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Grappling with Modern Audio Times (and Prices)

Paul Wilson compares times past to the audiophile hobby today…

I remember it well. Today, I attach a measure of nostalgia to what in times past was a fun adventure. Audio systems were such a simple thing. They consisted of some type of amplification, speakers and most commonly, a turntable. In those days I called them records, today they are usually called LP’s, or some iteration of the term “vinyl.” 

AR-ModernTimesSmallFormat.jpgIn those days in what now seems like a lifetime ago, obtaining records was easy. There was a drugstore within walking distance of my parent’s house that sold records. When I got an after school job at that same drugstore I was able to really start building my record collection. Most I purchased, and a few, I’m ashamed to say, were pilfered. In what can only be considered poetic justice, I had about half of my albums stolen from me in my sophomore year of college – and why not, it was probably one of the best record collections on campus. And the process of building my collection started again, this time exclusively through purchase. 

Buying records was not considered some glorious adventure in those days. It was little more than simply getting to the record store. If one had a car, the process was made vastly easier as places to purchase records were plentiful. In my hometown, which was certainly small in size, there were scores of places to buy albums and even several audio stores. It was a simpler time and when compared to today, was probably an easier time to be an audiophile. 

Contrast that to the modern era. Yes, sonics have vastly improved. In my own personal audio adventure, I am now able to afford the system about which my fifteen-year-old self could only dream. I also have the benefit of age and wisdom to be in possession of a superior level of knowledge about the hobby than I did forty-four years ago. However, it seems somehow different today than back then. 

Choices. Audiophiles almost rejoice at how many different ways there are to obtain and play high quality music. In the digital realm there is physical media and of course, all the streaming and download options. Imagine what the 1970’s audiophile would have thought of that. 

AR-Choices.jpgDespite the essential technology being what, more than seventy years old, the quality of analog playback has made dramatic strides forward. From the turntable itself, to the cartridge, to the phonostage and even the cables to connect them all, analog playback is unarguably at its zenith.  I cannot help but wonder what a 1970’s audiophile would think of analog playback today if they somehow missed out on the last forty-five years. I sometimes wonder which of my selves had it better, the 1970’s audiophile or the one today. 

While choices, particularly in digital, are making modern day audio more enjoyable and certainly better sounding, it also makes things perceptibly more involved. When the digital choices of today are considered, all of which engender ongoing debate, I cannot help but wonder if the dramatic increase in choices may make things more difficult? 

When analog is added, and bear in mind that it is a separate function with separate components entirely from digital, it not only increases the choices that must be made, it also increases the difficulty in making those decisions and also the cost. 

Naturally, the prices of equipment these days makes all audiophiles long for the 1970’s. Why should that be so surprising? We all would love to pay for the things we use today a cost based on a time that was more than forty years ago. However much we would love for that to happen it is simply wasted effort to do so because, inevitably and obviously, costs do not go backwards, they rise. 

AR-RecordCollection.jpgI’ve also noticed how fast technology seems to be changing. Most obvious is in the digital realm, however analog has also seen technological advancements. When you further consider the nearly revolutionary strides made in speaker design, not to mention amps, preamps, phono stages, cables, racks and the industry as a whole, then the modern day complexity of the audiophile hobby becomes clearly focused. 

Again, choices, and the possibility that they may make things more confusing. While the simplicity of an amp, speakers and a turntable in the 1970’s has been lost to a myriad of different equipment design disciplines, are we better off now as compared to long ago? 

I still have my first system purchased in 1972. I haven’t played it in years, rather I just continue to drag it around to every residence in which I’ve lived. Call it a nostalgia thing. I wonder what my 1972 system would sound like when it was at its best, back when it was new, as compared to a system of equal design and cost today (comparing it to my current system wouldn’t be fair)? Have all the choices and technological advancements brought me any measure of heightened enjoyment? 

I can’t even begin to answer that question. I loved listening to my system in the early 1970’s. I was always on the lookout for new music. I longed for the newer, better and more sonically relevant equipment. Surprisingly, or maybe even not surprisingly, I can say the exact same things about the audiophile hobby in modern times. It makes me wonder how far I have really gone. 

It seems patently obvious that audiophiles will continue to have new, and possibly exciting choices to make. The way in which we actually play music may change but the desire for new music to play on a system will remain. It is part and parcel of the audiophile hobby. I may struggle to adapt to some of the more modern and, albeit, popular technologies –  streaming comes to mind – but I continue to love the audiophile hobby. Just as I have since 1972. I don’t see that changing anytime soon. 

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