Monday, July 27, 2020

My Life In ... Hi-Fi

The third in an occasional series of alternative Curriculum Vitae because no-one on their death bed says "I wish I'd spent more time in the office".

My musical life, hardware and media, mirrors the major stages in my life: home, college, work, retirement. Each phase brought with it a seismic shift followed by a number of small after-shocks. My musical tastes followed a similar pattern.

Family: unknown vintage (1962-1970). The first musical equipment in our family was an ancient, steam radio and a clunky record deck. The radio was a beautiful piece of furniture: dark, polished mahogany with valves inside that as a small child fascinated me. Peering though the back grill I could see these glowing embers in the tubes. The radio dial had the BBC Home Service, the Light Programme and the Third Programme. This was long before they were re-badged as Radio 4, Radio 2 and Radio 3 respectively and the introduction of the new fangled station Radio 1 in 1967 for the music of popular beat combos. It also had the World Service and exotic stations from all over Europe shown on the dial, as fascinating as staring at an atlas. Ah, those knurled Bakelite knobs.

I have no idea what make the record deck was but it was housed in a sturdy plywood box made by my uncle, a very capable and practical kind of guy. The audio lead out plugged into a couple of banana sockets in the back of the radio which would then play the music of our childhood. In the early days this was the Beatles as bought by our parents and then, as we approached mid-teens, we started buying own own music. In my case early Tyrannosaurus Rex, sampler albums like Bumpers, The Who, Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and some classical music on cheapo labels like Classics For Pleasure

College and beyond: Mullard, Connoisseur. (1971-1983). With college approaching I would need my own music equipment. I ended up with home-made hi-fi from a kit. I do not know whether it was in Practical Wireless (PDF) or some other magazine but I would have learned about it from my parents' copy of The Sunday Times. 

I bought the package deal: four black plastic Mullard Unilex audio modules each the size of a cigarette packet that you had to wire together, plus a control unit and instruction booklet. I believe it was cheap because it was self assembly and thus exempt from VAT.

The booklet included a design for a box to house the amplifier with control knobs on the front and a bunch of DIN sockets on the back, all tastefully covered in black, sticky backed plastic. Similarly for the speakers, I bought the drive units (make unknown) and made myself two matching base reflex cabinets.

For the turntable I went with a Connoisseur BD2 belt driven platter with SAU arm and Shure cartridge. That record deck was, for its time, a pretty classy piece of budget engineering, a baby Linn LP12 if you will. Meanwhile all my friends had that students' favourite the Garrard SP25 Mark II. I think mine was a little classier than that! The whole thing worked remarkably well and gave not bad sound for a micro budget if I may say. 

The only challenge I had was interference when a police car or ambulance drove past. That was solved by protecting the preamp with a Faraday cage. Well, when I say Faraday cage I mean I wrapped it in aluminium foil from a Chinese takeaway container and connected it to the earth lead. That basic set up did me through college to the start of my working career with one major change. 

Halfway through college I took a summer job as a dustman and the money I saved was enough to buy a amp upgrade, the lovely Sony ST 88 (1972) integrated amplifier. I was always envious of my mate Pete Miller who had the same amp and the matching stereo ST 88 tuner. With that change I carried on for another five years.

Musically it was an era to get introduced by my fellow students to weird and wonderful music like Captain Beefheart, Frank Zappa, Roxy Music, Balinese Gamelan, etc. I continued to buy and get much stick for my T.Rex devotion.

Work part 1 (pre-Mary): Linn, Naim (1983-1989).

After four years out in the world on my third job earning nice money it was time for the next major shift. I have several times used the approach of finding someone who knows what they’re talking about, has already done all the research and then simply copy what they do. My colleague, Steve Thorne, at C&L after many expensive upgrades had arrived at what I considered a pretty ultimate system. So to avoid all the messing about with piecemeal upgrades I cut straight to the chase and bought the same as him. 

A trip to Grahams Hi-Fi (1983) resulted in the purchase of a Linn LP12 turntable, with Ittok LVII tone arm and Asaka cartridge, Naim amplification (SNAPS power supply, NAC42S preamp, NAP110 power amp) and Linn Kan speakers. That was definitely the dog's bollocks in terms of quality all for the princely sum of £1,672.40. A classic combo that lasted me for three decades apart from the addition of a Nakamichi CR-1E (1988) cassette tape deck (described in one review as a sledgehammer to crack a nut).

Musically the 80s are I think my favourite decade, I rediscovered pop music thanks to Madonna (Like a Virgin) and Wham (Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go). My vinyl buying accelerated in a very eclectic manner.

Work part 2 (post Mary): Linn, Naim and others (1989-2016). 
We moved into a detached cottage in the country after Mary and I married; no neighbours to disturb with loud music! There were a couple of additions: an Onix BWD1 FM receiver (1990), and then a Meridian 206 CD player (1992) for an outrageous price (at the time) of £995.00. The latter was a forced purchase as Mike and the Mechanics' album "Beggar on a Beach of Gold" was not available on vinyl. So if I wanted to listen to it I had to buy a CD player!

Then another upgrade. Mary bought me a Naim 32.5 (1994) for my birthday by trading in my 42 preamp, this gave me one extra input which was necessary to allow both tuner and CD player to be connected. 

Eventually after years of Mary complaining about the brittle sound of the Linn Kan speakers we upgraded to the expensive niche product Shahinian Arc (1999). At the same time we upgraded the power suppler from NAP110 to NAP140.

Musically, thanks to Mary, my tastes broadened into jazz and blues plus more mainstream fare like Sting, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell and many, many more.

Retirement: Linn, Neat (2016 – present). Part of the grand plan for retirement was to downsize our main UK property and spend more time in Italy. This meant selling off the existing equipment (mine and Mary's) but keeping the speakers, switching to a Digital Streaming Multimedia (DSM) player and digitising our 800+ CDs. So we sold a couple of cases of wine and made a very expensive visit to Grahams Hi-Fi to invest in a Linn Akurate DSM player and Majik 4100 amp. Ripping the CDs and selling off most of the vinyl freed up a fair amount of storage space.

I kept the LP12 and a key selection of LPs, mostly 180gm audiophile pressings.

We also bought an ex-demo Linn Majik DSM (2015) for the study, played through Mary's speakers then bought a secondhand Linn Sneaky to play music in the kitchen. But synchronising was an issue so we gave up on that. Instead we bought a pair of Neat Motive speakers (April 2018) and took the Majik and Neats to our place in Italy along with a cloned NAS drive containing the 800+ CDs worth of music. Spending more time in Italy we decided to take the Sneaky and a new pair of Neat Iota speakers (September 2018) out there so we could have music in the dining room as well as the living room.

Penrith 2019: Linn (2019-present). Another house, another hi-fi. We bought our Cumbrian house in early 2019 and obviously needed music. We bought a secondhand Linn Majik DS-I streamer and amplifier and paired it with Mary's Epos M12.2 speakers. This system was wired direct into the internet through an ethernet cable with Qobuz streaming service being our primary source of music.

Update: In 2021 we upsized in Penrith to a larger house but with a smaller living room and the Shahinian Arcs were a bit large. As we had just sold our London flat we decided to treat ourselves to a new pair of main speakers. We auditioned many speakers at Grahams Hi Fi and ended up with the immaculate sounding and ludicrously expensive Serhan Swift Mu2 Mark II. Lovingly crafted in Australia at the rate of one per day, each pair is mirror imaged, both personally signed by the two engineers who designed and made them!

Music musically speaking we have continued to broaden our musical horizons trying to discover new artists. The live Free music festivals in southern Italy have introduced us to artists we would not otherwise have heard of, such as GoGo Penguin and Mammal Hands. Going to the Skegness Great British Rock and Blues Festival likewise has introduced us to new up-and-coming artists, mostly in the blues and jazz tradition. Catfish, Elles Bailey and Rebecca Downes are amongst the best.

When I was at college the first thing I would do was unpack the hi-fi before anything else. For a man with no musical talent it speaks volumes on the power of music, the most frequent label on this blog.

Further reading: my Desert Island Discs.

No comments: