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POSITIVE FEEDBACK ONLINE - ISSUE 45
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Hey, mom: I told you I wasn't wasting my time with stereo gear
by Mike Rodman

 

So what's worse: a bout of the flu or a bout of audiophilia?

It's not a trick question because a case can be made either way. For instance, at least you get over the flu. But audiophilia—a manufactured word to describe this hobby's obsessive tendencies—can strike at any time, incapacitating both your bank account and your psyche. And worse, it never really goes away. I've thought I had it licked several times in my nearly 40 years in this hobby, but then—bam, it's back like that recurring dream about failing an algebra test while wearing only my underwear.

(And damn-it, I never failed an algebra test.)

However, since this isn't exactly the New England Journal of Medicine you likely know which affliction I'll be writing about. Before spouting off—and don't worry loyal readers: I will indeed spout off—I guess I have to list my bona-fides. Let's start with a confession: I'm often more like your garden-variety audiophile than I generally care to admit, obsessing over the same crap you obsess over. I get upset if my sound-stage shrinks, go nuts when I absolutely know a singer doesn't sound as portrayed, and I've even read a cable review or two.

And in between newspaper careers, I spent nearly a dozen years in this business—both in high-end retail (late 1970s, early 80s) and as a regional sales manager on the supply side. Although this doesn't necessarily qualify me for anything other than creative résumé writing, there are some who think anyone who peddles audio advice needs to have a background in it. So to those few, we OK now? Assuming so, here's the blow-by-blow of my latest journey into the deep end of the audio pool, which has two working titles I can't decide between:

A) "From Shit to Shinola: Rejuvenating My Stereo Without Spending One Thin Dime"

B) "Format, Shmormat: It's All About Amps and Speakers, Folks"

I was raised middle-class, went into newspapering (when reporters were jealous of what the delivery kids made), and when I finally made a decent salary as a sales manager for Sansui, I used the philosophy of investment espoused by former baseball pitcher Tug McGraw. When asked about his World Series take, Tug said something like, "I'll probably spend 90 percent on wine, women and a good time—the other 10 percent I'll probably just blow." I got to interview him once and believe me: The world isn't as much fun without Tug McGraw in it. But that's a story for another time.

For now all you need to know is that despite a wildly up-and-down life, I usually was able to score a decent stereo for myself... until I went back into newspapers in 1991 (read: end of owning anything of value). But a headphone system here, a little something there, and I justified it all by thinking I knew too much about stereo to settle for a mediocre one, so I might as well just have the crap I can afford. When I met my current wife in 1999, however, I suddenly had more financial lee-way—although I was determined not to go into hi-fi delirium. Instead, I wanted to use those years in the electronics business as a base of knowledge to sniff-out the best value possible.

Lo and behold (piece-of-shit phrase, I know, but I can't think of a better one right now), soon came a tool hi-fi bargain-hunters never had before: e-Bay, followed by Audiogon. During the next half-dozen years, I cobbled together some pretty decent stuff. And it's a good thing too, because that financial lee-way we had? Gone. (I was going to insert a long diatribe here about our trip down the Six Flags water-slide of economics, but erased it after realizing such a story isn't exactly news in these times.)

Before our bank accounts went into the deep-freeze, though, I had garnered a main rig featuring a Sonic Frontiers Line One preamp and a pair of Monarchy ST-70 amps pushing a rare purchase of new equipment: Usher 6311 speakers. And with mention of the Ushers comes a story (see sidebar).

Sources aren't the major part of this particular adventure, but I will take this opportunity to say iTunes has changed my life. Hold it: Did I really write that? The guy who laughs harder than anyone when he hears that something inanimate has changed somebody's life? Well, you be the judge: I don't watch television anymore—and I was a frequent supporter of television programming to any snot-nose who looked down to say he didn't own a television. That will change with the start of football season, but I don't expect to camp in front of a TV every night again, as I did for large swaths of my life. And it was iTunes that forged the change, because suddenly I didn't have to waste $15 on a recording that contained only one song I liked. I now listen to music all day and night—turned on to new artists by my continued support of XM Radio, which has made the perfect partner to discover songs I want to buy from iTunes. For the first time in my life, I'm actually telling people about new artists... me—the guy who listened to Bobby Darin and Nat King Cole while my high school friends were listening to the Eagles and the Allman Brothers... me—the guy who was always ten years behind the musical times, saying things like "Hey, these ‘Hootie and the Blowfish' guys ain't bad," several years after they had broken up. Yep, me. It's changed my frickin' life.

So what went wrong with my stereo nirvana? Well, I can only hope my own death is quicker. Several months ago, the Sonic Frontiers preamp couldn't get past its own protection circuitry. This was a major blow because in addition to it sounding better than any preamp I had ever owned, it allowed me to use the Monarchys at their best: wide-open in balanced configuration. It also had outputs and inputs out-the-ass and a fantastic headphone amp, which has become more important in recent years, as I've gone from a card-carrying morning person to a more nocturnal one. Somehow there's a certain feeling of peace with the world when writing at 3 a.m.—and it's not like I have to clock-in anywhere the next day.

I might want to insert here that I absolutely hate repairing audio gear. In addition to the packaging and shipping hassle/cost (if there is indeed a Hell, I can't wait to get there so I can locate anyone who worked for UPS), there's always the very real possibility that its first problem is only foreplay of what's to come later. In fact, last year I sent off a nicely rebuilt Dynaco ST-70 being used in a second system because it had blown a channel. When I got it back, it worked fine... for about one-tenth of a second. That's how long it took for the other channel to blow. I called the service guy (who operated from a place named after a big river in New York). He wanted me to send it back to him—incurring yet more shipping costs—for a second repair that he'd certainly have a verbal gymnastics routine already written as a means to shed any blame on his part.

Usually, I go after guys like that for sport. I'm the go-to guy in my circle of friends when they need to get a bureaucrat or business owner to see things their way. I have a variety of strategies, but truthfully, I was just too disgusted to pursue it at the time, and now have the Dynaco in a safe place. It was that bit of incompetence that stopped me from doing anything about the Sonic Frontiers right away, so I put it next to the Dynaco in what would soon become either a graveyard or a sculpture, depending on your view of such things.

I inserted an Adcom preamp/tuner I had laying around, to handle front-end duties. Now I want to be careful here, because all that Adcom does is work ...and work ...and work. Not even our current house—which often makes me think it was wired when electricity was just a distant hope—can manage to knock it out. That said, it immediately deflated the sound-stage into two dimensions, with musicians appearing to be cardboard cut-out—all either standing next to each other or in a dog-pile.

Fortunately at the time, I had other fish to fry and was only listening casually while spending an extended time on three of my favorite things: babbling in print, cooking and not giving a shit (apologies to the most entertaining sportswriter I've ever read, Dan Jenkins). But much more trouble lay ahead, because one of my Monarchy amps smoked-out. This wasn't good. Now I had a real problem (please refer to the paragraph long ago when I mentioned the, ahem, coincidence of our fortunes plummeting at the same time W. was president). Or in other words: I couldn't buy my way out of this one. As a stop-gap measure, I moved a tiny pair of Antique Sound Lab Waves that despite their puny power supplies and eight watts of power could drive my vintage Sansui speakers to the bursting point in my living room's second system—a system that had become unable to use the iTunes feed via an Apple Airport Express because I kept needing amplifiers from it. (For the low-down on refurbishing the vintage Sansui speakers, check out a PFO piece that can be found here.)

At this point, I knew that audiophilia was planning a vortex ambush. But I bulled my neck and focused on music as either background or for consumption through headphones, until such point I could do something about it. I lost that Mexican stand-off a few weeks later on a recent Friday afternoon (important to note the day because it meant there would be no technical people to call when dealing with problems over the weekend... of course).

I sat down for my first bit of critical listening in quite a while that Friday and soon became, well, apoplectic. The sounds I was making while listening to the horseshit in front of me were unlike anything I've heard emitted from me or anything else, although I somehow attracted the attention of three horny squirrels, two "let-me-do-what-I-do-best" rabbits and a frickin' giraffe in hea—all gathered at my office window, serenading me for the favor of my attention. (I had to tell them I was married, so they went looking for another audiophile with equipment problems.)

Bass was virtually non-existent. I don't do measurements, but I doubt I was getting anything useful below 60Hz—and more like only 80Hz on most stuff. The top end was shrill, although I was able to change that easy enough by losing the Svetlana 6BM8's and replacing them with Yugoslavian ECL-82s (printing too obliterated to read a brand). But the real problems were with the sound-stage and imagery, which not only wandered, but it was like spinning the big wheel in Vegas for each recording, to see what would be served up next: "Let's spin the big wheel, where it stops nobody knows. And finally, it stops—oh, sorry, but it appears that your next song will sound like the snare drum is attached to the singer's ass."

This simply wasn't going to do. As such, I spent the next 24 hours exploring possibilities and then gathering every music-making device in the house, to plan my stereo's comeback. (I didn't need sleep because, luckily, I had several of those 5-minute liquid energy supplements. What's that, you say? It's supposed to be one every five hours—not minutes? Oh well.) So if there is an instructional part of this offering, my first advice is not to listen to me, given I can be just a wee bit compulsive. Make that very compulsive. OK, fine: Let's call it six Viennese psychologists in white smocks, writing on clipboards with every move I make. Happy now? But if you're really stuck sometime—and without the money to take the easy road—maybe I have something for you.

That said, my first steps were indeed of the "Easy Way I Can No Longer Afford" variety (old habits die hard). My first stop was to try and get in touch with former Sonic Frontiers designer and current honcho at Parts Connexion, Chris Johnson. I was nearly asking him to fix my preamp for free, but international shipping costs alone may not fit the household budget, regardless of how gentle he may be in totaling the repair costs.

My next call was to Dusty Vawter at Channel Islands Audio, from whom I've bought three high-value items in the past: a passive preamp, a 24-bit DAC, and its upgrade power supply to replace the standard wall-wart. He had terrific deals on those items, so I wanted to check whether he had any B-stock power amps. Dusty answered his own phone (as Col. Potter from M*A*S*H* might say, "A man who answers his own phone must be a Unitarian"), but no dice this time around.

I then turned my focus onto what I did have, because through those five or six years of building my main system, I never sold anything. I used discarded pieces for either remote systems or as replacements to have on hand (I only look stupid). Knowing one swap wasn't going to do it all, I figured one piece at a time would shed the most light. First, out went the Adcom preamp, replaced by that little passive-pre from Channel Islands Audio, which I had been using with the ASL Waves in the vintage Sansui system. Reuniting them made a big difference—actually, it was more like a huge difference. My sound-stage was once again three-dimensional and nearly restored to Sonic Frontiers/Monarchy level; nothing forward of the speakers and a little shy on the vertical, but damn good for one basic change. There's often something to be said for just getting out of the amplifier's way and this little passive-pre was the ticket. But that was just part of the problem because although the $219 ASL Waves are as much bang-for-buck as I can remember on the amp side of this industry (exact model no longer made; if you see a pair on Audiogon, buy them), eight watts from a power supply I can hide in my hand doesn't have enough juice to produce the level of bass I need.

I knew I had no play money, but I just had to check-out Audiogon, if only to convince myself a bottom-end amp for pairing with the Waves wasn't possible at this time. After several hours of checking every amplifier listing they had, there was nothing in my price range, which was somewhere in the neighborhood of "Pay me to take it." But that said, I soon realized the answer had been staring me in the face for weeks. If you've been following closely, you might already know, in a literary "Where's Waldo" kinda way.

OK, cat out of the bag time: Only one of my Monarchy amps had blown; I could use the good one in stereo. Why I hadn't thought of this before is testament to the mush my brain has become.

At this point it was nearing 10 p.m. Friday and I wanted to make sure a friend could make it over the next day to help with the bending and lifting my piece-of-crap back no longer allows. He said no problem and I whittled time through the night, deciding on wiring diagrams and which cables to use where (length is important with a passive pre); quickly realizing I was going to need more splitters than a lumberjack. There is only one set of outputs on the CIA preamp and I also needed to run iTunes signal to a Creek headphone amp for my nocturnal listening (and man, having used my ‘phones through the Adcom for so long, I forgot how good Sennheiser HD-600s can sound). There were two possibilities for wiring and my biggest fear was that the second one wouldn't work:

a) Run both amps to the passive pre using the one pair of heavy-duty splitters I had. This would be the safest method, but looming like a giant dog turd was an inescapable question gnawing at me all night: what's the likelihood the 35-wpc, solid-state Monarchy on bottom would have a volume perfectly balanced with the 8-wpc, tube ASL Waves up top? By my experience, it could be as much as a 100-1 shot. And I was plum out of volume devices to insert between one of the amps and the preamp. Unless, b) I ran one of the amps to the output of the Creek headphone amp, and its input to the splitter still needed on the CIA pre. Hmm, I needed to read. And after I finished both product manuals in less than a minute—combined—I had no advice because the Creek didn't even mention such a hook-up possibility. They also didn't say not to do it, though, so I was still in the hunt.

When my buddy called at 8 a.m. Saturday morning and said he couldn't make it until the afternoon, the audiophilia was at a fever pitch: I at least had to know which wiring diagram was going to work—and I needed to know immediately. Why? Because I'm a frickin' audiophile, that's why. Enter my lovely wife, Nancy, who knew I'd risk a trip to the emergency room to answer the key question in this entire makeover. She performed like a champ as I handed her one cable at a time and told her exactly where it should go. Hooked up and fired up, I let ‘er rip and...

Holy shit.

Not only was the volume between the two amps perfectly balanced to my ears (after letting the tubes warm up), but I'd swear the system sounded better than it ever had. Could it be I was caught-up in the emotion of the moment's success? Possibly. But either way, I wasn't going to write so much as my by-line until I got some sleep and then had an eight or ten-hour listening session.

In the meantime, while still aglow with my long-shot success, I could either circle the house while blaring the theme from "Rocky," or I could turn my attention to another stereo that needed help: my vintage system in the living room, with the completely refurbished Sansui speakers and their gorgeous lattice grilles. It had been raped of amps until there were no more to give. First it was an era-matching Sansui Six receiver, but it developed more noise than being stuck in a tent full of cicadas. Then came the Dynaco, the fate of which I already covered. Finally it was the ASL Waves, until they were needed with the main rig. What to do, what to do.

Well, I figured the Sansui's noise problem was from its preamp, so maybe if I connected that trusty Adcom preamp to the Sansui's "main-ins," I could once again beam iTunes to the living room. Did it work? Hell, yea—and it too sounded better than it ever had and I could blow the doors off this place if I wanted to. That left only my wireless Advents in the kitchen for fine-tuning and putting the RF transmitter into the Creek's outputs made them work better than they ever had too. I'm telling you: I should have bought a lottery ticket that day because I couldn't miss. Every swap of gear, every choice of what cable to use where and every idea I had seemed to not only make music, but make it more beautifully than ever.

A victory cigar was definitely in order, which I enjoyed with a grin bigger than a watermelon. But after a long, deep sleep, I woke up wondering what I had mentioned before: Maybe I was just caught in the glow of the moment. So I plopped my ass down for eight hours and played every kind of music to which I would ever listen, from my pedestrian tastes of pop stars like Billy Joel and Michael McDonald; to female singers who melt my heart, like Jane Monheit and Eva Cassidy; to my favorite new discoveries, like Willie Nile and Jesse Malin—and even to my old, but treasured R&B, Motown, and Doo-Wop recordings. And the verdict? Smiles all the way around. The sound-stage not only kept the depth I experienced when switching the CIA passive-pre for the Adcom, but the Monarchy followed suit on the bottom yielding a horizontal that's wall-to-wall with a good recording. I even have good vertical imaging, which is always my most frustrating bugaboo. And did the Monarchy deliver the current necessary for pleasurable bass? Just enough—barely, but just enough.

Would I insert the Sonic Frontiers Line One preamp back into the system if I could afford to fix it? Absolutely—if only for the connectivity. But would I go back to the Monarchys as mono amps again, allowing balanced connections to the Sonic Frontiers? Likely, but only if I keep tubes on top because this system sounds better bi-amped with that classic mix of bottles on top, solid-state on bottom. Further, with iTunes as my main source now, my balanced CD player is not in the picture much, thereby rendering any advantage of balanced connections moot—unless I buy a USB DAC with balanced outputs and I can't tell you how far down the list of priorities that is for us. I think it comes after a new tie-tack for me and a canvas belt for Nancy.

So what's the moral of the story? There isn't one—although there are a few dandy tips:

a) Don't sell any gear if you don't have to because you never know when you might need it.

b) Hoard cables—and splitters too.

c) And finally, before you spend your hard-earned money on a new piece of gear at retail margins—or roll the dice on the used market—take an inventory of what you already have, because...

...You never know—that great-sounding stereo you always wanted might be staring you in the face. Same thing goes for the life partner you may already have too, because: a) they likely want you to enjoy your music too; and b) just as with me and my own stereo, the upgrade you may lust after won't be as good as what you already have.

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: rods84@earthlink.net.


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