Time was, and it’s well within living memory, that the nicest thing you could say about an audio amplifier as found in a high-fidelity system or “stereo,” was that it was “a piece of wire.”
That meant that it took a signal, made it more powerful, and sent it on to the speakers, neither adding anything nor taking away anything. It was a goal that some very good amplifiers approached but none utterly achieved.
Oh, for those warm sunlit bygone days!
High-fidelity at the time extended to stereophonic configuration — a mixture of sounds from speakers at the left and right that when adjusted just so produced the sonic illusion of a stage and the ability, aided by closing one’s eyes, to pick out where on the “stage” a performer or instrument was located. There were purists who claimed that stereo adulterated the experience. There were other purists who insisted that the left and right speakers each required its own discrete amplifier. Still others believed that there should be multiple amplifiers, one for the high notes and one for the lower notes. I have no doubt that somewhere there was someone who believed there should be separate high and low amplifiers for each speaker. The only effective treatment for such a person was and is bankruptcy.
A close friend of mine at the time had cooked up the best hi-fi system I’d ever seen or heard of. He built his own speakers, using drivers (the speakers themselves, without the box and electronics) from the James B. Lansing Sound Co., known today as JBL. He experimented with all kinds of amplification, most of it from or based on products from Sony Corp. Some of my favorite music I came to love when hearing it on his stereo. (The one that stands out is side 2 of Neil Diamond’s “Taproot Manuscript,” which I still think is some of the finest sound, both in quality and content, ever committed to vinyl.) He went for audio purity at a time when the Bose company was getting oohs and ahs from boxes that contained a whole bunch of mediocre drivers that squirted sound all over the place.
(So great was his dedication to high quality sound reproduction that he invented a product called the Discwasher. It ultimately made him fairly rich; he and his partners sold the company not long before the CD craze sent vinyl records into the deep decline whence they are only now emerging.)
As is typical of my passions (and sometimes it is the source of those passions) I made and make a point of hanging out with people who know more about any given subject than I do. This results, sometimes, in my learning things. I learned a little about high fidelity sound reproduction and the piece-of-wire standard. In due course, when I could more or less afford it, I bought an excellent Yamaha stereo receiver and, my pride and joy now as then, a set of Polk Audio Model 10 speakers. (They are sometimes referred to online as Polk “Monitor 10” speakers by people who do not know what they’re talking about.) Even then (as now, in some extreme setups), what were called “components” could include a separate radio tuner, pre-amplifier, amplifier, and so on, but I concluded that this would lead only to madness and chose a receiver, which combined those things.
The Yamaha was as close as you could come at the time to a piece of wire for less than the price of a new car. The Polk Model 10s were (and are) marvels. You could pay 10 times their price and not get speakers as good. How good? They’re effectively unbiased in their response from less then 20Hz, which is just about as low as a human can hear, to frequencies useful only to dogs and bats.
The Yamaha gave up the ghost after 18 years. I’ve carted the speakers along with me everywhere I’ve lived for the last 45 years and they’re still going strong and are still unsurpassed.
When the Yamaha died, 30 years ago, I gave it to someone who thought he could fix it — I don’t think he ever did — and got a Nakamichi AV-2 receiver. Its specifications weren’t quite as close in the piece-of-wire criterion as the Yamaha was, but it had some new and interesting features.
Chief among these was that it offered “Dolby Surround Sound.” This involved five speakers — my existing two Polk masterpieces, plus one positioned between them and a couple that were to be positioned behind me as I listened and viewed the connected television. It seemed like fun, and it was more or less understandable despite its Mighty Wurlitzer of a remote control, which I never fully understood but never needed to fully understand.
I was happy with the Nakamichi, but last year while I was enduring the bad bug it developed a hum, a very annoying hum sufficient to drive me to turn it off and live with no audio except that from the terrible built-in speakers of the TCL television. Once upon a time there would be places where you could take things to have them fixed, but those days seem to have gone. So a couple of weeks ago I looked for a replacement.
It came in the form of an Onkyo product, the TX-SR393 receiver. I’d considered an Onkyo receiver when I got the Yamaha, but knew little about the company which sounded to me like just another good-enough Asian brand name of which there were and are many. A little research now revealed that Onkyo has made quite a name for itself in high-end audio. So I got the company’s lowest-price receiver, which differed only in some features from its more expensive but still affordable models. But for its cleaner amplifier and some upgrades that correspond with the direction home audio has taken in the last 30 years, it is a good replacement for the Nakamichi. And a refurbished unit was about $250, which is not much in modern hi-fi terms.
Back in the Yamaha days, things worked like this: get the receiver, attach the speakers (for which there are several methods, none convenient), attach other components such as turntable, tape deck(s), later a CD player, plug it all into the outlet, and turn it on. You’d then chose the source — radio, turntable, tape machine, etc. — and the volume and you were pretty much done. You could increase or decrease treble or bass. There was usually a button labeled “loudness,” which would boost bass. Almost no one knew what it was for, which was to boost the frequencies most likely to be lost when the system was played at low volume, and those who did know never used it. But young persons used it to crank the bass as evidence of the quality of the green leafy substance they were simultaneously consuming. That was pretty much it.
By the time of the Nakamichi some things had gotten added, primarily in the form of circuitry to handle television audio. The one automatic circuit was called Dolby Pro-Logic. It took a specially encoded two-channel signal and made it a four-or-five-channel one. If you selected it, television shows broadcast in “surround sound” would provide audio that was then distributed among all the speakers. The Nakamichi (and others, I’m told) had adjustments that would apply digital delay and other alchemy to any audio signal, so you could make your phonograph records sound like they were being played in a large, empty hall or some other venue. This was fun for about 15 minutes and would impress friends, but I never found any other use for it.
Now, with the Onkyo, I felt as if I needed several advanced degrees in engineering, acoustics, audiology, and probably other fields just to set the thing up.
Right off the bat I noticed the absence of some things that were once standard. There is no turntable input. There is no provision for tape recorders or cassette deck. In the former case, a record player can be attached if there’s an intervening pre-amplifier. Fortunately, my turntable, an Audio Technica that I got because it also has a USB cable so I could easily move songs from out-of-print records to CD, has a switch on the back that brings an internal pre-amp to the party. Absent some additional equipment that I only imagine exists, there is no way to connect either of my tape decks, the cassette and the reel-to-reel. So they’ve joined the Nakamichi in storage, in my rapidly expanding obsolete technology museum.
Everything much worth doing with the Onkyo happens via HDMI cable. The signals from components you attach to the receiver come in via HDMI. There is one special HDMI plug, called HDMI ARC, that attaches to a correspondingly special plug on the television set. Not just any HDMI cable will do, though. You need a special one, called a “premium” cable. This of course has become fertile ground for scammers, who have populated online sales sites with cables called “premium,” in the sense of being very nice, but that do not meet the official premium (poorly named, I think) standard. I now own a couple of those. (I received refunds but the sellers didn’t think they were even worth returning.)
With the proper cable, we are told, magic can happen. Just so, but it’s not easy.
If you have the right cable plugged into the right socket on the television at one end and the receiver at the other end, you can configure what’s called CEC. This supposedly lets you control the receiver via the television’s remote and vice versa. As a practical thing, when it works at all (which it does on my setup) it lets you turn on both the TV and the receiver and adjust the volume from either remote. This does not, however, reduce the number of remotes you need to keep next to you, because each has its own special controls. I achieve my modest success in getting it to work by spending a little over an hour tracking down and altering settings on both devices. (They do not make it easy: the Onkyo manual, for instance, devotes its first several pages to updating the firmware on the receiver via a USB connector stuck around back. This information is not comprehensive, however; for instance, it doesn’t tell you where you can actually get the firmware upgrades, nor the numbering convention that might let you know whether a version you find online is new or not (such as the one I found on the Onkyo “Asia and Oceana” website). HDMI, configured, sends a piece-of-wire signal from the television to the receiver, where it becomes all that it can be.
In fact, setting up the thing was (and continues to be) a nightmare. I am not exaggerating when I say that I spent most of a day on receiver settings and remain less than confident that I got it right. There is a little microphone on a long cord that came with the unit; you are to place it on a tripod at ear height in the place you sit when watching or listening, then run a program that adjusts the balance and frequency range among your speakers. This, to my surprise and satisfaction, worked. I think. I can’t speak for anyone sitting anywhere else in the room.
Then it was a matter of selecting listening mode and relaxing as the system filled the room with glorious sound.
But wait — listening mode? Oh, yes. Receivers, not just those from Onkyo, now have an embarrassment of riches — well, an embarrassment of something, anyway — of various settings to handle the many different audio encodings from various media. You might think that these things would be detected and selected by the receiver, but apparently not. Here is an article I found that attempts to simplify it all. Mission failed, but mission impossible — it can’t be simplified.
I’ve gotten to the point where I can make something I’m watching sound good in under half an hour of fiddling with incomprehensible settings. I celebrated this by watching the excellent third movie in the KonoSuba series, and the result was breathtaking, in a good way. The sound truly filled the room, and “ex-PLO-si-ons!” sounded like explosions. But nothing about it was easy.
Then came the CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player. I got a Sony unit, also refurbished, for cheap. I figured I would plug an HDMI cable to the corresponding sockets on the player and the receiver and that would be it. Ha!
After an hour’s work I got the player, receiver, and television to recognize each other, but it’s a complicated procedure that needs to be repeated every time I want to use it. It took a couple more hours to fight my way past Sony’s marketing department and convince the player that no, I do not want my DVD player to connect to the internet and no, I do not therefore want the advertisements Sony has sold to various streaming services so that they would appear on the “home screen” of my DVD player. (Sony, like so many other companies but not, so far, Onkyo, has sold its soul. There’s even a button on the player’s remote labeled “Netflix,” to which I do not subscribe; the button cannot be re-assigned to do anything useful, just as the four useless brand buttons on the Roku remote can’t be reassigned, but at least Roku has the defense that it never had a soul to lose.) The player’s configuration then led to more incomprehensible and often contradictory settings, to say nothing of the ones that conflicted with those in the receiver. (Compare this to tape decks and earlier CD players: plug ‘em in and you’re done.) I hope oneday to play a DVD on the device. I did get it to play aforementioned KonoSuba movie, which has become my default test standard, via a USB plug on the front of the player, and via a setting in the player (and an identical setting in the receiver, though I have no idea which one had control) it was upscaled from 1080p high definition to 4k even higher definition, and the effect was stunning.
So, after several days of concentrated effort I have achieved a hi-fi and television system that looks and sounds wonderful a small percentage of the time, if I’m prepared to spend as much time twiddling the settings as I will watching and listening.
I look around and see that vinyl records are making a comeback. Old stereo equipment in good working condition commands premium prices. No one has improved on my Polk Model 10 speakers.
I think I know why. It’s because hi-fi in the modern age has become a preview of Hell.