The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part X: Equal Time For CD's (February 1999)
Back in 1984... Or was it 1988? Or was it 1980? Some durned fool indy TV station here in LA made the mistake of playing an old rerun of "Death Valley Days" at three in the morning. You see, it was during the presidential elections, and that crazy ol' coot Reagan was the narrator of that particular TV show, and apparently there's some rule that says you have to give all of the candidates equal time to express their views, and 'fore you knew it Walter Mondale and John Anderson (you remember him...the guy who played Dennis The Menace's father) and Jerry "Moonbeam" Brown and Eugene V. Debs were all lining up to get their free thirty minutes of ad spots.
I sat at home and laughed at this folly, stating objectively that it was, after all, the fair thing to do, but inside I kept thinking about that great Kurt Vonnegut short story, "Harrison Bergeron," where everyone was made so equal through amendments to the Constitution that anyone with a talent or a gift was saddled with handicaps to bring them down to the level of the masses. This short story has always been my moral compass, my logical touchstone, whenever I'm confronted with the horrors of political correctness, and lately I've been thinking about the story because several months ago I promised to talk about what's great in the digital format. Yes, equal time for CD's. I've dreaded doing this for a while, to be the digital devil's advocate, but something happened lately that made me want to finally talk about good- sounding CD's, and good-sounding CD players.
I got new speakers.
For years I've had Spendor S20s, which are great little British mini-monitors. When I purchased them, I lived in a tiny one-bedroom apartment in Encino, and they seemed to be the best sounding speakers I could afford without the threat of being evicted for unduly upsetting my neighbors. They did everything right, except deep bass. I found myself drawn to certain types of music... intimate jazz trios, string quartets, cute girls and their acoustic guitars, etc. But every time I'd drag out the Pixies, or Jimi, or Zep, or White Zombie, or Husker Du, I'd be disappointed. I'd have to remind myself that my system "just didn't do loud rock well."
Those days are toast!
I just purchased (from Gene Rubin Audio, of course) a pair of Spendor SP100s, which are basically the same speakers as the S20s, except a) a thirteen-inch woofer is added to the same six-inch midrange and one-inch tweeter, and b) the SP100s are roughly four times heaver and six times larger than those puny li'l "mini-monitors"! I have bass! Loads of it! I have massive SPLs (which is audio-speak for sound pressure levels)! My windows rattle! My pants legs flap from the wind that comes from these behemoths! My foundation is cracking! And my neighbors? Screw 'em! I live in a house now!
Setting up these monsters turned out to be a little tricky, though. They're very sensitive to room placement. They weigh almost one hundred pounds apiece, so after a while I became very sensitive to room placement. They also need to be played about two hundred hours before they are fully broken in. And they need a pair of dedicated stands that are made of concrete resin and weigh another sixty-five pounds apiece. But once I had everything adjusted just so, the magic happened.
I started playing everything. Albums I loved. Albums I hadn't heard in a long time. Albums that I never really liked that much, but with the new perspective of the SP100s, I liked more. And then I played one of my favorite pieces of music, Kevin Volans' "White Man Sleeps 1-5," from the Kronos Quartet's "Pieces Of Africa." When I got to the fourth piece, which may be my favorite five or six minutes of music period, a strange thing happened. I felt this stinging in the bridge of my nose, a familiar sensation I hadn't felt in many years. Yes, the music was moving me to tears! I felt like I was listening to it for the first time, yet the actual depth of the meaning of the piece was so much more emotional and beautiful than the actual first time I'd heard it. And this was just a string quartet! It should have sounded the same as with the smaller speakers that had two of the three drivers my new speakers had. But it was so much better in every way! And... drumroll please... it was on CD!
I know what you're thinking...that I'm going to change my ways, that I'm going to admit that CD's finally sound as good as LPs. No such thing will happen, at least not in the near future. First of all, if I had played the Volans piece on LP, it might have actually made me weep uncontrollably. On CD, I was just surprised by a feeling, a strong reaction, from which I quickly recovered, because real men don't cry at music, fer Chrissakes. Secondly, I suspect there is a real synergy between the new speakers and my CD player, the Naim CD3... something that Gene Rubin realized when I told him I wanted to upgrade my speakers.
So what this means is that the gap between digital and analog sound quality has narrowed in my humble abode. This also means that my next upgrade will probably be a new turntable (Rega just announced a new 'table. The Planar 25...which may be my new ticket to affordable analog bliss). After I ransacked the savings account to buy the new Spendors, however, my wife simply said, "No. I don't care about levelling the playing field. I don't care about your duty to keep the masses informed of the superiority of analog playback. No no no no, dammit!"
Is the battle of analog and digital raging? Of course it is, but not quite as vehemently as a year or three ago. I still run into people who think I'm crazy. Just recently I told my boss about all of this, about The Vinyl Anachronist and Perfect Sound Forever, and when we walked out to the parking lot, he asked where I had parked my oxcart. Hoo-boy. I laughed heartily at that one, I can tell you. But more and more I run into people whose lives seemed to be illuminated, however slightly, by the fact that they have gone back to listening to records. It's more than nostalgia. It's a feeling that rises up inexplicably in your throat, and burns the bridge of your nose. Sure, it happens when you listen to CD's, as I discovered, but less often. As more and more people rave about DVD-Audio, however, and how it blows away CD's, that may soon change. But analog is still very much King.
Next month, I'll make good on my promise on telling you about more great... er, uh, good digital. At the same time, however, I'm going to start auditioning new turntables. What's that you say? What about my wife? Well, our fifth anniversary is coming up, and I'm hoping that the diamond earrings I'm getting her will blind her and prevent her from noticing any "new additions" to our home.
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