Of Sansui and All Since
I have a little trick to avoid spending absurd amounts on mouth-watering stereo gear. It also works for Ferraris, Armani suits and -- as I'm sure Freud would point out -- a game of nude Twister with Shania Twain.
I visualize ownership (or participation as the case may be). My ability to do this is scary real. I can actually envision owning more than 100 stereo systems in a house and store I will never occupy or own. And I suppose this might be a good time to provide insight into a mind that would do so.
One of the many times I was in front of a psychiatrist, I asked him his impression of me. He was refreshingly candid.
"To use a Yiddish term, I would call you gans meshuga," this Ivy League-educated shrink said. "A loose translation of that is to say I think you're extremely fucked up in the head."
Okay, point taken.
That said, I would say the same of someone who makes average American wages and instead of putting what he can into his kid's college fund, spends $10,000 to upgrade from the Schadenfreude Mk.II DAC to the Schadenfreude Mk.III DAC. Of course the rest of us need people like this so high-end companies will continue to make new models and we can see the pictures on Internet sites.
And the pictures are very important to me. Without the pictures I wouldn't be able to visualize the ownership that makes actual purchase unnecessary. But I do need some kind of stereo to actually, ya know, listen to. And thus, we can address my latest choices in that regard - with whatever stories each piece inspires me to tell.
I'm mostly an old-timey SOB, so nobody is going to convince me that speakers aren't the most important part of any stereo system. Back in my retail days in the late 1970s and early 80s, there was a simple formula in recommending how a customer should divvy his audio dollars: 40% on speakers, 40%t on amplification, 20% on a turntable and cartridge (which would now be spent on a CD player - unless you're one of those vinyl freaks who likes 20dB less dynamic range).
Oops, sorry for that last comment. I can already count my readers here on one hand and I guess I shouldn't piss off the few I have. If you want to listen to records, be my guest - I'm a listen-and-let-listen kind of guy. But please, please stop telling me how great they are. Records have scratches, clicks and about 50 other fart-like noises I have never heard in live music. I listened to audiophiles complain about records for years on end - until they weren't available. Then they were great.
With today's digital technology, the new uptick in vinyl sales will last as long as it takes 20-somethings to realize they have to get off their ass three times to hear the songs they like - and that's just on Side A. I give this new vinyl fad a year or two. DJs wishing to make strange hip-hop noises while destroying phono cartridges will continue to be vinyl's best -- and after a while, only -- friend.
(Please notice that as is my wont, I pissed off people even more while trying to be conciliatory. What can I say? It's a gift.)
Back to speakers, these days I'd recommend even more than 40% for their portion of the audio budget, given both the advances in speaker technology and the easy Internet availability of used amplifiers. Personally, I shy away from used speakers or CD players for my primary system; people do strange things to speakers (rest a beer on them; allow the cat to use the grilles for clawing practice; forget to guard them from a friend who just followed a 12-pack and three cheese brats with a half-dozen White Russians - ya know, the usual). Plus they're too expensive to ship and CD players are too prone to mechanical problems with the passage of time.
So when it became time to write a check, I bought a pair of Usher CP-6311s. (Cue the "Buy America Brigade," which thinks buying Chinese-made speakers is akin to doubting our president in a time of war - and goodness knows I would never do that ... yeah, right.) Well, allow me to point out it was an American distributor and an American retailer who benefitted from my purchase. Second, allow me to say I like them better than any other $2,000 speakers I've heard to date.
And yes, there's a background story.
It's a Living
I'm not a golden-eared audiophile. Silver or bronze-eared is more my speed but my ability to hear three-dimensionality is likely better than your average bear. What I lack in being able to evaluate the timbre in Joan Armatrading's voice, however, I make up for with a pretty decent ability to know what sells in this audio game, given my 35 years as a hobbysit and a decade in the business.
Want proof? I was hoping you'd ask: In the early 1980s, I was working at a high-end shop in Palo Alto, Calif. Our No. 1 speaker line was B&W and in one of those years I sold more DM-7s than any salesman in northern California. The DM-7 had a top-mounted tweeter with a midrange/bass driver and passive radiator in the cabinet. I knew as soon as I heard them that they would support my imaging pitch to customers.
I then considered anybody who walked through the door to be a potential DM-7 customer. I didn't care if they came in for a frickin' batttery - they listened to DM-7s. It was then that I learned the benefits of buying speakers from companies that make their own drivers ... like Usher does.
The store had a variety of electronics, including Meridian, Precision Fidelity, Luxman, DB Audio (remember that ugly stuff?), Bryston (my personal favorite at the time ... I sold a wagon-load of 3B amps and nobody ever complained - hell, they probably still work) and the early Yamaha stuff, which was pretty good for the low-priced crowd.
Although the owner was the main buyer in the store, I was in charge of buying small stuff. During an unusually busy day, the Sony rep came in and wanted 30 seconds of my time. I told him I didn't have 30 seconds (if I remember correctly, I had somebody hot-to-trot on a Dynavector Ruby ... see, I do have some vinyl cred). But I eventually relented.
The rep put a pair of flimsy headphones on me, pressed "Play" on what looked like a cheap cassette recorder and I listened for all of the 30 seconds I gave him. After taking off the headphones, I had only one question: "How many of these things can I buy?"
That was the first Walkman, which at the time was called a "Sound-a-Bout" (or something like that ... my addled mind sometimes prevents total recall). The point is I knew in 30 seconds Sony was on to something big.
When I was working for dbx in 1984, the honchos saw their dynamic-range processors going south with the advent of CDs and wanted to make up for it by introducing speakers. I told them to do so was like opening a Broadway play: you need the reviews to succeed. They didn't think so. And exactly how many dbx speakers have you seen in homes?
After dbx, I landed a job as eastern regional sales manager with Sansui. This was a heart-breaking experience on several levels. Sansui was one of those "first love" deals for me. Indeed, my first component system -- while working for $105 a week as a 19-year-old sportswriter in 1975 -- included a Sansui 881 receiver. And even today, my third system (of four total ... guess that unveils my secret: I'm just as nuts as the rest of you folks) includes vintage Sansui. I have a Model Six receiver and SP-2700 speakers with the beautiful lattice-work grilles.
(Their piezo-electric tweeters make them sound absolutely horrible, but turn down their built-in high-frequency level control, reduce the treble on the receiver, face away from them -- as I do at my desk -- and they fall just short of making you want to slit your wrists.)
By the time I worked for Sansui in 1985, they were knee-deep in the dreaded Rack Systems Debacle. What was worse, Sansui didn't really make matched components. They just loosely organized varied products as rack systems and I told them repeatedly that if they wanted to whore themselves out, they needed to wear fishnet stockings - all the components had to cosmetically match, all the way down to having either raised or silk-screened logos.
The Sansui Pacific Rim Mafia also didn't listen to me and their American operation was out of business within a few years - which was fine for me, since I had moved on to Phone-Mate to sell answering machines, sick of the audio merry-go-round.
More than two years ago I wrote a spec piece on why SACD and DVD-A would fail, which I submitted to a well-known stereo publication. There were no conditional phrases in my writing - I said it wouldn't succeed. Period. With my experience in knowing how fast Japanese production lines must move, I could have saved some people a lot of money. But the publication was more interested in promoting hi-rez than in providing balanced opinions for their readers.
A few years back, when satellite radio was starting, I casually mentioned to my wife that everybody was going to want it. In the following weeks, she kept asking me questions about it, particularly about who would win: XM or Sirius? I said it looked like XM had the leg-up on agreements with auto manufacturers, so I said they'd probably succeed first.
Allow me to inject here that my wife cares as much about stereo gear as I do about tea sets. Her interest finally made sense on my birthday when she handed me 100 shares of XM stock, bought at $4/share. When it plateaued at about $28 for several months, I asked her if I could sell it to buy new speakers. She said it was mine to do as I wish (and the stock has gone downhill ever since).
Bosses Good and Bad
Enter the Usher 6311s, which image like a sonofabitch, don't need boat anchors for amps and can elicit details like a homicide detective at Manhattan South. I can't give a higher speaker recommendation. Well I suppose I could, but it would be for speakers I can't afford and wouldn't have the room to sound right even if I could afford them. This purchase marked a return to high-end ownership for me, even if it was nearly entry-level. And why the sabattical? Ask a question, get a story:
When I worked for that high-end store in Palo Alto, the owner was very liberal with allowing trusted employess to "borrow" gear for home use (believe it or not, that included me ... silly man, he was). Having just a slight conscience, I didn't ask for Bryston and B&W. I took an Audire power amp and pre, a Connoisseur turntable and some speakers that also imaged like a sonofabitch. What were they? Shit if I know - Audio-somethings.
Even though they looked like all the boring wide-baffle boxes of yore, they did a boffo job with phase correction. Wide-baffle then was like the ubiquitous black columns of today, the price of which manufacturers have the audacity to increase if you want more paint on them - and do so for a whole crapload more than Benjamin-Moore would charge. Along with the B&Ws, those Audio-something speakers are what made me an Imaging Slut.
When I moved back to my native New Jersey, I had to return the gear but landed the job with dbx, then Sansui. I was on the road an average of four days a week so I had virtually no use for a home stereo (especially since my weekends were for sex, drugs and rock-n-roll ... well, maybe just the first two ... okay, it was just the drugs . You got me).
At dbx, I was the eastern regional product specialist, lugging a huge and weighty $6,000 Crown RTA up and down the east coast. (For all the non-audiophiles I'm supposed to be attracting to this site, "RTA" is short for "real-time analyzer" and can measure various characteristics of audio performance.) That thing was a bitch to carry around, but it showed why dbx noise reduction worked better than Dolby. After 20 minutes with that baby, salesmen were the proverbial putty in my hand.
Whereas I worked out of my New Jersey home for Massachusetts-based dbx, Sansui's US headquarters were in Jersey and run by a sadistic egomaniac named Tom Yoda. His method of motivation was to publically humiliate his employees and he routinely did so. I remember one full staff meeting at a CES in Chicago -- including people I was in charge of hiring and firing -- where he grilled me on product features. I got every question right but one; I didn't know something or another about a tape deck and he lit into me like nothing I've ever seen or heard, before or since.
If I could find Tom Yoda today, here's what I'd do: I'd tie him face-down on the floor with a bunch of cheap interconnects strapped together and put a bass trap up his ass. Then I'd take a freeze-dried chipmunk, put it in the bass tube and light its tail on fire, all the while asking Yoda about the features of Sansui cassette decks and re-igniting the chipmunk with my US-made Zippo lighter every time he's wrong.
But so much for my fantasies.
After I wore out my welcome in the electronics industry (imagine that), I worked for six months dealing craps in Vegas. Boy, talk about your half-baked ideas. Here was my thinking: I'd learn to deal craps -- the hardest game to master, with differing odds on dozens of bets and the need to rapidly pay off winners all betting different amounts -- and then travel the world, working in all the exotic casino locales. I pictured Monaco and the Caribbean. What I got was some dive in downtown Vegas working for assholes who thought they were in the Sopranos.
And travel plans? Although it may have been an exciting idea, I soon realized 50,000 other people had the same plan - and the only dealers who landed those foreign jobs had friends in the State Department.
So I never settled in Vegas and my next occupational stop was to go back to newspapers. And since newspapers pay reporters with frickin' shopping coupons, I couldn't afford a stereo I'd want. With my Type-A all-the-way personality, if I couldn't have something good, I didn't want anything at all. A Sony boombox would have to do. But eventually I met my second wife, Nancy, and had some decent money to embark on being a consumer again.
Beaver Lake Invasion
We bought our lake house in 2000 and my first electronics challenge was to design a media wall for the living room. We knocked a hole in the wall and had an expert craftsman execute my plan for a wall with an open back and rear access from the deck (I may be able to visualize with the best of them but I'm missing the mechanical gene - and power tools are definitely out). Since home theater means nothing to me, I assembled separate audio and video systems within the same cabinet ... and never the twain shall electronically meet. (I don't need 5.1 to watch Penn State football or "Twelve Angry Men"; plus I despise science fiction and watch movies for story-line, acting and dialogue; special effects just annoy me.)
To house a 53-inch Hitachi digital television meant severely limiting my audio choices (if there's a TV camera at a football stadium anywhere in America, I get the game - thank you DirecTV). So I went the mass-merchant route, leaving my critical listening plans for the 400-square-foot office/den upstairs. The media wall came out great (check the pics) and the sound is acceptable, particularly since I only use it for parties and background music while cooking.
For gear, I bought the last audio-only receiver Harman-Kardon made, a shockingly good pair of Infinity US-1 satellites, an 8-inch Polk Audio sub and a 300-CD Sony jukebox - with an external, pull-out keyboard so the Sony's display can show the artist's name (never fails to floor company). I added a pair of weather-proof Jensens for the deck and the system has worked like a champ through all our wild parties ... well, "wild" may not be accurate when compared to my earlier days. Decent wine, absurdly-priced cigars and endless games of 9-ball are about as wild as I get these days. Sad.
The other downstairs system -- if you can call it that -- is a pair of active Advents mounted above the whirlpool tub and fed by my wife's JVC CD carousel in the bedroom. The best part of this system is the Recoton remote extender that allows me to change discs and tracks while whirlpool jets attack my back.
Okay, now for the system you care about. When I bought the Ushers from the universally well-liked Steve Monte at Quest for Sound in Philly, all I wanted to know about was soundstaging. I can adjust to tonal characteristics but if speakers don't image, they'll wind up in Beaver Lake, which is a mere nine-iron from my back deck. The Ushers didn't disappoint and they image as well as the old Audio-somethings.
For power, I like tubes on top and solid state on bottom. This type of combo became the "Mike Rodman Recommended System" throughout my uncompensated career as the designated callee when a friend needed gear. There's also another advantage: two good, small amps cost less than one big, great amp - and sound better to my ears if they can be set up properly. This last phrase is key and my current solution may actually help a 6moons reader somewhere, even if my assignment here isn't to recommend anything. But before that, maybe I should tell you what amps I actually own.
I already told you I'm an old-timey SOB (that would be OTSOB as a full acronym), so it shouldn't come as a surprise that I own a modified and updated Dynaco ST-70. I consider my ST-70 to be like Joe Montana (and no, I'm not a Niners fan - I've been a life-long Green Bay Packers fan and fancy myself a loyal sort). Montana wasn't flashy and didn't have the big home-run arm but he played within his abilities, was consistently effective and is always mentioned in a conversation about the best quarterbacks ever.
And that's my Dynaco: reliable and always performing well, if not spectacularly. Plus, using it on the top end saves me from its tubby bass characteristics (I guess I'd be former Niners coach Bill Walsh in this analogy, not asking the Dynaco to do something at which it's not good). It would probably shine even more if it had a midrange to drive but I continue to be suspect of three-way speakers at lower price points. Offered a two-way Brand X at a given price and a three-way Brand Z at the same price -- and all other things being the hypothetical-if-impossible same -- I'll almost always pick the two-way. In this scenario, Brand X just has to image better, given it only has to phase-align two drivers instead of three.
I've become so attached to the Dynaco, I've bought it three small presents. It has a framed poster of itself on my office wall and a protective cover for its circuit board, which doubles as a gold-toned nameplate. And to make sure I don't have to slap it on its back side, I gave it a dedicated AC strip for front access to its power switch.
Would I like a pair of Butler Monads? Hell yes - but let me give you my shipping address because unless I kill at a craps table during the next CES and snort a bunch of angel dust afterward, there is no frickin' way I'm ever spending five figures on amplifiers. I'm aware that I introduced myself to 6moons readers in Chapter 1 as "not knowing crap" - and maybe I don't. But I should know something because I sold this stuff and worked for the manufacturers who make it. Thus my feeling is that anybody who spends five figures on amps either has money to burn and/or needs to see my shrink. Grab a grand or two, go to AudiogoN and have a blast.
(The above paragraph is dedicated to P.T. Barnum. And as for those of you who have indeed spent five figures on amplifiers? My sincere thanks, because like I said at the top, I really like the pictures.)
But Seriously, Folks
Perhaps on a more tolerant note, I should say this: I'm not insisting five-figure amps aren't worth their price. Until a trusted reviewer tells me otherwise, I assume they are indeed worth it. And hell, Rolex sells a lot of watches even if a Seiko keeps time as well or better. It's just that I tell people it's not necessary to spend that much on amps, to enjoy music and I've seen a lot of people empty their wallets on amps only to be terminally unhappy. They are in constant buyer's remorse and/or always worried about whether another grand would move the bass player another three inches to the outside.
If you want to drop 20-large on an amp, wait a week. If you still want it and can afford it, then by all means buy it - life's too short to deny yourself a pleasure you really want. But please, once you get it home and hook it up, admire it, enjoy it and be confident that it's very hard for a company that sells $20,000 amplifiers to stay in business if the design, parts and labor you've just paid for isn't any good. Appreciate what you've been fortunate enough to afford and stop calling your salesman to wonder if you did the right thing.
Otherwise, you might as well buy my ST-70 - if I ever let go of it, which I doubt because I know I've been damn happy with my purchase.
... Speaking of which (they don't call me the "King of Segues" for nothing): If you want more power out of an ST-70, change the rectifier tube. Instead of the stock GZ-34, use a Mullard GZ-37 and the amp will sound at least 3dB louder, if not 6 or 9 dB depending on your speakers. The cage will no longer fit because the GZ-37 is a big, beautiful tube - but who cares about cages? I use mine as an in-box.
And I'll tell you what: The first person who can successfully remind me what my Audio-something speakers from 1980 were really named, will get a factory-sealed GZ-37 as my prize for paying attention to this drivel I write. Use the "Ask the Author" feature on my book website [given at the end - Ed.] to contact me (and I won't even make you buy a book). Plus, you'd be doing me a favor: I sincerely don't remember what those speakers were called but I'm confident I'll recognize the name as soon as I see or hear it.
The only other hint I remember is that the company was among the first to market a sub-sat system. It had mini-satellites and a front-firing sub that looked like a regular, wide-baffle speaker. Anyone on my side of 50 birthdays can likely sympathize with that emptying the memory bin.
Meanwhile back at the lake, I first used the Dyanco on my downstairs media wall (with the H-K as a pre-amp/tuner). But when the Ushers arrived, I pulled it for critical duty and it answered the bell just as it has for previous owners since the mid-60s.
Before I go any further into product description, though, there are some reviewer words I've always wanted to use. So I'll get them all out at once: etch, gilded, serene, feathered, Neil Young, non-etched, transcended, Oh my!, texture, vibrancy, air-and-space, detail retrieval, the Liszt, slam, slammed, slammer, robust, Mussorgsky, sibilant, jewel-like, unetched, Watt-Puppy, aria, coloration, grainless, conical, richness, right, seductive, nuanced, etchless, thunderous, schematic, fast, brawn, rightness, lush - and a roll-call of jazz artists I've never heard of, will never hear of and will never sit still long enough to hear their half-step music.
Okay, back to System Numero Uno: As much as I like tubes, solid-state controls woofers better. (Again, I ask for the indulgence of audiophiles because I'm trying to write for non-audiophiles like me and attract them to our hobby so the manufacturers who supply our habit will stand a better-than-even chance of making it to 2007 - and some non-audiophiles may not be up to snuff on the current-drive capabilities of solid state. But am I not also an audiophile? No, I'm a hobbyist. I don't complain nearly enough to be an audiophile and my LPs are buried somewhere under birthday cards from my wife.) So on the bottom end, I use a pair of Class-A hum-dingers: Monarchy SM-70s.
If I was a youngster, I might say these amps have "sick" value. I have no idea what the hell that means but I do know they list for under $1500 and I picked up a primo pair on AudiogoN for half that. I call them my Mini Shermans because they're built like tanks (with a 9-inch fascia). As monos, they're 70wpc pure Class-A into 8 ohms with zero negative feedback and easily drive my Ushers to ear-bleeding levels on their own - especially when run balanced with XLR cables.
(More on the cable hoax later. Suffice for now to paraphrase Kosmo Kramer: Absurdly priced cables -- such as the $5,000 and up variety -- are the biggest scam unleashed on the buying public since 1-hour martinizing. If I just offended a cable manufacturer, first: tough darts; second: send me a burned-in review pair and if I'm wrong, I will dedicate my space to saying so).
Even though I like the Monarchys, I can't tolerate them -- or likely, any solid-state amp -- full-range on speakers capable of great detail. I never liked bright speakers but with the driver technology today, the down-side of increased detail is an edginess that gives me the old chalk-on-a-blackboard willies. That said, another benefit to bi-amping is to indeed listen to that detail for awhile. I just insert the jumpers and use the Monarchys full-range. It's almost like having two systems in one.
Gotta Listen to Something
At the control center, I must have a tube preamp. I picked up a used Sonic Frontiers Line One (see what happens to good companies when there aren't enough audiophiles to go around?) and it is too cool for the room. Being able to change phase on a remote that looks like a hockey puck is just impressive as all get out, especially when I tell my friends I can hear the difference (actually, I bat about .200 on distinguishing it - the Mendoza Line of audio, for all the baseball fans out there).
My CD player is probably the weak link, but this Cambridge Audio D500SE that I bought new for all of $400 a few years ago sounds so much better than its price point, I know I'll have to dig deep (well, as deep as a cheap-skate like me will dig) to replace it with something considerably better. I must be an Upsampling Slut because this unit just sounds terrific to me. But if/when I do replace it -- inexpensive CD players are, after all, disposable thanks to both mechanical parts and the micro processor -- I want something really cool looking. I don't have anything far-out in appearance, so I want one of those neat top-loaders. A CD player can only look cool if it's a top-load.
Okay, so I bi-amp Usher 6311s with an ST-70 on top and the Monarchys on bottom while using the Cambridge Audio CD player. Is that my only source? Not when your tastes are as pedestrian as mine and my CD collection is therefore restricted mostly to Greatest Hits recordings. Enter again XM radio, in the form of Polk Audio's home component tuner.
I can almost hear the audiophiles laughing. Well ...
a) I've known many audiophiles who listen to FM - and XM is Radio City Music Hall compared to FM, given there's about 30 to 40db difference in dynamic range. And to me, this stereo game is all about two things: soundstaging and dynamic range (with tonal preferences an individual matter). So if you're keeping score, that's one universal test characteristic for the listening-is-all-that-matters crowd and another for the if-I-can't-measure-it-I-don't-care-about-it crowd. And ...
b) I found the secret. Despite continuing to hear your laughs, I won't tease you. The secret is more top-end energy.
Do you remember way back in our relationship -- several thousand words ago -- I promised a bi-amp trick I thought might help somebody out there in 6moons-land (which would be astonishing even to me, given my non-technical ass)? Well, stick with me here as I recount how one thing led to the other.
The problem with using different external amps for bi-amping is their unmatched gain. To many, the best way to compensate is to use an external active crossover, which not only balances gain but allows each amplifier to work only in a given frequency range (just bass or just treble for instance). But I didn't want to go active because, well, I'm a skinflint. I just wanted a gain control for my top-end amp, given none is built in and the highs will almost always bury the lows in a bi-amp system - especially with a tube amp on top, given its higher input sensitivity.
I thus went shopping for a no-frills passive preamp only to be stunned by what some of them cost. When I make statements like this, please remember that a scant 25 years ago, $5,000 was a high-end system - and usually, a damn good one. So half that amount for a passive preamp represents far more than inflation adjustment. For me, it's like a hummingbird swallowing a brisket.
Enter Channel Islands Audio. I called Dusty Vawter (the CIA agent-in-chief), got his $250 passive preamp and hooked it up to my Dynaco. I know this involves an extra set of cables -- and therefore, more distance for the signal -- but the outcome is worth it. For newly-minted or recent CDs, I need to set the passive preamp to about 1 o'clock for it to sound married to the bass-end amp; for CDs from the mid-1980s, I need to set the passive to about 4 o'clock given their comparative lack of high-end energy.
The same is true for XM radio. By increasing the top-end gain across the entire tweeter range -- which wouldn't be possible in a single-amp system -- the XM tuner exhibits virtually the same dynamic range as new CDs, while the system doesn't suffer from too much energy on new CDs, which would be the case if I didn't use some kind of bi-amp compensation. I suppose single-amp folks could use a treble control (if they have one), but such controls work only at one fixed center frequency. They don't affect the entire high frequency range.
And what about soundstaging? Well, admittedly, the XM needed help there too.So in an unusual fit of free-spending, I bought a Channel Islands VD-1 DAC at the same time I ordered the passive pre. It helped but not fully; the image still had no vertical leap and it doled out depth as though you needed to pay by the inch (insert Howard Stern joke here).
I should say that Channel Islands now makes a VD-2 (the VD-1 is not upgradeable), so maybe it would cure all of the Polk's imaging problems. Also, I didn't spring for Dusty's up-charge power supply and only used the free wall wart. That might explain some lack of performance too. But no problem, I had wanted an excuse to try Dan Wright's Modwright hocus-pocus for some time. So I signed off on surgery for the CIA DAC.
Well, as they say here in Arkansas: That ol' boy knows a thing or two. When I got the DAC back from Dan, that baby really started to roll. Whatever he did -- and I have no idea what it was -- XM musicians no longer sound like they're sitting on chairs at an elementary school. Combined with the top-end energy thing, I now have a terrific source that costs only about a sawbuck a month. I even get the artist and title listed on a TV screen, thanks to the Polk's video-out (and a 20-year-old 32-inch Hitachi with wood cabinetry makes a helluva anti-vibration device for my CD player). I can buy out Amazon and not have the selection of XM so now my collection of music is endless and commercial-free.
(Don't underestimate the value of this last attribute. Local TV commercials here look like they were shot in Yugoslavia with an Instamatic and their radio commercials are even worse.)
Of course, it isn't manly to have an unused input on the DAC so I added a multi-play CD for casual listening. I bought a Denon DCM-280 carousel that proceeded to demonstrate how far Denon has fallen. I remember when every Denon product carried their pride of craftsmanship but this thing sounds and works like hammered horseshit (it took three of them to get one that worked - and it works just okay). In addition to its mechanical problems, it sounds awful on its own, scrunching the vertical image and declaring there is no such thing as soundstage depth.
But with Dan's mod of Dusty's DAC -- voila -- acceptable multi-CD sound for when I'm not listening critically (or as background when writing the stuff you're now reading, although I usually use XM for that except when I need some Bruce juice on demand.) Speaking of Springsteen, his new double disc of a 1975 concert at London's Hammersmith Odeon starts with an extraordinary ballad version of "Thunder Road," explodes during "Sprit in the Night" and has a Detroit Medley of "Jenny Take a Ride," "Devil With a Blue Dress On" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" that could make centenarians get up and dance all night. The DVD came with the "Born to Run" anniversary box-set and the separately-released double-CD is a must for Boss fans.
Cables, Conditioners and Mom
This brings us to cables and here's my experience: Upgrade interconnects better than the crap that used to come free with components (and what I'd like to use on my old boss at Sansui) are, of course, worlds apart. But my point is that after, say, $200, there is a swiftly diminishing return on investment. If I had a $50,000 system, maybe I'd feel differently. But cables that cost more than my speakers remain an absurdity to me.
Plus, I found some working-man-priced interconnects that are terrific (top-of-the-line for 1-meter is $89). I can't remember which reviewer recommended these Audio Art Cables but I owe him or her a beer or five. I've never tried cables ten times (or 50 times) their price but I'd have a hard time believing the difference in cost wouldn't be better spent on a speaker upgrade.
Now on speaker wire, I'll admit there is room for improvement in my main system. I'm using DIY bulk Monster with their Quick-Lock banana ends (I know spades are better but my back can't handle the extra bend time when fooling around with system switching, testing components for friends or fooling around with a Polk subwoofer I keep in a nearby closet). So maybe I need to buy Audio Art speaker cables too - a 6-footer finished with bananas is all of $86. At those prices, with the performance I've heard, how could I possibly justify $2,000? The answer is, I can't.
And don't even get me started on power conditioners. I don't live on Gilligan's Island so spending hundreds -- or thousands -- of dollars on AC stabilization is another thing in the "You've gotta be kidding me" column. So here's a challenge: The first person who wants to travel to Arkansas with a power conditioner and a blindfold can take part in a bet. I'll A-B test you 100 times (on a system that retails for $10,000 - about the average for a a hobbyist I'd say) and if you get it right every time, I'll give you $1,000. If you're wrong once, however, you'll owe me $1,000. Any takers? I didn't think so.
So if I sound like a guy satisfied with his system, I am. I enjoy my stereo more than anybody I know - regardless of what I know, or don't know, about its nervous system.
I'm not saying I'll take it to my grave. For instance, my reading of 6moons and some other audio websites has gotten me very curious about the SET-amp/high-sensitity speaker philosophy. And without a retailer for that kind of thing in close proximity, I plan on going to Vegas for the next CES in large part because I want to see and hear this category for myself (with show conditions understood; if equipment sounds good there, then it will probably sound good anywhere).
Regardless of what I discover in Vegas, though, I'm happy with the synergy of my primary system and it leaves only one secondary system to finish detailing: the vintage Sansui rig I mentioned about 30,000 words ago. You may have to refer to the photo that includes the Sansui Model Six receiver to see some of what I'm going to mention.
First, the receiver has a power section that works only when it wants, so I used the Sansui's pre-outs to add a pair of Antique Sound Lab Waves - 8-watt monoblocks that sold for something like $200. They might very well represent the best $200 I've ever spent, including that night in Vegas when I saw this girl ... umm, never mind. Suffice to say, if you ever find a pair, buy them - even an employee at ASL told me the current replacement model doesn't come close.
Although I use this system mostly as a radio, you'll also see a JVC CD recorder. On top of the recorder are a few books, one of which is "Emperors and Idiots," written by good friend and New York Post sports columnist Mike Vaccaro. If you are a Yankees or Red Sox fan -- or just a baseball fan, in general -- this is a must-read that traces their rivalry from the early 1900s to when the Red Sox finally won a World Series again, a couple of years ago. Highly recommended, friend or not.
But if you look more closely, there is something that means even more to me. On top of the receiver there are two photos. The one on the right you probably can't make out,but it's just a shot of some friends from when we floated the nearby Buffalo River on canoes a few years back. The picture on the left is where I want you to focus.
It's a picture of my since-deceased parents. My father, who died in 1984, is on the right and my mother, who died in 1991, was on the left. The reason I say "was" is because I've since pasted the face of Penn State's legendary football coach, Joe Paterno, over her face. I did this so I can have two of the people I admire most in the same photo.
And if you want the story behind why I altered this picture, you gotta buy my book ... or, you can go back to the beginning of this story and check the quote about me from my old psychiatrist.
Gans meshugga, indeed - and I have the empty stereo boxes to prove it.
Mike Rodman is a journalist and author who lives on the shores of Beaver Lake, in Northwest Arkansas. His book, "Beyond the Sea: A Life in Short Stories" is available at: http://www.mikerodman.com