Gut Punches and Heavenly Strains

A few years ago, my old Spica TC-50s finally came to the end of the line. John Bau’s brilliantly constructed wedges from New Mexico could have lasted a bit longer, but the tweeters were damaged, the foam surrounds rotted, and the grille cloth torn and filthy. For the price quoted to get them professionally restored, I could have modern, new speakers with free shipping and no sales tax. I wanted to save time and money for a change, so I went ahead and purchased from the omnipresent online seller of everything.

The small box arrived– a set of speakers from a European heritage brand that moved to a mega-factory in Asia. I didn’t care for the mass-production aspect, but, according to the online reviews, these were supposed to be pretty good. Yet all the favorable ratings didn’t curb my disappointment.

As I lifted the speakers from the box, they felt hollow. The sound from the 14 x 12 x 7 containers was fine, maybe a little antiseptic, but nowhere near Spica’s innovative design and sound quality. These were made entirely of plastic, and I was just as happy to turn them off as I was to play them –a bad sign when it comes to audio. Equipment should engage you and suck you in and make you cancel appointments so that you can spend time with it.

This experience of ordering speakers online made me nostalgic for the thrill of auditioning equipment, talking to a knowledgeable salesperson, and transporting the gear myself. In the name of convenience, these interactive steps had disappeared since my first purchase back in 1978.

I was an indoor-boy, a little pasty and pudgy because I spent most of my time perusing Stereo Review magazine. My friends at Fox Lane Middle School in Mount Kisco, NY were equally dedicated: ‘Solder Gun’ Bobby kept a dog-eared Radio Shack catalog in his locker. “A. V.” Kevin was obsessed with microphones. Jamie, aka “Paco,” played guitar, and his dad owned the loudest speakers and best record collection in town. That’s what we talked about – all the time.

Whenever my grades in school improved, I was allowed to move my parents’ 1975 Sony compact stereo into my room, where I kept three albums in heavy rotation: Aerosmith, Live Bootleg, Queen, Live Killers, and the granddaddy of them all, Led Zeppelin’s The Song Remains the Same. When the house was empty, I would set the records on the high spindle, push the levers to 10, and lie down between the speakers, each one about a foot from my head. After the last record dropped, I would flip the stack over and finish out the set. The sound was harsh, and I couldn’t feel the music like when I was listening to the big Jensens at Jamie’s house.

That summer I got a job working for an Italian landscaper. Did I mention I was an indoor-boy? The job was miserable because Carlo made me do everything from mowing to weeding, and gardening. My hands were blistered, and I fantasized about rolling the lawn mower into the pond so he would fire me. I hated the work and, citing more pressing responsibilities, I gave notice to Carlo who said, “Ah, you like de money but no de hard work?” as he put cash into my raw outstretched hand.

After my failed attempt at landscaping, I made some money washing cars, babysitting, and sanding furniture for a carpenter. When I finally earned several hundred dollars, I rode my ten-speed bike triumphantly to a shop in downtown Mount Kisco. As I entered the store, large wooden boxes, gleaming amps, sophisticated turntables, and precision tape decks called to me.

The salesman and I had an immediate rapport. This guy was cool with longish hair and a 70’s mustache. I described what I wanted in my listening experience, and he led me to the Cerwin-Vega speakers. They were thunderous and about six times the size of my Sonys. Imbued with efficiency, CVs needed just a few watts to blast 12″ woofers (with red surrounds, what?!), horn tweeters, and a midrange. The grille was removable, allowing me to see the woofer vibrations as they blared demo copies of albums I picked out of a bin.

“Whadya got at home to play these?’ He asked. I described the system. “You can’t hook up speakers like this to that thing!” The CVs used real speaker wire and not the single RCA connection on the rear of the Sony. I really had not planned on buying a full kit, but, as Alec Baldwin’s character says in Glengarry Glen Ross, “Guy doesn’t walk on the lot unless he wants to buy.”

The salesman brought me over to the wall of silver, metered, receivers and proceeded to throw a few switches that connected the Cerwin-Vegas to a 45 wpc Onkyo receiver, whose faceplate was all lit up in a soft golden hue. He then had me test the knobs and switches. The flywheel for the radio dial was so smooth and accurate, and the volume knob had consequence. There was also a wealth of source options: two tape decks, a turntable and an auxiliary, and connections for TWO sets of speakers. Next was a record player, so off we went to the Dual section where shoppers encountered a turntable displayed on an unusually steep angle.

“Watch this,” he said as he played the album in this treacherous position using an Ortofon cartridge that resembled a landing Concorde jet. To my amazement, it held on to the grooves with ease. I was fully hooked, and the salesman was ready to close. I came in looking for speakers but could have an entirely new rig for about 200 dollars more. Since this was the most money I had ever spent, somewhere from deep in my Eastern European genetic coding arose the statement, “Can I get a better price, if I pay cash?” My dad was a firm believer of cash transactions. Impressed by my moxie, he penciled full list prices for the three items on a pad, crossed them out one by one with a flourish, and wrote my new “special pricing.” He even threw in the speaker wire. I counted out the deposit from my wad of hard-earned wages and rode back home to finagle my parents.

It took some begging, but luckily my father liked to show off. He was willing to make up the difference because I was going to have the best system in the neighborhood. Considering the scale of value and provenance: American speakers, Japanese receiver, and German turntable with a Danish cartridge – this was a serious system for a 12-year-old. I called the shop and let them know we had a deal.

After a sleepless night of anticipation, I returned the next day with the balance of the money and a borrowed station wagon for the stack of boxes awaiting me. When I got to the house, I noticed the envious neighbor kid watching through his window as I hefted my 50lb speakers out of the trunk. I’m an only child, so I hoard this kind of joy with no intention of sharing the experience with anyone else. I wanted to be left alone with my spoils.

As the equipment was unpacked, the woody speaker smell was only improved by the industrial perfume emitted by the other components. I studied the manual making sure everything was correctly hooked up before flipping the switch. And when I did, my Cerwin-Vegas delivered on all frequencies with gut punches and heavenly strains.

The CV/Onkyo/Dual combo served me for hundreds of albums, blared at school dances, and got the police called on me several times. Yeah, that was me playing the intro to ‘Iron Man’ nearly every day. I changed many fuses and even replaced blown tweeters, but the Cerwin-Vegas performed admirably all through my teens until the Spicas replaced them.

Handmade wood-veneer Zu towers, purchased directly from the manufacturer in Utah, now stand in place of the online speakers. After exhaustive research, phone calls & emails, trips to audio shows and shops, I am much more satisfied with my equipment. Yes, it was easier to click a few buttons and wait for the delivery truck, but there’s something to be said about working a little harder, paying more for a quality product, and interacting one-on-one with the people who make and sell your gear. Forty years after my first Hi-Fi purchase, I unboxed my new speakers like it was the first time.