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Positive Feedback ISSUE 55
may/june 2011


It's Good to Be Back
by Steve Lefkowicz


It's good to be back on the staff of Positive Feedback Online. Though I've been away for a few years, I've been following the growth and progress of the site, and been waiting for the time when it would be right for me to come back. Thankfully, Dave felt this was as good a time as any, so here I am.

Just a quick note as to why I left in the first place. It was a mutual decision between Dave Clark and me, based mostly on the long-term lingering effects of a serious car accident I was in several years ago. The post concussion syndrome really had me messed up for several years, and quite honestly, though my ability to hear and evaluate equipment was still fine, and possibly even improved, my ability to write coherently about it had pretty much evaporated. Hopefully, that is all a thing of the past now.

Those of you who might remember me from "back then," or even from my days with Listener Magazine, might remember that I always focused on lower priced equipment. I plan to continue with that now, but with an even more focused view of what "lower priced" means to me. Whereas before I set an upper limit of $3000 on any piece I would review, now I plan to look more intently at far less costly gear. I'll actually be happy if I can find a steady stream of gear under $1000 to check out.

And, surprisingly, I won't be looking at low priced equipment as entry level, if that implies gear purchased as some stopgap with the intent of replacing it sometime in the near future. I'll be looking for low cost gear that can actually satisfy now, and for the long haul. I know it can be done. In fact, there has always been high quality low priced gear available for he budget-minded audiophile, but too many times, it gets ignored those who have moved on to the high priced spread.

For example, with the exception of my Linn LP12 turntable, purchased for $1350 way back in 1984, no single piece in my system has a list price over $1000, though the Marantz SA8001 SACD player (now discontinued), at a $995 list price, comes pretty close.

This idea of focusing on lower priced gear is important to me for a few reasons, but most importantly for one in particular. We all talk about how to get new people into the hobby, or how to get younger people to at least consider owning a real honest-to-goodness stereo system, yet we all, as a group of enthusiasts and as an industry, fail miserably at it. One of the reasons we fail, is the idea that "real" hifi gear has to be expensive, and we fail to see that for people who aren't involved already, even $3000 for a complete system seems expensive. I'll have more to say on this topic in the future!

Many years ago (mid 1980s) I had the opportunity to help a coworker buy a new system. She didn't want to become an audio hobbyist, but she wanted a good sounding system to play her collection of several hundred LPs. Fortunately before buying some big rack of equipment from a local department store, she talked to me. Long story short, I took her to a few shops, let her play her music and make her own decisions, but guided her to what would be good long-term choices. She ended up with a Thorens TD166 with an inexpensive Grado cartridge, a Creek 4040 integrated, and a set of Rogers LS6 speakers. The dealer helped her out with Linn Index stands and I think some Naim cables. All up, the total price was about $1200, and this system sang to a point of bringing tears to your eyes. Years later she still loved that system, and had no thoughts of changing anything in it.

Understanding that all gear has limitations and compromises, and that one would expect lower priced gear to be more limited and compromised than expensive gear, it is somewhat important to understand my preferences and biases if my reviews are to be of any value. Since my attraction to audio gear stems from my lifelong fascination and love of music, I always put musical characteristics ahead of audio (sound) characteristics.

Real music is played by a variety of instruments, and those instruments play over a wide range of frequencies. Speakers that can't handle a reasonably full range frequency response won't cut it for me. Mini monitors that cut off at 80Hz aren't going to be very satisfying on either a large-scale symphonic recording or any of my favorite rock albums.

Real music is dynamic and powerful, but also can be soft and subtle. A system has to be able to handle dynamic shadings at both ends of the dynamic spectrum. If a system runs out of gas, or muddles the subtleties of a performance, then it's going to be a boring listen.

Real music is played on instruments that have distinct tone and character that differentiate them from other instruments. A system has to be able to portray the unique character and tone of instruments (and voices, too).

Real music is played by musicians that impart their technical skill, their artistic vision, and their personal style to create a unique experience. A good system has to be able to give us as much of that uniqueness as possible, and let us hear what the musicians have accomplished.

I understand that a lot of audiophiles focus on things like imaging, soundstaging, and other characteristics that are more related to sound than music. That's fine for them, and to be honest, I enjoy a system that does these things well too. But, at the end of the day, when deciding on where I'm willing to accept compromises, limitations in these characteristics are the first to be forgiven in my mind.

For a few quick examples, if I can't really tell that the bass player is standing three to the left and four feet behind the singer, that's okay. If his bass sounds weak, anemic, or way down in level and lacking impact, that is not. If I can't really tell how big the room is that a grand piano is being played in for a recording of Chopin piano sonatas, that's okay. If I can't tell whether it's Valentina Lisitsa, Idil Biret or Martha Argerich playing it, that is a problem.

I also pretty much think the days of stand-alone CD players are over. Unless you have a collection of SACDs that require an SACD player, or use a universal player to play DVDs or BluRay disks, I see no reason to consider buying a new CD player. For the same price, probably less, you can get a notebook PC and a large USB hard drive. Then just get a decent external USB DAC, and play your CDs from the PC using iTunes, Foobar, Amarra or something similar. Hopefully I'll be looking into this quite a bit in the future.

As I said, it feels good to be back!