Entry-Level Audio

by Bill Tuomala



Part I - Hardly An Audiophile


By the fall of 1988, a few months after being hired to my first real post-college job, I had saved up enough money to buy one of the few purchases I figured to ever care about in my adult life: A stereo system. At the time, I was running a turntable through a boombox in my bedroom, a slight upgrade from the JC Penney fall-catalog all-in-one stereo that got me through high school and college. I wanted an upgrade, but something that would still be affordable. Entry-level job, entry-level stereo components, right? Without doing much research, one night I headed to Best Buy. This was back when they were still trying to take themselves seriously as an audio store. Their salesmen wore white pressed shirts and ties. They had a certain dignity, unlike today when you deal with some squeaky-voiced high school kid in khakis and a blue polo shirt trying to sell you a three-year extended warranty on a $75 DVD player. The salesman I dealt with was a couple of years older than me, professional, friendly, and even told me he couldn't sell me a warranty on a compact disc player as the technology was still too new. I already had a Technics turntable that I had bought in college and considered it a trusted brand, so I picked out a Technics receiver and CD player. I also chose some JBL speakers as a college roommate swore by the brand.


Some of the equipment was on back order, so I went to go pick up all the components a few nights later. The salesman had called to tell me they would be in boxes near the front door marked for me and to just grab 'em and head out. I went to the store and found the components' boxes and two speaker boxes, one with my name on it. Two speakers, two boxes, right? I got home, opened a box, and found two speakers in it; meaning I had heisted another set of speakers by mistake. I felt like crap. I called the store to let them know of what happened, but they were closed. I spent the next day worried I would be arrested for robbery. I drove back that night and left the extra box with two speakers in it by the front door where I had found it. Of course I didn't tell anybody.


The night that I set up the stereo I just stared over and over at the receiver. I couldn't decide which feature was cooler: A built-in equalizer or a volume dial with a series of lights around it that indicated the volume level. I was stunned that I actually owned a compact disc player and that both components had remotes. Bring on the nineties.


As it turns out, that first CD player was special, it was a single-disc unit and I had it repaired a couple of times in the nineties until a repairman told me that the cost of a repair was more than the player was worth. I should have had it repaired into eternity as the multi-CD players I moved on to were nothing but bad news for me over the years. (And in the age of the iPod doesn't the "shuffle disc" feature seem quaint?) Last year I bought a single-disc player online - the only one I could find - and it crapped out the very first day I had it, refusing to cough up my Elastica disc. (I shipped the unit back for a refund and they mailed the disc back to me.) So I settled for playing CDs with my DVD player, which works fine practically but confuses me remote-wise as the DVD player is over with the video components and not with the audio components. Multitasking isn't what it's made out to be sometimes, and neither my living room nor I are suited for one of those enormous entertainment centers.


That first receiver finally crapped out six years ago and I bought another affordable Technics model at Best Buy. And how times have changed: I just grabbed it off the shelf and hit the checkout lane, where they of course tried to sell me an extended warranty. The JBL speakers still plug away on the Schmidt returnable bottle cases that I improvised as speaker stands back in '88. And I still have a Technics cassette player that I bought in 1991, though it's mostly for atmosphere these days. I'm on my third or fourth set of headphones as I tend to stand on their cords in the dark and then damage them by pulling on them while stepping away. As you can see, I am hardly an audiophile, still not too far removed from the JC Penney fall catalog. I'm not sure that higher-end equipment would make a difference for me ... how much clarity do you need to fully appreciate Machine Head?



Part II - Back To The Future


The first compact disc I bought was Birth, School, Work, Death by the Godfathers. I loved the first three songs, but the fourth was a drippy ballad as only Limeys can horribly groan out. And while in retrospect the rest of the album was good, at the time I unfavorably labeled it to be what was a nuisance in the new CD era: An album with the three best songs up front and then the rest padded with filler. There is no flipping CDs over to a new side and a new beginning, so no need for artists to use the gambit of placing captivating songs at the "four corners" of the album - the first and last songs of side one and the first and last songs of side two*.

Aside from filler, the other problem that arose over the years with CDs was CD booklets. I used to be so in love with the form of the CD booklet that I based two issues of this zine around it. Now my eyes are getting older and reading the tiny tiny print is getting to be too much of a hassle. Worse, at times booklet designers insist on using a black background and white type in some weird, stupid rebellion against centuries of print tradition. Which is too bad as I love liner notes, then again holding that tiny booklet as compared to holding a genuine LP isn't the same. So CDs have fallen out of favor - too nineties.


Language Police BrutalityAnd then we have the once-mocked LP, redeemed and back from the edge of the grave. Earlier this decade the turntable I had used since college crapped out. Though it had no setting as such, it started spinning at what looked to be 78 rpm. I ended up acquiring a reliable used Technics turntable in exchange for a sixer of LaBatt Blue. This brought back vinyl in a big way. I pulled the vinyl archives out of the closet and found shelving for them out in the open. Aside from scoring a vinyl edition of the Stooges infamous Metallic K.O. in the mid-nineties, I hadn't bought any vinyl since finding The Alarm's debut EP in the used section at Northern Lights (sigh) on Hennepin Avenue shortly before Christmas 1988. But I got back in the game again. I started surfing the used racks at the ever-reliable indie record stores around town. Throw in the used vinyl store on eBay and there's a buyer's market for vinyl going strong. Some friends got me going on occasional deejaying gigs a couple years back and my thirst for vinyl skyrocketed. To bring things full circle, I bought that Godfathers album as an LP so I could spin songs from it while deejaying.


And then earlier this year, I phased out buying CDs in favor of iTunes downloads. This hasn't been as traumatic as expected. As mentioned earlier, CD booklets torment me. And now there are no worries about buying and finding additional space for CD storage. Cool used (and maybe new?) vinyl plus digital downloads feels like a great balance. I'm referring to this new stage of music purchases as "A New Hope.*" The mp3s - whose library will expand as I import more CDs - are great for while at the computer and while on the iPod. The vinyl is great for days or nights in the living room, the turntable spinning and the music blasting. Blasting out into the open spaces in daylight or into headphones at night. Except for maybe in your car, the former is the place to be: Music sounds best on headphones while a little fuzzy in the brain.



* The crack staff of the Exiled research department went on a fact-finding mission and found evidence that indicates that the "four corners" concept was likely named, if not also devised, by Bruce Springsteen with his Born to Run album.


* Apologies to Crystal, Minnesota.



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