Return of the Repressed
February 19, 2010
I was really into Hi-Fi audio in high school. I never had enough money to build a system of my own (though I did invest in a pretty decent Dolby Digital 5.1 system for DVDs), but I always romanticized building a Hi-Fi and looked into component parts. Then I got an iPod and I learned to stop worrying about quality of the recordings. Who needs an album to sound good when you can so easily switch to the next?
Then a few weeks ago I bought a record player. I haven’t had one in over a decade and I’d forgotten that they really are a more inviting way to listen to music. I’d wanted one the last few years, yet somehow never got around to it, but a little bit of extra cash inspired me (I can still hear president Bush telling me to go out and spend to save America). I love it. Even playing LPs through my computer with not-so-good speakers was an improvement over mp3s of the same songs.
And just like that, I started to rediscover my inner audiophile and started pouring over blogs and magazines trying to learn about components. I inhaled pages and pages worth of “The Audiophiliac” and stereophile features. I developed a bad case of commodity fetishism and knew that I would have to buy something reasonable now to stem the chances of a real malady.
For purposes of convenience, I was going to incorporate a computer into whatever system I bought. Would I need a DAC? These didn’t even exist the last time I cared about audio. I started having dreams about the miniwatt tube amplifier. It’s insanely low-priced and small enough for my space. I’d need to get some decent speakers to go with it, but given the inherent limitations of the amp, I wasn’t going to need something so extravagant; just some decent bookshelf speakers.
But the more I read, the more I started to want products I didn’t think that I needed, like Sony’s new $100 HD radio. The price is right, but the only radio I really listen to is Pandora. Sure, if I bought the tube amp I might listen to the HD radio, but that’s still a $100 guess. No, I have to think about what I do right now. And the best solution was to spend a reasonable amount of money (200) on a reasonable product: the Audioengine a2 powered bookshelf speakers. After doing research, it seemed like the worst case scenario would be a great set of computer speakers. I was comfortable with that.
Thankfully, we aren’t talking about worst case scenarios. The speakers are small and beautifully designed, and the audio sounds incredibly smooth. I bought the vinyl of “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and listened to it over the RCA jacks, bypassing the computer altogether, and was shocked at the difference. There’s a luxurious quality to Jeff Mangum’s voice that I’d never heard on the CD or mp3. There’s a palpable emotion to his singing that’s reflected in any format, but listening to an LP through good speakers let me into some of the delicacy and, yes, heightened the spirituality. Distortion took on a musical quality, and I started to recognize so much more instrumentality in the ethereal background noise. I was hearing something new.
Perversely, it makes me want a new tube amplifier even more. Mal du phonograph indeed. I’ll let you know as soon as I get one.