Bob Weir & The Wolf Brothers

Bob Weir & The Wolf Brothers

I had the opportunity to go see Bob Weir and the Wolf Brothers perform at the Louisville Palace Theater last night, and it was a memorable experience. I was able to sit in while they did their soundcheck, and had a front-row seat. Doesn’t get much better than that, other than just hanging out with the band, which I don’t know what I’d do, even if I had the chance. What do you say to the guy whose guitar playing you’ve emulated for 35 years that doesn’t come across as absurd?

The soundcheck was fun. He taught the bass player “Passenger” which I found funny. How could he not know that song and be playing with Bob? Even if you don’t know how to play it, he acted as he’d never heard it. May not have, for all I know. I don’t know anything about the Wolf Brothers, and still don’t other than they’re pretty hairy and play a drum set and an upright bass barefooted.

The show lasted 3 hours. That’s a long time for a guy Bob’s age to stand up there and play and sing as he did. He once said he knew he was put on this Earth to make music, and he’s living up to that statement. He carried the whole show, playing both acoustic and electric. All the Grateful Dead songs he played I noticed were played on a stratocaster that had a skull and roses guitar strap. He switched between 2 strats and an acoustic whose make I couldn’t see because of a device on all the headstocks of his guitars, which I think holds picks, even though he grabbed spare picks from the mike stand. So I don’t know what they were. Traditionally, he plays Alvarez acoustics, but you never know. He says he has over 100 guitars.

The Brilliance of Radiohead

The Brilliance of Radiohead

I know Radiohead has a huge following, and I’m not the first to point out any of what I’m about to point out. But I simply am always amazed at how wonderful they are as a band, and commercially they have done “OK” but their best work, by far, is the stuff you’ll never hear on the radio. Of course. It’s for that reason I pretty much ignored them for so long until I stumbled upon their “In the Basement” recordings. Which I advise anyone to give a watch/listen to.

Even though a lot of their sound is attributable to electronica, it still stands on its own when stripped down to the minimum, as with this video of Thom Yorke and a guitar:

I will never tire of hearing the song Reckoner. Since it’s hard to interpret the lyrics in falsetto here they are:

Reckoner
Can’t take it with you
Dancing for pleasure

You are not to blame for
Bittersweet distractor
Dare not speak its name
Dedicated to all human beings

Because we separate
Like ripples on a blank shore
(in rainbows)
Because we separate
Like ripples on a blank shore

Reckoner
Take it with you
Dedicated to all human beings

And The Beat Goes On

And The Beat Goes On

I wrote extensively about putting together a stereo system and the ups and downs I went through to finally settle on something worthwhile, for a large room. But I had an itch to have some good sound in my den, which is where I do most of my work these days at home, and spend quite a bit of time with Cecelia. It’s where the fireplace is and books are as well as her “office” which is a desk with a lamp and actually a pretty nice setup. She seriously considers it her work office, and that wouldn’t be a misnomer. She gets some good work done there. She drafted the manuscript for her first autobiography there as well as some peace accords.

cecelias office

I cut TV out of my life years ago, and haven’t missed it one bit. I’ll watch videos on YouTube, movies, and shows periodically on Netflix, or a DVD, but cable and a subscription is history. After having satellite with hundreds of channels to choose from, and still having trouble finding anything worth my time, I realized it was a futile and wasteful endeavor. The hardest part is finding places to watch college football games each Fall, but other than that, it’s bliss.

What I find myself doing instead is reading, working or tinkering around on a laptop while listening to music. I have music playing around me almost all day. I have a stereo in my office I listen to Spotify and random Dead shows on during the day, and then always have music on at home. There are a lot of speakers around here.

What I like as much as listening to music is finding gear to listen to it with. Matching items up sonically isn’t too difficult if you know what you’re doing. Make sure 8 Ohm speakers are driven by an amplifier that works best with 8 Ohm speakers, and reading the specs tells you the story of the speakers, or amp, preamp, or whatever. I love researching, and searching for, the perfect sound setups. I don’t have an insane budget, but I have some nice stuff, and not all of it costs an arm and a leg. I’ve been pleasantly surprised with the performance and design of some lesser-known manufacturers who are cheaper than more recognizable names. A lot of times the reason the names are so recognizable is that they have and spend a ton on marketing, which they pay for by charging premium prices for sub-premium products. Think Bose and Beats.

What I got for the den is a set of Wharfedale Denton speakers, which are simply incredible. Red mahogany cabinets. They look amazing and sound even better. Shipped from Britain with a pair of white gloves, of course, to keep them tidy. (British components seem to be winning the day; I have a Cambridge Audio CAX-60 amp as well, made in Britain.) I’m breaking them in now, and their sound is unrivaled in their competitive arena. They could charge 3 times what they do for these speakers and justify it. They are incredible. My Klipsch Heresy’s sound good too of course but they’re LOUD and BIG and I use them in the large living area when Cecelia or I need to rock out. These are warm, rich and full sounding. The speakers are special edition 80th anniversary Dentons so they have a Tungsten grille cover. The speaker cabinets are beautiful mahogany, and go with the sub I’m going to match them with, which is a Polk HTS 10, a retro-looking downward-firing 10-inch sub that should do the trick nicely. The Wharfedales have plenty of bass themselves, but can’t pull off what a good subwoofer can do. I’m eager to hook that sub up. For a sub-$1000 system, it doesn’t get any better. No way.

red mahogany denton

The integrated amp is a Sabaj A4. A What you ask? A very versatile, affordable, sturdy, appropriately powerful amp no one’s heard of. And it’s not going to win any design awards. But it works beautifully. And has an output for a sub, 5 inputs, including optical and headphones. It has a Bluetooth receiver and you can control the bass, treble, brightness of the display, and more. Usually, it’s just going to be a little black metal box that has a blue glowing line below a very understated display. It’s as unobtrusive as they come. It also comes with a remote and some poor instructions in small print, unfortunately for my aging eyes.

sabaj a4

As usual Mediabridge 14 gauge cables. The speakers allow for bi-wiring, so I might rig it up so that a short piece of cable is going through the open posts. I’ll be interested to see whether it makes a noticeable difference. As the speakers wear in there should be a little more warmth to them.

What I’ve done, instead of bi-wiring them which I see as unnecessary for my use case, is to replace/supplement the metal jumpers on the posts with heavy gauge speaker wire. That reduces any perceived graininess, for sure. I also am using my BO6 with the Sabaj amp, because the Bluetooth pairing with the Sabaj was giving me fits. I could sometimes get it to pair, but the BO6 signal is so strong it overrides everything else in the house. And with a lot running on Bluetooth around here, it gets annoying. But if you get some Wharfedale Dentons, I’d recommend jumping the high/low pass posts with good speaker wire instead of what’s supplied.

jumpers

I have the Polk Subwoofer hooked up and I have to say, this is a great system. I’m finding myself listening to it more than the Klipshes and Cambridge setup. It sounds richer and doesn’t fatigue your ears as quickly. The room each system is in is different of course, which makes an acoustical difference. But Radiohead never sounded better. I hear details that I never heard before, even with some nice Sennheiser headphones and my Heresy speakers. Bluegrass sounds great as well, which is usually recorded in a different arrangement. (The musicians are circled around a single mic, or they approach microphones as they take turns.) The Polk sub handles the deep, plunky standup bass notes well and the Wharfedales handle the jangly banjo trebles great. And they image a soundstage really well. Very high and broad for the size speakers. I have them on 32″ wooden stands. The sub has a cool retro look to it, which I like. I might try hooking the Cambridge amp up to the Wharfedales and Polk sub and see what happens. Just to see the difference between the relatively inexpensive Sabaj and the pricey Cambridge.

polk subwoofer

 

My Musical Journey Through the 1980s

My Musical Journey Through the 1980s

The 1980’s were interesting from a musical standpoint. The 80’s just left the glittery, blurry-eyed and afroed polyester cocaine-addled disco era behind, along with an impressive flareup of actual punk, as opposed to the punk poseurs of today that would no sooner hit someone over the head with a beer bottle than stick a needle in a vein. Not saying either of those things are worthwhile, but they were characteristic of the movement, which is now thoroughly sterilized for the mall and pop culture of later rebellious and angst-ridden youth. The folk and novelty music movement was appropriately put in its place as well and mostly sold on K-Tel records and 8-track tapes on the American-made television, which had yet to embrace MTV and cable box’s offerings, which began a noticeable decline in American culture in nearly every way. But that’s another post.

god save the queen

Which is largely what we get from musical history. If you hear music from the 1980s these days, it’s usually in a Wal-Mart or as a backdrop to some “retro” commercial and is one of a lot of crappy artifacts that somehow have persisted into the 2010’s and beyond. “Girls just want to have fun,” and that bubblegum crap sucked back then, and it still sucks. I don’t know who makes the decisions to keep those songs alive, but they must be a deaf associate of the devil himself. If you blindfoldedly threw a dart at a list of songs from the 80’s you’d likely hit better efforts. The world at large was celebrating Madonna, Bon Jovi, and hairspray, while I was sitting in a dark room in rural Virginia quietly listening to The Smiths and Jesus and Mary Chain.

the smiths

I present here a Spotify playlist I’ve put together from the 1980’s that I feel represents a pretty unappealing but bubbly and poppy era much better. Better than the brown and rusty, dirty yellow 1970’s for sure, however. What persists in my mind from 1980’s pop culture, which I did my best to remove myself from in every way and did an excellent job of, was neon dayglo colors, jelly shoes, Wayfarers, raggedy girls fashions along with ultra-tight designer jeans, mesh shirts, acid washed denim and really gay and stupid men’s hairstyles. This of course was a time that calling your friends “gay” and “a retard” was a funny, largely innocent slight to them and not a reason for snowflakes to incite riots in the streets as it’s become today. Cultural shifts at work. The Meatmen wouldn’t even be able to record in a studio today, most likely.

What most people think of when they describe the 1980’s music scene is synth, electric drums, glam, and quick little pop hooks, with a visual that quickly sold. The 1980’s were the end of “ugly” bands, with the advent of MTV. If you weren’t TV-friendly and didn’t have ultra-strong musical chops, or really strong connections in the business, you could forget it. Every song had a video to accompany it, and the video sold the song. Marketing took a stranglehold on music in the 1980’s and hasn’t let go since. It’s how people today like Russell Simmons can make so much money selling awful “music.” He’s a great marketer. In my opinion, MTV ruined the interesting, if not exciting, direction music was heading in, despite the company abandoning the video music format that made it so popular. Many, many great artists were left in the dust. Luckily the internet has leveled the playing field once again.

A lot of these songs weren’t part of my library back then although I thought they were commercially catchy and appreciated them on some level. Mostly their B-sides and more obscure songs from the artists, maybe. What I preferred never made it onto the radio, and I didn’t have the resources to compile a comprehensive library of the better music available. Few did, and that doesn’t just mean money. Accessibility was a real problem in the 1980’s before the internet. We quickly forget what it was like to procure Grateful Dead tickets on the morning they went on sale over the phone, or a cassette tape that wasn’t in the Billboard top 10 if you lived in a small town. CD’s weren’t even mainstream at the time, until the late 80’s. A good CD player in the early 80’s would set you back $1000, which is like a billion dollars in today’s money. And no respectable artist would sell out to a point they had the option to release their songs on a compact disc back then anyway. That was for the Debbie Gibsons of the world. That, of course, changed quickly.

Frankie Says Relax

I didn’t listen to many of these songs back in the 1980’s as I did with say, The Smiths or Let’s Active, but they are at least some of the better songs from the 80’s, which should be curated and kept on life support by someone. The way I procured music is unlike any way children will ever have to again in history, which was to order vinyl albums from NYC or LA out of hand-typed underground magazines I got from basically head shops and subculture establishments in college towns and big cities and record them to tapes in my dorm room. I still have my JVC tape player, incredibly.

I didn’t receive any radio stations worth mentioning in boarding school which was in the middle of a huge farm, and at home, in SC we didn’t have any good radio, and we only had two places to buy tapes and albums in my hometown anyway. And they sold whatever was playing on the radio, which was typically pop garbage and heavy metal for stoned teenagers that drove custom vans. I ordered tapes via mail order from Britain and bootlegged tapes. I also managed to have roommates and friends in boarding school with awesome musical taste who I could record from and did often. I still have those tapes floating around somewhere, with the Dead Milkmen and T.S.O.L. well-represented.

The metal scene, which should be mentioned, had some standouts, depending on your definition of “heavy metal.” Back then I didn’t care for any of it, except maybe early Van Halen(Diver Down), AC/DC(Back in Black) and bands with guitar gods at the lead, which was a prelude to my guitar obsession which has since permeated my life. This was around the time I began learning to play the guitar seriously. (I’m still working on it.) But I recognized the virtuosity of Eddie Van Halen and appreciated the simple riffs of Angus Young. Johnny Marr’s guitar work wasn’t lost on me, either.

Embed from Getty Images

Led Zeppelin, Rush, the Grateful Dead, Eric Clapton and a handful of other legendary bands were indeed awesome in their own right, and still are, but just didn’t appeal to my state of mind and demographic at the time, which is why I’m not talking about them much. But there was some good stuff here and there during the decade, and I did attend quite a few of their concerts during that time. The Rolling Stones, the Who and even Paul McCartney before becoming a knight put out some good work. And don’t forget Michael Jackson and the Quincy Jones and Motown empires. I’m coming mostly from an “alternative” background, however. And although I did own their albums, they weren’t played nearly like the bands mentioned here.

The journey of good, alternative music in the 1980’s went something like this:

College radio stations would play local bands that were on their way to becoming regionally and even nationally known and played at fraternity parties and campus parties that were regional. Even some well-to-do boarding schools landed some big names. My own high school had REM booked until the school feared it would draw undesirables from nearby Charlottesville/Univerity of Virginia and got another band at the last minute. Think The Replacements, Husker Du, Violent Femmes, B-52s, the White Animals, etc… College prep students would pick up on these groups and music from hanging out on colleges, as we were able to do with a great deal of relative independence, and have older siblings in college that were among the musically privvy. The prep school kids took that music home with them, and it filtered into local private schools, and from there into the “alternative” kids of public school several years later. I had almost graduated from high school in 1988 before the Violent Femmes or Psychedelic Furs hit my hometown’s alternative scene, for example, and that was mostly because of their songs appearing in John Hughes pop films, like Pretty in Pink.

We’ve finally reached a point in time that I fantasized about as an adolescent: when I can pull up any song I want at any time. That’s a luxury that only people from my generation and prior know exists. I recall well lying in bed as a teenager and imagining the future when something called YouTube and Spotify existed.

bee gees

These guys were a big deal.

My New Stereo

My New Stereo

Prepare to be jealous.

Buying audio equipment is a fun, but dangerous game. Not just the prices. Cheap stuff has to be replaced and is a total waste of money (Buying cheaper stuff and compromising in the name of saving a buck is usually a poor person’s game, but that’s another post). Medium range stuff has a better lifespan and quality but often is loaded with features you don’t need, trying to compete with all the many, many other mid-range components out there. You’re paying for those features, even if you never use them ever is how I look at it. And I’d bet most people don’t use 95% of the features their electronics offer. I’ve noticed most females don’t even bother to change the treble and bass on their stock car stereos, in fact. Whatever.

But the high-end stuff, and I’m not just talking about the out-of-this-world dream stuff that only billionaires can listen to and 99.9999% of people will never see, can last forever. Even pretty beaten up, some loudspeakers will still sound fine. That’s why there’s a strong market for used high-end audio equipment like Marantz receivers and Klipsch Heritage speakers, and partially why they cost more: they live longer. That even includes Sony, which costs more and lasts forever, even if it isn’t the highest quality and you may not want it to. Please don’t get me wrong; I consider Sony as a baseline for middle-of-the-road, discounting their flagship stuff. Not saying they’re high-end–their stuff just lasts forever, and has a premium price. They do make some seriously amazing electronics, but most is for the masses. “Lifespan” referring to how long the unit operates and “quality” being how well it performs during that time.

I have a giant old-school Sony Trinitron television I’m donating now for example that still works great but we’ve outgrown it. This will be the second giant old Sony TV I’ve given to another home. They’re tanks, and weigh as much. And I also still have an old Sony home theater system with 5 DVD carousel that has proprietary connectors so I can’t split it up, and have nowhere I want to use it. So it gathers dust. And (most) Marantz and (most) Klipsch are examples what I’m calling high-end. It’s all relatively relative, so if that’s junk to your budget, then please bear with me. I’m well-aware of the higher end gear that I wished I could afford out there. A Peachtree Nova300 Amp and SVS PB-16 sub and Klipschorn speakers would be my preference, but I have mouths to feed and heinies to diaper.

So back to business. Somehow I’ve ended up with a 5.1 Energy Encore home theater system with a Sony STR-DE885 A/V processor as my stereo.

The sound is actually great(I’m not claiming audiophile standards, which I’m starting to believe is usually just someone with a lot of disposable income, an oscilloscope, and an attitude), and in fact excessive for my listening area, which happens to be my office as well. Excessive space-wise as well. Most of my large desk is covered in audio equipment. Cable management is a pain too in such a small space. You think it’d be easier, but you have to be creative with placement, and more importantly, how they’re hidden, yet secure. And since I’m using the same cables I used when the system was being used for a home theater system in a giant room years ago, I have miles of dirty cables piled up in corners and under chairs and rugs.

Happily, this system will be returning to service in a way it never dreamt and going in the master bedroom with a new 65 inch curved 4k tv for my wife. I’m planning on mounting the screen on the wall too, which I’m dreading. And I splurged and got a Blu-ray player for her as well. It blows our old DVD players away. And cost $42.00 shipped (I had a $5 Amazon credit). The old Panasonic RV-31 of which we have 2 and I’m donating one, work surprisingly well still and are still forward-compatible and have optical jacks, but no HDMI ports. As nicely as those still work, the new one still blows those away for modern quality and features and for $40+ it’s a no-brainer. (I don’t know why electronics firms still make Blu-ray or especially DVD players; what kind of margins are they getting for these things? You can even still buy VCRs, for about $20 made by Craig, who is obviously low-end and a brand I think I’ve seen sold at Walgreens pharmacy.)

What makes me more excited is that I got everything (well) below retail, and with bonuses, that I hadn’t even planned on, like white glove delivery, a free wall mount, extra warranties, etc… I never pay retail for anything ever, unless it’s an emergency and even then I get discounts from my banks and other creative ways so I still pay less than sticker price, always. It’s become pretty easy with the internet, but some things are far more difficult to find discounts on than others, usually higher-end products where the companies are serious about protecting their margins and their products from counterfeiters. Barbour jackets and Bose junk are examples of that.

OK, so enough blah blah; what’d I get?

I’m finding I’m using my computer as the source nearly all the time these days. Either Pandora Plus(which is worth it for the quality improvement, no ads and being able to FF/RW maneuver around all I want), Archive.org, Youtube (I embarrassingly admit) or from my own library which usually plays via VLC. A lot of streaming in other words, and nothing else really; certainly no turntable, DAT, cassette tape(I still have a working JVC from 1984), reel to reel etc… and I never listen to the radio so no tuner needed either. I either just need an amp/preamp or integrated amp. For space, cost, features needed, quality available, outputs available (many integrated amps, even some Marantz, have no sub output or optical input, and I don’t just mean headphone amps). So the field for amps narrowed quickly. The final contenders: The questionable Sprout and Denon which are both compact amps, and a Teac, which is what I ended up getting. I’ve never owned Teac before but am very familiar with their R2Rs. The Sprout looks like something Radio Shack would have sold with the cheap faux-wood vinyl sticker(that everyone else seems to love), and is either underpowered or overpriced. Your choice. The Denon looks awesome and I nearly bought it. But the wattage difference and double the price of the Teac made me choose the Teac at 100w vs. the Denon and Sprout which had 35w and ~26w, respectively. I know wattage isn’t everything and this is a majorly low-impedance system, but I’m going to be driving some big speakers and those are a big leap from 100watts. The Teac has everything I need and among the least of what I don’t. An equalizer is something I’ll probably end up getting since I can’t imagine everything not needing to be tweaked, and using online EQs isn’t ideal, to me.

TEAC

I’m running an optical cable from my computer, which has a 5.1 sound card (which I’ll adjust) and some auditory tweaks I’ve made to the Teac integrated amplifier, with DAC of course. That keeps it simple and small on my desk and has just what I need. The theme of this system is “simplification and quality.” I’m going from a 5.1 system to a 2.1 again. I looked at more expensive, feature-rich options, and really tried to talk myself into a Marantz or Cambridge Audio amp, but they didn’t make sense for one reason or another. Mostly size and features; I already have a giant black box on my desk with a zillion cables and controls that would confuse Elon Musk, so replacing it with exactly the same=no good. I have a feeling I’ll eventually be getting an EQ though because of what I expect the tweaking process to be like using the Teac software. That doesn’t sound like something I’m going to be interested in. EDIT: I’ve looked high and low at EQs and there aren’t any for my purpose; they’re all for PA equipment and autos. So, software it is. EDIT#2: The speakers and amp sound so clean, I don’t need software or to make any adjustments to the sound. Just the gain and crossover frequency on the sub and common audio tweaks in my OS and a preference for “loudness” and that’s it. It sounds realistic with a broad, deep, well-defined soundstage. The amp comes with an HD audio player that they REALLY try to get you to use. I was eager to give it a try and discovered it’s junk.

The sources I typically have are high bit rate mp3’s, and a lot of Pandora and Spotify premium, with settings on extreme. And of course, Youtube and the other junk everyone uses. I’ve used every medium out there over the years, mostly because I’ve had to, and the hassle of vinyl and tape and even CDs isn’t worth the quality difference, to anyone who claims to be able to hear one. You’d have to really try with some good, trained ears and a really good system and even then, it’s pretty subjective. The only people who are into records these days are lazy butts who never got rid of their collection from when they were stoner teenagers or hipsters with a big new income that don’t know what they’re doing.

KLIPSCH

The Teac’s connected to a Klipsch R-112SW which is a Reference series 12-inch sub that I already have hooked up and looks like a giant piece of black furniture. It has to be broken in, but it still sounds a lot better than most of my other furniture though. I was wondering what difference a “better” sub would make to a pretty decent, but nowhere nearly as powerful system as the reference series, would be. Turns out a lot. Not WOW!, but a big enough difference to make a big, noticeable difference. Bass frequencies are different animals because they’re omnidirectional. I didn’t get the 115SW because a 15-inch sub would be totally excessive for my current needs. The bass is tight and precise, not muddy or furry. Or boomy, which is a typical problem people have with subs. Although subtle, my wife can now sense the bass frequencies 2 floors away when I have the 112SW turned up a little which I’ll have to be careful of at night or naptime. Plus the 15-inch sub, which must be MASSIVE, would have more than doubled my price for the 112SW. With some of the money I saved, I got a Klipsch wireless adapter (WA-2) for the sub so I can put it where it sounds best and has no cables(except the power of course). It’s too nice-looking to have a long cable running out of it and as I mentioned I’m simplifying. There are quite a few wireless sub adapters out there, and even though the WA-2 isn’t the cheapest or best-rated in the world, depending on what site you’re on–it’s 5 of 5 stars and rave reviews on Klipsch.com– it’s custom-made by Klipsch for the 112SW and 115SW models, which I’ve learned is often a valuable feature and renders it the best choice. I never considered wireless satellite or bookshelf speakers because there’s no way I can be convinced there isn’t signal loss and/or other quality compromises that I don’t want to make, even if some high-quality firms are making them now.  Most wireless speakers lack character as well and are boring. Since sub frequencies aren’t directional, I’m not as worried.

There are quite a few wireless sub adapters out there of the universal breed, and even though the WA-2 isn’t the cheapest or best-rated in the world on some websites(no reasons were given for poor reviews, and I doubt they were by verified purchasers), depending on what site you’re on–it’s 5 of 5 stars and rave reviews on Klipsch.com– it’s custom-made by Klipsch for the 112SW and 115SW models, which I’ve learned is often a valuable feature and renders it the best choice. Especially when if you ever want to resell them. I never considered wireless satellite or bookshelf speakers because there’s no way I can be convinced there isn’t signal loss and/or other quality compromises that I don’t want to make, even if some big-name, high-quality firms are making them now.  Most wireless speakers lack character as well and are boring in every way. Since sub frequencies aren’t directional, I’m not as worried. Wireless satellites are great solutions for setting up home theaters in rooms with weird layouts.

Klipsch is a brand I’m loyal to. I heard a pair of Klipschorns when I was a teenager, which is also what we had in our music department in high school, and my roommate in high school had some giant, groovy 1970s Klipsch speakers he yanked from his older brother as well, although I don’t remember the model. Heritage, though for sure, so possibly Cornwalls. Whatever they were, they shamed my bookshelf Advents, which I hated. No mids at all and barely any bass. So I was exposed to some really good audio right after growing up to that point with a furniture-sized console tuner/turntable from the 1960s and a lame transistor AM radio from Radio Shack. My music selection for the longest time was limited to my mother’s old classic and classical records and the terrible pop radio station in town playing terrible pop 1970s and 1980s music. (“Terrible” is redundant.) So hearing what high-quality audio could do was like hearing music for the very first time. Hearing it play music I loved was transformative, especially for someone who came to really enjoy listening to and making music as much as I do. And now I can even choose what I want to hear!

I finally got my hands on a pair of nice (used) Klipsch KG-4 speakers when I was in my 20’s and had them promptly stolen from my house in Atlanta, along with a bunch of other easily pawnable items I had grown fond of.  I used the insurance $ from the Atlanta heist to get the Energy speakers and AV processor that are turning our bedroom into a man-cave for my wife. Energy is a company in Canada that isn’t super well-known but makes some very good equipment despite their obscurity and cheesy name. They’ve certainly become a lot more established since I bought them 20 years ago even though they’re still a pretty small and obscure audio company.

I have a Klipsch Groove Bluetooth speaker for my shop, or kitchen, or backyard, or wherever; it’s super-handy and sounds really good for what it is. I love it, and they’re available for a good deal at World Wide Stereo, which is a great company, if interested. I’ve also had several pairs of Klipsch Promedia 2.1‘s for my computers over the years. They’re the best computer speakers out there in my opinion and have been for years, which is why they’ve been unchanged for so long. The price, too: stuck at $150. Some would say Harmon/Kardon Soundsticks are better, but they don’t sound as good to me. They look cooler though; there’s no denying that. (Until you quickly get tired of how cool they look.) The Promedia 2.1s sound great for computer speakers but aren’t without faults, which Klipsch should have addressed by now. The speaker wire is a joke that comes with them. Klipsch shouldn’t even include wires if this is the best they can do. So you have to special order some decent cables. Also, the power switch is on the back of the sub and is totally inaccessible. The jack for the sub connector is really flimsy too, so watch for people tugging on it. That may sound crazy, but 2 (TWO!) sets of these were ruined by my stepdaughter poking her fingers into the woofer cones and someone, maybe my dog, tripping over the sub cord. So that was the end of buying those. Also, you can buy just the control pod for them from Klipsch which makes me think it might go out a little too often. I had no problems with mine. What I’m setting up is basically my own extreme version of the Promedia 2.1.

So as you can see, acquiring Klipsch speakers hasn’t been the real problem; keeping them working and in my possession has been the issue. You have to play defense I’ve learned when you have small children and reckless teenagers around. Epoxy those grilles on.

Something I just learned is that Klipsch seems to have acquired Energy at some point over the years after I bought those Energy speakers. I find that amazingly cool and vindicating for buying such an obscure brand because of purely sensory reasons. They look really nice as well. The Klipsch Group includes Klipsch, of course, Energy, Mirage and Jamo. Not exactly household names, but some fairly premium stuff at their high-end models.

This time around I sprang for a pair of cherry Klipsch Heresy III‘s, which should pair with the R-112SW nicely. The best of both worlds. Old-school Heritage series speakers and New-school Reference series subwoofer living together in actual harmony. A 2.1 setup with an integrated amp and single optical input source. That’s as simple as it gets. And some killer soldered 12 gauge cables from Amazon. I found a local contact that is delivering the Heresy 3’s to my home office white glove, fresh from the Klipsch factory for $500 off and no sales tax. And I live out in the country. Swish! As an aside, what I’d really like is the special edition California walnut Heresys, but they’re the same sound-wise and would be $925 more, even with my newfound Klipsch hookup, which I just couldn’t talk myself into. Even though that was the exact amount I ended up saving by looking under every rock possible when putting this system together.

Something I found incredible is that the dealer I bought the speakers from said in 7 years I was the third customer he’s had. And one of the others was from Indianapolis. He said Louisville won’t support a high-end audio store. People around here would rather watch TV and spend their budget on screens from Sam’s and best Buy instead of very at high-def audio dealers who usually can’t afford to keep a respectable and updated inventory. And he’s right.

And I’ll be using the same speaker stands from my first set of Klipsch’s I had which I’ve still been lugging around with me. Full-circle!


May 28: OK; I’ve had the system running almost nonstop for a few weeks now and have some thoughts of course.

Here’s a photo of the setup. I usually have this office very very dim, so I didn’t have the best lighting.

my workspace

As you can see, the speakers are in place, and although I cleaned and updated the speaker stands, you can’t see them. Doesn’t matter; even if I get a glimpse of them, they’re still better than seeing a stack of cinder blocks. And floor placement, which they have the risers for, isn’t a possibility or desired.

The speaker placement creates a great sound stage. If you close your eyes, you have the best seat in the house. And they are incredible sounding, with the sub and the amp. You can see the little amp to the left of the monitor, and the remote on the left side of my desk mat-thing. And the amp is LOUD. The headphone jack and circutry work great and sound amazing. Having an upgraded DAC somewhere in your computer setup really is necessary.

Something I learned along the way was that this Teac amp is actually 26w, and I had seen it listed at 100w. That was wrong, but I found out too late. I was worried I’d be disappointed, but I’m not at all. I learned a lot about audiology, I guess is the word, when putting this system together. Wattage isn’t everything. Impedance is important, as is whether you’re at 4 or 8 ohms, and a few other technical issues that you need to know for things to work properly together and produce optimal sound. The Mhz and bit rate of your sources need to be checked once installed for example.

I can’t say enough good things about the speakers and the sound, except any improvement in any way would be super-expensive and extremely marginal. They put you right there where whatever you’re listening to was recorded. Ideal. The 12 gauge Mediabridge cables look very cool with them too. They’re very big and very heavy. The speakers and the cables.

The best way to care for the cabinets, in case anyone wonders how to care for such types of finished wood, is definitely not Pledge, lemon oil, or Murphy’s. Pledge and Murphy’s being the worst stuff for wood around. Lemon oil is great for some finishes and woods, and some people report happiness using it on their speaker cabinets. I use it a lot of some of our furniture. But Watco Danish oil natural is the best thing for these and is also exactly what I use to treat and coat my workbench top with. Great stuff.  Tung oil could probably be used too but I know the Danish oil works, and I don’t want my speakers to be guinea pigs.

The Teac amp is great but with some annoyances. Neither digital readout nor illuminated dials were something I had considered but in my office, where I keep it as dim as a tomb, I can’t see where the volume is or anything else, really. It’s all analog. Which wouldn’t be that big of a deal except I have other people in the house to consider. The amp, as I said, is LOUD. And the volume knob isn’t motorized, which some people complain about. I can see their grievance now. I’ve never not had a motorized volume knob, but the difference between when you use the remote and the knob isn’t equalized smoothly when automatically adjusted. Picking nits here, I realize. Like the fact their software stinks, which you pretty much have to download, unless you’re into maintaining your own drivers. It was an afterthought. The driver works well, but the HD media player that comes with it is trash. The player has to be used with a USB cable while it’s running, is outdated from the get-go, and doesn’t work well, if at all. It’s no-frills, which would be fine, but I never had any success with it all, but I don’t care. VLC is far better. Anything is far better, honestly. And I aim to not have any more cables than necessary, and a USB for a crummy piece of software I won’t use isn’t one. If I were the product manager of a product made for streaming data from the internet and for people who typically aren’t technophobes, I would make quite sure I had some appropriate software. Especially if you expect users to use it as much as Teac seems to. End of rant. It doesn’t make the amp itself any worse.

The Bluetooth feature of it is awesome. It works well and pairs easily and the sound is fine. If there’s an infinitesimal reduction in quality for some reason, I can’t pick out where it is. I use an optical cable running through a Sound Blaster sound card, then through the computer’s processor which I’ve optimized as well. I think people probably often forget that step. A lot of settings have to be adjusted for best performance in hidden little OS menus here and there.

Although I was already looking for an equalizer, the Teac amp is more than adequate, and the quality is so good as-is, I can’t see the need for anything else. I don’t want it running through a bunch of sound “enhancing” software, effects, or anything more than I absolutely need to. I wouldn’t even know where to start to improve it at this point, really. Without spending a fortune and ending up with an entirely new system. The only few issues I have could be fixed, but I already know the next steps up are from what I have and it’s a doozie price-wise. It’s why I didn’t get them instead. This stuff is like guitars; you’re always in search of the perfect one, or one that’s just a little bit different and maybe better in some indescribable way. The system I have is almost zero impedance. Source-to-ear is as short as I can get it. High-quality sources, high-quality equipment, arranged ideally. Maybe one day we can transmit such things to the correct parts of our brains inductively but until then… I think I’m done. For now.

EDIT: Not long after I wrote this, my Energy speakers fell apart. Literally. They’re about 20 years old, yes, but they’ve been well-cared for. However, the glue that holds the front of the speakers to the housing failed. In addition, the plastic “rim” that also is responsible for keeping the tweeters and cones in place cracked all the way around, specifically with the center speaker, causing the front of the speaker to become detached. I repaired them as best as I could with some appropriate glue and clamps, but my confidence has been shaken as to their longevity. Just something to note.

EDIT: (6/15/2018) The TEAC DAC/Amplifier has been OK for the past year, but I’ve not been overly happy with it. The Bluetooth is terrible. The range is about 6 feet, and there’s a noticeable difference between using Bluetooth as a source and a USB cable. So, with the lame range, I end up using a USB cable more often than not, which defeated the point of why I got that Amp.

In any case, I’m rejiggering my audio setup. The Sony receiver I’ve had for so long is on the way out. It still works great, but after 100 years of using it, I’m retiring it. If I ever set up a home theater, I’ll break it out again, because that’s what it was made for, not providing killer audio.

So I set out on a hunt. I wanted a Marantz. But none of their units met what I wanted, and I looked at all models. That was disappointing. I zeroed in on a Cambridge Audio Amp, which fit the bill. 8 ohms, 60 watts, has a sub connector, can handle 2 sets of speakers and has an awesome (Wolfson) DAC. Plus a lot more. So I got a Cambridge CXA60. And it indeed is awesome. There’s a HUGE difference. The clarity and sense of presence that you have when listening to anything through it and the Klipsch Heresy’s is realistic. I also got a Bluetooth adapter, which has an amazing range, is super-versatile, and cost less than the Cambridge BT-100 that integrates with my new amp, but there’s nothing special about it. And buying things that are proprietary have bitten me in the past. Think: Sony connectors.

So, that’s a very solid setup. The only upgrade I can envision at this point is a MacIntosh tube amp I’m eyeing, but that will be a special purchase. Those things aren’t cheap.

I’m also planning on getting another pair of bookshelf speakers to hook up to the Cambridge cxa60. Wharfedale Dentons are what I’m getting, which I can’t wait to break in.

And I guess while I’m at it, I may as well mention that I upgraded my Sony alarm clock/iPhone alarm with a Yamaha desktop stereo/clock/alarm. It sounds REALLY good and has an app allowing you to set an alarm for every day of the week, and do all sorts of fancy things. And it looks really cool in green, I think. Like it’s military-issued. Its Bluetooth range is impressive as well. It’s almost TOO good; I’ll play something on YouTube on my laptop, and it’ll connect all the way down the hall across the house. It sounds better than the Bose Wave radio for sure, to mention a unit it would compete with. I hate Bose. The reasons? Because they don’t reproduce sound authentically; they manipulate sound. They also are WAY overpriced because of their marketing budget. I’ll bet half of what you pay for when you buy a Bose product is going to pay for their marketing. And their stuff isn’t very durable on top of it all. Don’t buy Bose.

EDIT November 14, 2018:

Well, if you can be certain of anything, it’s that I’m going to keep changing things around. But choice and not by choice, but for the best in every situation.

I’ve taken the Sabaj DAC to work and replaced the TEAC DAC I had there working with mt Energy speakers and subwoofer. The Energy speakers that haven’t fallen apart yet. They sound great, look great, but the decision to use that type of plastic around the frame was a short-sighted one. Once repaired, they still work great. But after 20 years or so, the plastic gave way.

I replaced the TEAC DAC because at low volumes as I play at work for everyone’s sake, it wouldn’t stay at a constant volume. I only have one neighbor, but his hearing is exceptional. And he likes quiet. So I try to keep it down but I also play music all day. The volume would suddenly increase, then decrease, then moderate. It began to get very annoying and was inexplicable to me. So I traded it out, and I actually believe the Sabaj sounds a lot better. Score one for the underdog.

Another big change was that the Klipsch Reference SW-12 that I was so enamored with conked out on me. It started clicking, then eventually just stopped playing. That should answer the question “do subwoofers even make a difference? I could tell when it went out and the low end wasn’t LOW. And after researching that problem, I might have a huge, heavy paperweight on my hands. I took it to a “professional” about a month ago to inspect and repair and haven’t heard back even yet, so I plan to go retrieve it tomorrow to take it elsewhere or possibly repair myself. I have the tools, resources, and knowledge, just not the time. But he said he usually doesn’t have much luck fixing subwoofers and has trouble getting aftermarket parts for them. I’m sure it’s just some little electronic component that went bad; it’s not like I kicked in the cone in with my foot or anything. And I kind of doubt I “blew” it, since it’s rated to 600W, I believe. It’s possible because I do crank it up, but a Sub at that price point, and manufactured by Klipsch, it should have been able to handle what I threw at it. I’m pretty disappointed in that Klipsch sub failing. I still think they make great speakers, but not every model is a winner. Their high-end stuff is great (as is their 2.1 computer speakers) but I’m a little skittish of the reference series, which I was, to begin with. I certainly am now. I should have trusted my instincts. I say that a lot. The Reference series seems to be consumer grade and I think they’re cutting important corners to bring the prices down for the masses. Just my guess/opinion.

So I went subwoofer shopping. The one I had my eye on, a JAMA, has been discontinued. Of course. So back to square one. This is one that’s going with my Heresys and Cambridge Audio amp, so it should be something good and not a budget deal or anything lightweight. Although admittedly the Polk sub I put with the Wharfedales has been impressive thus far. But I need something more substantial for this system because it’s going to need to handle some extremes and also be durable. As much as I like buying audio equipment, I hate buying audio equipment.

I finally settled on an SVS PB-2000 12 inch 500 watt ported subwoofer. SVS makes some seriously good stuff and their prices are no joke. Their top end subs are in the thousands of dollars. But this one will handle my needs(it gets down to 17db!) and is at a price I can live with, especially with a substantial warranty. Although it’s a monolithic beast at over 65 pounds. Shipping that around the country isn’t something I plan on doing. I also don’t think it’s the nicest looking thing around, which to me is odd considering it’s cost, but where it’s going no one will even see it. I mean, how hard is it to design a box that simply looks nice? Apparently to sound engineers, very hard. (Audio companies will, in fact, charge a premium for providing “piano-gloss black” finishes. As if that’s the zenith of design. Ridiculous. Just 3 pieces of exotic laminate would make it look a million times better.)  So I’ll report on it once I get it broken in. I have high expectations.

svs pb-2000 subwoofer

 

 

 

An Audiophile After 40 Years

An Audiophile After 40 Years

The Shot Heard Round the World

The Shot Heard Round the World

This Grateful Dead show at the Beat Club in Bremen, West Germany, April 21, 1972, was the show that turned me onto the Grateful Dead around 35 years ago. Got on the bus as the hippies say. It’s not even one of their best shows, although certainly one of the most unique on video, and Donna was squawking away, but it didn’t matter. 1972 is one of their top years. And a show with Pigpen and Keith is special. Out of the many keyboardists the Dead have had, Keith Godchaux was my favorite with Bruce Hornsby second. This was one of Pigpen’s last shows.

Where and how I grew up in South Carolina, good music wasn’t exactly easy to come by. I was born a poor black child, you see. Good music anywhere was tough, but especially in a little town of 500 in S.C. To get true alternative music back then, before alternative was mainstream and was actually an alternative to pop instead of being pop, you ordered records from magazines out of New York. My mother, fortunately, saved a big box of 45s from the beach house from the 50s and early 60s, and a stack of LPs that dated back to the late 1800’s I think. Seriously. Inch-thick discs of classical that played at obscure turntable speeds. But what was played mostly on the old Victrola was a lot of Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Patsy Cline, Enrico Caruso, and other opera and country and western selections mostly. My father’s musical reach was the hook from Ray Stevens’ “The Streak,” and that was about it. We had a radio of course but with poor reception of crummy stations, who bothered? If you wanted to buy a record or cassette tape, you had the Record Bar at the mall, which sold mostly the same crap that was on the radio, or the seedy cinder-block building on the other part of town that sold classic rock and some good stuff, but was known more for their vast porn selection than their music. So I only went in there when my dad took me.

I had listened to Jimmy Buffett, James Taylor and the usual South Carolina fare that all my friends listened to, but I also listened to a lot of those old 45s of my mother’s. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were two artists whose hits I listened to a lot. All sorts of obscure hits from those decades were in that stack, and a lot of them were fun for a kid to listen to, like “Splish Splash,” etc…but I got a good feeling for the dawn of rock and roll and pre-rock. The Beatles totally saved humanity from some seriously terrible music. Paul Anka? Tiny Tim? Seriously?

And then one day, in the early 1980’s, I saw the cut of “One More Saturday Night” from this show (@30:20 in the video below). I saw it once, my jaw hit the ground, and that was it. Which made sense since VCRs were still a new technology and what you watched was whatever was on one of the 3 stations. But few things have hit me as resolutely as that did. Like Jehovah’s favorite choir. Seeing these guys play such energetic, raw rock and roll and the colorful wild hippie set and such intense and competent musicianship, and I was sold. (You have to think, this was the 1980’s and synth and bubblegum crap music was everywhere. Seeing guys actually playing instruments like that live and sounding so unique, real, musically complex(they have 7 people on stage) and completely awesome was amazing!) The modulation gets the blood pumping, too. Musically it was familiar. A big influence on Jerry Garcia’s guitar playing is obviously Chuck Berry which you can hear in One More Saturday Night and of course his cover of Johnny B. Goode and Promised Land among other songs that leak out the influence from that era like Not Fade Away. Plus Keith’s piano playing, with his runs and trills and ragtime feel was reminiscent of Jerry Lee Lewis. And no racks of stupid synthesizers everywhere like Devo-or far, far worse in the 80’s- but just Keith over on the side banging away at a piano with a bottle of Coke next to him. I still love watching and listening to it, even though musically it’s not their finest version. It’s pretty good though because of the energy. That’s easy to say though when you have a trillion shows under your belt. It’s still great and I still love it like the first time I saw/heard it in fact, if not more because I know the Dead pretty well now.

And before I get a bunch of emails telling me the Grateful Dead are terrible, I realize this is my opinion and they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Their time signatures are non-standard, which a lot of people don’t like, and the nontraditional arrangements are too much for some people as well. Jerry’s style involves coming in just a little late on vocals and guitar every now and then I’ve noticed, which he does on on purpose usually, which also may put some people off very subtly. Or maybe it’s just Donna, or whatever, but save your time and breath; I know it. I’ve heard it before a time or two. Thankfully, we don’t all have to appreciate each others’ music. I mean Slim Whitman was great and all…

I’ve also heard so many of their shows so many times now, I find I can pick out more and more unique information just by listening to them, like a sommelier can tell you about a bottle of wine by taking a sip. and this new sound system I have is revealing some amazing details I’ve never heard, like heaving breaths and picks hitting the strings and new percussion and subtle runs and phrases I’d never picked up on. In some cases entire instruments that you couldn’t hear in the background. It’s like hearing a lot of these shows for the first time again, which is pretty great. Especially with the frequent releases of all their best shows professionally remastered, like Cornell 5/8/77 etc… in really good audio quality.

The Dead’s sound evolved of course from a jug band quickly to rock and roll, and within that the songs and styles were dynamic. Psychedelia to country and western to old spirituals to jazz numbers to everything in between. Even a polka thrown in here and there. It’s partially why they’re the longest enduring band ever. This period in the 70’s was my favorite(minus the horrible disco-Dead with Go to Heaven-style “Street” songs. My least favorite Dead songs are Dancing in the Streets and Shakedown Street. And Looks like Rain.), with the early 80’s and late 60’s right behind. Those were different eras in several ways. The repertoire pivoting each time for one. Different instruments. Different hairstyles even. Lots of stuff. The worst being when they added the MIDI and went digital in the early 90’s. That’s also when the Dead became seriously mainstream and took on a life of its own. Weird to say when they packed a million people into their shows. But the partying and parking lot scene were out of control. It became about nothing but partying and the music was highly secondary. That’s when I stopped going to shows. It goes from novel at first, to distracting, then annoying after a while. I blame MTV, as I do with a lot of the decline of the general quality of the music scene in the US. How hot you were became more important than how good you were musically. That’s a big conversation for another time.

I recently remembered that I used to make the A/V guys at my high school play and replay the “One More Saturday Night” clip for me on Saturdays when I was stuck on campus, because only a few qualified geeks students could hit Play/Stop/Rewind on the highly-technical VCR on the cart in the A/V center. Which was basically the library attic if I also remember right. What made me think of that was how things have changed since those days. I’m watching it now, at my total leisure, on a giant high-def screen on an audiophile-grade sound system. I can’t wait to see what media consumption is like in 30+ more years. I’m sure the guys in the band couldn’t begin to imagine their humble shows would one day be broadcast like they are. Bobby, with the ponytail, turns 70 this year. And he’s the youngest by quite a few years, since he ran off with the band when he was 16. In the decades following this performance, both keyboardists and the guitarist would be dead, the bassist will have a liver transplant and they’ll add another drummer. And make a ton of great music playing a few thousand shows in between, all available at our fingertips.


Spanish lady comes to me, she lays on me this rose…