Saturday, 17 September 2016

I love music so why can't I get excited about hi-fi?

Last week I was asked to write another column for BBC's Front Row. (you can listen to it here by the way, about 3 minutes towards the end of the show). They were keen to do something to mark Apple's announcement of the new iPhone 7 and its ditching of the 3.5mm headphone jack plug.

As I sat there  in BBC Gloucester with the avuncular producer in London, guiding me through my reading, it occurred to me that prior to doing the piece, I rarely gave much thought to the nuts and bolts of listening to recorded music.

This is odd because, I've got shelves and shelves of the stuff as you know: a mountain of CDs which I'm trying to offload; too much vinyl, multiple copies of Velvet Underground and The Clash, a habit Im trying to curb but which gets thwarted every time I go into a secondhand record shop or do another podcast - both weekly activities, by the way;  plus boxes and boxes of singles, old cassettes and 6 disc box sets up the wazoo. But my record player? My amplifier? My speakers? Meh.

Some of my records - as alphabeticised by my daughters.

The turntable, my wife bought me when she worked for Sony a gazillion years ago; it's OK and does the job but it's not something you can stroke and admire like some of the stuff out there. I was at a friend's 50th last year where everyone was invited to bring a 7" single to play.  He had an absolute beauty of a turntable -  the same one that features in A Clockwork Orange, which I now read is a called a Mitchell Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference Turntable. A real fetish item for collectors apparently.

Alex with his Mitchell Transcriptor in Kurbrick's A Clockwork Orange

My friend, I should say is a music professional as well as a connoisseur of 1960s art and design. But when we tried to play a 7" copy of Boy Wonder's 'Goodbye Jimmy Dean', there were precious little hydraulics and certainly no transcription as the stylus resolutely refused to play anything other than the run out groove. And eventually this 7" themed party reverted, like most parties these days, to being DJ'd by Spotify.

My amplifier until last year was a second hand NAD which I'd bought from my brother years ago. It had the Volume and Balance control on one hugely irritating dial, forcing you to hold the front bit (Vol) still while you fiddled with the bottom bit (Bal) to make adjustments. Like a stubborn jam jar. Also whenever I used it at a party it would cut out over a certain volume and have to be given an hour's worth of R&R to cool down before it returned to work. Not good when you've got a bunch of drunk 40 somethings all keen to continue dancing to 'Get Lucky'.

But did I ever do anything about it in all those (20 - argh!) years? Nope. Just a bit of occasional moaning before going back out to buy more stuff to play through it. I finally replaced it last year with a Cambridge Audio amp from Richer Sounds which is, by far and away, the most expensive bit of kit I've ever bought for the purpose of listening to recorded music. About £150. Steady on, Wardle.

And the speakers? Up until Chestnut The Cat went for them, I was using speakers I'd bought years before while I was an A&R man. I can't even remember their name. Nick, the lovely man from an outfit called Seven O Sound got them for me. His company used to get BMG all their hi fi kit. It was Nick who would come out and fix it during meetings as well. This would invariably happen when the MD or Chairman would want to play something to the A&R department and no one could work out how to get the system working. It was his job to use the line, "Have you turned it on?"You think I'm joking? A love of hi fi is not consistent with a love of music.

Chestnut realising the speakers are now too high for her to destory.

Anyway the speakers Nick got me which I'm sure were great and certainly cost quite a bit, eventually got savaged by Chestnut's merciless claws and I was forced to replace them. So did I buy What Hi Fi and seek out the latest state of the art kit? What do you think? I bought an old pair from my friend Russell who had them going spare. They aren't that pretty and they're certainly not new but someone once told me that British speakers were the best and these are British and made by Celestion. Hifi experts reading this will now be nodding sagely or shaking their heads in disbelief at my nativity but I don't care; they make a noise and you can hear the bass. Woofers? Check. Tweeters? You betcha!

One of my two Celestion speakers, yesterday. Note handy copy of Roger's Profanisaurus.

I've recently put all these bits into an organised shelf system on my study wall (see below) so I can sit and listen to New Boots And Panties at full volume in a chair whilst drinking tea . I am now faced with the reality of my hifi choices; there's nowhere for them to run. Now those speakers are on the wall in the correct place there is no excuse; now the turntable is on a shelf unconnected to the floor I can do as much dad dancing as I like without the record skipping. It sounds good to me. I'm sure if someone came round who really knew about hifi they'd immediately say that the stereo channels are back to front, I've used the wrong cables, the stylus is worn out or make an ironic comment about me still having a cassette player all wired up and ready to go (Ironically, my Yamaha cassette deck is probably the most state of the art bit of kit I have - another heirloom from A&R years).

The new shelves with my rather indifferent turntable centre stage.

But I don't care - I'm enjoying myself and that's the main thing. And remember when most of us listen to music on Spotify Premium via an iPhone in a car or a portable mono Bluetooth speaker why should we get uptight about whether we've our hifi is state of the art?

Mind you, if you have any advice for me on getting a new turntable do let me know...

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