My first stereo wasn’t as impressive as the effort it took to sell my parents on why buying it was such a good idea. I had received enough money in gifts that Christmas to more than cover the cost. But my folks saw music and stereos as gateways into “the dark side of life.” Frankly they would have preferred that I put all of the money in the bank. But what fun would that have been? This was maybe the first time that I didn’t take their “no” as the final answer and decided to press on.
I made a lot of solid arguments that each chipped away at their resolve. From my vantage point now I’m surprised that they granted as many “appeals” as they did. Years later when I was named publisher of Rolling Stone I reminded my mother of her main objection. She and my Dad would say, “rock n roll is never going to pay the bills.” At the time I didn’t know how wrong they would be but I also didn’t care. Finally having reached a point of exhaustion with the whole thing they left the door cracked open and I ran right through sinking $59.99 plus tax on an all-in-one Emerson cassette deck/amp with speakers. I had been eyeing it all season long at Caldor, our one stop for everything from clothing to auto supplies. I still remember picking it up, plugging it in and hitting “play.” It didn’t sound anywhere as good as my brother’s JVC set up but I didn’t care. I was in the game with a focus forward on the grand prize – a McIntosh system.
One my aunts had a state of the art McIntosh set up. Even then at the tender age of 10 as I would watch it operate in her home I knew that I was in the presence of greatness. That green glow from the amp and preamp were as mesmerizing and hypnotic as the sound that soared through her speakers. It didn’t matter that the music was Andy Williams and not Aerosmith. THIS was how music was meant to be heard.
A few years later my parents saw that rock and roll wasn’t going to steal my soul after all, and they began to help me build what became my first system. It started with the purchase of a Technics receiver. Then came a Panasonic turntable. I bought a Sharp cassette deck and Pioneer speakers – again from Caldor – and while I knew this was a long road from McIntosh I was getting closer.
Over the years I’d upgrade components here and there and it got to a point where the equipment in my own home was pretty good. I had developed a fondness for Adcom products and they became the hub for the system that would drive sound through our house and our outdoors. That system largely fed in wall/in ceiling speakers so it just seemed silly to invest in a McIntosh set up that wouldn’t do much more than provide a lot of eye candy to our music room.
Then about ten years ago we expanded the living area in our basement and that created a space where I could finally establish a proper “man cave.” This isn’t some fancy Architectural Digest-worthy set up with flat screen TV’s and wet bars. Instead, it’s the real deal. Here open and exposed is the air conditioning handler for the first floor. It sits diagonally across the room from a 275 gallon oil tank. The floor remains concrete but an area rug covers most of its surface. Above is duct work along with items we will never use, stored in the rafters. To make this ideal sound set up seem even more studio-perfect, this is where I keep all of my tools. They are stowed in metal cabinets with tamped doors that looked like they wanted to rattle and buzz at the mere suggestion that the room needed a stereo. But I did it anyway.
This was my opportunity and one I didn’t see presenting itself again (until that day we decide to downsize and move). The roadway was cleared when my wife surprisingly endorsed the idea with an unforgettable amount of enthusiasm. I later learned that she had hoped that moving my music downstairs would mean that she and the kids would no longer have to be exposed to whatever I wanted to listen to, often at the highest volumes the upstairs system would allow. What she didn’t know was that since the floor wasn’t soundproof, things wouldn’t markedly change. It would still get loud. But I didn’t have time (or interest) in explaining that. This was another open door that wouldn’t stay open forever. I decided like I had before to run through it and buy a really good stereo. I’ve never looked back.
Here in Connecticut we have lost almost all of the great stereo stores that I grew up with. But one remains and they always have a used equipment selection that’s expansive, filled with only the best names in the game. I had arrived at their showroom with the intent to buy a new McIntosh system. Instead I wandered into this used area and the vintage models they’d restored reached out and captured my attention with an iron grip. The inventory stretched across decades, brands and products. There were scores of great finds to consider, but my eyes went right to the stack of Macs!
In the end, I walked away with 1971 C28 pre-amp, a 1967 M250 amp, and a 1972 Thorens TD 160 turntable. I later picked up a 1984 Nakamichi RX-202 cassette deck with a tape carriage that flips out and spins when you reach the end of a side. To me it was worth it for that hat trick alone!
I married everything to a pair of Polk Audio Monitor 5s that I had bought back in 1992. Polk lost their way soon after that but these speakers never stopped delivering a clear crispness across the entire sound spectrum. All of the components found their home inside a cabinet that my older brother Brian had bought from a local Goodwill. He restored it and gave it to me as a birthday gift when I was in high school. From that point forward it became the longtime home for my audio equipment. Now down here in the man cave it began its second tour of duty. This became the base from which those first few sounds of magic would appear. After the set up I don’t remember what I played first. I think that’s because I was as much in awe of those green lights then as I was looking at them as a ten year old in my aunt’s den.
This man cave system has now been in operation now for almost ten years. Along the way the C28 was completely overhauled. The turntable has enjoyed a full tune-up. The tape deck? Well it only gets used from time to time so when it’s called on to perform it does so with precision. But the amp? She stays behind closed doors in the cabinet quietly doing her work with amazing brilliance and only comes out to greet guests when people want to see the setup. There are no moving parts or even a pilot light to indicate that she’s on. It’s the most modest piece of equipment that I own as well as the one item that captures the complete attention of everyone that asks to see her. She’s steady and strong.
Over the years I have been back to the store for repairs and I always wander toward the room where the used gear resides. Almost without exception there’ll be some new item that grabs my eye. It could be a new Mac, with a brighter display and a few more functions. And I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think once or twice about an upgrade. Then I’d get home and lay eyes on these great pieces of equipment. At this point they are more than prized possessions. They are more like old friends. Through their hands I have played new releases that I have been charged to formally review for magazines like this. Or I play the very same vinyl copies of records that began to define me as a teen. And as I sit back with headphones to quiet the floor-stomping my family uses to get me to turn things down, I’m reminded of how my dad would slap the hallway wall to get me to do the same. With this system it’s not like things have come full circle, but that they haven’t changed. And for me when it comes to sound that condition will always be my “gold standard.”
Header image: Ray’s personal McIntosh C28.