Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Ode to the Home Stereo

Carl Sagan became a young Ph.D. in 1960 (about six months before Bob Dylan first arrived in Greenwich Village). His generation passionately loved the long-playing record -- they defined themselves and their worldview through the LP. They often studied LP's (like Harry Smith's Anthology or The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper) with a reverence and creativity that previous generations reserved for The Bible. To no small degree, the social movements that defined the 50's, 60's and 70's were shaped and held together by the LP format. It was The People's Format, an invention that invented a generation. The Celestial Monochord, courtesy of Cowtown Pattie.

Twenty years ago, I bought my stereo components: a receiver, CD player and tape deck (all NAD), hooked up via thick cables to a pair of large walnut-coloured Angstrom speakers. Just about $2000, once the taxes were figured in. My motorcycle was cheaper.

Note the absence of turntable. The compact disc was just beginning to take over. When you walked into a music store, the diminishing presence of the LP record was increasingly apparent. The death-knell of the LP had sounded, so I didn't bother spending the extra cash on a piece of equipment I wasn't likely to use.

When I bought my stereo, I had every expectation that I would sit and listen to music. Period. Not as "background", while I vaccuumed or cooked -- music would take centre stage, the way it did in the showroom. In fact, my apartment had the ideal set-up: one square room, separated from the rest via french doors, with one comfy chair located at the ideal intersection of broadcast sound. No television (I biked over to my friends' apartment for my weekly fix of STNG).

Times and expectations changed much faster than I could possibly have foreseen. When I moved from Winnipeg, where rent was affordable and apartments spacious, to Toronto (not so much), that stereo became an unshakeable albatross. The cables were the first to go -- hawked in aid of a month's rent. And it wasn't until I got married that those speakers had enough space to be correctly set up for a good evening's listening pleasure.

By that time my ruination as a would-be stereophile was nearly complete. With marriage came a television and VCR. Then my buddy at work bought his first Pentium-equipped computer. Now that he was playing real games, he gave me his Sega Genesis. I discovered Road Rash 3, and that was all she wrote.

These days the only time I sit down and listen to music is when I'm driving solo. Not the worst condition for music appreciation, but not exactly ideal, either. I miss the LP. I miss the consideration it invited: the liner notes, the little details you could decipher on the cover, etc. (The master of this medium has to be Mingus, with his abstract album covers, and liner notes supplied by his psychotherapist!) In these aspects, the CD gave the audiophile less, not more. What are we losing in this era of the MP3?


DarkoV said...

Back in the clichese day, there were two types of men. Both enjoyed music.
One type enjoyed listening to a vast variety of music and, so, tended to have a back condition that'd resulted from lugging from domicile to domicile their 1,500 LP collection.
The other type had a minimal LP collection, perhaps 50 or so, which was listened to religiously until the vinyl wore down from a shiny black to a dull grey matter. What they would be listening to these 50 records on would be a stero system that would define the word "esoteric". Each piece of equipment was, of course, hand-made and purchased only after the maker thoroughly researched the family tree of the buyer. Not only would the amp have a pre-amp, but the pre-amps were fed through filtered power units. Lights would flicker when the tuner was kicked on.

I was in the former group, but always wistfully eye the latter's equipment, wondering, not if, but what was I missing in the tracks of the records becasue of my pedestrian gear. The Eleventh commandment, "Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's stereo empire." was the main reason for my monthly visitations to the confessional box. It didn't help matters that the priest, obviously sublimating all of his sexual frustrations, was deep into Carver and Nakamichi at the time. My penance consisted of being his stereo gofer.

Luckily, with age, comes deterioration of ones aural abilities, so my stereo envy has all but disappeared...though I do believe there are a set of Klipsch in my future.

Whisky Prajer said...

Priests will do just about anything to get a kid into Confessional...

F.C. Bearded said...

Aah, the days when Hi-Fi and records were life... when wages were saved for the day you could afford your own; when others - still saving for theirs - could be relied upon for bitchy put-downs of the "JVC? Too noisy; can't believe you fell for that!" variety. "Now, when I get mine..."

Used to work with two committed, competitive audiophiles. Of course they both had Linn Sondeks - d'uh - but they'd fight daily over who had the mosta nd most recent mods. "I've got the new green LEDs for mine" quoth one; "Only green?", the other.

Kids nowadays, T'ch. They pour over PC specs the way we used to devour Wow and Flutter.

Scott said...

At the risk of sounding like a complete and total Grouchy Old Man, mp3's are like virtually every other consumer product these days -- tiny, low-quality, guarded fiercely by miserly corporations and incredibly, wonderfully convenient.

Now get off my lawn!

Whisky Prajer said...

FCB - "Only green?" will be my signature, today.

Scott - after ingesting all the "I Want My MP3" hooplah, when I finally downloaded my first song, I was gob-smacked by the crappy sound. This is the revolution?

Days after I set up my brand new stereo, a friend came over with a CD he wanted to hear - Barber's Adagio For Strings (shortly before it became the next Four Seasons ("Only green?")). He ramped up the volume to four or so, which in my little plaster-and-hardwood apartment was plenty loud. But hearing that piece on that CD on my new stereo, after three days of playing the oh-so au currant Tracy Chapman ("Fast Car") and Sting ("Englishman In New York") was truly a revelation. I realized then that the CD was technology that had been developed primarily for listeners of classical music, and *not* for the growing legion of U2 and REM fans.

Hearing an MP3 of just about anything puts me in mind of the little AM transistor radio I won in a newspaper subscription contest - very small, and capable of delivering both Boney M. and The London Philharmonic with the same cheery lack of quality.

Cowtown Pattie said...

I'm glad you like Celestial Monochord, too!

Hubby just purchased a brand new Audio-Technica turntable at the old "Record Shop" on University Drive near TCU. Hooked it up to our relic Marantz speakers and we were rockin'!

I love my LPs.

Whisky Prajer said...

There has never been a better time to buy a turntable. Used LPs are cheaper than dirt, and usually in playable condition. So long as you don't jump around too much, the Rock & Roll Living Room (or Rec Room) lives on!