The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXIX: Life at 78 Revolutions Per Minute
"If your system doesn't make you cry, it ain't worth that much money!"
Terry Combs isn't like most other audio dealers. For instance, when he's playing music for you on one of his amazing hi-fi systems, he doesn't sit there silently waiting for you to form an opinion about the gear. He sits down, closes his eyes and lets a huge smile cross his face. He lets his body sway to the rhythm to the music. Every once in a while, he lets out a small laugh. He loves music, and he's amazed by it. He doesn't hide that from his clients.
Terry owns Sound Mind Audio in Mesquite, Texas, which is just outside of Dallas. He works out of his home, but he's one of the few dealers who follow this business model and still has a huge inventory of gear on display. He's also one of the very few audio dealers in the world who can let you audition a state-of-the-art 78 RPM rig. That's right. I said 78 RPM records, those ancient things they used to play on Victrolas. It may seem like an oxymoron to call 78 RPM playback "state-of-the-art" in the 21st century, but listening to old lacquers at Terry's place will change your mind about those old records. While the overall sound quality will never trick you into thinking you're listening to a new LP of a modern recording, you will be transported to a different era. His rig, which consists of a Micro-Seiki SX-1500 VG turntable (which Terry has modded himself), two vintage Audiocraft AC3300 tonearms and a wood-bodied mono Benz-Micro cartridge with a 78 RPM tip, is nothing less than a time machine. It recreates an accurate and uncanny window into the original performance.
"Did you hear the emotion?" Terry said more than once after the conclusion of a particular track. I certainly did. As Terry played 78's from the likes of Louis Armstrong, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Billie Holiday and Patsy Cline, I was reminded of those low-powered single-ended triode amplifiers I was so in love with just a few years ago. I was always mesmerized by the way these amps, which were also originally introduced in the first half of the 20th century, made human voices and solo instruments just hang there in the space in front of my speakers with eerie and life-like precision. While listening to 78's on Terry's rig, I was treated to that same immediacy and clarity--and yes, emotion. I could hear deeply into Billie Holliday's recorded voice and marvel at the way she would circle around and flirt with a note before zeroing in and making it hers, all hers. I could discern exactly how much reverb was added to Jerry Lee Lewis' voice in "Great Balls of Fire," making it one of the "wettest" vocal performances I've ever heard. I could see how Louis Armstrong and his wonderful horn always occupied the same exact place on stage, an amazing observation for a mono recording.
I also heard bass, real bass. In most cases, it was generated from the gentle pluck of an E-string on a stand-up bass or occasionally the lowest registers of an orchestra, but it was there in all its glory. I'm not sure why this was such a surprise to me. Perhaps it's because most people who were listening to these records back when they were new did not have playback systems that were able to reproduce the full weight of the lower octaves. So it's a little amazing that it was captured at all during the recording process, since no one probably heard it or appreciated it. It's these types of observations that prompt Terry to get to the heart of why we should still be listening to old 78's on a sophisticated system like this.
"For the first time, we're listening to these recordings the way they were meant to be heard," Terry said. Perhaps this is the sound the recording engineers were hearing back in the studio, and they probably felt a little sad to know how much music would be lost by the time these lacquers would find their way onto the primitive record players of the day. Terry's 78 RPM playback system, which also included Heed Audio amplification from Hungary, an Aesthetic Rhea phono preamp and the same Trenner & Friedl ART loudspeakers I own and adore, recaptured all of that lost magic.
It's not quite perfect. For instance, there's a lot of surface noise on these old discs. "That's because they were played with nails for fifty years," Terry explained, referring to the giant needles that were used in the old record players (they sometimes used cactus needles too!). While he did have a few rare and precious 78's that were surprisingly free of surface noise, you do have to listen around the steady ocean of soft yet persistent noise that emanates from these weathered grooves. If you're a diehard vinyl fan however, you probably already possess the listening skills that allow you to ignore pops and clicks in order to focus on the music. But people who already prefer digital to analog are NOT going to get this at all.
Even if it's not a perfect medium, it's still vital to listen to these recordings in this particular format. Most record collectors--and most music lovers, for that matter--picture themselves as custodians or even curators. While the majority of audiophiles seem to concentrate on records that sound pristine, natural and life-like, true music lovers tend to concentrate on the music itself. It's that old adage that J. Gordon Holt, founder of Stereophile magazine, used to discuss: the higher fidelity a recording a possesses, the more likely it is to contain a mediocre performance. At Terry's place, I listened to absolutely enlightening recordings from the likes of T-Bone Walker (what a great guitarist!), Louis Jordan ("Beware" is the funniest song I've heard in years) and a host of musicians very few people remember in this day and age. Sure, these 78's could be noisy, almost to the point of distraction, but "almost" is the key here. Time after time, the wonderful music flowed through and made an emotional connection with me. Why would you not want to listen to these records? Why would you not want to care for them and treasure them and play them once in a while? It's history. It's important.
Sure, most of this material is available on LP's, CD's and probably even MP3's. Modern machines have been employed to remove all of the unnecessary noise and other artifacts. It's all been dusted off, sprayed with cologne and propped up for your enjoyment. But to paraphrase erstwhile audio reviewer Corey Greenberg, it's like being French-kissed by a robot. Why are we always "fixing" everything and making it perfect? We need to rediscover the Taoist concept of the uncarved block of wood. Things tend to be more beautiful in their natural state. 78's, in my opinion, are downright beautiful.
So am I going to run right out and buy a dedicated 78 RPM rig from Terry? Personally, I'd love to write him a check. The cost of such an endeavor however isn't negligible. Terry put a lot of time, money and sweat into both his system and his 78 collection. While garden-variety 78's are fairly cheap (a friend recently grabbed a couple for me from an estate sale for next to nothing), truly pristine lacquers can cost a small fortune. I've also been spending a lot of time on the other end of audio spectrum, exploring music servers and computer audio in general. But I think that when it comes time to upgrade my turntable--and that day is certainly drawing near--I might just have to insist on something that does 78 RPM. Surprisingly, a few modern turntables still offer that feature. Rega even makes a turntable that's dedicated to playing 78's, and it's based on one of their more affordable models. That might be a fairly low-cost solution to consider.
In a single afternoon, Terry converted me. We spent a couple of hours listening to conventional LP's on his reference system which consisted of a Walker Audio Proscenium turntable and Transfiguration cartridge, VivA tubed amplification, Aesthetix Eclipse phono pre (with two power supplies and vintage Amperex and Telefunken tubes) and the amazing Trenner & Friedl RA Box speakers. It was one of the finest systems I've ever heard. Terry is meticulous when it comes to system set-up, and he spends countless hours fine-tuning everything and looking for ways to make it all sound more realistic.
Several days later however, I'm still thinking about those 78's. I think about how much fun I had listening to them. Maybe, just maybe, it brings a tear to my eye thinking about all that wonderful old music that's still out there, waiting to be discovered.
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