The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)

darTZeel NHB-108 model one stereo power amplifier

Regrets, I have a few… even about reviewer-loan audio equipment I now wish I had bought, way back when.

The first audio magazine I wrote for was Wayne Green’s Digital Audio magazine. The première issue came out in September, 1984. The articles listed on the cover included “How to Buy Your First CD Player.” (Snort.) I was the founding classical-music columnist (“Classical ReMarks”).

I got that columnist job by pure happenstance. Someone I knew (Chuck Dougherty) worked for the regional hi-fi chain Tweeter, Etc. Chuck also was a computer whiz who moonlighted writing for one of Wayne Green’s computer magazines. Word got around to Chuck that Wayne Green Enterprises needed someone who knew about classical music, and who also could write. Seeing as I was already writing reviews of classical music concerts and recitals for the Providence Journal, I seemed to be a good fit. Wayne Green’s little publishing empire was based in New Hampshire. As it happened, I was visiting New Hampshire frequently, in that I was organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series at Thomas More College in Merrimac.

While writing for Digital Audio, I not only reviewed CDs and wrote a column; I also interviewed musicians, including André Watts, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Joseph Silverstein. Although my duties did not include equipment reviews, I did have occasion to drool over (or lust over) some pieces of gear. I moved on to the Planet HiFi website (which was where I first reviewed audio equipment, and not just recordings), and then back to print journalism, first with The Absolute Sound, and then Stereophile.

Please note, this mini-series is limited to products that I had the opportunity to hear in my home, as part of a formal review process. There are many excellent products I would consider buying, but which I just have not had the opportunity to hear at home; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the excellent radial loudspeakers from MBL.

After the jump, I recall some of the “big-fish” (as well as some “little fish”) audio-review-loan components that got away.

Philips (Magnavox) FD-1000 CD player

But first, a note about how I bought my first CD player.

Back in 1983, I went to Tweeter, etc. and bought the original Sony CD player (CDP-101). I listened to it for a couple of days. I then decided (for the first and only time) to take advantage of Tweeter’s 7-day no-questions-asked return privilege. At the store, they were shocked. SHOCKED!

But to me, Sony’s CDP-101 sounded… uninvolving. Not wanting to give up on the format, I went to the Jordan Marsh department store, and (in the furniture department, no less) bought the first Magnavox CD player (FD-1000). Ahhh… that was more like it.

I have never done a lot of research about that decision. I knew what I was hearing; and even if the Magnavox player were indeed only a 14-bit player, for some reason or reasons it sounded much more musical than whatever it was that Sony was selling. That said, Sony had a degree of audiophile “street cred” and Magnavox—not so much. Therefore, I can only conclude that a greater number of audio hobbyists bought and kept the Sony unit than tried the Magnavox (Philips) unit, and perhaps that was an important factor in the chilly reception Compact Discs received from many US audiophiles and reviewers.

(A few writers seem to have built their careers on their early rejection of CD sound—I think, in many cases, on the basis of one listen to one setup. I think that if digital playback of CDs back then had been on the level of what today’s best digital playback of CDs sounds like, there would have been nowhere near as much nay-saying. The kind of today’s gear I have in mind is Parasound‘s read-until-right CD-1 as a transport, and any of Bricasti‘s DACs as a digital decoder. On today’s best systems, many CDs sound fantastic.)

Anyway, about early CD sound, my perspective was different from that of the nay-sayers. I was a former boy soprano and youth-orchestra second violinist (in my defense, I was the principal second violinist of my city’s public-school youth orchestra). I also had endured piano lessons. So, my frames of reference were not just listening to LPs, but many live experiences as a performer or player.

Let me put it this way: In my humble opinion, most of the people who were, circa 1983, dumping all over CDs had schooled themselves not to hear things like pre-echo on LP pressings; or, worse, analog LP “vibrato” on sustained piano notes. Artists such as Michael Tilson Thomas, André Watts, and Harris Goldsmith were not dupes or shills. They were professional pianists who finally were hearing a consumer medium play back piano tones without micro speed fluctuations that were perceived as an imposed vibrato effect (either from analog tape flutter in the recording process, or from LP speed fluctuations on playback).

Yes, yes, yes, I know. If you can afford to spend more than $100,000 on a turntable such as this one, and if you listen only to pristine first pressings, “piano vibrato” might not be so much of an issue. But for those of us who laid out what, at least at the time, seemed to be big money for components such as a Denon DP-60 turntable, piano vibrato was a fact of life. (Which, I cheerfully admit, might have been exacerbated by Denon’s direct drive and servo speed control.)

When I started writing for Stereophile, I wanted to go on record about my orientation and my intentions:

The contribution I want my writing to make is to relate the world of high-end equipment not only to the world
of music, but also to the worlds of culture and ideas. My goals for this column are to celebrate excellence
in various disciplines and the greatness of the human spirit by imparting useful information,
and recommending recordings and equipment proven or likely to withstand the test of time.

In other words, no “products of the month.”

My “acid test” for whether a piece of gear has withstood the test of time (at least with me) is whether I miss it as much today as I did years ago, when I first sent it back. I also have to say that even though it is not really a factor in my estimations, one way to assess whether “the marketplace” thinks a piece of gear has withstood the test of time is the state of the used-equipment market for it. If a component comes up for sale rarely, and then sells for a decent price, that may mean that the component is unusually gratifying to listen to; but it can also mean that the component is rare and that there are enough diehard fans who just want it… I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in-between.

All that being said, here’s a list of the components that come to mind. I can’t say that I will devote extensive coverage to all of them; but, all of them are worth a second look.

Loudspeakers

Wilson Benesch ACT One; Vivid Audio B-1; Shahinian Acoustics Obelisk and Diapason; Opera Callas (original version); ATC SCM19; Harbeth P3ESR; Direct Acoustics Silent Speaker II.

Sources

Esoteric X-01 SACD/CD player; Parasound CD-1 CD player/transport; Bricasti M1 and M1 Limited Edition DACs; Grace Design m805 DAC/monitor controller; Sooloos Control:15 music server; Magnum Dynalab 208 FM receiver.

Amplification

darTZeel NHB-108 stereo power amplifier; Bricasti M15 stereo power amplifier; Jeff Rowland Concentra II integrated stereo amplifier; Plinius 8150 integrated stereo amplifier; Luxman L-505u integrated stereo amplifier; Lindell AMPX stereo power amplifier; Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company CS600 tube integrated stereo amplifier; Unison Research S2K and S6 tube integrated stereo amplifiers; Sugden A21 integrated stereo amplifier.

Accessories

Stereovox interconnect and loudspeaker cables; Wireworld Gold Eclipse III+ interconnect and Gold Eclipse biwire loudspeaker cables; Symposium Acoustics Ultra platforms; Custom Power Cord Company HCFi power cords; RPG Skylines acoustical diffusion panels; Ultrasone Edition 9 headphones.

# # #

This article originally appeared at The Tannhauser Gate

12 Replies to “The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)”

  1. AvatarDave L

    You lost me once you mentioned a 5 figure DAC. Sorry, but you wouldn’t be able to differentiate the Bricasti vs a $100 Topping. I get the tactile and aesthetic quality of more expensive gear, but a front end consisting of a $200 DAC (perhaps Geshelli), a Rpi w/Hat, and a $1000 nCore amp would sound as well if not better than the snake oil BS I read in Stereophile. As for expensive power cords…oh my….

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      Hi, Dave.

      I am so glad I lost you!

      I have never said that high-end audio is cost-effective. Have you priced out any 1982 Bordeaux first growths recently? Do they taste 200 times better than a decent California cabernet? Probably not.

      Grace Design makes a truly wonderful DAC/HPA that sells for under $600. But the Bricasti DACs are clearly better. I think that the people who regularly win the Grammy for best-engineered classical recording (Soundmirror, in Boston) know more about DACs than you do.

      I respect that your comfort zone is ignorance, and I will leave it at that. So I won’t mention that power cords make a difference.

      jm

      Reply
      • Avatarbenjohnson

        Oil shale is fracked, refined and burned and the energy is captured in turbine to drive a generator. The resulting power goes up in voltage though giant transformers, travels many miles stepping down to lower and lower voltages through a series of transformers and arrives at the wall socket. If the electrons are lucky, they’ll encounter a $500 power cable and can relax for a few feet before they encounter your audio system. If they get the cheep cable then they arrive angry and they ruin your Japanese issue Eric Crapton SACD.

        Reply
        • Avatarbenjohnson

          Actually to be fair – power cables are important. If they have lousy connectors on either end, are too long and have loops, or internally they cables are not crimped or soldered properly they will introduce hum, snaps, voltage drops, and general mischief.

          I suspect that my version of a good cable is vastly less ambitious than Mr. Marks – but picking a good supplier of cables that fits your application properly is a reasonable way of spending reasonable money. If going this route seems reasonable, I would also make sure the wall outlet is newer and made well to ensure great contact. I would experiment with keeping other electronics away from the audio system – especially anything that has a transformer or coil.

          If one had a bit more money and curiosity – I would experiment with bypassing the AC/DC conversion step by drearily powering any amplification circuits with a series of charged lead-acid batteries. I have noticed that it can improve things if the music is more vigorous than the AC/DC circuit is expecting – but the most important benefit is that such a system freaks out your more marginal friends and they stop asking you for stock tips.

          Reply
          • AvatarJohn Marks

            Dear Ben,

            You are correct, but it’s a pain to load-match the circuits themselves. What is easier to do is to run deep-cycle marine batteries from a Tripplite charger/inverter and power the stereo system from that (with the charger unplugged from the wall) for critical listening.

            jm

          • Avatarbenjohnson

            I would be really curious to see if I could hear anything different with UPS that had a square wave inverter vs a mostly-sine-wave inverter output. The mostly-sine-wave ones are much cheaper than they used to be. I say “mostly” because most of them are still stair-stepped.

            In the framework of audio being something you really enjoy and appreciate – expensive cabling could be considered a good investment *even if* it did nothing as it removes any doubt about where to improve the system next.

            Here’s my confession: I have a ‘voodoo’ explainable cable issue that every scientifically minded person thinks I’m nuts for thinking: Pass-though Cat5 connectors fail to work well about 2% of the time if one end has a PoE device. You have to use ends don’t expose any of the copper. All sorts of reputable manufacturers make excellent pass-though connectors – but they just don’t work as reliably as needed. I was happy to find another electrician confirm my suspicion – he was also glad to find out that he wasn’t necessarily nuts as well. Or ate least someone else had the same observation.

        • AvatarJohn Marks

          Hi, Ben!

          To vary your analogy a bit: The Water Authority pumps water out of a huge reservoir many miles from my house. The filter it, aerate it, chlorinate it, and fluoridate it, but many of the pipes it flows through date back to the building boom of the 1890s. That’s not a typo–the 1890s, not the 1980s. The federal government requires the Water Authority to send all residents an annual report about all the bad things in the water. So, one way or another, many people filter their water. Even though the filter is only in the last couple of feet of piping, it still seems to work!

          The same is true for power cables. The wires going into one’s house from the nearest utility pole are being bombarded with RFI and other things you don’t want to amplify and feed to your speakers. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Good power cables are analogous to good water filters–they are the last chance to remove some bad stuff.

          I once replaced the power cord on an affordable ($3500) integrated amplifier with a boutique power cord. The woman I was married to at the time came in and said, “What’s been changed?” (She was a choral singer and cellist.) I told her, only the power cord. She looked annoyed and said, “I love saying that you guys are full of crap. But I __heard__ that!” Ruined her day, it did.

          jm

          Reply
  2. AvatarBjorn Larson

    I paid roughly 800 for the following in 2003. Wish I still had it. WE 1086B

    https://www.google.com/imgres?imgurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.angelfire.com%2Fbiz%2Fmrbstuff%2FWE1086b%2F1086b_front_cover_off.jpg&imgrefurl=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.angelfire.com%2Fbiz%2Fmrbstuff%2FWE1086b%2Findex.htm&docid=KAwNMoaQc2bRyM&tbnid=WYCHqgsOVDOAFM%3A&vet=10ahUKEwijvo2s3KzmAhWhxFkKHahWAHwQMwguKAIwAg..i&w=1533&h=1754&bih=665&biw=1364&q=angelfire%20mrbstuff&ved=0ahUKEwijvo2s3KzmAhWhxFkKHahWAHwQMwguKAIwAg&iact=mrc&uact=8

    Reply
    • Avatarbenjohnson

      That does look awesome – 71 pounds of American goodness. Here’s a link that has a picture of the very well made wiring loom.
      https://www.radiomuseum.org/r/western_el_amplifier_1086_b.html

      I adore older amps – from a measurement standpoint they’re generally garbage, but when you find the right song and the right speakers they can often times be magical. It’s especially poignant when the song comes from an the same era – someone else long dead could have listened to the same song. Speaking for myself, I hope that God lets me see them someday to swap a few tales.

      Reply
  3. Avatarbenjohnson

    What I miss: It was a cheep RadioShack cassette player that was intended for a TRS-80 CoCo omputer. It ate 4 “C” batteries at a time. It sloshed around the front seat of my beat up Chevy Luv. To my 17-year-old ears Led Zepplin and James Brown never sounded so GOOD. I was free and the world was my oyster.

    Reply
    • AvatarJohn Marks

      “Perception is result of the operation of cognition upon sensation.” I am supposed to lecture to a neuro-psych class on that next semester. And then, when you add a layer of memory function on top of that, all heck breaks loose.

      I am way overdue (as well as being late to the party by any measure) to write a blog post on Amanda Petrusich’s heroic book “Do Not Sell at Any Price.” I say “heroic” not because she took scuba lessons so she go search a river bottom for rumored 78rpm master discs thought to have been pitched into the river decades ago.

      I say heroic because in this day and age she dares to suggest that men and women interact with recorded music in different ways, and the ways that many men put “safe” distance between themselves and the raw emotional impact of music, by obsessive objectification and categorization and ranking and crawling through broken glass to “complete” a collection… just might be behaviors that can be placed on the autism spectrum.

      A book not to be missed for all music lovers, IMHO.

      https://www.amazon.com/Not-Sell-Any-Price-Obsessive/dp/145166706X

      jm

      Reply

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