When I first sat down to write this post, I envisioned it as a little trip through the Wonderland that has been my relationship with high-fidelity equipment over the years. Little did I realize it would also be a depressing catalog the thousands of dollars I’d thrown at this hobby as I recalled the various costly misadventures in my quest to find great sound.
I blame Ken, one of my best friends from high school. He was the one who got me hooked.
Pioneer, Sansui, Kenwood, Aiwa, Yamaha, Technics…names that were to become synonymous with what audiophiles today affectionately refer to as the age of big iron, when manufacturers were at the top of their R&D and design game, in an arms race to build those most sonically accurate and enticing consumer audio equipment possible. The late 70s and very early 80s: it was a time when visiting those now long-gone sealed off listening rooms and dedicated audio salons was almost a spiritual experience.
Before the Dark Times. Before stamped metal and black plastic.
Vinyl was king and cassettes were nipping at its heels while manufacturers were pushing the limits of chemistry and physics to transform a format that was never intended to be high fidelity into just that.
My first “hi-fi” purchase was a Philips GA212 belt drive turntable in 1972. Because I was a budding gadget freak, the reason I chose the Philips over a more mainstream Dual (like what Ken had) or Thorens table (Technics really hadn’t taken entered the mainstream yet), was because of the touch controls.
It was a decent piece of gear, even if I had it mated with a less-than-high-fidelity Panasonic 8-track AM/FM receiver. Yes, 8-track. IT WAS THE 70s FOR CHRISSAKE!
Unfortunately, I sadly learned that the functioning of the touch controls was inexorably dependent upon the light bulbs under those controls working. When the bulbs went out, the sensors went out and there was no Fry’s Electronics or internet where you could go to find replacements. It required a trip to a dedicated repair facility. Sadly, this desire to always be on the cutting edge has stung me more than once as my hi-fi adventures continued.
A year or so later, shortly after I started having problems with the touch controls on the Philips, Ken brought home a shiny, newly-released Technics SL-1300 direct drive turntable. (He would go to CES in Chicago every summer and it seemed he aways came back with some new toy—if not bags and bags of product literature). I was in awe. At the time I think it was the most beautiful piece of tech I’d ever seen. I was definitely guilty of breaking the Tenth Commandment where this turntable was concerned.
When I’d finally saved up enough money to buy my own, that particular model had been retired and replaced with the SL-1600. The 1600 was all the best parts of the 1300 plus IC speed control, a redesigned tonearm and a new floating suspension system that cut down on unwanted vibrations.
Shortly after Ken and I graduated from high school, I finally bought my first hi-fi amplifier with some of my graduation money: a Sony TA-5650. Why did I go with an integrated amp instead of a full-fledged receiver like many of my friends were buying at the time—especially since this particular amp came with a premium price tag? Because V-FETs. Japanese engineers had come up with a new power transistor design that combined the best parts of solid-state transistors and vacuum tubes, producing a open, transparent sound quite unlike any other. Sony was the first to market them, followed soon by Yamaha and Hitachi. After hearing that V-FET amp, I was hooked and wanted nothing less.
I mated it with a pair of Infinity 1001A loudspeakers. My friend Gary had this particular model, and while they were on the low-end of Infinity’s price range and people wondered why I was pairing them with that amp, they still sounded damn good. And frankly, after paying a premium for the Sony amp I didn’t have a lot of funds left over.
The Sony ran hot. VERY hot. But the sound. OMG. It was as if Heaven had opened and the angels were singing.
Three months later, it died.
The unit was designed to run hot. That wasn’t the issue. As is well-understood among aficionados of this series now, the trouble was the bias diodes in the power amp stage had a serious proclivity to self-destruct, and in self-destructing they would take the main V-FETs with them. This happened me twice while the unit was still under warranty, so it was more an annoyance (i.e. being without any music for weeks at a time while waiting for parts) than anything else. The third time it cost around $80 (in 1978 dollars) to get it repaired.
When it went out for the fourth time, I said fuck it, and I went shopping.
Technics—who was now a major player in the field—had just brought out a set of beautiful engineering marvels they called the “Micro Series.” It was a trend starting to sweep the industry, but in my opinion, no one nailed it the way Technics did. They packed the all the power and functionality of full-sized components into units that were about a foot wide and only two inches high. The fit and finish was amazing. And they were fuckin’ sexy.
But as inspiring and technologically advanced as they were (I mean, LED power meters!), and on paper the specs were very similar in regards to power and distortion as the Sony (minus the V-FETs of course) the power amp just didn’t sound as good as the Sony. I sent the Sony out for repair one more time, and vowed it would be the absolute last time—no matter how good the damn thing sounded—hoping against all odds that the problem would finally be fixed once and for all. The repairs held for nearly two years, during which time I sold the Technics components (something I regret to this day)—and when the Sony self-destructed for the fifth time, I left it in the laundry room of my apartment building and walked away from it.
Shortly before the Micro Series components came out, Technics also brought out a new set of turntables, dubbed their MK2 series. Whereas the 1600 was a relatively minor redesign of the 1300, the 1300Mk2 was a entirely new beast from the ground up.
One of the major problems that plagued turntables from day one was maintaining a steady, unwavering speed. Small variations would cause unwanted deviations in pitch. Quartz-lock technology (tying speed control to a fixed-frequency quartz crystal) was introduced in the late 1970s, and all but eliminated the problem, but sacrificed the ability for DJs and other professional musicians to intentionally vary the pitch of the records they were playing.
Technics stepped up to the problem with the introduction of the Mk2 series, putting quartz-locked pitch control in the hands of several new, highly integrated circuits. Now you could vary pitch by precise 0.1% increments up to plus or minus 9.9% from standard speed. I saw one for the first time in the DJ booth at HisCo Disco where my friend Steve worked. Push buttons, high-tech integrated circuits, LED readouts! I was like a fish to water.
I remember receiving the glossy, fold-out brochures in the mail and spontaneously orgasmed.
Six months later, I brought home a shiny new SL-1300Mk2 from Bruce’s World of Sound. It was my second purchase on credit (the first having been my truck) because there was no way I was making enough money to shell out $500 (in 1979 dollars) in one lump sum. I remember picking it up at lunch, bringing it back to the office, unpacking it, and showing it to one of the architects I worked with. He said it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, and I couldn’t have agreed more.
But as is wont with most of my early-adopter high-tech purchases, about nine months later the poor thing lost its mind. It would spin uncontrollably fast, rendering it useless. It went in for repair.
Three months later it was still sitting in the shop. Though it was an authorized Technics repair facility, they were having difficulty obtaining the replacement IC from Panasonic. It was indefinitely backordered and they had no idea when they’d be receiving it.
I had been three months without music. Desperate times called for desperate measures. I went shopping for a new turntable, fully intending to sell it when I got the 1300Mk2 back.
I had been hoping to get a 1500Mk2 (the fully manual version of the 1300). I didn’t want to spend a lot since this was just a temporary thing, but to my dismay the initial Mk2 series had already been replaced—undoubtedly due to supply chain trouble obtaining parts!
So I ended up with one of the new Mk2 series, a 1700Mk2. It was semi-automatic (the arm would return at the end of the record but you’d have to set it down to start) for “only” $300, and since I was now making significantly more money than I was when I got the 1300Mk2, it was a purchase outright that I could handle. I remember my parents shaking their heads in disbelief that I was buying yet another turntable, especiallly since I’d given my old 1600 to my sister (who would’ve happily let me use it for the duration), but I wanted the shiny and new.
I was never particularly enamored of the 1700Mk2. It was a good table, incorporating all the latest tech that Technics had put into the also recently released 1200Mk2 (yes, that 1200Mk2, the one Technics turntable that outlived all of them after vinyl “died”). But it no longer had the digital pitch control. It was still quartz-locked, but now possessed a continuously variable analog system and it just seemed a step backward to me. The tonearm, however, was far and above an improvement over the initial Mk2 series (something that would become painfully obvious as the initial Mk2 series aged).
As I recall, another month or so passed with no movement from the repair facility, I contacted Panasonic directly, and after retrieving the unit from the repair shop, I shipped it off to the coast for repair. When it was returned a few weeks later, no one was at home to receive it, so it was left with our next-door neighbors—with whom my parents had an ongoing bad relationship. No one was home there except their two pre-teen boys, and you can well imagine the rest of the story. It was destroyed.
I was heartbroken, but an important life lesson was learned: Never become too enamored of a thing.
We filed a claim with UPS (even though it was delivered in perfect condition) and after speaking with Panasonic, they instructed me to send it back and they would make things right. A week passed and I received another 1300Mk2. I don’t know if they’d salvaged parts from mine and built some kind of frankenstein monster, or sent me a completely different refurbished unit, but it seemed it just never worked the same. I sold it several years later (which was a bit of a problem because the unit Panasonic had returned to me had no serial number), and I never looked back.
I had every intention of continuing this story—probably in multiple installments—until I actually sat down and made a list of every piece of equipment I’d purchased over the years.
It was depressing. Sure, a lot of it was justified, but there was a period in the early 2000s, just after I’d discovered eBay and sold some original Frank Lloyd Wright blueprints that my father had found many years earlier on a job site that they were remodeling, that I developed a problem. I wouldn’t call it hoarding, per se—if only because I never held onto the stuff more than few weeks or months—but when I think of the volume of crap that passed through my hands it was obvious I was trying to make up for some emotional hole in my life and had a problem. I justified this at the time by saying that since I’d come into a little bit of money through the sale of those blueprints, I could afford to buy a lot of the stuff I only dreamt of owning when I was younger—especially since it was going so cheap on eBay back then.
The entire list as near as I can recreate:
Philips GA-212 turntable
Shure M-95E phono cartridge (2)
Sony TA-5650 integrated amplifier
Infinity 1001A loudspeakers (pair)
Technics SL-1600 turntable (2)
ADC ZLM phono cartridge
Technics SL-1300MK2 turntable (3)
Technics SL-1700MK2 turntable (3)
Technics SU-C01 preamplifier (3)
Technics ST-C01 tuner (3)
Technics SE-C01 power amplifier (4)
Sony TA-AX5 receiver
Sony TCK-555 cassette deck (2)
Yamaha CD-400 CD player
Yamaha A-700 tuner (2)
Yamaha T-700 integrated amplifier(2)
Yamaha K-540 cassette deck
Yamaha CDX-730 CD player (2)
Phase Tech PC-60 loudspeakers (pair)
Phase Tech PC-50 subwoofer
Sony STR-GX5 receiver (2)
ADC SS-315 equalizer
Technics SA-800 receiver
Technics SA-700 receiver
Pioneer TX-7500II tuner
Pioneer SA-7500II integrated amplifier
Kenwood KR-7400 receiver (2)
Technics SL-1301 turntable (2)
Technics SL-1400Mk2 turntable (2)
Pioneer CTF-9191 cassette deck
Technics RSM-02 cassette deck (2)
Technics RSM-04 cassette deck
Pioneer SX-535 receiver
Technics SL-P2 CD player (2)
Quadraplex 450R receiver
Ortolan Nightclub S phono cartridge
Technics ST-C04 tuner
Sony MDS-JE630 minidisc deck
Technics ST-C03 tuner
Technics SA-5370 receiver
Technics SA-505 receiver
Pioneer CTF-750 cassette deck
Cambridge Soundworks New Ensemble III loudspeaker set
Technics M24 cassette deck
Technics LED power meter
Technics SL-PG440 CD player
Sony MDS-JE480 minidisc deck
Sony DVP-5350 DVD/CD player
Shure V-15 Type 4 phono cartridge
Shure M97x phono cartridge
To be honest, several items on the list were bought as gifts, and some items were purchased just to clean up and resell, but the vast majority that was purchased post 2000 was to fill that emotional need. Right now all that remains is a system I settled on a decade ago and still serves me well today. It consists of ONE Kenwood KR-7400 receiver, ONE Technics SL-1300Mk2 turntable, the Shure V-15 Type 4 and M97x phono cartridges, and the Infinity 1001A loudspeakers.