Sunday, August 23, 2009

Not Always About Bits and Bytes

Despite appearances to the contrary (I'm constantly festooned with Blackberrys, laptops, digital cameras, mp3 players, etc.), I'm not ready to completely rid myself of analog yet.

While guys of all generations remember their first car, most of us in the 45-55 yo range just as fondly remember our first real stereo. Not the all-in-one receiver/turntable/cassette/8-track Soundesign that our folks got us for Christmas from Service Merchandise or Brendle's when we were in high school. I mean the first real hi-fi set of components that we assembled into what we hoped was a kick-ass audiophile system that was just as brag-worthy as the '68 Camaro that the guy down the hall in the dorm brought up from Kinston on the weekends. While we were certainly enamored of 'vettes and Jensen Interceptors and Shelby Cobras, names like Pioneer and Marantz and Kenwood and Harmon-Kardon and Bang and Olufsen and Bose were just as important.

I built my system piece by piece, Christmas by Christmas, since I was blowing all of my own money on beer, a girlfriend and LPs. The first were the Pioneer HPM-40 speakers which I brought into our room in Mangum Dorm my freshman year. There were about a half-dozen speaker models that seemed to represent 90% of what anyone around me had. The Advent 1 loudspeakers were in fact loud but didn't seem to have much in the middle ranges. The Bose 301s had great sound but didn't have the low end I wanted. The Bose 901s were way out of my price range. Panasonic Thrusters were (sorry) girl's speakers. I did know one guy that had scored a pair of Klipschorns - the Speakers of the Gods!! - but they were even further out of my price range. That left the Pioneer HPM-40s and -60s, which had (and have) a really warm sound, would handle as much wattage as I really needed to put through them and had really good response across the whole range.

The next year, after moving into an off-campus apartment, I added the Pioneer SX-780 receiver (yes, I was a Pioneer guy) and the year after that, the Pioneer PL-100 turntable. The turntable I still have - simple, belt-drive, mostly fool-proof. I think I've got an extra belt for it around somewhere, just in case, if it hasn't succumbed to rubber rot. Unfortunately the receiver lost a channel after about 5 years and died altogether a few months after that.

By the time I graduated, the Sony Walkman cassette players and large boomboxes had become the more common way to listen to music followed quickly by the introduction of the compact disc (man, those CDs in the first few years sounded like crap!) so I often feel like the last generation to give a hoot about high quality music re-creation. I can't help but think that people that have grown up getting their tunes through earbuds or car speakers and from crippled mp3s must hear music differently than I do.

Those HPM-40s have been sitting in my home office without getting much use for the last few years. I've got a decent-sounding Kenwood home theater system in the family room (real wood cabinet speakers - not the horrible plastic cabs they mostly sell now) and I've got Klipsch ProMedia 2.1s on one of the PCs in my home office so I was having trouble justifying keeping them. But then I decided to give them a last listen and popped in the "Kings of Swing" Reader's Digest LP set I picked up at an antique store in Manteo last fall - 4 discs that all look like they've never been played before. Cranked up the volume and dropped the needle on the first cut on the first side of the first disk, which happened to be "A String of Pearls" of all things, and the sound just blew me away. And when J got home from the neighbors' house, instead of hollering up at me to turn it down, she remarked on how great it sounded.

I don't intend for this to be an old guy rant about how much better things were in my day. It's more a matter of a reminder to myself that some technology has more than stood the test of time and while it's more than reasonable to consign the VHS recorder and analog televisions to the landfill along with the old CRTs and 8-track tape players, for some things there really is no good replacement. At least not yet.