Saturday, March 6, 2010

Explorations: A Luddite In The The Man Cave


My dad seems to have something good going on. In the big room in the basement I once occupied, during a 2-year period of abject confusion following my college graduation, he's created his Man Cave. On the whiteboard I left on the door, he wrote a Mark Twain quote: "Every house should have a room you can swear in." This is that room. In addition to a very gaudy and cat-scratched couch, not to mention the huge, unfinished HO-scale train set, the most welcome addition is his vintage Hi-Fi system, centered around a Dynaco ST-70 Stereo tube amp and Dynaco PAS-2 tube preamp.Wired into this: a graphic equalizer, a DVD player relegated to playing only CDs, a very nice JVC belt-drive turntable, some very nice Polk Audio speakers, and an iPod-ready end of an RCA cable.

It's interesting discussing this stuff with my dad. In my criticism, I try to distinguish recorded music from live music as overlapping but essentially different art forms. With that in mind, I consider the equipment used to record the sound, whether it's a MacBook or 2-inch analog tape, as much an "instrument" as a guitar or piano or violin, each lending its distinct nuance to the sound. The real wild card, however, is the equipment used for playback, which varies wildly, completely independent of the recording and its medium for distribution. Ask any serious audiophile, and you'll realize there's almost no limit to how much you can spend on your stereo - from speakers costing upwards of $10,000 each right down to the RCA cables connecting your components or even the acoustic design of the listening room. 

My opinion is, after a certain point, one gets diminishing returns for every additional dollar spent on such toys. Especially in how much it might (or might not) contribute to the pleasure of the experience of listening to the music itself, which is always in danger of getting lost amid such materialistic pretensions. I've listened to some pretty nice stereos, and I'll admit, the jaw-dropping clarity of the sound was not lost on me. Then again, some of the greatest pleasure I've taken in listening to recorded music was as simple as blasting my eardrums out to My Bloody Valentine with cheap earbuds on my iPod, or enjoying a beer on my brother's front porch while Pavement drifted out the window from a $100 boombox.

All this leads me to believe that audio is a microcosm for a grander, raging debate on the role of technology in society. It's easy to forget what a new technology recorded music is in the grand scheme of things - It's been around for less than 200 years. Before the phonograph, all music was live music, stored only on sheets of paper for musicians to read, or simply in people's minds. At its advent, there was great concern for how this new "canned music" might diminish the role of live music. In the end, it turns out the two can co-exist quite well, and without that symbiosis, Rock 'n' Roll might never have existed.

Nothing really changes. During the past few decades, it would seem our love affair with technology has let most of us to believe that whatever's newer and more sophisticated is on the whole better than what preceded it - and the predominant attitude has been "out with the old, in with the new." I think there's evidence that this is not entirely true. Consider the fact that most Americans still drive cars with internal combustion engines, a 100-year-old technology only incrementally improved during its lifespan, despite the fact that far safer, cheaper and more efficient technologies have existed for decades. But then again, each one of those assertions is a value judgment, and what ultimately matters is what people want, right or wrong. As a result, it seems involvement (and not just use) of technology becomes relegated to hobbyists, gearheads and nerds. I think the overall social level of involvement could be much higher, and could bring our society wondrous new innovations.

That digression aside, the predominant technological battle over audio these days seems to be one of digital versus analog, but that's a subject for a different essay. The role of amplification, processing & speaker equipment is a far more complicated, unsexy, and generally avoided topic, but it's one that gets my dad particularly animated. His Dynaco set, he explained, is very similar to the first stereo he ever owned - in which he used Dynaco Mark IV power amps (The MKIV is a 40-watt monaural amplifier - Get 2 of them, and you've got a stereo!)

True, the Stereo 70 is a tinkerer's dream and a layman's nightmare. My dad, an engineer, takes giddy pleasure in wielding a multimeter and a soldering iron, schematic diagrams spread out on the table in front of him. It's no wonder this is his kind of toy. At home, I use a simple 90's vintage Aiwa bookshelf system, and I've never bothered unscrewing its cover to look inside. The ST-70, on the other hand, was often sold as a DIY kit for the soldering-iron-inclined. It's a separate unit from the Preamp (which houses the volume, equalization and input controls) and all its remarkably simple innards sit under a mesh cage for all the world to see. This is not a cosmetic feature - The openness of the cage is necessary to ventilate the heat of the glowing vacuum tubes. The cage does, however, have 2 holes in the top, allowing the user to adjust each channel's DC bias potentiometer using a screwdriver, lest we risk damaging any of the amp's other components (multimeter not included). That's something I'll never have to worry about on my consumer-grade Aiwa system, and it leaves me happy to concede that solid-state technologies do have their advantages. But in terms of sound quality, not to mention fun, my stereo just can't quite compete.

Then again, even though I consider myself a rabid technophile, I fear the trend toward greater sophistication in technology seems to put us on a path toward a greater alienation from it. I don't think the two are mutually exclusive - There is no high-tech giant on earth whose executives don't quake in their boots at the prospect of being put out of business by the next Steve Wozniak tinkering in his or her garage. It is true that often it serves us in a way that saves us the trouble of knowing how it works - Most car owners I know don't give a shit how a camshaft works or how many cylinders their engine has, so long as it reliably gets them where they want to go, and to be fair, they may have highly creative pursuits of their own and don't need any other distraction. I'll be the first to admit that while I have a rudimentary understanding of electronics, I don't know the first thing about selenium rectifiers or filter chokes.  Sooner or later though, we'll have to unlearn this idea that newer is necessarily better, and instead ask ourselves whether a new technology is enriching our lives. The possibility always exists that on the other hand, just distracting us, making us fat, alienating us from our communities, deskilling our jobs, destroying our environment, or any number of unforeseen consequences. Or, in this case, just ruining our fun. Don't get me wrong - it's not all bad. I love my iPod. But I think there is something to the old saying, "They don't make 'em like they used to..." - In an economic era of declining real wages, while we're getting new technology, there's the impending sense that we're getting less bang for our buck. In the way that my IKEA dining table will never find its way onto Antiques Roadshow 200 years from now. In its heyday of popularity, the Dynaco ST-70 was the "poor man's Porsche" among audiophiles, competing with far more expensive power amps with its lush, warm, responsive sound. It's one of those rare cases in which the "triumph of craftsmanship over engineering" became affordable for the everyman.

So there's my spiel on the technology. But how does music sound on this charming vintage system? Stay tuned...



  1. Awesome read! Keep up these introspective posts that, at first glance, appear to be about something as minor as listening to some old stereo system, but become much more.

  2. Thanks, it means a lot. I hope I've also satisfied your curiosity about Post-rock - I owe that one to you. Keep on reading!