FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 37
The Tale of Old
Meets New In the Wacky World of Stereo
[Photography and image processing by John Potis, unless otherwise noted]
There are those in this hobby who say your first audio system is like your first love. Well, if that's true, then I got a receipt for both.
But unlike the latter, the stereo lasted quite a bit longer.
Restored hoary glory! [Photograph by Steve Wright; image processing by Robinson]
I don't know what kind of bank loans four figures to a 19-year-old making all of $105 a week, so he can blow it on a stereo. But apparently, banks had slightly different criteria in 1975 than they do today (and back then they didn't even slam the crap out of you three years after approving your mortgage). Thanks to the fine folks at the Maplewood (N.J.) Bank & Trust Co., though, I was able to buy a Sansui 881 receiver, Thorens TD-160 turntable, Shure Type III cartridge and a pair of Altec bookshelf speakers (with outboard equalizer ...the Fonz had nothing on me in the Cool Dept.—or at least not as regards my stereo). And perhaps I should mention that I made that $105 a week doing the same thing I'm doing this very second: writing. At this moment, though, I'm doing it for free, so somewhere along the line, things went very, very wrong. But we'll save that for another time.
For those not in the market in '75, here's why Sansui was cool: It was like Coors beer east of the Rockies. A reference too old? OK, sticking with the beer theme, how 'bout they were like Samuel Adams in the 1980s (only available in Boston). Still too old? OK, let's see if this works: For an American to get Sansui equipment a few years before I did, he had to have it shipped from a PX in Nam. And although I only bought their receiver, they had another product highly sought before they started US distribution: speakers with the most beautiful lattice grilles you've ever seen.
I never envisioned owning a pair of those, but decades later something strange happened. It was called e-Bay. I wasn't going to be outbid for these Sansui SP-2700 speakers I now own and I even felt a little sorry for anyone who thought they'd win that particular auction. I'd have sold a kidney first.
You see, we dream weird. It's us I'm talking about—us audiophiles, for lack of a better term (and I sincerely wish there was a better term because "audiophiles" sounds like Greek for "terminal shithead with pretension issues beyond what would transpire if wine-tasters mated exclusively for five generations with descendants of David Niven").
But back to the dream bit. I'm not talking about your garden-variety nighttime dream of being unprepared as you eye an eighth-grade algebra test—in your underwear, of course. Fax that one to the local shrink and I'm sure you'll get a form letter in return. No, I'm talking about our conscious dreams. I mean, what sane person dreams of amplifiers? Well, I guess you could fill-in-the-blank there with various models of cars, models of watches or just plain models (which would be the most healthy object of conscious obsession, I suppose). But don't worry: I'm not here to condemn our conspicuous consumption—you're too bright an audience and I'm newspaper-trained. It's just that when I'm around audiophiles and hear them obsess over the same crap I do, it takes me aback. Why? Because I often feel like the dumbest audiophile in the world..
It happens nearly every time I read a product review—particularly in the print magazines—as my eyes glaze over the tech-speak that makes me check the cover, to make sure I didn't buy an engineering trade journal by mistake. It also happens at CES, if I overhear a conversation that sounds like a jam session for the Manhattan Project. It pretty-much happens whenever I'm surrounded by other audiophiles; I just feel on the outside looking in.
Recently, though, I've felt like a real, card-carrying propeller-head (my apologies to anyone who may actually wear half a Cessna on their head; in these politically-correct times I'm sure there's an association somewhere on the look-out for writers who may insult such people). Those Sansui speakers are half the story and being at the forefront of a new wave—very strange waters for me, indeed—are the other half. Between the two, I almost feel like I could spend hours arguing about stereo on an Internet forum instead of actually, ya know, listening to one. (Theme chat forums, of course, are the autistic off-spring of the Internet; it's amazing how large gonads can grow when people—often using only a pseudonym—are hunched behind a computer thousands of miles from the person they're insulting.)
But back to those strange waters. Usually, I'm the last in a crowd. You know when I became a Jackson Browne fan? Three weeks ago. It started with me hearing a live version of "Fountain of Sorrow" on XM Radio (and I'm quite thankful they post a song's artist and title because all these years I thought he was saying, "Fountain Desired Most" ...I only wish I was kidding because I never desired a fountain either—admired one perhaps, but not desired). I then looked up his work and was soon saying over and over-again, "He did that?" And it's not like I'm a classical music fan with no concept of the Top Forty. In fact, that's most of what I like; sometimes it just takes me a little longer to realize it—as in decades. The exception would be Billy Joel's early work. The grooves that held "Captain Jack" got so worn, I had to buy the Piano Man album twice—same for "The Entertainer" cut on Streetlife Serenade and "I've Loved These Days" on Turnstiles. So if you're ever silly enough to challenge me trivia-wise on Billy the Kid, I hope you like your wallet light.
Don't fuck with me on Billy Joel.
Returning to our story, though, nobody has ever called me an "early-adopter." Heck, I won't even use speed-dial, somehow thinking it makes me superior to memorize phone numbers or have to look them up in a tattered address book. And video or computer games? I've never played one. Yes, you read that correctly and it isn't a convenient fib. The first time I saw a video game was in the early 1980s, when I was working for a high-end store in Palo Alto, Calif. (between newspaper careers, I sandwiched a dozen years in the consumer electronics business, split 50-50 between retail and supply-side). The owner was opening a second location across the bay in Fremont and was set on expanding to other entertainment products. I was visiting one day and saw two salesmen playing a game on a television, which was like seeing the moon come up in the morning. The conversation went something like this:
Me: What the hell is that?
Salesman: It's called "Pong." Want to play?
Me: No. And don't ever ask me again.
That particular policy has survived all these years. Has it made me a better person? Of course not—just a more obstinate one, but hey, you only get issued one personality in this life and I've altered this one as far as modern therapy will allow. So it's Behind-the-Curve where I've taken residence, for the most part. As such, nobody was more surprised than me to see myself not only master the new-fangled concept of computer music servers (or at least, new-fangled for me—and perhaps, to others of my advanced, umm, weight), but to make it intersect with the Sansui speakers. As such, this becomes a story of "Old Meets New In the Stereo Game" and a helluva fun time it's been.
Working chronologically (by date of manufacture ...don't worry—it's just me), let's start with the speakers. These Sansui SP-2700s were, and remain, a hilarious monument to 1970s over-engineering, sporting various parts nearly everywhere. When I look at them sans grills, I picture dozens of Japanese assembly-line workers, bombed after returning from a three-sake lunch, safety glasses on upside-down, running around with drivers, potentiometers and power tools, cutting holes in boxes and affixing said parts every-which-way, laughing their asses off as the plant manager sits bound-and-gagged, trying desperately to stop the insanity by hitting the big red button used to signal an Osaka civil defense drill. I mean, before you even take off the grill, you realize there's a second grill on top—an affixed one that hides the top-firing tweeters used for "ambience."
Now, maybe it's just me (again), but when I think of "ambience," I think of a good hole-in-the-wall Italian restaurant—or maybe, a swanky, third-date French restaurant in an upscale neighborhood. (If the ladies in the audience—and goodness knows, there might be as many as six—are asking why I specified "third-date" for the expensive dinner, well, that's when us guys set a certain type of silent deadline. If you don't know what deadline I'm talking about, then you've never seen the inside of a New Jersey motel, which of course, is more a compliment than a knock. And if you do indeed know what I meant, well, you're my type of gal.)
And yet, there is indeed a 3-position "Ambience" knob on the baffle-mounted control panel that can activate those top-mount piezo-electric tweeters—or even, give them a 3-db boost. For those too young to remember the shrill emitted from piezos of the day (think 1950s screwball comedy with a woman standing on a chair after seeing three mice run into her cake batter), to actually boost them is a question better suited for dogs and ventriloquist hummingbirds. Other adjustments are for the front-mounted tweeters (called "High Range") and the midrange driver. They include the center position of "Natural" (yeah, right), "Soft" (-3 db, I assume) or "Clear" (+3 db). And since making fun of those designations is too damn easy, let me add here there are no controls for the woofer, which looks heavy enough to double as a wok and moves about as fast. And none of this—none of this—will be where your eyes will go when taking your first gander at the drivers because there is a waveguide in front of the front-firing piezos that looks like a pair of Elton John sunglasses from his "Yellow Brick Road" days.
But your head only shakes for as long as it takes you to you put those lattice grills back on. Man, they're beautiful. And the sound? Well, not so much. When I first got them, the paper midranges and woofers were even slower than their original design, due to years of moisture, spilled Sapporo at the assembly plant and whatever C-4 dust may have clung to them when the Viet Cong sympathizer originally sold them to the poor sonofabitch without the student deferment. But—my wonderful luck—the damn piezos were just fine, which made initial listening possible only with my back turned, meaning I needed a mirror to admire the grills. If I kept busy at my computer, I could listen to them for maybe an hour before wanting to slit my wrists. Even that got old fast, though, so any thoughts of using them in a system I'd actually listen to went out the window and I figured they'd be forever relegated to "conversation piece" status.
And then I found Bill Legall.
Well actually, I didn't find him. Reviewer-extraordinaire John Potis did, when we were both writing for another publication. Well, that's part-bullshit too. John wrote ...and wrote ...and wrote. And after about every 20 reviews of his, I'd submit a bunch of wisecracks loosely tied together as a story with the slightest of ties to the audio or music world (if that doesn't sound familiar yet, you haven't been paying attention). John must've needed a break from doling out some of the best audio buying advice this side of J. Gordon Holt and took a trip from his Maryland home, up to Millersound in Lansdale, Pa. That's where Legall has been performing audio artistry and rescue for musicians and their aficionados for many a year.
John's story painted the picture of a man who loves both his craft and the friends he's made by applying it. Or in other words: Bill Legall is in an exclusive club—the one that can make this hobby about more than just boxes of noise and instead provide joy in helping people connect with the emotive side of whatever music we happen to like.
While reading about the care with which "Billygoat" tenders his craft, I had a "Eureka" moment—which doesn't happen often for me anymore, now that I'm not covering politicians for a newspaper, given their bent for creating their own bad news. You see, those Sansui speakers were not my first E-bay purchase. Before that score, I landed a Sansui Model Six receiver, which was among the first line of receivers exported to this country. The power section was shot, but I could still use it as a pre-amp/tuner and I just happened to have a Dynaco ST-70 power amp that needed minor repairs. So faster than you can say "Julian Hirsch," I had the outline for a vintage second system.
[Photograph by Steve Wright; image processing by Robinson]
So I hauled the Sansui speakers and Dynaco amp down to the UPS store, sending the former to Bill Legall and the latter to Hudson Audio, in Harrington Park, N.J. Well again, in the interest of being at least semi-factual, that's partly bullshit too because I can't "haul" anything heavier than a toothpick. An orthopedic surgeon could retire on what it would cost to fix my anatomy. First, there was lifting paint cans from the age of six at my dad's paint store, then there was high school football (which I played face-first), then there was my absurd desire to sky-dive, then there was ...well, you get the drift. As Mickey Mantle once said, "If I knew I was going to live this long, I would've taken better care of myself." As such, a good friend did the hauling and I filled out the paperwork.
My assignment for Bill Legall was not an easy one. I wanted him to recondition the cabinets and get the midrange and woofer cones in musical condition—all while keeping the speakers stock, right down to the Sansui name stamped on the steel baskets because what would be the sense in owning them if they weren't as original as possible? So slapping some new drivers into the cabinet wasn't acceptable.
Well, the master tackled my Sansui speakers like an outside linebacker blitzing a quarterback on a blind-side roll-out. He was dutifully taking pictures along the way—as if asking him to make the speakers sing while maintaining their stock appearance wasn't enough—so you can see for yourself how extensive his tender operation was. The end result? Beautiful, just beautiful.
And the sound? Ask a question, get a story: My ties to Sansui go beyond first love (of the stereo variety). Remember me mentioning my time in the electronics business? Well, a couple of those years were spent as their Eastern Regional Sales Manager in the mid-1980s. It should have been a great job, given the history you already know. But thanks to management leftover from the Hirohito regime, it was an absolute nightmare. By that time, Sansui had made the sorry mistake of lowering themselves into the vat of one-brand systems and their Emperor of U.S. Operations was a dickhead who made sure my only enjoyment came during the relative sanctity of sitting in airplanes while traveling the eastern seaboard. It was there that I could nurse a drink or three and get the chance to daydream of him being tied to one of his piece-of-shit racks with his head held askew on top of an automatic turntable on which the tonearm kept moving back and forth, hitting him in the eye with a stylus every ten seconds.
But enough of my unfulfilled dreams (besides, he became one of the few Japanese executives to be out-and-out fired, sent back to Tokyo with a tin-can tied to his ass). The point I wanted to make was this: Despite focusing on the one-brand system business with all the major retail whores of the industry, Sansui still had a category of high-end equipment and it was pretty frickin' good. You'll likely have to take my word for that because we never sold the stuff—the mass merchants didn't have the right clientele and independent dealers wouldn't come near us, given what had happened to the Sansui name. Among that high-end stuff were the best speakers Sansui could make, but the 40-year-old Sansui speakers I now own sound better than any of them.
Such was the work of Bill Legall.
OK, so vintage system in place: Sansui Six receiver as pre-amp/tuner (and a damn good tuner it is, not that there's an FM station worth a shit in Fayetteville, Ark.), Dynaco supplying the power and my beautiful Sansui speakers. So what do I use for a source? Ahh, here's where the story comes together (all those uttering, "Finally," are reminded of what I said about writing this for free and likewise reminded their keyboard includes a back button).
Right about the time I received the speakers from Billygoat, our two household computers went kaput. I had become an Apple convert, so I was going to replace the old Macs with new, but add a third one—a Mac Mini dedicated solely to audio. But what of all that reveling in being behind the times, some may ask? Well, every dog finds an acorn and every blind squirrel has his day ...or something like that (I was never very good with Bartlett's Quotations—I mean, who the hell is Bartlett and did he ever write on deadline with a city editor burping in his ear?).
My motivation for making this move into the music-server world is based on one of the oldest of American values and traditions: beating the system. I like to gamble some, when I see an inviting craps table at a conducive casino. (You're not going to believe this, but I just wove another occupation into the story: Between burning all my bridges in the electronics business and scaring the shit out of elected officials as a reporter, I spent six months dealing craps in Vegas. What can I say? It's been one of those lives). And how does shooting dice relate to our story? Well, before my entree into computer music, that's what it felt like every time I bought a new CD.
It was the same routine every time: I'd hear a song I liked on XM Radio (I've never shilled for anybody, but I'll gladly do so for XM Radio, which is only the best value in the history of recorded music ...not that I'm one for hyperbole), look for the CD on Amazon and gamble that my $15 would buy the enjoyment of more than just the one song. More often than not, however, that bet would come up snake-eyes. And I was getting damn tired of it, so I dragged my old-timey ass into the present.
The only hitch I could see was what may be keeping a lot of people from making the plunge: My stereo is my stereo and it doesn't get cross-bred with anything else. To paraphrase Kosmo Kramer, I regard home theater as the biggest scam since One-Hour Martinizing, and like-wise, I'll be damned if I have to use my computer to work my stereo. But by having my TV on the same wall as my stereo (to use as a computer monitor too), spending the additional $500 dollars on the Mac Mini—peanuts compared to what I'd lose long-term on poor CD-buying decisions—and the easy-as-pie wireless network, I'm not suffering that fate. The Mac Mini sits in my main-system stereo rack, just like another component. And you know what's backing it up, computer-safety wise? An i-Pod that's just perfect for waiting in doctor's offices (no small part of my life these advancing days). That's not just winning your first roll of the dice; that's hitting your number the hard way with all bets pressed—for just 99 cents a throw on iTunes.
Is that all I needed? Almost. The only other link in the chain was a bridge to my Channel Islands DAC. So for all of $119 I bought a small device from Hagerman Technologies that converts the Mac's USB signal into the S/PDIF coaxial connection on my DAC.
And the sound quality? OK, we need to have a little discussion here and I'm going to wear a hat from one of the many occupations I've mentioned in the course of this story: retail stereo salesman. But what kind of salesman was I? Well, unashamedly, I could hang some numbers in my time. However, it could never work for me long-term and it wasn't solely because of my occupational A.D.D. It was because I wasn't money-motivated; I was more interested in saying, "Look what I sold" instead of "Look what I made." And believe me: If you want to work a lifetime as a salesman and retire well, you best be saying the latter. So take from that what you will as I give my take on this subject.
It's my belief that for people to be happy with their stereo purchases, they first have to be honest with themselves about how they listen to music. I used to preach this endlessly to audiophiles during my days in retail high-end, only to see them nod in agreement, but not take the advice and be on a perpetual treadmill of buyer's remorse. For instance, do you listen ultra-critically all the time? I sure as hell don't. I have my stereo on most of the day and that often includes while working. Further, I most often revel in the music and not it's perfect reproduction—I have a damn-fine CD system for when I do and that's when I'll listen to an entire CD. But most of the time, 90 percent or better is just fine. And that's what I get with my computer music.
The benefits of that reality-based compromise are extraordinary. In fact—and with apologies to humor columnist Dave Barry, I'm not making this up—the best of my new music world has happened twice while writing this story. Each time, I heard a song I liked on XM, stopped working on my main computer, spun around to my Mac Mini (with wireless keyboard and mouse) and bought the songs on iTunes. The first was a great rendition of "Leaving on a Jet Plane" by Chantal Kreviazuk (in my best Tony Soprano: "OK, but if you do, you'll have to clean it up") and two covers by Shawn Colvin—the Beatles' "I'll Be Back" and "Every Little Thing (He) Does Is Magic," originally done by Sting and The Police. And if that's not informed buying at its best, consider that I bought the second Shawn Colvin song only after finding the first and taking advantage of the 30-second sample clips of her other tunes.
And what if you do listen ultra-critically all the time? Well, then it may not be for you—although I must ask: Doesn't that make listening awfully, well, difficult? Heck, I've heard (or read) people saying they want to optimize computer playback for hearing those 30-second sample clips, to which I must say: You've gotta be kidding me.
My point is simple: You can brag all you want about how demanding you are of your music playback, but a little honesty—and I promise I won't tell—may make you a happier listener. That's my two cents. You can bet it on my roll of the dice or not, but that's not the larger picture of this story. That's reserved for telling you what you likely already know: The wireless network that provides Internet access to my Mac Mini, also streams the same tunes to my vintage system in another room.
So there you have it, full circle—the "Tale of Old Meets New In the Wacky World of Stereo," starring Bill Legall, who made a creaky, old audiophile happy by making his old Sansui speakers sing anew, and me, who played the creaky, old audiophile. As for closing credits: a) I hope the Maplewood Bank & Trust Co. got my last payment on that 1975 loan because I should be able to deposit the money any day now: and b) to my other first love mentioned at the top of our story ...the IRS has some questions about that receipt.
Mike Rodman, an Associate Editor for Positive Feedback Online, is a free-lance writer and author who lives in Fayetteville, Ark. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.