Sitting In

    When I Was a Boy

    Issue 150

    I don’t remember the exact date that I became a budding audiophile, but it all started in 1965 when I was in the seventh grade. My parents were building the house of my mother’s dreams.  My father agreed to everything involved as long as he was allowed to put a newfangled stereo in the living room. It would be a huge upgrade to our ancient record player that lived in a wood box on a table.

    So, off we went to shop for The Stereo. It was a cold rainy night on the east coast as we drove to an appliance store, riding in our venerable and well-ventilated Willys Army Jeep. I hid under a blanket in the back until we got to the store as the heat in that Jeep was nonexistent. At least the canvas kept most of the rain out.

    There amongst all the refrigerators and stoves was a large Zenith console stereo. The salesman proceeded to demo the equipment with great pride. It had all the trappings of the era, lots of empty wood cabinet and a record changer with a knob to change the stylus to play both 78 rpm and LP records. So advanced was this equipment that he deliberately caused the stylus to skate all the way across the record into the runout groove. Riiiiipp! He claimed there was no damage to the vinyl. Right. Even I knew that wasn’t a good thing. Years later, I just knew this guy was the inspiration for “Money For Nothing.”

    The next stop was a real audio store that sold Marantz and McIntosh equipment. And this is when it happened. I listened to music played through a system of McIntosh components connected to a pair of Klipschorns. I was hooked. I was in lust, even though I probably had no idea of the meaning of the word. I wanted that system in our home, but the look on my mother’s face wasn’t promising.

    Time for a new approach. I was so enamored with the fidelity of the music, I asked the salesman, a friend of my father, if he had room in the back such that I could move my bed in and stay there. The parents were not amused. However, they did consent to allow me to stay there under the salesman’s supervision for a short time as they did other shopping in the mall, providing I sat in a chair, didn’t move, and didn’t touch anything. That would be considered child abuse today.

    On the way home, my mother issued her edict from the front seat: “John, I don’t want that in my house. You can see wires.” It was a stunning setback for a power engineer that worked all day with wires at Bell Telephone. And so, the Zenith moved in with us.

    To add insult to injury, a friend’s parents invited my family to dinner. There, in an alcove off the living room, was their McIntosh system, its tubes glowing warmly and playing rich, beautiful classical music. It was given equal prominence alongside the family harp. I was “Crestfallen,” but “I Will Survive.”

    As my father climbed the ranks of the Bell System, we relocated and the Zenith followed us. “Everywhere I Go.” But “All Things Must Pass.” I finally escaped the clutches of the Zenith by enrolling in the University of Colorado, which was the furthest school from the Zenith that accepted me. It also had pretty good skiing. My parting shot was to ask my father how much he paid for that piece of firewood. No answer.

    So, there I was, in a dorm room at CU with no tunes. The Walkman wouldn’t be invented for a long time. What to do? Obviously, you befriended the kid down the hall that brought his harman/kardon receiver and a TEAC reel to reel tape deck with him. No speakers, but that could be worked around. I got a pair of Koss Pro4AA headphones and a “Y”-adapter cable. The price of admission to my new friend’s room was half of a pizza delivered from The Gondolier, and with the “Y” cable, we would both listen to music.

    After the University of Colorado, I got married and we set up “Our House” in Eldorado Springs. We had the requisite two cats, but there wasn’t much of a yard. It was more like a cliff. We took the loot…er, wedding gifts…and bought a nice Marantz receiver (with the tuning flywheel), a pair of AR-3 speakers and an AR turntable. Oh, and a Bernina sewing machine for marital bliss. I finally had a sound system I was happy with, or so I thought.

    AR-XA turntable.

    AR-XA turntable.

    Down the road a piece, we got divorced. I was informed in no uncertain terms I wouldn’t be taking either the Marantz or Bernina with me. I did get the AR turntable, some vinyl and one of the cats. That was a mistake I would later regret.

    What’s a person to do with a newly limited budget? Get an apartment and go shopping for tunes. I purchased a Kenwood receiver and a pair of JBL speakers. They had nice foam grills on them. The cat loved them and immediately set about shredding them. The cat was scheduled for “Urban Renewal” and was later replaced by a dog.

    Time for the next phase of life. I started taking some photography classes at the now-defunct Colorado Institute of Art. I met Don, a fellow student, who was between a rock and a hard place and shared many of my interests. He had been accepted into the Rochester Institute of Technology in photography and would be starting classes in a few months. The lease on his apartment was up and his landlord wanted a new lease for a full year. During our conversations over a few beers after class at Charlie Brown’s, I discovered he had an enormous jazz collection. He seemed to have almost everything in the Creed Taylor catalog as well as a lot of other labels. Voila! A roommate. His problem was solved and I had work to do. I was on “The Road To Hell.”

    What does any irresponsible young adult do when presented with a situation of poor cash flow? Off I went to Listen Up and financed a Nakamichi 680ZX cassette deck and 200 cassette tapes, of course. I sat down to record every one of his albums I could on metal tape. This all turned out to be a big mistake.

     

    Unreliable source: the Nakamichi 680ZX cassette deck. From hifiengine.com.

    Unreliable source: the Nakamichi 680ZX cassette deck. From hifiengine.com.

     

    The Nakamichi broke down every 13 months. The original warranty was for 12 months, as was the warranty on each of the very expensive repairs. I was collecting little bags of the same dead parts, “Over And Over.” What made matters worse was that the Nakamichi silently scribbled on the tapes before it would fail. In the end, every one of my precious tapes had blank spots on them or were devoured. Of all my purchases in life, this was clearly the worst. Don went off to RIT and I spent the next three years paying off the Nakamichi. To his credit, he converted me from just listening to rock to being a jazz aficionado.

    Over time, I acquired a nice chunk of walnut to hold the equipment and set about filling it with a used McIntosh C29 preamp and a David Hafler DH-200 amplifier I built from a kit. The Kenwood was repurposed as an FM tuner. Since the cabinet was in front of the living room window, my new wife used the top of it for potted plants. You can see what’s coming, right? The plants were overwatered and left big, unrepairable, black stains in the walnut. Eventually she was also scheduled for “Urban Renewal” and replaced by a new dog.

    By now, the equipment was beginning to show its age. The DH-200 had developed a nasty hum and the input selector and the volume pot on the C29 had become scratchy and intermittent. The digital age was upon us and the aging stereo was banished to the basement office. I didn’t realize at the time the components could have easily been refurbished. Mistake. “Sounds Familiar?”

    I was working for Cray Research, the supercomputer vendor, and was spending a lot of time in computer rooms at the factory. You could get dedicated access to machines in final checkout between 5:00 pm on Friday and 6:00 am on Monday. The rules were strict, after a disaster when a machine due to be shipped melted down. You can imagine how fast something made of aluminum and drawing 300 kW can melt. Unless a machine was attended to at all times, it had to be powered down. If you wanted to be able to take breaks, you either brought someone with you, or you waited for a security guard to make their rounds. There was a fabulous Chinese restaurant in the next town, so we often bribed the guards with crab corn soup to baby sit the machines for us. Moral: Always bring a salesman along with his Amex card.

    The most striking observation about a Cray on the factory floor wasn’t its cosmetics, as all of the outer skins were removed and already crated for shipment. No, it was the 400 Hz ring from the power supplies. It was louder than the air conditioning. And so, I went digital. It was easy to carry a portable CD player and a weekend of CDs in a backpack. A pair of headphones cut the 400 Hz noise out of your ears and you were set. The sound quality was terrible, but it was better than using ear plugs and having no tunes.

     

    Number cruncher: a 1976 Cray-1 supercomputer.

    Number cruncher: a 1976 Cray-1 supercomputer.

     

    I bought a new house on Monument Hill with a kitchen in sore need of a remodeling. The contractor I hired saw my stereo and was entranced. He made the offer of trading his labor for my stereo. I thought that was a fantastic deal and out the door went all the equipment, cabinet, the defunct Nakamichi and several hundred pounds of vinyl. Another mistake.

    And that’s how it stayed for some time. “The Thrill Is Gone.” Then the Marriott Hotel organization woke me from my technological slumber. I had accumulated hundreds of thousands of points from all my business travel and I had to use them or lose them. 220,000 points were invested in a new Samsung 42-inch HDTV. Coincidentally, an audio store was closing their shop in Boulder and I got some outstanding deals on a Sony A/V receiver and enough Klipsch Reference Series speakers to build out a 7.1 system with a 500-watt subwoofer. I got it all set up at 11:00 pm and sat down to watch The Hurt Locker. The next day, my neighbor asked if I had heard any explosions. Bingo, we were back in business for another ten years.

    Thanks to the curse of COVID-19, I’m now forcibly retired. We get a lot of snow here and it’s often deeper than the top of my Airedale Terrier’s head. He likes to build a network of trails in the back yard. All the better to ambush “Several Species Of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together In A Cave and Grooving With A Pict” and then “The Heat is On.” In any case, after long periods of snow cover, you don’t want to hike in his footsteps.  But I digress.

     

    Just another morning in the Poconos.

    Just another morning in the Poconos.

     

    I spent a lot of last winter taking pictures of my neighbors without their permission, about 700 in all (thank you for digital, film would have cost a fortune), and I got to thinking the system was getting a little long in the tooth. It occurred to me after losing my sister at the beginning of the Dampenic (a perfect anagram), that life was too short to live without really great tunes. I set about upgrading the aging A/V system. “Lightning” assisted, but was not my friend. Bye bye subwoofer and Blu-ray.

     

    One of our neighbors in the snow.

    One of our neighbors in the snow.

     

    The first step was to acquire a McIntosh C2700 tube preamp, a McIntosh MC7300 amplifier, a Marantz SACD 30n player, a Rega Planar 6 Ania turntable and a pair of the top-drawer Sony headphones. All of this equipment was either certified used or scratch and dent, and had a full warranty. I saved a lot of money by doing it “My Way.” Nary a scratch anywhere, but the boxes were in pretty bad shape. It took 50 years, but I now have that McIntosh stack I wanted as a kid, meters and all. “Dreams Do Come True.”

    Next, I went to work on the A/V stack. A Denon 13.2 A/V receiver is on order. With all the supply chain delays, I hope to live long enough to see it arrive. We need some really great speakers, and with my deteriorating vision, a big wall-hanger 8K TV for all the concerts I have on Blu-ray.

     

    McIntosh C2700 preamplifier. From the McIntosh website.

    McIntosh C2700 preamplifier. From the McIntosh website.

     

    The best part is in the works. The phone company recently strung fiber down the road in front of my house. Soon, I can get a symmetrical 1 Gb Internet connection for a fraction of the cost of cable TV, which is pretty cool in an area where the population density is 64 people per square mile. Who needs cable when you can stream at 8K speeds? Although, I still prefer to own my own media.  Being housebound this winter will actually be quite enjoyable.  It’s enough to make you “Glad All Over.”

    It all started “When I Was A Boy.,” and “I Still Believe. Yes, I’m “Still Crazy After All These Years.”

    P.S. When my father retired, the Zenith refused to relocate one more time. In a fit of electrical rage, it spewed out a thick cloud of smoke and proclaimed: “The Party’s Over.” The mighty Zenith was “Gone At Last.” It had been reduced to nothing more than hazardous electronic waste. My frugal father, who never wasted anything, recycled its guts and the remainder became firewood, which heated the house in a different way. No electricity required. I won.

    P.P.S. My father, now 96 years old and deaf as a stone without using headphones over his hearing aids, is using my brother’s graduation gift, a Pioneer receiver that my mother tried to talk him out of as you would be able to see wires. When you put good music on it, the grin on his face wraps from ear to ear. And yes, you can see wires.

    ******

    Apologies to Jeff Lynne, Michael Been, Mark Knopfler, B.B. King, George Harrison, Graham Nash, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Smashing Pumpkins, Roger Waters and a host of others for abusing their song, album and book titles.

    About The Author

    After surviving a misguided youth, the author briefly dabbled in civil engineering and professional photography. Facing bankruptcy, he found his true calling as a software engineer. He spent the last 25 years of his career writing device drivers, firmware, protocol stacks, engineering specifications and documentation. While some might consider this work an embellished documentary, it’s 99% True.

    Header image: My mother’s pride and joy. No, not me, behind me.

    7 comments on “When I Was a Boy”

    1. This was such a great story. As a 14 year old HiFi nut...My brother in law gave me a Knight stereo amplifier he had built....It had a terrible hum. But his soldering was terrible. I resoldered everything and I was on my way to Audiophiliac Syndrome. At 15 years old, My father drove me to a HiFi store where Amar Bose was giving a talk and showing the new BOSE 901 speakers. I told him I wanted to get into the HiFi industry and he told me to get a job a Radio Shack. On the way home I did just that! Went on to own a small HiFi store chain that turned into a 240 store publically traded chain with $1.5B in sales. Bankruptcy Closed it in 2008.....I also had the great fortune to attend another "Open House" at a HiFi store when I was 16 years old and spent a few hours with Saul Marantz as near no one showed up for the Open House.....But that's another story!

    2. Great story! I still remember my dad's General Electric Quadraphonic 8-track setup in our living room. Definitely when it started for me. The good old days!

    3. I once had an RCA Victor stereo system that could both play and record on any recording media.
      This includes vinyl records too.
      There wasn't any transistor anywhere in that system.
      My dad, God rest him, had it custom built for me by RCA in 1978.
      But I didn't receive it until Christmas of 1979.
      But right here, is where the mith of Santa Claus ended for me.
      Very early that Christmas morning, I heard a lot of booming and banging that woke me up from a sound sleep.
      I looked up, and saw both my mom and dad risceling a jiant box in to our living room, threw the front door.
      I pretended not to know what was going on.
      And around 7:00 that morning, my dad came to my room and woke me up again.
      He said to me, "son, get up and come in here and see what Santa Claus brought you for Christmas!"
      I laughed and said, "dad, I saw you and mom bringing a very big box in to the house late last night.
      But I didn't see Santa Claus."
      He said to me, "come see what's in that big box!"
      And so, I got up, and wondered in to our living room.
      He told me to just open it.
      And so, I started taring the big box open.
      I thought it was a dresser.
      But I thought to myself, wait a minute, a dresser doesn't have holes in the back of it either.
      But why would a power cord be atached to the back of a dresser?
      He told me to finish opening it.
      And so, I done that.
      And wulla!
      There was my stereo system!
      He helped me get it out of the living room, and in to my room.
      I really enjoyed listening to my music on that system, from the time that I was a 7 year old little boy, until I lost both it and the old house I was living in, in a tornado in 2008.
      I wish I still had that old stereo system today.

    4. My poor man's audio rig in college was an AR turntable, two pairs of Koss 4AA headphones, and a Shure headphone amp with two jacks and a big volume knob. No way to attach photos otherwise I would have.

    5. Jack, that was a great story which brought back fond memories to winter 1968 when my old man came home with both a color TV and a console stereo for Christmas. He soon lamented the young buck Joe Namath putting up instead of shutting up when his Jets beat the Colts. He subscribed to the Readers Digest boxed set compilations that combined hit songs from various artists in each month's selected genre. It probably didn't support the artists much but did expose me to some great groups I wouldn't have gone looking for on my transistor (America's Top Forty each Saturday was more my speed). Thanks for everything you recalled for us here, except for the negative portrayal of cats!

      1. Just in case you think opposable thumbs are necessary to get into trouble, in the past week, my Airedale Terrier has learned how to do without them. He unscrewed the balanced cable from my Sony headphones and then chewed it to death. If you could place an order for new one, Sony wants hundreds of dollars for a new one. I'm in the process of upgrading the cabinet for the A/V equipment. He found the the cable for the left surround speaker and unscrewed the ferrules for both Monster banana plugs. Today, on the way home from the grocery, he unscrewed the cap from a bottle of Huy Fong Sriracha sauce. He thought it smelled good, but he HATES that taste. I'm going to cover everything in it. All you need to get into trouble is a brain and some creativity.

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