Back to the Future: despite his glass always being half-empty or even cracked and leaking, Ken Kessler finds reasons to be cheerful.
Unlike my ever-optimistic colleague and friend Mikey Fremer, who is convinced that every under-thirty-something craves a high-end turntable, a moving-coil cartridge and a record library exceeding five figures, I despair for the future of hi-fi. Whatever created the perfect storm that completely devalued what we call hi-fi or specialty audio or “the high end” – and I take those to mean systems made up of separates which deliver the best sound possible at the price – the massed forces of stupidity and the champions of lowering standards have succeeded in decimating the hi-fi marketplace. Or is the disappearance of a hi-fi store in every town just my imagination?
These destructive forces are legion: online shopping and the death of brick-and-mortar retail; recent reports of the closure of entire shopping malls in the US – not just individual shops; the inexorable rise of low-fi/all-in-one systems for under $500 with wireless sound throughout the house; streaming and the devaluing of music itself; Steve Jobs’ infamous declaration that hi-fi was dead when he launched a never-to-succeed Apple stereo system; the proliferation of earbuds over decent headphones, let alone speakers; lower educational standards; the decline of quality popular music; ad nauseam.
There are more causes for hi-fi’s possible demise, but I am already too depressed to list them as I write this column on a gloomy Monday morning. As for the specific role of the internet in destroying the appreciation of or demand for both quality music and high-fidelity playback? Those are future topics for a sociologist’s or musicologist’s PhD. The effects of the destructive forces are now permanent, despite the revival of vinyl. But as much as I detest social media for all the right reasons, especially as so much of it has turned into an un-policed, shameful free-for-all for hatred – it is surely Goebbels’s dream come true – I admit to a few glimmers of hope via Instagram.
They arrived in the form of two twenty-something Instagrammers who – joy of joys! – use open-reel tape. One came to my attention via the usual algorithms while the other was a follow-up in reading his Instagram pages after meeting the individual face-to-face at the Tonbridge AudioJumble (see my article in Issue 173). Dealing with the latter first, HiFi David arrived at my table with his dad, and he would ultimately clean me out of 10-inch spools and tapes.
It turns out that UK-based David had acquired a TEAC A-3340S 4-track deck. He was in the process of feeding it fresh tapes, the deck having recently been serviced and his young ears, which probably hear a good 5 kHz – 10 kHz more than mine, told him the sound was better than digital. More than just a tape enthusiast, however, he is a true anachrophile.
Although (to paraphrase Dean Martin’s line about Sinatra marrying Mia Farrow) I have wines, tapes, LPs and loads of hardware older than David, he has a taste for vintage gear which belies his years. If you visit him on Instagram at hifi.david, you will see his elation at finding a mint TEAC MC-210 microphone with which to anoint his A-3340S; the successful restoration of an Akai CS-34D cassette deck; a TASCAM 112 Mk II cassette deck to which he beat me at the latest AudioJumble; finding a tonearm lifter for his 1972 Thorens TD160; his mint Quad 33/303/FM3, and other displays of sheer delight in hi-fi.
It is my hope that his enthusiasm infects some of his contemporaries. We need ambassadors like David, not least because he exhibits none of the prejudices, e.g., a psychotic hatred of digital, which have made the world of audiophilia occasionally toxic. He has shown catholic tastes in music – a true sign of maturity – and he seems to be a sponge for knowledge. Best of all, his dad encourages him 100 percent. And that’s a good thing: because David has such a good eye for bargains, he needs someone to help him carry off all the treasures he finds at the AudioJumble.
Another ambassador for the appreciation of quality in both sound and content, whom I have not met, is West Coast-based Geraldine Hi-Fi who posts snappy videos on her Instagram, which is simply geraldine.hifi and which boasts over 75,000 followers. Like David, she is absolutely atypical of Millennials or Gen X/Y/Zers in that her unbridled enthusiasm completely belies the too-cool-for-school mindset which seems to dominate these days. [Note: I am 100 percent certain that I was a complete asshole during my youth; many will argue I still am.]
Geraldine’s system, as revealed by her postings, includes a mint Akai GX77 reel-to-reel, on which, during one clip, she played Claudine Longet’s The Look of Love on A&M. This was amidst playings of the Psychedelic Furs, Depeche Mode, Cyndi Lauper, the Cars, and others which attest to her love for the 1970s and 1980s regardless of the medium. Most revealing of her simpatico psyche is that, among her system’s components, is a TEAC AN-180 noise reduction unit, which she keeps active just because she loves the look of the VU meters. How audiophile is that?!?
On the shelf behind Geraldine? A McIntosh MC240 tube amp, a Heathkit SP-2 tube pre-amp, a Dual CS-5000 turntable with Shure M111HE cartridge, and much more. She collects vintage headphones, knows no bias against formats – she received a haul of cassettes from one follower and delights in CDs as well as LPs – and her postings usually celebrate her finds.
In an online universe where nearly all influencers are arguably unethical, in the sense that they are simply shills for whatever trainer, perfume, track suit, face cream, handbag or other product for which the manufacturer is paying them, it’s genuinely life-affirming to find two like Geraldine and David whose passions do not include pimped Escalades, bling, or other manifestations of the Gospel According to the Kardashians. They’re smart, they’re curious, they’re positive. Bless ‘em.
While I am yet to approach the aforementioned Mikey (now back at The Absolute Sound) for optimism, I should also note that two birthdays ago my thirty-something son asked for a new turntable. I thought I was in a dream state, possibly still asleep. For Christmas, he got fresh copies of Led Zeppelin and Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Hmmm…maybe he won’t be booking a huge dumpster for my record library when I shuffle off to whatever level of Hell contains hi-fi scribes.
KK NOTE: Music playing at the time of writing is Edmundo Ros and His Orchestra, Show Boat/Porgy & Bess (London LPM 70020, 7.5ips tape) via a TEAC X-3.
Header image: 1960s Quad promotional photo. Courtesy of Ken Kessler, from the book Quad: The Closest Approach.
One comment on “Back to My Reel-to-Reel Roots, Part 26: Half Full – Not Half Empty, Redux”
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Audio has always been several hobbies, different things to different people. After the war (WWII, that is), many veterans trained in electronics during their time in military service brought their expertise and enthusiasm into audio. That was the time when the audio hobby was about creation and experimentation. Businesses selling electronic components, raw speaker drivers and complete kits were common. Then came popular music moving consumer audio into the mainstream. After the Japanese introduced well-priced audio systems and separates, audio took off. Popular as today’s artists such as Taylor Swift may be, today is a far cry from the days of the Beatles, Presley, Led Zeppelin etc. For music lovers, audio equipment was a means to hear their favourite bands. Later came the “High End”. Whereas the earlier generation of enthusiasts self-learned about circuit theory, read Popular Electronics and were handy with a soldering iron and test equipment, the “high enders” read subjective reviews, learned the “science” behind thick thousand dollar cables and Mpingo discs, and probably can’t wire a mains plug correctly. This sector gradually merged with the luxury and lifestyle sector and for many became status symbols that earn bragging rights. The “music enthusiast” sector has since moved on, and as Ken lamented, went on first to low rez digital (MP3 players) and headphones, and now Spotify. There are still some (aging) high enders, but this sector has always been subject to the whims of fashion as well as the economic cycle. And there are plenty of bling to compete for people’s attention and cheque book. The players in this sector are also partly to blame. They realised that for their customers, appearance sells. The more ostentatious the exterior, the more money they can ask for, and the less money they need to put into what makes the sound. Private equity soon smelled blood and the name is all that remains of some of the pioneering brands. Audio is far from the only business to do this. A friend who represents several prestigious Swiss watch brands once had to explain to an irate customer that the Chinese made ten-dollar quartz movement the customer had discovered in his $20,000 watch was correct and not the sign of a fake. There are of course many exceptions to the rule, but it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
I have turned away from the “high end” a long time ago, but in my little world of audio experimenters, things are going super well. Thanks to the internet, it is getting ever easier to share design ideas and experiences. There are group projects where everyone works on a design and gives feedback. Professionals (e.g. Nelson Pass, Ralph Karsten, Victor Khomenko etc) are incredibly generous with their knowledge and ideas. It is easier than ever to source electronic components etc. I see the glass as much more than half full !