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Beatnik’s Journey: The Joy of High End Audio III – The Music

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Jack Roberts Beatnik's Journey

Happy New Year to Dagogo’s readers!

Back in 2011 our dear ole publisher, Constantine, asked us to write a short article for the 2011 California Audio Show about “The Joy of High-end Audio.” I was more than glad to have any opportunity to write about anything, but I pointed out that I didn’t like the term “High-End Audio.” I much prefer the concept of “High Fidelity.” I feel that you can put together audio systems at all different price points that can truly reproduce music in high fidelity. I also want to point out that I have heard lots of high-end systems that I did not find very true to the fidelity of the music.

Then, for the 2012 California Audio Show I wrote about some of the great people I have met throughout the years in my audio journey. This year I want to move a little further down the path and talk about how my audiophile disease has increased my love for music.

I went to high school at SMBA, a college prep, boarding school in San Marcos, TX. Listening to music with my group of friends was one of the most important parts of my life then. Admittedly, most of our listening was done in a dorm room over a Magnavox portable record player with the bass and treble turned all the way up. We blew the speakers on this thing quite often, which is how a couple of us got someone to build us some little speakers for the dorm and someone got an Allied Radio integrated and a record changer, and we were back to listening again.

Our selection of music was pretty limited: The Doors, The Beatles, The Band, Black Sabbath, The Stones, Led Zeppelin, and other things along that line. Then, in my senior year I got a new roommate who had separates from the Allied Radio, a cheap Garrard changer, and some better homemade speakers. The only problem was he liked classical music. This was my first exposure to classical music other than hearing it in the background of cartoons. I discovered I like big symphonic music quite a bit more than I would have thought.

For graduation I got my first “stereo” as we called it then. It was a small Kenwood receiver, a pair of KLH 17s, and an entry level Pioneer semi-automatic turntable. This is the system I moved into my dorm room at Baylor University and through which I listened to my same old music, some of which I still listen to quite often even now.

It was 1971, and I was at a much bigger school and met a lot of new people, most all were into music, but some were into stereos; I still had never heard the word “audiophile”. I discovered female singers for the first time that year. I fell in love with listening to Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt, and Carol King. I also discovered three male singers I had never listened to, Simon and Garfunkel as well as Cat Stevens. All of these were quite different from the bands I had been listening to up to that point. By the way, most of those singers I just mentioned I continue to listen to almost weekly to this day.

It was during my sophomore year at Baylor that I met Ken Askew, who had a pair of Quad 57s, a Marantz amp, a Dynaco preamp (I think) and a Thorens turntable. I was blown away. In little over a year I had my own Quads and I became a certifiable “Audiophile.” Becoming an audiophile also meant that I started to try to meet other audiophiles, and all of us were looking for music that not only did we like, but that also sounded good on our systems.

One of the things I find funny in the audio forms of today, and even in the press to some degree, is the great pride with which people say, “it’s all about the music” or “I would never buy an audiophile recording.” What a bunch of baloney. I love a simple system. Heck, in my system I only need a phono cable, one pair of interconnects, a pair of single-run speaker cables and three power cables. Still, while I’m not a gear geek, I know it’s not just about the music to me. It’s really important to me that music sound great when I sit down to listen to it.

The same goes for the music I listen to which leads me to the heart of this article, namely how being an audiophile widened my musical taste. Let me take you down a shorten version of that path. The years I owned the Quad 57s led me to look for music that sounded great on them. I discovered just how much I loved female singers. I begin to listen to classical piano music, and most of all I discovered jazz from some early “Direct to Disc” recordings. Yes, some of these had terrible music on them and some had wonderful ones, but the point is I had never listened to jazz and now I had discovered it. I would have to say that probably half my record collection today is jazz, mostly old stuff and non-audiophile recordings, but still that was how I found out I liked jazz.

Having mentioned “Direct to Disc” recordings, I should add that in 1977 Sheffield Records released a Bluegrass recording called Confederation. Up until that time I lumped all country, bluegrass, and what we now call American roots music into one genre, Country. There was no way I was ever going to listen to country music, so I never gave any of it a chance. Well, I was in a high-end stereo store one day and they were playing this LP. I was blown away by the sound, but found the music a lot of fun too. I bought a copy and before I knew it I was listening to Emmylou Harris and David Grisman’s “Dawg Music.” I still, to this day, love Bluegrass and American Roots music, and so do both of my grown sons.

After leaving the Quads, and for a few years, having multi-driver dynamic speakers, I once again began to listen to big symphonic music and discovered from Harry Pearson’s list of recordings that I really liked Russian composers. I also found out how much I liked Big Band jazz.

By the age of 45 it was about the dawn of a new century and I was about to make the oddest of all discoveries. Late in the year 2000, someone finally convinced me to give SACD digital a try and I did. There were only two real problems with SACD. One was that keeping those early Sony, Marantz, and Krell players running was quite a job, but by far the biggest problem was the lack of music to play on them. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. The curse was that I finally gave up and went back to all-vinyl in my reference system and a separate video/digital system upstairs, which used computer audio as its source.

The blessing was I spent a lot of money buying early SACD releases of music I had never spent much time with before. A lot of the first SACDs were reissues of classic Jazz mono recordings. Up until that time I had never owned a mono LP. These mono SACDs sounded so good that I discovered I had been ignorant about great music that was available only on mono recordings. I also along the way discovered that many great recordings that had been released on both stereo and mono versions sounded much better on the mono version. Well, I no longer have an SACD player, but I own a couple of hundred treasured mono LPs. See, I told you being an audiophile may not be all about the music, but it sure widened my musical horizons.

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4 Responses to Beatnik’s Journey: The Joy of High End Audio III – The Music

  1. geoff says:

    I thought I read somewhere you had a Vacuum State Sony XA5400ES disc player, at least long enough for the ink to dry on your review of same? Given the value of real estate in Bay area I’m never surprised to see boomers there with $50K and up audio systems (c:

  2. Mike says:

    Hi Jack,
    I spent more than one evening on the SMBA football field. I went to Allen in Bryan in the ’75 – 78 time frame.
    Just wanted to let you know I appreciate your work here.

  3. Jack Roberts says:

    I owned a Sony 777 SACD player for about four years. I took it to a level 6 Vacuum State mods. I also reviewed the XA5400ES you refer to above. In the end I gave up on SACD, just couldn’t get enough music or get it to sound as good as my vinyl setup.

  4. Jack Roberts says:

    Mike, thanks for the kind words. I remember that we played Bryan, but I’m afraid I’m older. I graduated in 71. I guess I can take some consolation in that I was just 17, but I’m afraid I’m still getting old. Well, thank goodness I don’t feel old yet.

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