Hi-Fi for old men

What do you get when you start to realise that your growing collection of all the LPs you would have loved to own when you were younger but are now available on CD are being played through crummy PC speakers or some funny ear-pieces plugged into your Smart Phone?

The attack of the hi-fi nerd syndrome.

Let's start at the beginning and the beginning for Hi-Fi and me was back in the early 1960s.

The whole problem with being a teenager is that you have huge aspirations backed up by roughly zero spending power. I was listening to music that I liked but the equipment ranged from poor to very poor and even I could hear that that was the case. My Dad had upgraded from a simple fifties radiogram to an amp with a loudspeaker that he had built into a book-case so that was a definite step up but it wasn't exciting and it also shared the front room with the TV so it wasn't freely available in the evenings. I started to try and build my own system piece by piece, based on pocket money and birthday presents. This was in parallel with drooling over the latest and greatest equipment in the hi-fi magazines I bought. There was this perfect system in my head and I knew the bits I would choose... All I needed was this huge pile of money.

Well in the end the home-made wasn't too bad. A reasonable Garrard auto-changer deck with a cheap but decent Decca Deram ceramic stereo cartridge. I bought some commercial PCB only amps and preamps and built it all into a plywood DIY case covered in a 'proper' leather finish material. I also assembled a pair of nice eight inch speakers also in relatively thin plywood cases because that was all I could buy on pocket money and carry home on a push bike. It worked and was so much better. This was the system that went up to the University of Sussex with me in 1968 and it lasted a good few years.

Finally the inadequacies of the cheap amps became too apparent and I built a full Class-A amplifier that was my rework on a Linsley Hood design in Wireless World magazine from April 1969. This lasted many years through the rest of my academic time. The picture on the left is my desk, part way through my time at Brighton Polytechnic studying Electronic Engineering in about 1974, with the same turntable in a more compact box on top of the (homemade) oscilloscope and the Amp (spot the big black heat sinks with a TO3 showing) on the left with the preamp (with all the knobs on) underneath that. Sadly this picture is all I have left to remember it by. I don't even have a copy of my modifications to the circuit diagram any more. I never did manage to improve on the speakers.

This home-made equipment finally got squeezed out for the sheer practicality of an off the shelf 'System' that worked for my wife and I in our new home in about 1978. This was the point where Hi-Fi and I parted ways. The new system was adequate. It played cassettes and vinyl and it had an FM radio. It wasn't convenient but it worked and since my wife and I differed in musical taste I didn't use it all that much anyway.

Now fast forward another thirty years or so. The children had now long since grown up and have left home and, as a widower, I had fewer restrictions on my silly ideas. Plus I had a growing collection of CDs, both my own and my late wife's that I wanted to play. What I didn't have, since the demise of the old system, was an easy way to play them other than on my PC and, let's admit it, normal PCs don't really do hi-fi. The decision had to be made about what I wanted to about it all.

So what were the options? The first was the obvious 'do nothing' because music doesn't have to be scrupulously hi-fi to be enjoyed. The next option was certainly another ready made system but somehow that just didn't quite seem quite worth while. Then the teenager that every man carries not far below the surface remembered the old dreams of the 'perfect' system.

OK, I admit it, I laughed at myself. What was silly money back then was probably even more silly money now but I banged the old names into Google and browsed the pages it threw up. Yes, it was gratifying to see that my old choices had stood the test of time and that they were still highly regarded by people who probably weren't even born when they were being manufactured. Then I looked at the Ebay pages that Google found and was quite surprised to discover that you could still see the stuff changing hands. Yes, the prices could be a bit steep but it made a fun read. Nostalgia is a bit like that.

Well, what has happened is that over the next few years I have watched the stuff for sale and slowly, when I thought the price was right, I have acquired the bits I wanted. It might not be up-to-date by any stretch of the imagination but it is still a seriously good system that delivers high quality sound. Some parts admittedly did needed fixing and it all needed work to turn it into a convenient rig to run but that is all done now. It makes a pleasant evening sat in front of the computer even nicer to have some music properly played even if it is slightly perplexing, at times, to be sharing my office with a jazz quartet. However I am at least now able to assure myself that I was right all those years ago. It really is a first class system even if, by now, it probably out performs my poor old ears.

It all started with a pair of Quad Electrostatic loudspeakers. There are two classic models now identified by their launch dates as the 57 and 63 models. I have a pair of 57s which many people prefer although there are reasons why the 63s should be better. They are not high power but the stereo definition is magnificent. If you look at the picture you can see where the camera flashgun is coming back through the grill from the huge sheet of shiny metal foil that is simply driven by electrostatic forces. Hi-Fi buffs wax lyrical about detail and transparency and while I'm not quite sure what is meant by that I can assure you they are very good. I have a thing for 'unplugged' live jazz and on the ESLs musical instruments just move that magic step further towards 'real'. Yes, mine have been refurbished recently.

They weren't cheap but they were local and 'buyer collects' must have depressed the price into my range. Remember at this point I had nothing to plug them into so they were a very silly thing to buy.

However I knew, as electronics has been my business for years now, that ESLs are an appalling electrical load to drive, especially around the zero point. Most conventional amps are just not quite suited to the job. This called for one of the old Quad Current Dumper amplifiers to run them. Now Quad had improved on these amps over the years since I stopped following them so the 606 model here, although still old, is later than my dream team but I'm sure I would have approved. It does need limiter diode boxes as it has enough power to destroy my ESLs but they are available. I bided my time watching vintage audio auctions and got the matching model 34 preamp, the late version, and the model 4 VHF tuner module to go with it.

Now I did have a turntable, an arm and a cartridge on the old magic list in my head but as I didn't have any significant investment in vinyl I put in a reasonable CD auto-changer deck from Marantz and thought that was it. It sounded good and it just ran. It encouraged me to listen to more music which made it definitely more worth while.

There was one other member of the pipe dream team but reel-to-reel tape isn't the thing these days and I assumed that digital systems via the PC would cover me for anything like that... Until I saw it. It wasn't cheap and it did have some problems but it was the Ferrograph Logic 7 straight out of my teenage fantasies and it was in my price range. I caved in and bought it. I had to put some time into it to fix the broken linkage but I hit snags with the pinch wheel pressure and it got sidelined for a few months. In the end I put it into Servicesound in Bexhill to get a complete refurbishment and I confess I'm very pleased with the results. Admittedly getting good bulk quarter inch tape is a pain these days. Most of what is on offer is rather old and the coating is coming off in clouds. Yes, those are 10½ inch reels and No, I don't really use it enough to justify it, it's just a big toy.

Well all this kit sits with me in the 'office' which is, I must admit, just the dignified end of the workshop. It does music on demand. I stuck a big fat mains relay in a box on the power output of the preamp so everything switches on in one place and I cabled it all up reasonably neatly. OK the 'office' is not an ideal 'listening room' but it is where I go to flop. It is where my mind can work or can go off duty so it is where I want to listen to music. I'm never going to have a dedicated music room but the ESLs are remarkably directional and are very forgiving.

So what happened next? Well once the honeymoon was over I began to find that the CD player was getting to be a bit of a chore. I realised the old PC's ability to click to play anything in my library system had made me lazy. I considered a few options and settled on a VortexBox system that runs the Logitech Media Server. This swallowed all my CDs and just regurgitates them through an external precision A2D converter into the 34. OK, logging onto the web browser at my desktop to change the disk I'm playing the other side of the room seemed a bit weird when I started but it works well once you get used to it. The server runs under Fedora (a Linux clone) on a cheap PC with a 2Tbyte drive so I can buy things as FLAC (192K/24bit if I want to pose) and put them straight on the disk across the home LAN.

What else? Well, I started collecting music again but, sadly, the fact that some of the things I wanted are still only available on old vinyl meant that I realised I still needed an LP deck. I waited and watched vintage auctions as I didn't fancy any of the funny looking new ones and found a Thorens TD160 deck with a TP16 arm with a Shure M75ED cartridge. That felt like it would fit comfortably with a vintage system so I added that to the pile. Now I can play old stuff too as some of the material I like will never make it onto re-released CDs. One thing this system lets me do is to dump an LP via the PC onto disk. This means I can run it through a waveform editor and hack out the more annoying of the vinyl clicks that are unfortunately what you have to expect from second hand 1950s recordings of Alfred Deller and the like.

More? Well I did start to worry that certain parts of the audio range weren't being handled quite as well as others. I did wonder if this was just my poor old ears not being up to the job any more but I read up on the items I have and identified the 34 preamp as a common customer for a refurb. Well the before and after reviews used lots of audiophile words that make me, as an Electronic Engineer (retired), very suspicious that the people involved haven't a clue what they are talking about but I invested in appropriate bag of capacitors and chips from the Dada Electronics online shop and had a big rebuild session.
Now can I be careful to point out that if you haven't worked on electronic systems repairs this is not a nice job. I have done the time and I have the workshop gear so it wasn't a problem to me but I can see beginners coming unstuck with this sort of work. Did the rebuild help? I think it did. Certainly I haven't noticed the effect since. There is probably an audiophile word for it but I'd say it was intermodulation distortion but that's based on my ears not a good spectrum analyser. Oh, and while I had the 34 apart I took the opportunity to move component C44 from S2 to S3 so the default selection on power up is now CD not RADIO. So I'm lazy.

Well we are all very happy together. I sit at my desk and click for music and it is just the music with no colouration from the system playing it. It's all that I wanted all those years ago. As a friend of mine once said "You can't hear good hi-fi, it adds nothing and takes nothing away".
As I type this Disc 1 of Miles Davis 'Kind of Blue' is running to an end. Life is good.

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