The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)

darTZeel NHB-108 model one stereo power amplifier

Regrets, I have a few… even about reviewer-loan audio equipment I now wish I had bought, way back when.

The first audio magazine I wrote for was Wayne Green’s Digital Audio magazine. The première issue came out in September, 1984. The articles listed on the cover included “How to Buy Your First CD Player.” (Snort.) I was the founding classical-music columnist (“Classical ReMarks”).

I got that columnist job by pure happenstance. Someone I knew (Chuck Dougherty) worked for the regional hi-fi chain Tweeter, Etc. Chuck also was a computer whiz who moonlighted writing for one of Wayne Green’s computer magazines. Word got around to Chuck that Wayne Green Enterprises needed someone who knew about classical music, and who also could write. Seeing as I was already writing reviews of classical music concerts and recitals for the Providence Journal, I seemed to be a good fit. Wayne Green’s little publishing empire was based in New Hampshire. As it happened, I was visiting New Hampshire frequently, in that I was organizing and presenting the chamber-music performing-arts series at Thomas More College in Merrimac.

While writing for Digital Audio, I not only reviewed CDs and wrote a column; I also interviewed musicians, including André Watts, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Joseph Silverstein. Although my duties did not include equipment reviews, I did have occasion to drool over (or lust over) some pieces of gear. I moved on to the Planet HiFi website (which was where I first reviewed audio equipment, and not just recordings), and then back to print journalism, first with The Absolute Sound, and then Stereophile.

Please note, this mini-series is limited to products that I had the opportunity to hear in my home, as part of a formal review process. There are many excellent products I would consider buying, but which I just have not had the opportunity to hear at home; the best examples I can think of at the moment are the excellent radial loudspeakers from MBL.

After the jump, I recall some of the “big-fish” (as well as some “little fish”) audio-review-loan components that got away.

Philips (Magnavox) FD-1000 CD player

But first, a note about how I bought my first CD player.

Back in 1983, I went to Tweeter, etc. and bought the original Sony CD player (CDP-101). I listened to it for a couple of days. I then decided (for the first and only time) to take advantage of Tweeter’s 7-day no-questions-asked return privilege. At the store, they were shocked. SHOCKED!

But to me, Sony’s CDP-101 sounded… uninvolving. Not wanting to give up on the format, I went to the Jordan Marsh department store, and (in the furniture department, no less) bought the first Magnavox CD player (FD-1000). Ahhh… that was more like it.

I have never done a lot of research about that decision. I knew what I was hearing; and even if the Magnavox player were indeed only a 14-bit player, for some reason or reasons it sounded much more musical than whatever it was that Sony was selling. That said, Sony had a degree of audiophile “street cred” and Magnavox—not so much. Therefore, I can only conclude that a greater number of audio hobbyists bought and kept the Sony unit than tried the Magnavox (Philips) unit, and perhaps that was an important factor in the chilly reception Compact Discs received from many US audiophiles and reviewers.

(A few writers seem to have built their careers on their early rejection of CD sound—I think, in many cases, on the basis of one listen to one setup. I think that if digital playback of CDs back then had been on the level of what today’s best digital playback of CDs sounds like, there would have been nowhere near as much nay-saying. The kind of today’s gear I have in mind is Parasound‘s read-until-right CD-1 as a transport, and any of Bricasti‘s DACs as a digital decoder. On today’s best systems, many CDs sound fantastic.)

Anyway, about early CD sound, my perspective was different from that of the nay-sayers. I was a former boy soprano and youth-orchestra second violinist (in my defense, I was the principal second violinist of my city’s public-school youth orchestra). I also had endured piano lessons. So, my frames of reference were not just listening to LPs, but many live experiences as a performer or player.

Let me put it this way: In my humble opinion, most of the people who were, circa 1983, dumping all over CDs had schooled themselves not to hear things like pre-echo on LP pressings; or, worse, analog LP “vibrato” on sustained piano notes. Artists such as Michael Tilson Thomas, André Watts, and Harris Goldsmith were not dupes or shills. They were professional pianists who finally were hearing a consumer medium play back piano tones without micro speed fluctuations that were perceived as an imposed vibrato effect (either from analog tape flutter in the recording process, or from LP speed fluctuations on playback).

Yes, yes, yes, I know. If you can afford to spend more than $100,000 on a turntable such as this one, and if you listen only to pristine first pressings, “piano vibrato” might not be so much of an issue. But for those of us who laid out what, at least at the time, seemed to be big money for components such as a Denon DP-60 turntable, piano vibrato was a fact of life. (Which, I cheerfully admit, might have been exacerbated by Denon’s direct drive and servo speed control.)

When I started writing for Stereophile, I wanted to go on record about my orientation and my intentions:

The contribution I want my writing to make is to relate the world of high-end equipment not only to the world
of music, but also to the worlds of culture and ideas. My goals for this column are to celebrate excellence
in various disciplines and the greatness of the human spirit by imparting useful information,
and recommending recordings and equipment proven or likely to withstand the test of time.

In other words, no “products of the month.”

My “acid test” for whether a piece of gear has withstood the test of time (at least with me) is whether I miss it as much today as I did years ago, when I first sent it back. I also have to say that even though it is not really a factor in my estimations, one way to assess whether “the marketplace” thinks a piece of gear has withstood the test of time is the state of the used-equipment market for it. If a component comes up for sale rarely, and then sells for a decent price, that may mean that the component is unusually gratifying to listen to; but it can also mean that the component is rare and that there are enough diehard fans who just want it… I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in-between.

All that being said, here’s a list of the components that come to mind. I can’t say that I will devote extensive coverage to all of them; but, all of them are worth a second look.

Loudspeakers

Wilson Benesch ACT One; Vivid Audio B-1; Shahinian Acoustics Obelisk and Diapason; Opera Callas (original version); ATC SCM19; Harbeth P3ESR; Direct Acoustics Silent Speaker II.

Sources

Esoteric X-01 SACD/CD player; Parasound CD-1 CD player/transport; Bricasti M1 and M1 Limited Edition DACs; Grace Design m805 DAC/monitor controller; Sooloos Control:15 music server; Magnum Dynalab 208 FM receiver.

Amplification

darTZeel NHB-108 stereo power amplifier; Bricasti M15 stereo power amplifier; Jeff Rowland Concentra II integrated stereo amplifier; Plinius 8150 integrated stereo amplifier; Luxman L-505u integrated stereo amplifier; Lindell AMPX stereo power amplifier; Leben Hi-Fi Stereo Company CS600 tube integrated stereo amplifier; Unison Research S2K and S6 tube integrated stereo amplifiers; Sugden A21 integrated stereo amplifier.

Accessories

Stereovox interconnect and loudspeaker cables; Wireworld Gold Eclipse III+ interconnect and Gold Eclipse biwire loudspeaker cables; Symposium Acoustics Ultra platforms; Custom Power Cord Company HCFi power cords;  RPG Skylines acoustical diffusion panels; Ultrasone Edition 9 headphones.

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3 Replies to “The Audio Equipment I Regret Not Having Bought, Way Back When (Part 1)”

    • John Marks Post author

      Dear Maco,

      That’s partially correct. As a reviewer, I gravitated to product categories I found worked for me, and so there are no horn or panel speakers on my loudspeaker list. I did not think that it was a good investment of my time to try to keep current on phono playback gear, and in any event Stereophile had its own dedicated columnist for those things, though at the moment I can’t remember the chap’s name–perhaps you can?

      I do know enough about the market that I can confidently tell enquirers to buy the best Rega turntable package they can afford. If I needed a turntable I would buy a Rega Planar 3 in the package with the cartridge. You can do a search on this site for my series on cost-effective LP playback–just search for “Rega +Planar.”

      The Grace m905 is a monitor controller with excellent headphone playback. If you don’t need all those features, you can buy a Grace m920 used, or their current offering the m900. I did list one extraordinary pair of headphones… .

      I think that the most important interface in a listening room is between the loudspeakers and the room’s acoustics, and the second-most important interface is between the loudspeakers’ electrical demands and the amplifier’s ability to deliver current while providing a high damping factor. The source of course is very important, but a good source will work well with any preamplifier. So, I covered what are to me the most important categories–speakers, amplifiers, and sources.

      Thanks for reading and thanks for writing in!

      john

      Reply
  1. James Tavegia

    It seemed to me that much of the digital angst early on should have been more directed at the recording side of early CDs. We certainly continue to call out bad LP pressings rather then throw our turntables out the back door for sounding “bad”. The latest review of the new Abbey Road release got only 3 stars for sonics, yet people are still buyers. I am still sticking with my stack of 2009 Beatles CD remasters as they sound great to me.

    I do think that one must spend considerably more on a turntable set up to hear the best than when comparing digital. If we only could have started out with 2496 things early on would have been different. There was just too much to be learned and tried, and I am glad the industry has finally gotten digital right, including 2496, 24192, and DSD/SACD. It is too bad that Sony stopped supporting their own creation of CD and SACD players. Of course they have their video business that is thriving. Now it seems that if you want to get into SACD you must spend $1K or buy a used player. Kind of sad.

    We all have gear that got away. Some was replaced by things that turned to be not that much better, if at all.

    Reply

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