A noted DJ once described a penchant for record collecting as the “self-inflicted pleasurable pain” of “a senseless and punishing neurosis”. I’m all too familiar with this notion: music (both live and recorded) is one of my abiding passions, and my proficiency in hoarding records, CDs, DVDs and tapes from the age of eight has been worrying my family ever since.
After years of just playing my parents’ music collection (best not to dwell on the content), I was given the money to buy a single: I chose ‘Hole in My Shoe’ by Traffic (top tune, by the way), and frankly, for half a century it has been an unstoppable, wildly foolish obsession.
More to the point, my music purchases are still mostly in vinyl form (which, as some of you will have noticed, is currently very fashionable), as I determinedly scour record shops, charity establishments, auction houses and the internet looking for good quality secondhand albums from the ’60s-’90s. The ‘wants list’ will include albums that are devilishly hard to find, but the marketplace is now truly global, so it will be out there – if you’re willing to pay the price.
Now this quest can often be impulsive (do not surf auction sites after partaking of wine), with occasional wretched results. However, when you come across the object of your desire, in next to pristine condition and at a price you deem acceptable (even if your partner would consider sectioning you for such tomfoolery), the sense of euphoria is palpable…If new music is released on vinyl, I’m likely to buy it in that format. The albums normally come with a voucher enabling you to download it as high quality music files, or sometimes even a CD copy. Old and new technology in one package – what’s not to love?
Well, there is a flaw: a large percentage of new vinyl is pressed on 50-year old machinery which hasn’t seen a maintenance man in that time, and the operatives don’t give a gnat’s chuff about the quality of the final product. Thankfully, there are some pressing companies who do still care, but Caveat Emptor…
We all choose to enjoy/consume music in different ways – via internet streaming (I do that a lot), the radio, file downloads, actual records/CDs, etc. – but for me, the entire ‘theatre’ of taking a vinyl record out of a sleeve, placing it on the turntable, admiring the album artwork (especially highly elaborate creations from the early ’70s), poring over lyrics, contributors, etc., lends music additional physicality. It’s not just a presence, it’s a ‘thing’, a finished product at the end of the artistic process, lovingly created and beautiful to behold. If you’re still asking “but why, oh misguided fool?”, you’d be wrong: you would also be too young to remember the unconfined joy of collecting records: “the need to make beauty and pleasure permanent”. I have vivid memories of most purchases: going down to the local ‘record bar’ and picking up some obscure ’70s release, with the most elaborate cover art, and carrying it home (or around school) without the bag because it somehow defined you as a person of exceptional taste and breeding.
Also, a 50-year old album is a snapshot in time: the design, lexicon and imagery take you back to another era, and it’s easy to become engrossed in the detail. Segments of album covers and band logos would be emblazoned onto your denim jacket (you had to have one) and jeans. This wanton showmanship never really worked for Bay City Rollers fans, but it didn’t stop them trying…
Finally, there’s a widely held truism that in life, you tend to get back what you put in. For me, this all-consuming passion has nothing to do with expediency: your precious old records require care and attention. Maintaining a quality turntable involves effort and can play merry hell with your OCD tendencies. Ultimately, you just end up caring more; and within the jagged grooves, these vinyl beauties have the capacity to sound absolutely awesome (yes, I know CDs and music files can sound fabulous too: I’m not a format fascist).So, after that pathetic piece of deluded self-justification, let’s explore the strange lifestyle choices I’ve made to enable me to play those records.
My first ‘music system’, bought for me as a five-year old, was a cute little Fidelity player, and it enabled me to develop a love for the 7-inch pop single:
I’m certain that it wasn’t the last word in sound quality, but I loved it: it was mine, and it allowed me to listen to music when I wanted to. However, as my teen years approached, ‘stereo envy’ reared its ugly head and I knew that something ‘better’ was required.
Stepping into the ’70’s; does anyone remember the Pye “Black Box” stereo? It was a 13th Birthday present and, barring the parent’s radiogram (or ‘display unit for suspect ornaments’), this was my first proper record player:
It gave me bucketloads of pleasure, even allowing for stubborn 45s that required a coin on the headshell to enable it to track without skipping (a great way to ruin records, but who knew?).
My first actual hifi set-up came courtesy of both a Student Grant (remember those?) and summer work funds: it consisted of a Trio KD 1033 turntable and Ortofon VMS20 cartridge; a NAD 3030 amp; a variety of cassette decks and a hateful pair of Wharfedale Denton XP speakers (cheap Comet specials, replaced on my 21st Birthday by a luscious pair of Mission 710s). This saw me through my student days, and the rapidly expanding album collection:
Things have moved on a bit: 30+ years – and several turntables – later, we get to this astonishingly elaborate and surprisingly heavyweight piece of 1980s Japanese engineering (all 32kg of it) known in the UK as the Trio L-07D, or Kenwood L-07D in the rest of the World. This one now sports additional appendage (the British-made SME V tonearm and Danish Ortofon Cadenza Blue cartridge), a fancy hat (the Audio-Technica AT666 Vacuum Disc Stabiliser), and kinky boots (Audio-Technica AT636 Pneumatic Isolation feet).
This was a flagship model in its day: a Statement in the art of turntable construction, highly rated and providing superlative sound quality. After a complete strip-down and rebuild, it looks like new and gets played almost daily.
My turntable history has been variable, from budget models (good and bad) through to more contemporary (read expensive) examples, mainly UK in origin. I had a fully-kitted out Linn LP12 for 25+ years; a modded Systemdek II; the Origin Live Aurora; a stylish Inspire Eclipse, etc. – but they’ve all been seen off by this Japanese monster:
In addition to this we have silver disc players and some electrical boxes connected with fancy string: here we can see the battleship Esoteric UX-1 Universal CDP; an Exposure MCX pre-amp, the Whest PS30R phono amp and the beefy Trio turntable power supply. Finally, a Record Cleaning Machine – an absolutely essential piece of kit for the vinyl collector (and the closest most blokes get to a vacuum cleaner):
Because I’m greedy and one CDP is never enough, I also have a beautiful example of French industrial design combined with clever engineering (not often you hear those words put together) – the Micromega Classic Solo CDP. It looks like it’s sulking:
You dig big speakers? I got big speakers: Jamo R909 open baffle Dipoles. More flamboyant than you would expect from the Danes, with their modern, contemporary yet restrained design heritage; but I think they’re beautiful, with the added bonus of phenomenally good sound quality. They sit on spring-loaded Townshend Seismic stands:
The imposing black boxes behind the speakers are Exposure XVI mono power amps, four of them in total. These are John Farlowe’s finest creations: 30kg each in weight, with transformers large enough to power Brighton (from whence they were hewn). The lights in the village dim when these are switched on: brutal overkill!
Oh alright, there are some CDs on the wall too. I was a late adopter (early ’90s, almost 10 years after their introduction), but that strapline – ‘perfect sound forever’ – was never more than a marketing soundbite. The medium has its faults – current CD mastering technique ranks high amongst their many sins – but they do have the benefit of convenience. Ironically these silver discs are now likely to be superseded by downloadable high quality music files, leaving the vinyl LP as a thriving specialist pursuit. On the plus side, it’s a great time to pick up cheap CDs…
More to the point, this music room saw a lot of use during my recuperation. It continues to give me great satisfaction, especially since I bought the most comfortable (and beautiful) listening chair: a Charles Eames lounger. It’s not for everyone, and seems to suit people shorter than your average six footer. Also, please note the Corbusier recliner for any visitors – yes, I do allow others into the room.
Over the years I have been through countless permutations of hi-fi equipment – and crammed them into unlikely spaces on specialist yet ugly metal racks – in search of that elusive combination of both environment and hardware which would enable me to stop ‘listening’ to the system and just enjoy the music. In this quest, you discover that:
- some components are accurate
- some components are euphonic
- some components are defective
- and some components don’t do anything other than drain your bank account.*
Added to this, there can be a huge disparity in quality control / mastering techniques before the music reaches you: I can compare LPs v. CDs from the same artist and convince people either way that one format is superior to the other.
You also realise that the room has a massive impact on the quality of sound that reaches your ears (try moving your speakers to alternative locations in the room – or even a few inches sideways or forwards – and you’ll see what I mean). It’s only recently that I’ve finally stopped tinkering, sat back and really enjoyed what I have. I now spend more time discovering music new to me (Spotify, I love you): then I buy it on vinyl.
Finally, I’m fully aware that I’ve built a system to provide a quality of sound to suit me, not others: some might find the balance different to what they’re used to. This is fair enough: as an after-effect of the chemo I suffered temporary tinnitus, and my hearing certainly changed. Having said that, during my recent hearing tests the Consultant stated that all is in excellent order for someone my age – git.
I’m also mindful of the fact that some of my friends simply don’t understand this obsession with sound quality…
Or indeed my musical tastes.
In respect to live music, I would regularly see 100+ bands a year pre-diagnosis, but during the past couple of years the pickings were slim. I aim to put that right in the future. I just tell folks that I may be getting old, but I did get to see all the best bands 🙂
* With thanks to “Hifi Wigwam” forum