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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 25th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Audio goes backwards?

26 November 2019

As a young bloke who was heavily into electronics, a great deal of my time was spent designing, building and refining audio systems.

Not only was electronics my day-job but it was also a passion that kept me toiling away late into the night, in the search for the perfect amplifier, speakers and turntable.

I started by building my own 10 Watt stereo system at the age of about 12 and from that point on there was a never-ending quest for more power and bigger speakers.

It was with great anticipation that I fired up my first own-design 100W per channel stereo amp back in the 1970s and instantly blew (and I mean *blew*) the snot out of the crappy little C8MX speakers as soon as the first bass note from Uria Heep's Gypsy hit the system. All that followed was silence from one channel and a very tinny rattle from the other.

At that point I embarked on building a much better speaker system consisting of some very large (and heavy) Philips 12-inch bass units (with rubber suspension) plus separate mid-range and tweeters fed from a cross-over unit containing inductors I wound myself.

Ah... happy days!

The next problem with all that power and a super-deep bass response was feedback.

Younger readers may not have had any experience with vinyl and good old fashioned turntables but they were a very mechanical device with design roots that go back many decades. The concept of having a needle tracking a wiggly groove on a plastic disk seems incredibly basic these days but the fact that "records" were a thing for so long speaks to the simple effectiveness of this method of distributing sound recordings.

Aside from the obvious problems of stylus wear, dust, scratches, rumble, wow/flutter, etc... playing records on a turntable had one other huge drawback -- the whole turntable acted like a microphone and sounding board.

Squeezing 200 watts of audio amplifier, a couple of huge speakers with bass-reflex enclosures and a sensitive magnetic pickup on a belt-drive turntable into the tiny living room of a rented flat is a recipe for disaster -- from an audio perspective.

Crank up the volume and the whole room shakes -- with the output from the speakers actually shaking the turntable so much that it creates a sound that feeds back into the amplifier and comes back out the speakers in an ever-increasing crescendo of noise.

In the end I had to suspend the turntable, bolted to about 50Kg of concrete blocks, from the roof via a set of rubber bicycle tubes so as to provide the necessary vibration isolation and mass-dampening.

I guess I was an audiophile (just missing the cryogenic speaker cables perhaps).

But enough of my early audio follies, fun as they were.

Today you don't need a crappy mechanical turntable and fancy audio isoloation strategies. These days you just hook up to Spotify or download your favourite tracks in digital format onto your phone and then hook that phone up to your favourite integrated speaker/amp via Bluetooth.

WTF?

How can this be a thing?

After decades of trying to get the perfect stereo setup with carefully crafted speaker placement; after years of playing around with quadraphonic sound and positioning my favourite chair at *exactly* the right place in the room -- now we have just ONE speaker and a crappy Bluetooth connection?

Seriously?

This is what passes for good audio today?

Okay, to be fair, today's speakers and amps are just mind-blowing compared to the units we had back in the 1970s and 1980s. How they can get so much bass out of tiny little boxes is one of life's greatest mysteries. Even the wife's Samsung phone puts out a stunningly good (for its minscule size) sound.

However, as a died-in-the-wool audio enthusiast, I still scratch my head in disbelief when I see what many folk are using for audio these days. Hell, most of it's not even stereo!

I could be old and grumpy and say "it doesn't matter I guess because what the young people of today are listening too hardly qualifies as music" -- but that'd be untrue. Whilst I'm still a great fan of The Beatles, Black Sabbath, Uria Heep and other great bands of last century, there are still a lot of contemporary artists that also appeal.

What does surprise me however, is how many young folk can't even hear the artifacts in a crappy 128Kbps MP3 file. Seriously... they can't!

Given that I have neither the time nor the money to get back into expensive *real* audio gear these days (plus I have a social conscience that prevents me from rattling the neighbourhood's windows with my choice of music), I now use headphones and a computer for my audio pleasures.

I did splash a little on some Audio Technica studio headphones (a great investment) but justify that by also using them when editing video. Now I can wind up the volume as much as I like without anything rattling except the bones in my head and I just make do with the quality of a good HD video's audio track from YouTube.

What do readers use for their main music system I wonder?

Do you just make-do with your phone and some earbuds or do you have a "propper" stereo setup? Do you use a fancy audio system on your TV system and play your favourite tracks through an attached disk player or via your phone perhaps?

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