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Women in HiFi
To say that I grew up to music would not be a lie. My father filled our modest middle-class houses with recordings of the music of the heavyweight champions of the Classical era: Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert.
I remember him putting together his prized hi-fi system when I was about four years old.
He invested in the new solid-state technology from Japan which was, at that time, discarding the mantel of third-world, post-war tat-factory to world-class producer of high-quality, innovative consumer goods–Honda motorbikes, Sony TVs and CD players, Casio calculators and digital watches.
I can think of no stronger comment to make on the thought and care that went into these early forays into the apparently unassailable bastion that was the British hi-fi industry than the £50 price-tag I saw recently on a second-hand Pioneer receiver similar to that my father bought nearly thirty years ago and is still using today.
At school, I showed just sufficient musical aptitude to keep me playing the violin and piano until I left for college to study first architecture and then computing.
While at college I started buying records even before I had anything to play them on.
I also went to the few live concerts that I could afford and came away wondering just how much you had to spend on a hi-fi system to recreate the immense and powerful sound that filled the auditoria.
Some fellow students had started putting together their own systems. I started reading the hi-fi press which, luckily, during the 1980s was still vaguely believable.
Finally, I bought my first system on a budget best described as the poorer half of a broken shoe-string: a second-hand Realistic turn table, a generic South Korean integrated amplifier and a pair of KEF C-20 speakers atop a pair of second-hand Target speaker stands and wired up with a few yards of domestic multi-strand mains cable.
Shortly after this, while sharing a house with a couple of guys very much 'into' hi-fi and music (rather more Pink Floyd and Hawkwind than Prokofiev and Haydn), I bought a second-hand Thorens TD-165 turntable which I tweaked by replacing the bits of string masquerading as phono leads with ones made up from a few feet of Monster cable.
This is where I learned to solder. I also bought a Target turn-table wall-shelf which I am still using today. Now I was able to justify spending hours of my time looking for records on which to spend my meagre savings.
The digital revolution was well into its stride by now and there was a very healthy second-hand vinyl market as people were dumping their once-prized, often mint-condition LP collections for the promises of the new silver disc.
Even then I was severely underwhelmed by the sound from these things but it was always in the back of my mind that, eventually, I would have to swap horses as supplies of my vinyl ambrosia dried up. While still free of the shackles of middle-class tax-paying salaried respectability, I bought a new amplifier.
This was the A1 model from the all-new Musical Fidelity class-A series which redefined the mid-range integrated solid-state amplifier in the same way that the Audi Quattro had rewritten the rule book by which rally cars were built some years earlier.
This system was nicely-balanced and equally happy with small-scale chamber music, acoustic jazz and uncluttered rock. In other words, too many instruments, too large a scale or too complex and involved the arrangement and it would fall apart; Joni Mitchell great, Yes no. I installed this system in a succession of rented rooms during my first couple of years of 'proper' work.
Its last home was in the lounge of my future husband's house when I moved in, rent-free. With my vast income of £10,000 a year burning a large hole in my pocket, I was already researching my next upgrade.
This would be the move from the lower mid-range into the 'serious stuff'. I visited many show-rooms wanting to buy a compact disc player for around a thousand pounds plus a couple of hundred on a new pair of speakers. In 1990, the Meridian was the market leader with other pillars of the establishment getting in on the act: Linn, Naim, Roksan.
However, no matter how pro-digital I was at the start of every demonstration, I always ended up pleading mercy from the salesman to the nerve-jangling, headache-inducing bit-stream and we invariably ended the session over a relaxing coffee and a record or three.
In one trip around London, I had all but put down a deposit on a Roksan Xerxes when I visited a relatively new shop called Vinyl Tube Audio in Kentish Town to listen to some speakers I was interested in.
I had heard a pair of DCM Time Windows at the Chesterfield Hi-Fi show a few years previously and was immediately captivated by their open, clean, dynamic sound. Stephen Harper had a pair of their baby brothers in stock, the Time Frames. However, I was so blown away with the quality of the overall sound of the system that I steeled myself to ask just how many thousands the turntable cost.
When the answer came back as "Less than one" I knew that I simply had to have it!
The following week, I dragged my bewildered boyfriend down to the shop for a whole indulgent afternoon of listening to a fine collection of records having made up my mind to buy the Nottingham Analogue Space Deck as well as the speakers within the first five minutes.
Since then, I have bought a Concordant Excelsior valve pre-amp, a pair of Doug Dunlop modified Quad II valve amps and a new speaker system comprising a pair of Resolution Quark satellite speakers on their own, individualistic stands and a complementary Powell Audio bass unit.
This latest round of indulgence has been since moving into our new house which has all the justification necessary for these upgrades, as if any were needed–a 26 feet by 12 feet through lounge-dining room.
So far, my current system has cost around £7,000 to assemble; my ambition is to get the Anna Logue deck and linear-tracking arm from Nottingham Analogue plus a pair of Unison Research power amps to complete the system.
My approach to Hi-Fi
The question I ask myself when trying to form an opinion of a system is "What does it do for me?"
My method of analysing a system is to work from the outside in, through the layers of experience from the overall emotion right down to the critical evaluation of each component of the sound.
This means that source A plus amplification B going through speakers C may sound terrific whereas substituting, say, speakers D turns the whole thing into a soggy Sunday at Cleethorpes.
This translates into buying equipment from those manufacturers with whom I share an opinion as to what reproduced music should sound like.
We seem to share a desire for the following qualities in hi-fi: realism, timing, dynamic range, openness, space, accuracy. However, far from being the proverbial "motherhood and apple pie", the reality is that they are found in surprisingly few products.
For example, I have heard many a well set-up Linn/Naim system but, to my ears, they simply don't engage my senses in the way that an equivalent one from Nottingham Analogue/Unison Research does.
Another thing I look for in hi-fi, as I do for everything I buy, is the thought that's gone into the design and styling.
This is usually a good indicator of the character of the creator and how much effort he wants to invest in his piece.
My speakers are an excellent example of this. The Resolution Quarks are made out of birch plywood moulded to look like the prow of a boat and, with the complementary wooden stands, are declared either abhorrently ugly or refreshingly stylish.
The turntables from Nottingham Analogue also show that their designer, Tom Fletcher, is interested in getting the best out of your records. Every part of his turntables is designed from first principles so it's only your preconceptions that worry about the looks.
One thing that has slightly horrified me is the amount of money you have to invest in a system before it becomes at all lifelike.
My current system is the first one I've owned where I'm at all content with the sound; at last the violins sound like wooden, stringed instruments rather than the thin, shrill wailings of a strangled cat.
It scores a few other "firsts": fitting the whole of a full-size symphony orchestra into the lounge, deciphering the convoluted counterpoint of mid-seventies Yes and finally hearing the tirade of 'f' words on the Dark Side of the Moon.
Of course, every time I visit Stephen Harper's studio I realise that my hi-fi is little better than an Amstrad midi-system and that several more thousands of pounds are required to buy something truly satisfying.
One thing I don't do is constantly play around with my system. I installed it, Stephen came round and set it up so that it was sounding really good and thus it's stayed ever since.
The minor upgrades that I have done, like Blue Feet and better valves, have always been at his suggestion.
It could be that I view my hi-fi system as a device for reproducing music in our living room. I certainly don't see it as an array of sophisticated electronic toys to be fettled, nurtured and discussed at length amongst friends.
This could also be why I'm not impressed by salesmen wheeling out This Year's Model in the assumption that I'll buy it purely because I only have Last Year's.
However, this is nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the fact that I happen to be one of life's conservatives.
And, just before you jump to any more conclusions, I am perfectly at home working in the field of Information Technology.
The Other Half
My husband and I often have fun at a salesmen's expense should we go into a hi-fi shop together as it is invariably assumed that hi-fi is the man's hobby and I'm simply padding along behind.
At first my husband was convinced that he wouldn't be able to tell the difference between a system costing a few hundred pounds and one costing many times more.
As I started upgrading he certainly agreed that each step was for the better but maintains that I've definitely gone far enough now. (Actually, if I didn't keep going down to Stephen Harper's studio I'd probably agree).
However, although he also buys records and likes listening to them on my system, it will continue to be funded entirely by me as, he points out, I don't pay for him to travel all over Europe watching football.
One thing we do agree on is that records are still superior to the Compact Disc and he can put up a most noble defence of vinyl in public.
Luckily he, too, shares a healthy disregard for gimmicks so isn't enticed by the dazzling world of integrated 'home cinema' systems and the like.
In this respect, this is the best support I can have as his tacit approval of my philosophy on hi-fi means that neither of us have had to compromise our enjoyment to accommodate the other's views.
© Copyright 1998 Rachel McKay for TNT-Audio - https://www.tnt-audio.com
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