Wednesday, Oct 24 2012 04:53 PM

SCOTT COX: I'm stuck in the '90s -- at last

By The Bakersfield Californian

I have successfully built myself a time machine. And it didn't require a DeLorean, or gyroscopes or coiled tubing. All I needed was a few bucks and a couple of lucky breaks.

I'm a music fan. The old-school kind. And, like all real music fans, I like it to sound good. It's also important to note that I spend a lot of time in my garage. There's always something that needs fixing or tinkering with, and I do a lot of it. The garage is also a great place to hide out from the family for a while. So it just makes sense that it's a great place to listen to music.

I had a kind of low-fi shelf system out there for the last 10 years or so, and the CD player finally stopped working. Everything else on it still worked fine, but I destroyed it trying to fix the CD player (I didn't say I was good at fixing stuff, I said that I enjoy it). It was at this point that the idea for the time machine was born. My destination, though I didn't know it at the time: the 1990s, when everything was bigger, including one's sound system.

I started off with manageable ambitions. I decided that I'd salvage the speakers and just get an amplifier to hook up to them. Then I could plug my iPod into it and produce perfectly acceptable audio for my work area. So I called my dad, who is about one or two pieces of stereo gear away from being on an episode of "Hoarders." I like to make fun of his habit, but it sure comes in handy when you need a digital coax cable at 10 o'clock at night and you live 10 miles from an electronics store. Besides, he has a better selection than Best Buy or Radio Shack, and very friendly credit police.

So I called him up and asked him if he's got a plain old two-channel amplifier that I can "borrow." He said he'd see, which means that he'd rummage through the amp section of his storage shed. He called back and said he had just the thing. (Keep in mind that the system I had before was worth about $50, and produced all of about 5 watts per channel. Literally. So a slightly-less-terrible 10 watt Chinese receiver would have been a nice upgrade.)

But I was operating in Dadworld now. I walked into the kitchen, and he handed me an Adcom GFA-545: 200 watts of extreme hi-fi awesomeness. I tried to explain to the old man that this was the biggest case of overkill in history, but then I remembered who I was talking to, got my stuff and split.

Here's where the time machine part kicks in. You could go to most electronic stores these days and ask for a two-channel amp, and they'll just stare at you. Because they don't have it. They can sell you a receiver with 5.1 channel Dolby Digital audio, because they know what that is. But real hi-fi is long gone, at least here in Bakersfield. Once upon a time, you could go to your choice of several really good stereo shops in town, but they've all been big-boxed out of existence. Plus, people don't care about quality sound anymore. Everyone is happy to listen to their overly-digitized music through their home theater sound systems.

And that's too bad. We have truly traded quality for convenience, like we almost always do. Well, not me. And not my dad. We're members of the hi-fi resistance movement.

I ran home with my fantastic Adcom amp, which, like all proper audio gear, weighs 32,000 pounds. I plugged it in, hooked up the cheapo speakers from the old system, and dialed up some Creedence on the iPod. Good enough for garage audio, but only just. I figured that the problem must be the lack of tone control that comes from plugging the source directly into the amp. IPods aren't designed for that. So I hopped on the old eBay, and looked for the solution: a pre-amp. And I immediately lucked out. The natural partner of the Adcom GFA-545 is the GTP-400. You don't need matching gear for stuff like this, but when I dreamed of owning gear like this back in the '90s, I always wanted the proper set. I got the preamp for $70. Seeing these two beautifully designed pieces of American-made audio technology was fantastic. I felt like I was a rich person, but in 1995. Time travel achieved.

I connected the whole rig up with cables I nicked from my dad, and fired it up. Better sound, and lots more knobs to adjust. Sweet. I listened to Dire Straits while I washed my wife's car. By the time I got finished, I knew there was a problem. I had an amazing amp setup playing through terrible speakers. It's just the garage, so I should just accept it and move on, right?

Within a week I was obsessed.

Here were these gorgeous pieces of equipment, handcrafted by master technicians in New Brunswick, N.J., and I was allowing their pristine signal to be voiced by a $10 pair of Chinese speakers.

Lucky for me, my infallible memory for gear kicked in and I remembered a pair of Paradigm Mini Monitor speakers I spotted 10 years ago when I was helping a buddy move to Oregon. They would be perfect. Turns out, he still had them and they could be mine for a little horse-trading. I knew that he wouldn't want cash, and he knew that I didn't have any. As it turns out, there was a piece of gear I had that he thought he couldn't do without, an old guitar effects pedal that I'm pretty sure I got for free. I felt like a master deal-maker, a hairless, rural Donald Trump.

When the UPS lady showed up with my speakers, it felt like Christmas.

And here's where the whole plan came together: This thing sounds incredible! How can audio technology from nearly 20 years ago sound so much better than modern stuff that is so much more complicated and expensive? I think maybe that in the mad scramble to make better equipment to play movies on, real music gear fell through the cracks. All I know is, I have a stereo rig in my garage that sound as good or better than my home theater setup, and it cost me a total of $81, including freight.

I thought back to the '90s, when this stuff was all the gear of my dreams, and remembered the CD player I couldn't afford at the time. It was an NAD, and back when CDs were relevant, it was state of the art. I Googled it, and found one in the "vintage audio" section at a Goodwill store in Seattle (yes, you can shop Goodwill online, and I highly recommend it.) I got my dream CD player for $11.

I am just amazed at how great it is to sit and listen to great music through vintage gear. Stevie Ray Vaughan never sounded so good. Most of all, it's time travel anyone can afford.

And this doesn't apply to just music. I recommend that you find something that you really wanted back when you couldn't afford it and quest for it. Find it and buy it on the cheap, and see if it doesn't bring you just as much satisfaction as it would've back then. Or more. And if it's electronics, new or old, and you need cables to hook it up, call me -- my dad has everything.

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