My lo-fi “reference” system

As recently as a few months ago I had pretty much decided to give the final ax to my audio system. It had been a few years since I formally reviewed anything and decades since I worked in the high end, with the exception of my ongoing distribution of Harmony Design. Then I hedged a bit and considered dumping everything except for my beloved REGA P3, which I hope to keep and enjoy forever, and a yet-to-be purchased phono pre and headphone amp. For speakers, I had intended to go pro with something like a pair of outstanding Adam A7X. Pure simplicity.

But then, there’s always a then, have you noticed, I began to wonder if I could go forward by going backward, at least for now? Backward meant old. The REGA is old, the Rotel RA-1062 is old and I’m old. I’m on a streak. My first step towards old was a pair of passive speakers. Sure, the fantastic Role Audio Enterprise were taking a nap in my closet but are too big for the tiny room and the Rotel could never quite excite the Role’s bottom end. I started scouring Craigslist and you all know how that can be. One ad kept calling out to me, but I did my best to ignore it. It was for a pair of truly ancient Canton Karat 930 DC. Canton is a German company. They had tried to follow ADS into the US but they could never quite pull it off. The Karat has lot of what I need, especially a front port and not too much bass. These guys had to be able to make nice with a wall pretty much right behind them.

Charmingly enough, the pair on CL had a very fine hairline split that I wanted to see before I parted with my hard-earned $65. Yup, $65 for the pair. The guy who was selling them was a good guy, getting ready to take a new job in North Carolina. He said he was into ADS and had dreams of restoring the Karats Seen but unheard, I handed over my $65 and took them home.

The ECC/EU requires that binding posts not be spaced at .75″ so those silly Euros don’t plug and ungrounded AC cord into the inputs of their old Rogers LS3/5a. This leads them to use some non-standard (read: dicey) speaker terminals. The ones on the Karats secure enough but still I resolved not to test their integrity with spade lugs. Bananas! Old speakers love bananas.

Problem is that neither of the speaker cables I had on hand (both of which cost between seven and ten times what the Karats cost) used the lowly banana. As is so often is the case, the answer lay with thinking with the brain I used so in 7th grade. So, I ambled over to Home Depot and picked up a 12 foot, 16 AWG extension cord and got out the scissors. Voila! Two 6′ speaker cables.

To match the low-fi street cred of the rest of the system I also had the REGA downgraded. Not downgraded exactly, but I did send my Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO III to be restored which meant I needed a new and cheaper cartridge in the meantime. Since the REGA had been shimmed for the BPS I decided to go with another Sumiko, the MM Rainer. All of you MC guys can sneer but this little guy sounds great and tracks well. Installation was a snap but my hands are not as steady as they used to be.

The Karats are perched upon some no-name, MDF stands I also found on CL. Hey, they only wanted $22 for the pair but being the kind of guy I am I gave the seller $25 and told her to go out and have a party. That’s the kinda guy I am. I’ll admit that I intend to buy some carpet-piercing spikes for the stands. Until then, I just have to hope that the cat doesn’t think about how fun it would be to leap onto one of the Karats and send the whole thing, cat and all, toppling into the REGA. That’s not if but when. See Murphy’s Law.

Does the whole shebang look better in B&W? I didn’t think so. The headphones are my Beyer-Dynamic DT-990 Edition and my ancient but well-preserved Sennheiser HD-600. The HD-600s have done more international than I have, although that’s not saying much. They’ve been to Sweden, to help voice the Harmony Design, and Singapore when I tried to get an old friend of mine to distribute Harmony Design.

He didn’t go for it, but that’s Ok.

Have I owned my last high end system? I really don’t know. I do know that my lo-fi reference is fun and musical. Still, I am having some proper speaker cables made. I just know the extension cord is choking the Karats.

Golden ears never rest.

My lo-fi “reference” system

February 1: Analog and, damn, but January went by fast

pCloud actually finished the digital upload. It didn’t finish on time, but it did finish. So, today I moved the first of the LP AAC files onto pCloud. Files seem to move quickly when, even though the files are large, the number of files are relatively small. I had one early LP that had a skip producing a skip that pissed me off. Since I was familiar with the record I was surprised to find the visibly-evident smudge. Once I found it and cleaned it the LP was fine.

This miniature misadventure got me thinking about analog, especially about the LP. As I have said before, I have no nostalgia or happy feelings toward the LP. They sound better but they are a pain in the ass. There’s no dispute about either end of that sentence, at least to me.

The thought did move me to consider all of the turntables I’ve owned in my 60 years. I need to back up first to my brother’s Acoustic Research AR XA which I am guessing he bought in 1969 or thereabouts. I do not, sadly, recall the cartridge. That was the first analog rig that allowed one to hear into the recording in a way I’ve not generally been able to recreate with any digital equivalents. I was only 8 or 9 then I think it was another handful of years before I bought my first table at Fedco, a BSR. It didn’t sound very good but I liked it anyway. By then, the XA and even the XB were long gone or wildly reduced in quality by whatever forces affected such changes in the early 1970s.

Still, I used that BSR happily until I found a seemingly ancient Empire 298 Troubadour with a poorly-matched Infinity Black Widow arm. The arm was far too low in mass to work properly with the 298 and it took forever to find the proper belt but it sounded pretty good. Again, I do not recall the cartridge but I do remember that the rig was befouled by relentless acoustic feedback and a stubborn ground-loop hum that only my brother, John, was able to chase down.

I then went Japanese, first with an entry-level Technics SL-20 and Empire cartridge that I bought, new, in like 1975. It sounded excellent but suffered from feedback and rather surprising wow and flutter especially since it supposedly used a synchronous motor, so let’s be charitable and blame the speed issues to the drive belt which always felt a bit stretchy.

What next? Well, I’ll have to think for a bit. Holy shit, I remember, even though I would rather not.

It was the Harman/Kardon ST-7 Rabco. Oh my god, the promise. Oh my god, the horror. Straight-line tracking. How do you do better than that? Tell me, how?

I had three of these in the late 1970s, though I do not recall the faults of the first two that resulted in the third. I can only say that the dealer was as unhappy as I was. To say they were casually, tending towards carelessly, assembled would be kind. Yes, the channel balance was superb. And, yes, the speed precision, considering one motor drove two belts (the one that drove the platter and the one that drove the arm) was quite good. But, feedback was horrendous even with the most conscientious placement (another room, more than twenty feet away).

As another reviewer wrote about a pair of Jason Bloom’s Apogee speakers, the ST-7 was a glimpse of heaven and a look at hell, all at once. But, that glimpse of heaven was hard to forget.

A couple years later I bought my first REGA product, a Planar 2. Nirvana. It didn’t sound as good as any of the previous tables I had used yet somehow it sounded more right than any of them. Plus, it worked. It was free of hum, had impeccable speed control and keep feedback at bay. Later, I bought a Planar 3 that I used as a reference while many far more expensive tables made their way into and out of my listening room. The most impressive were the tables from Franc Kuzma, first the Stabi and later the Stabi Reference. Yes, it helped that I was working for the distributor at the time. It also helped that the distributor also brought in the amazing cartridges from Dynavector in Japan.

Ah, Kuzma and Dynavector. Would anyone ever imagine that a Slovenian turntable and a Japanese cartridge would work so well together?

Well, they did.

Hey, wait just a second. I’m way beyond my daily word allotment. I’m going to have to finish this tomorrow. For all of you who care about my analog evolution, please drop by tomorrow. For those of you who don’t care, well, I will leave that decision up to you.

Thanks for reading.

February 1: Analog and, damn, but January went by fast

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

Originally published in an old blog of mine way back in 2013

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult if not impossible to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was a very unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and, even needed, to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly all the way from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, just hanging out with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we often did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi Reference and Dynavector XL that was back in Valencia were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but then I realized he was building it for me.

“You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.”

Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA.

Brooks always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?”

“Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.”

“Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, he got out his price sheets (on paper, of course) and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so mail me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out that I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would simply do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me as if it were a breeze. I miss not playing very many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great.

Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I really don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say that he was a friend of mine.

My Fond Memory of Brooks Berdan

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO

I have a lot of fond memories of my old friend, Brooks Berdan. In my early days as a reviewer, he was always kind enough to loan me gear for review that would have been difficult to get my hands on otherwise.

Later, when I consulted to Music Reference and Muse Electronics I learned what a truly fantastic dealer Brooks was and how hard he worked for his customers. Brooks was an unusual dealer. He had a national reputation, but did virtually no business over the phone (let alone over the internet). Brooks was the rare dealer who wanted and even needed to know his customers before he would do business with them, let alone separate them from their money.

Brooks loved tube gear and faithfully represented Music Reference and RAM Tubes like no other dealer in the US. His loyalty had its perks. Very often, I would hand deliver his orders directly from Santa Barbara, especially when he was ordering a lot of tubes or a one-off product like a hand-made RM-9 Special Edition.

Of course, hanging with Brooks was a special pleasure. We could talk music, or gear, or motorcycles, or the challenges of making a marriage work, for hours at a time, and we usually did. Back in 2003, when I was going through my divorce, I dropped by Brooks’ shop one afternoon. I was giving him the summary version of where things were and mentioned, in passing, that it had become tough to write reviews since I hadn’t taken my analog rig when I had moved out of the house. Brooks looked up from what he was doing and asked me what I needed. I told him I could get along fine with a simple set up and that the Kuzma Stabi and Dynavector XL that was back in Santa Clarita were loaners from the distributor anyway.

Without a word, Brooks vanished into his storeroom and emerged with a boxed REGA P3 under his arm. Brooks asked me if I liked Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO. I told him I’d never been a huge fan of the original but had never heard the naked EVO version. “Well,” Brooks said, “try it. It’s a lot better than the old one. If you don’t like it you can always try something else.”

Up until that point, I figured Brooks was setting up the REGA for a customer, or as a demo, but I realized he was building it for me. “You know, Brooks, cash is a little tight right now; this whole divorce thing doesn’t come cheap.” Brooks shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, pay me when you can.”

For the next hour, Brooks lovingly set up the REGA and the Sumiko. He did his work with a level of care that would seldom be afforded to such modest gear, but that was Brooks. For him, it didn’t matter if he was setting up an SPj La Luce or a REGA. He always took his work very seriously.

When he was done I said, “Thank you, Brooksy; what do I owe you?” “Don’t worry about it, just send me what you can when you can.” “Brooks, come on, I’m not that hard up, what do I owe you?”

Grudgingly, Brooks got out his price sheets and said, “OK, my cost on this is like $600, so send me a check for $500 when you can. Make the check for more than that and I won’t cash it.” Then, Brooks looked at the REGA and said, “Divorce is hard. You know what I’d like to ask my ex? Was I really that bad?”

I don’t have a guess about what Brooks was like as a husband, but I know he was much more than a business associate to me, he was a friend. On that day, I had no intention of asking Brooks to help me out. It turned out I didn’t need to, Brooks was the kind of man to recognize a friend in need and would do what he could to to help.

The other day, I was thinking about that now-aged REGA, and how the decade had just flown by me like a breeze. I miss not playing many records these days. I listen to music every day, usually on my iPhone, occasionally on my small system at home. But, it has become the rare day when I have the time to play an LP and I miss the sound, the life and the pure joy of it. I’m sure the suspension on that old Sumiko has gotten a little dry and hard, but it still sounds great. Someday I may have to replace that cartridge but I don’t want to…

It was set up by the all-time master of analog, Brooks Berdan, and I’m proud to say he was a friend of mine.

The Legacy of my friend, Brooks Berdan: My REGA P3 / Sumiko Blue Point Special EVO