Starting Over

Photo: John Atkinson

In the excellent My Back Pages essay that closes this issue, Londoner Phil Brett writes, “I bought my first albums in my teens for £2 then sold them off years later for 50p each.”

Why did he sell his records? “[I]n those days, most vinyl had the thickness of a butterfly wing without the quality. As I grew older, I went through—ahem—several relationships hence several changes of residence. The hassle of carting boxes of records around grew wearisome; CDs were so much lighter, and often, they sounded better.”

Phil predicted Stereophile readers would be horrified by what he did those many years ago. Maybe so—but for many, the horror will arise from regret—at the memory of doing the same thing themselves back in the day. As I did.

I was in my 20s, in graduate school, living with my girlfriend (now wife) and another roommate in a tiny green concrete block house with cracks between the blocks in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rachel and I combined our collections and headed up to Schoolkids Records on Franklin Street to sell them.

Why did we do it? We were poor. I’d be lying if I said we were hungry—you could buy ramen four for a dollar; that and a head of cabbage could stave off actual hunger. But pizza was a luxury we could rarely afford, and beer money was in short supply.

Do I regret selling those records? Of course I do, but not as much as you might think. Sure, I wish I still had those original US pressings of U2’s War and The Replacements’ Let It Be, and the early punk records on Dischord and SST. For my wife, it was her prized collections of King Crimson, David Bowie, and early Genesis. But even combined, the collection was small, a few hundred records, maybe. Neither of us was meticulous; the records, while quite playable, were not in collectible condition. What’s more, with the itinerant way we were living, it seemed possible that we’d eventually abandon them in the hot attic of some temporary rental house. We might as well get a few sixpacks out of them.

In retrospect, what Phil Brett wrote is exactly right. Collections of records may be heavy and hard to transport, but in those days, individual records—popular records at least—were thin and lightweight. Little attention was given to proper engineering, and even less to pressing. Those who, heroically, continued to advocate vinyl often gloss over this point. Early CDs had issues, but at least they weren’t pressed on warped, noisy vinyl.

But yeah, those early CDs. They did have issues.

I remember my first CD experience. I was in high school. At a Service Merchandise store, I bought a cheap, mostly plastic Magnavox player to complement my cheap, mostly plastic Technics turntable. Both fed my latest $300 Japanese receiver (Onkyo? Aiwa?), which powered a pair of Polk Audio Monitor 7B loudspeakers—for many years my only respectable hi-fi possession. My first CD: Brothers in Arms, which I’d practically worn out on vinyl. On the CD, the absence of noise was a revelation. That by itself was enough to keep me engaged, for a while at least. I listened to it over and over until I started to notice how glassy the music sounded. I cannot remember that sound exactly—aural memory is short—but I can remember how hearing it made me feel.

However modest my music system was, it wasn’t that much of a bottleneck, considering the quality of the media I was playing. Sure, I could have gotten better sound with better-quality components, or I could have stopped buying mainstream LPs at The Tape Deck and the store at the mall, instead choosing all my records from among the 200 or so audiophile LPs on offer at my local hi-fi shop, The Sound Shack. But my modest system was not dramatically outstripped by the potential of the recorded music. The sonic potential of those records (and CDs) was limited.

It is often said, correctly, that we live in a golden age for music lovers. Most people who say that are thinking of quantity and accessibility—of the abundance of music available with a streaming subscription. Then there’s a casual nod to the quality. I’d like to flip that around.

Maybe pristine, first-issue Blue Notes sound better than brand-new Tone Poet vinyl reissues; after all, tapes deteriorate, and the tapes were fresher back when the records were cut. But who has a collection of pristine first-issue Blue Notes who is willing to play them routinely? Tone Poet Blue Note reissues are superb. Other vinyl series being issued today are similarly excellent.

Much more important, though, is streaming. Millions of Qobuz tracks are available in the best quality that exists except for those precious master tapes, which are (or should be) locked in climate-controlled chambers. Many streamed files are hi-rez masters or direct, hi-rez transfers of those master tapes. Tidal is starting to do standard hi-rez PCM FLAC to complement their MQA offerings, which, though many prefer them, may be going away. News recently leaked that Spotify, which hasn’t commented in years about their hi-rez plans, apparently will move forward soon; see this month’s Industry Update.

Better software changes everything. Back when our choice was between badly pressed vinyl, badly recorded/mastered CDs, and a handful of audiophile recordings, a system like the one I had—estimated value a few hundred bucks—made sense. There’s stuff in those grooves and bits of today’s discs and files that only well set-up, revealing systems can extract. In such a music climate, a true high-end system makes a lot more sense than it did back then. There’s almost always more to hear.

It’s a common phenomenon in, eg, science and medicine. Technical advances lead to new discoveries and eventually to new treatments. Nothing so important is happening in hi-fi—we’re merely aiming is to get more pleasure from our music—but what’s happening is parallel, a sort of arms race. Better recordings and better music-distribution formats call for hi-fi equipment that can extract the most pleasure from those recordings. Here’s hoping manufacturers keep answering the call.

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