeld, who in one hilarious episode had to consider whether or not a suitor was worthy of one of the remaining few birth control sponges she had squirreled away in her closet, I suggest the main reason for the "b" system is to see if the vinyl is worthy of a trip to the "A" system, i.e. moving furniture, plants, having the wife outta the house, dog medicated so that I don't have to play ball with him twenty times per side, doing a deep cleaning with the high dollar record cleaner and so forth.

And as I sit here this very moment, the Zeppelin CD is over (good work music) and I have a Grand Funk Railroad record on the "b" table ready to cue up. Maybe, just maybe, it will join the two or three other records today that were auditioned and found to be sponge-worthy for a session in the big room (2). Lucky them, lucky me.

1) Johnsen reports that he has found a small stash that he is releasing for $25 each, autographed without the usual nickel extra charge; one went recently on Amazon for $98. Write him by going to "Masthead" in this magazine.

2) After review in the "b" system, Grand Funk Railroad never made it to the "A" system.

A System

Pass Labs Aleph 5

Interconnects with Tara TheTwos, ISM Onboard to:

Musical Fidelity A308cr preamp*

Interconnects with Straightwire Virtuosos to:

1. Sota Sapphire, Lvl 1, Black Linn Lvl II tonearm, Grado Platinum Reference Cartridge

2. California Audio CL 10 CD player* via Straightwire Serenade interconnects

All out to Martin Logan SL3s via Straightwire Symphony wires, bi-wired

Powervar ABC 12 line conditioner

VPI 16.5 record cleaner, currently using Nitty Gritty Fluids, Disc Doctor fluids and Audio Intelligent three stage Vinyl Solutions

b system 

Marantz 2238b Integrated amp

RCA SCT 550 consumer grade dual cassette deck

20 gauge wiring

B&O M100 speakers

Thorens TD 124 table, SME 3009 Arm, Grado Black cartridge

Mac mini used to digitize vinyl for ease of listening in auto

*Anyone out there have a remote control for these units they'd sell me at a reasonable price?

At the age of three, Doug drove his mother crazy listening to one record over and over on his Zenith 45 record player. Later he fixated on the Orlons song "Don't Hang Up" and would love to find another copy of it. At the age of 12 he bought his first LP (Meet the Beatles) which he still owns. He later perseverated on Cal Tjader and Herb Alpert. That phase of the collection was lost in college but has reemerged though rat-like persistence in thrift stores.

Doug and his wife, Brigitte, moved to White Stone, VA, in 2003 and were faced with building a house, which is hard on even the best of relationships. During the drawing phase of the house, Doug went into what he calls "record therapy" which began innocently enough with 12 opera collections at a library sale. He now has some 4,000 albums and feels that the therapy is concluded.

They now live in their new home and he bangs his head against the wall for not having designed a listening room into the abode. He believes headphones will likely be his next acquisition.