I started buying records when I was 13 - the first one was “Business As Usual” by Men at Work. “H2O” by Hall and Oates, “Built For Speed” by The Stray Cats, “The Nylon Curtain” by Billy Joel and “Pyromania” by Def Leppard soon followed. I became obsessed with collecting used records.
I had one of those all in one systems, with a turntable, tape deck and tuner.
I had several hundred records by the time I started college and bought an Onkyo receiver, Boston Acoustic Speakers and an automatic Onkyo turntable with money I made washing dishes. This would be my system for the next 20 years. As compact discs became more popular and I began playing music myself , I listened to albums less, eventually selling about ½ my collection.
I eventually found myself in a string band with Pete Dennesen, whose dad had designed stereo equipment. Pete’s dad invented the iconic Dennesen Soundtractor for cartridge set up. Pete took me over to his friend John’s house, who had worked with his dad. John had built his own turntable, amps and speakers - they were set up in his basement. This was the new start of my analog obsession. John’s system was the most revealing, dynamic way I had ever heard playback. I started slowly putting together my own system.
I don’t know why I find vinyl albums so much more engaging than digital playback. It’s certainly more expensive and a pain in the ass. I enjoy my DAC and flac files and there are some things that sound better that way, but I listen to an album side almost every night.
I don’t want my system to sound like live music. I love live music, but it’s often not sonically ideal - it can be in a noisy venue, through a buzzing PA, the mix can be good or bad….Live music can sound beautiful, but often there is a visual and audience dynamic that adds to it.
I had a strong emotional response and connection to the music when I was 18 and listening to a homemade Joni Mitchell tape through crappy headphones connected to a boombox. I’m hardly unique that way - almost everyone has music that they love and most listen to it on portable music players, car speakers and computer speakers.
Becoming obsessed with your audio system can distort and corrupt your relationship with music. I struggle all the time to actually listen to the music rather than the system that is playing it. I can be driving in my car, hear a song on the radio, be moved by it and buy it - only to struggle to reconnect with it on my stereo system. I find myself analyzing it - is there too much digital “glare”? - is that a hum in my audio chain? - distortion on the inner grooves? Sibilance when the track gets loud?
People, including myself, often keep upgrading their equipment in order to get closer to the music, to elicit an emotional response, to better understand what the artist is trying to convey. I’ve decided that in my case it has nothing to do with the equipment. Being an audiophile to me is about being able to appreciate the music despite the playback modality. Easy to do as a poor teenager. I’m trying to get back to that.
In my playback system I like instrument separation and imaging. I want to see the players laid out before me when I’m listening to a record. I want the instruments and voices to be clearly delineated so if I want to focus on a harmony part I can hear the tone of the singer’s voice. I want the voice to seem as if it’s emanating from a slightly higher place than the guitar, as if James Taylor or Muddy Waters is right in front of me. I find that most systems do tonality well enough to satisfy me. To me that means an acoustic guitar sounds fat and woody, you can feel the brass in the horns and the shimmer of the cymbals. Dynamics is something I value, but I find it difficult to achieve in spades with what I have in my space. John’s system had great dynamics - We were listening to a New Grass Revival song when I heard the band take the music down a notch and then explode in solos. Pierre Bensusan was the same - the emotion came pouring over the speakers as his playing became more and more dynamic as one of his songs came to an end. I think bigger speakers would help with this.
My listening buddy Gen said this next paragraph was the geekiest thing ever.
My current analog system is a Rega RP8 turntable with a Dynavector 20x2h cartridge into a Graham Slee Era Gold mk. 5 preamp into an Exposure 2010s2 Integrated Amp. Speakers are Paradigm Studio 20 v.5’s on stands. I have a SVS -PB1000 Subwoofer for the bottom octave. I also use a vintage Pioneer PL-518 with an Ortofon OM10 cartridge going into the phono stage of a Harmon Kardon Integrated Amp that leads into the Exposure Integrated.