Audio, etc. (Mar. 1978)

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Visions! Practicalities. If in these last months I have written about light guide communications, the laser disc, digital audio, even out -front binaural, then these are areas we must keep tabs on if we are to have a useful perspective on the present and a feel for the future. These things offer the possibility, even the certainty, of tremendous improvements to come. But the present is with us, and it is jammed full of equal marvels-marvelous because they are practical and actually exist, which is a triumph in itself. Birds in the hand! A state-of-the-art production amplifier, if you are feeling now-minded, is worth any dozen future visions.

And then there are the littler improvements along the way. Modest, unspectacular but often vital for those who listen to a lot of hi-fi.

Visions. If I suggested rhetorically that light -guide communication might signal the end of electronics, I meant, rather, the end of exclusively electronic circuitry. The electron is now joined by the photon of light as a basic communicative entity.

The two techniques, however, are so closely related that obviously they will work together, or separately, each to its own best uses, as in the present pioneer phone installation. And if I enthused over light-wave bandwidth, so incredibly vast, then I could have added that sequential digital techniques--passing those flying bits around in regular sequences into n different outlets--will be the normal light-wave usage, as it definitely is not in much present standard electronic communication, notably via records and radio. There, we have long since split our skimpy bandwidths into simultaneous segments, each undernourished and with the barest of margins around the edges-we couldn't help it. Bandwidth poverty. And yet look what we have done, even so! That's the triumph of it. Don't throw out your FM tuners and your non-light, non-digital hi-fi quite yet. And hang onto your LPs. Or else you might have some long years of total silence, before those fancy visions become practical.

As for binaural -out -front, it is not as visionary as you might think, though in truth this is one of those intellectual challenges that just has to be faced up to, because it is there. Practically speaking, there is a more mundane aspect, maybe even for profit. Mind you, our visual communications always come to us from out front, whether for entertainment on stage, screen, TV, just plain walking around, or reading the newspaper. So if reproduced binaural sound, two -eared, two-miked, can somehow be persuaded to conform to the out -front law of the two eyes, then we might have something. My experiments may have been "pretty primitive" (reader comment) but I did it. Why do you think there is so much expensive work going on at such outfits as Sennheiser in Germany and JVC in Japan? Shall we say, for potential practicalities? I think so.

Audio Surprises

... And then there are the little improvements, I love to savor them. My cyclical home sampling of updated equipment often brings me pleasant surprises. With an endless oversupply of records to be played and a weekly taped hour of radio program to fill up, I can be very practical in respect to the equipment I use. The slightest failure or clumsiness and, especially, any tendency towards malfunction or maladjustment can drive me nuts. As the woodchuck said, while eating up my chrysanthemums, I have work to do. Let me get on with it.

Like today, when in the last two minutes of an hour-long radio tape, the reel support platform on the left side of my recorder slipped down a peg on its motor shaft and the reel suddenly set up a hideous scraping sound against the tension arm. I swore so loudly (into the mike) that I couldn't erase the sound and had to cut out a piece of tape. It shouldn't happen! An unwisely designed set screw, inaccessible without removing the entire upper chassis from its box. Please--not in the middle of a session! I tried everything, just to get those two minutes done and out of the way-lifting the reel with my fingers (it slowed down and my voice went falsetto in the playback), jimmying the reel holders, bending the aluminum flanges out of the way--no go. I ended up with a square of corrugated cardboard cut to fit under the reel as a temporary crutch, but you should have seen the skew of the tape when I finished. Lopsided. But no scraping.

I do not use a home -type turntable for radio, no matter how fancy. You can't. For this job you need torque, to keep the table turning at speed while you hold a record on cue with one finger. Years ago I bought a sturdy, old heavyweight from England, the famed Connoisseur table and one of the best of its day; it still works perfectly. Old-fashioned, big rubber rollers driving the rim, a mechanical gearshift and, believe it or no, a mechanical friction system for setting exact speed-which never falters, even after many years of service. And the rumble is reasonably low. Not all genius engineers live in the present.

But out in my living room, conditions are different, if just as demanding in a businesslike sense. Critical listening, no background music, unattended, plenty of sustained driving, so to speak, with frequent lane changes-from band to band, side to side, album to album, back to the beginning, back to the middle, and so on. Handling, then, is all important for the living room player, and any little design clumsinesses or proneness to malfunction can be really exasperating. Like the manual table I had for awhile some years back. It had a new convenience, automatic shut-off. Fine-but it would not allow me to play any inner LP band. It just grabbed the arm from my hand, each time I tried, and obstinately returned the arm to rest. No recourse but to play the entire side from the beginning. Clumsy design.

Things like slow action, variably wrong drop points (even after adjustment), miscalculated anti -skate (it still skates), too -light point pressure (correct, but the stylus tends to hop over small obstructions and land in a different groove), resonances of all sorts between table, base, arm, cartridge, loose floorboards-all these can cause chaos in any active living room. I bless the table that leaves me in musical peace. Even if I have to start and stop the thing by hand.

Floorboard Flutter

Thus, I used the original AR manual table for years for this very reason.

Also, of course, because of its excellent performance characteristics just so long as I remembered not to step on the famous "Canby Loose Floorboard." (It was once apocryphally rumored that an early AR redesigning resulted from that very floorboard. I never believed it.) When eventually the little AR motor spindle was accidentally knocked into a flutter that made pianos sound like guitars, I took the chance to move on to a succession of much newer tables, out of sheer curiosity as much as anything else. To see what had happened in the meantime.

My very first was a total automatic, a big change and a real laugh. Say no more-it is an excellent table, if awfully complicated. It acted up immediately-turned out to have a bent part inside, nothing serious at all. But what zany results! I'd show it off (on an old record) just for kicks. Until two genius friends came along and fixed it for me.

So help me, here's what that bent mechanism did. Trip the lever and the arm rose up majestically, swung over, dropped the stylus at the extreme outer edge of the record--then dragged it across the grooves to the middle, whereupon it lifted up again, high in the air, and dropped it a second time. Insane.

Once fixed (the bent part unbent), it worked like a charm in all its complexity for a long time. Until one day the machine decided to convert to 45. The 33 speed just wasn't there any more.

Now in any of the old two -speeds or three -speeds or four -speeds, this would have been a simple mechanical problem, maybe a stuck puck or the shift mechanism a bit off. No longer! I called in my geniuses but this time they were baffled. Nothing could persuade that machine to play at 33. Since I was not about to convert myself to 45, we shipped it back to its parents.

Automatic Accolades

I have never had use for a changer, not being temperamentally suited to that kind of programming, but I do enjoy an automatic shut-off, if it works.

One of our minor miracles today is that they do work. Always a clean stop after the end of the music (some old ones tripped too soon), and yet it is astonishingly hard to provoke them into grabbing the arm out of your manual -play hand, even right to the last groove. For that, I have more thanks than for a dozen hi-er fi amplifiers. As for automatic turn -on, that is less vital. After all, I am right there at the table, and it takes but a moment to start the record manually. Faster, too.

I suppose most people don't mind, but I am all impatience, just watching that slow, stately progression of arm from rest position, out and over, then down ever so slowly. Like waiting for an obstinate red light. Silly. But when the stylus hits the wrong spot, I switch to manual in a hurry. After all, the automatic makers face big problems in record variability and so on. And I can think faster than their machines. A major problem in this respect is the rounded slant now built into the record edge where the lead-in grooves begin. Good idea; it preserves the main record surface when discs are stacked. But too many styli, landing on that raised portion, just skitter sidewise downhill and into the music with accompanying plops and squawks. Or, if muted, with missing music. The solution? Use manual start. Easy.

Two more improvements before space runs out. I am delighted by the new and easy speed adjustments, complete with strobe, which are found on almost all recent tables. Big advance! Older audio people will recall that home players used to have fixed (nonadjustable) speeds-and very many of them ran fast, irrevocably. Whether the idea was to compensate for wear, I do not know (most wear in mechanical drive does not affect pitch); more likely, they had to count on a slowing down under a full stack of records.

Anyhow, this drove my musical ear crazy and you could often find me desperately grinding a heavy file against a motor spindle, trying to reduce at least one speed to proper pitch. It helped, but I was outraged just the same.

Synchromesh Speeds

No more. The present modest speed adjustments are exactly right for tuning, to pianos, other records and whatnot. You don't need much. And it is reassuring to know you are right on the beam, via the strobe, when you want to be right. Really a profound improvement for music.

Finally, I think that the synthesis of the old manual player and the changer into the modern automatic is a superb improvement in music -minded handling, with the values of both types and very few of the old faults. In particular, I find it wonderful that on my present automatic, the Technics SL-1350 direct drive, I have an unobtruded choice to start either all automatically or totally manually--and no grabbing of the arm out of my hand. Pick up the arm off its rest, the motor starts. Put the stylus down and the music plays. Beautiful. Or, without any changes of control setting, flip the lever and the entire operation is done automatically. This, after generations of players that would NOT do it, year after year, model after model! I call that real progress.

Oh yeah, briefly one more. That loose floorboard. At last, it has been tamed, by those new stubby spring legs that sit under the four corners of your table, looking like fat stilts. Or McPherson struts. They work! Unbelievable. My Technics has four of them under it and never skips a groove. After all, what good is all your fi if your table jumps.

It does happen, and especially in wood frame houses and most especially in old ones. They have their vibes, they shake at very low frequencies when you walk around, and they can joggle your table in ways that no human stylus can withstand, no matter how nicely tuned and resonated. If your table is springless, Audio-Technica sells them, to fit any old table. Get some springs and be happy.

(Source: Audio magazine, Mar. 1978, Edward Tatnall Canby)

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