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Sneakeater

Audio Equipment

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What a laugh, right? Who even uses audio equipment any more? Well, I do, and I care about it a lot. I will NOT listen to serious music through my computer.

I'll also admit that, although like any person with functioning ears and heart I prefer vinyl, I'm addicted to the ease of CDs. (Yeah, I don't stream. Long story, not for now.)

My system is mainly mid-fi from the years when mid-fi was still good: early Adcom amp (GFA 555 ii) and pre-amp (GFP 565), Thiel CS1.5 speakers. You couldn't get stuff nearly that good for sensible prices now.

As I discovered when my CD player died a few years ago. I had to replace it with something three times as expensive: an entry-level Naim, the CD5 XS. I had always thought of Naim as a British cult -- they eschew the usual high-end measures of sound reproduction, soundstage and layering and the like, and emphasize elemental pace, rhythm, and timing -- but when I auditioned CD players, I found to my happy surprise that the Naim approach came closer than any CD player I'd heard to recreating what I like about vinyl:  that sense that the music lives, that compels you to actively listen rather than letting the music natter on in the background.

One of the foundations of the Naim cult is upgradability. In particular, the company manufactures complementary (very much NOT complimentary) outboard power supplies that they claim greatly improve the audible performance of their gear. I recently learned that my CD player has gone out of production (for obvious reasons). So, after a few years of dithering, I pulled the trigger on the complementary (very much NOT complimentary) power supply, in case that disappears soon as well.

It's not clear why, but good audio equipment -- not just speakers, which kind of make sense, but electronics -- requires break-in. Naim gear requires especially long break-ins. So I was not surprised that out of the box, what I mainly got from the external power supply was tubby, over-exaggerated bass.

But now that the power supply has had some time to burn in -- it's still improving hour by hour, but by now it's gotten somewhere -- I find, to my delight, that what it does is, it supplies a lot of the "normal" high-end stuff that the basic Naim approach eschews. So you keep the lively pace and pulse -- but along with it, you now get a much wider soundstage, and much more precise and discernible layering of sound elements. What this means in practice is that acoustic jazz albums -- at which the unadorned CD player excels -- are not really materially better with the outboard power supply. But the improvement in reproduction of orchestral albums is like nuts. (Pop records are not engineered to supply what high-end audio can reproduce, so equipment like this is neutral -- snobs would unfairly say wasted -- on them.) There's also a marked increase in what you'd have to call authority: brass just rings out. And unprocessed voices can sound like the person's in the room with you.

I'm really happy with this. My CD player has gone from being very good to being something near great (for the price). And I feel like a dinosaur for caring.

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I just had to decide whether to refurbish or replace my 18 year old amp and almost every new one in my price range was dedicated to streaming and had a DAC converter in it, which is something my CD player already has.

 

I also listen to music almost exclusively on CD and still buy them.

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I need to dust off my 78 turntable. I invested enough in it. $2 at a stoop sale, then $98 in tubes and some sapphire needles.

 

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https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/20/magazine/neil-young-streaming-music.html

 

"But Young hears something creepier and more insidious in the new music too. We are poisoning ourselves with degraded sound, he believes, the same way that Monsanto is poisoning our food with genetically engineered seeds. The development of our brains is led by our senses; take away too many of the necessary cues, and we are trapped inside a room with no doors or windows. Substituting smoothed-out algorithms for the contingent complexity of biological existence is bad for us, Young thinks. He doesn’t care much about being called a crank. “It’s an insult to the human mind and the human soul,” he once told Greg Kot of The Chicago Tribune. Or as Young put it to me, “I’m not content to be content.”"

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You totally do!

 

I only bought that 1970-ish Califone turntable because it had an RCA jack for audio out. I thought I could rip my 78 collection to digital (still keeping the discs, of course). $98 later, I learned that that jack was the only part that didn't work. There's a complete circuit diagram inside the chassis. Fixing it? That's . . . on my list. As if I had the expertise.

 

The best 78 sound I ever heard was a few years ago at a cluttered local-history museum at North Adams, MA, during lovely spouse's Mass MoCa museum residency. Windup spring, giant wooden horn, steel needle. The record was almost pristine, scratch-free; the analog sound shockingly full thanks to the surprising range of the high speed. The volunteer on duty did me great honor by playing it. With every play on that soft needle, more wear.

 

Last week at a friend's house I saw a newer 78-ready turntable, an inexpensive Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB with only one cartridge/needle, even though stereo 33/45 grooves are much skinnier than mono 78 grooves. Most weirdly, it had a reverse button:

 

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"Alright, he's scratching it right now 
Cuttin' the record back and forth against the needle 
Back and forth, back and forth, makin' it scratch 
But let me tell you somthing 
Don't try it at home with your dad's stereo 
Only under hip-hop supervision, alright?"

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As Sam Tellig once said about one of those horned gramophone things, the solution to the "tubes v. solid-state" controversy is to use neither.

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I've had turntables with 78 RPM capability -- but, as you said, there was only one needle, which I could never imagine working in a 78 RPM groove.

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(Pop records are not engineered to supply what high-end audio can reproduce, so equipment like this is neutral -- snobs would unfairly say wasted -- on them.)

The new Taylor Swift album -- engineered to sound vivid through less-than-indifferent equipment -- was practically unlistenable on this system. It would've sounded fine without the new power supply.

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(Pop records are not engineered to supply what high-end audio can reproduce, so equipment like this is neutral -- snobs would unfairly say wasted -- on them.)

The new Taylor Swift album -- engineered to sound vivid through less-than-indifferent equipment -- was practically unlistenable on this system. It would've sounded fine without the new power supply.

I have a new set of running headphones that work by sending vibrations through your (thick in my case) skull with predictably distorted sound. I think they're exactly what Taylor Swift needs.

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I'm very confused as to why a CD player, which does not draw heavily on the power supply (and therefore does not cause distortion or voltage drops) would be impacted by the supply at all. I can see how the power amplifier would like a nice quiet stable supply and how the record player would like electromagnetic silence, but a CD player? sounds like a hoax unless I'm missing something.

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