graphicpush

Thoughts on branding, design, writing and life by Kevin Potts. Established 2003.

Resurrection of Sound

Sick of crappy sound on a crappy Dell laptop, the wife and I went out and spent entirely too much money on a sound system that pumps up the jams. Now music listening is an experience all its own.

About three months ago, I was listening to The National’s Boxer on my laptop speakers while working at my kitchen table. It struck me that despite pretty much fawning over every breath and twang in the album, I had never actually heard it properly because the tinny, caustic little laptop tweeters and the unsatisfying iPod earbuds were decimating the quality of the music.

Rewind

A decade ago (longer?), I worked at an audio equipment store, moonlighted as a club DJ, had just finished a stint as a college radio DJ, was running live sound for jazz and hip hop events, spent almost every free penny on music here and here, and was working on multiple music projects which eventually had releases in the US, Germany and France. I was obsessed with sound. I nerded so hardcore on audio that my current affection for web technology sometimes feels like a cheap rebound affair.

Over the past ten years, the quality of my sound system has gone downhill faster than a rogue shopping cart. I sold most of my DJ equipment, all of my rack-mounted gear, my best speakers, half of my vinyl, all of my component equipment. Even my fantastic Gina24 sits in a closet. My CDs had been ripped; my vinyl was collecting dust. Quality was kicked to the curb by the greasy landlord of convenience.

And 10 years later, I was left sitting at the kitchen table, suddenly aware of the filters of compression and shit circuitry through which my music was being gutted. From a history of audiophilish obsession to complacency with a Dell D810’s “sound system”. A long fall indeed.

Life is too short for listening to music on a Dell D810.

The Basics

The only blessing about living in the god-forsaken state of Kansas is that our remote family just send us checks for Christmas. So me and the wife took that (and some personal investment) and compiled a sound system that does proper justice to music. What we’ve started with:

  • Magnepan MG12 speakers. These are planar speakers, so they aren’t a traditional tweeter/woofer box. They stand about 4.5 feet high, but only about two inches deep; they look like something right out of Space Odyssey 2001. But holy shit do they sound amazing. They are utterly transparent; bad records sound bad, great records sound mind-blowingly good.
  • Cambridge Audio Azur 840A Integrated Amp. Even brand new, this had a big warm sound that delivered the sauce. A perfect complement to the Magnepans.
  • Cambridge Audio Azur 640c CD player. You think it’s weird to spend any kind of money on a decent CD player, and then you hear the difference, and suddenly there isn’t even a choice.
  • NAD IPD 2 iPod Dock. This device uses the proper line-level output of an iPod so you don’t have to mess around with the headphone jack. Comes with a sweet remote too.

Add 50’ of speaker wire and some RCA cables from Blue Jeans, and the final system plays techno with enough punch to stop your heart and Adele loud enough to break the windows and jazz clearly enough to hear not just the instruments but the physical acoustics of the space in which they were recorded.

The Vinyl

LP box

I’m a total slut for vinyl. If I were Catholic, it would be part of my weekly confessional. So I was pretty stoked to hook up my Vestax d3 turntable after 12 years in a box. It’s ugly as sin but built like a tank, and with a bit of cleaning and a brand new Stanton needle, we were partying like it was 1999.

Acquiring new vinyl is the polar opposite of buying MP3s. Records are a visceral, physical experience: the act of flipping through bins at a record store, the pealing off the cellophane, the weight of the wax, the massive full-color art and elaborate packaging, the feel of the needle touching down. I can’t justify the cost of records other than they bring more satisfaction.

Because today’s artists and labels treat LPs as the premium way to consume their product, the quality of the packaging, printing and vinyl is ten-fold better than the mass-produced crap of the 70s/80s.

Next

One day, I would love to have a true audiophile quality turntable with a proper pre-amp, but I think I’m married to the Vestax for another 12 years. (Seriously, you would need a shotgun and a pentagram painted in blood to hurt this thing.) Also maybe some video components if I ever start to care about TV and movies.

For now, though, I just need to find more storage for my records.

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commentary + criticism

Blayne

wrote the following on Tuesday March 13, 2012

I just got started on the same hobby myself!

I’ve always wanted to dabble with higher-end 2 channel audio, and I started putting my system together about a year ago. The first things I bought were a paid of old Dynaco Mark III tube amps that I restored. Then I went nuts and picked up a bunch of used gear (including more powerful tube amps) to round the system out.

Over the past few months I’ve re-ripped all of my CDs as uncompressed FLAC files, and gone the DAC route with playback done by Pure Music on a retired Macbook Pro. That made a huge difference.

You should check out audiogon.com if you haven’t already. The web site was recently recoded as a RoR app so it’s a work in progress, but it’s still probably the best place to look for used gear that’s in awesome condition. 90% of the fun is researching and dreaming about that next piece of equipment you want.

Also check out vortexbox.org, which allows you to easily turn an old PC into a decent music server.

Have fun!

Kevin Potts

wrote the following on Thursday March 15, 2012

Blayne — thanks for the shared enthusiasm. We actually did extensive research on audiogon.com because of the knowledgeable membership there; it was they who ultimately helped pick our final amp (we had gone through a lesser Cambridge and a NAD before settling).

My wife does most of her playback from her iPod. Most of mine is vinyl — I just adore it, as I wrote above. I have been snooping around about music servers though, so thank you for the lead on vortexbox.org. Cheers!