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Stages Part 4.5

In previous posts on this subject, I’d been advancing my home stereo towards some goal of having big, energizing, musical sound.  The "final" step in the process was buying tower speakers for the amplifier.  I’ve come up with a step in between.

I was skeptical of the claims made that putting your bookshelf speakers on stands would improve their sound dramatically.  I was proven wrong.  The change was highly noticeable.  So much so, that it made me wonder if I really needed tower speakers.  At the very least, it would delay their purchase for a while.  The improvements got better when I separated the speakers from the stands with silicone buttons and added the floor spikes to the stands.  Both are things that audio fetishists go crazy over.  Not as much the spikes, but to read about the "isolation" and "decoupling" of the speaker from the stand using (only) sorbothane balls or brass spikes gets a little weary.

And I thought I had taken things about as far as I could with what I had.  One of the improvements I got with my changes was improved bass.  I could hear the bass and slightly feel it, too.  And you know, once you get a taste of something good, you want more.  That was going to be taken care of by the tower speakers, when I bought them.  But I wasn’t ready to buy them yet, because I liked what I had.  Well, I guess I wanted to like what I had more, so I had a choice to make.

That choice was whether to add a subwoofer to the system for the extra bass.  I read a lot of articles.  I researched a lot of products.  I reviewed my budget.  In the end, it felt like a "fuck it" decision anyway, so yeah.  Subwoofer it is.

Here’s the catch.  Based on what I’ve been reading, having a subwoofer is just not enough.  A very well-written article by a generally polarizing individual explained the technical reasons for subwoofer use in the 60’s, 70’s, then 80’s and beyond.  And that article, along with other higher-end articles stated pretty simply: you need multiple subwoofers.  At a minimum, you need stereo subs, because although it’s popular to say sub=bass is mono, it really isn’t.  But as long as you’re entertaining the idea of multiple subwoofers, having four is not out of the question.

Now, four subwoofers was not and would not be my plan.  But, while researching products, the subwoofer model that I settled on (due to price) did not have stereo inputs.  That would mean that I would have to buy a cable to merge the left and right channels to go into the sub.  I’m not a fan of that idea; it just seems wrong.  So the evidence is stacking up for getting two subwoofers.  The budget doubles.  So which one (or which two)?

You can get subwoofers with speaker sizes of 8", 10", 12", 15", or even 18".  I start small, looking at 8".  I need two of them.  The more I look at them, the less I am convinced.  My bookshelf speakers already have 6" drivers, and the tower speakers I was looking at for the future have multiple 6" drivers.  Is an 8" really going to provide the depth I should have?  So, I look at the 10".  That’s about as far as I will go.  There’s no way I can reasonable justify having two 12" or larger subs in my little listening room.  I wouldn’t even have room for them.  I’m already looking at compact subs because of space concerns.  But, if the future means I have a larger room for my listening hobby, then the 10" subs will be able to handle that growth.  If I do go with the tower speakers in stage 5, the subs will complement them as well.

So the retail price difference between 8 and 10-inch is $229 vs $344 – $115 dollars to upgrade to the larger sub with the bigger amp.  Because of sale prices, the prices are now $126 and $189 -  a bigger discount on the bigger sub.  Now, the upgrade cost is $63.  Still, I need two.  And after looking back and forth and back and forth at numbers in both my web browser and in MS Money, I reached the "fuck it" point and bought two 10" subwoofers.

Fortunately, the subs do come with cables, but I did need to buy two splitter cables, to send the low-level output from my pre-amp to both my bookshelf speakers and the subs.  And what have I ended up with?

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Also new in this picture is a switched power strip mounted below the amplifier, which turns all four speakers on and off.  Since all the controls for the subs are on the bottom of the units, and I was getting concerned and also annoyed by pushing the power buttons on the speakers each day, a single switch should help everything.

Now, how does it sound?  I started my test with all knobs set to the minimum and put on Rush – Signals as my first test.  I went through a few tweaks, raising the crossover, raising the input level, lowering the crossover, and back and forth between the different possibilities.  The result was nice, but not earth-shattering, nor room-shaking.  I was underwhelmed.

Then I thought maybe my choice of album wasn’t that great, so I put on Edgar Meyer – Dreams Of Flight.  Holy shit.  Now I was shaking the walls, which was actually hilarious to see the cat repeatedly alerting on the sound of the pictures vibrating on the wall.  With that album, I did a few more tweaks and lowered the levels a little.

The next test was Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever.  Being produced by Jeff Lynne, certainly this album would have a lot of things happening everywhere in it.  And I wasn’t disappointed at all from the results.  My expectations were being tempered by reality.  Where I expected kick drums to hit me in the chest, that’s not how (decent) albums are mixed.  But what I wasn’t expecting was the loss of the shrillness.  When I would turn up the stereo before, I sort of had to grit my teeth and suffer the high end to get any power.  With the subs hooked up, It was like the high end was tamed.  I don’t want to say "lost", because I don’t think it sounded any duller, just less piercing.

The last test was Iron Maiden – Seventh Son Of A Seventh Son.  I didn’t get the sound I expected, but the sound I got was excellent and very engaging.  My ears weren’t ringing at the end either, which was a blessing.  And it seemed like I was able to go louder than before, probably because I wasn’t getting ice picks in the eardrums.

I’m actually thinking there may not be a stage 5 now…

Stages Part 4

In the previous post on this topic, I discussed the stereo buildup to the point where I had a good listening system.  The next transitional step would be to physically prepare it for the tower speakers, which will be stage 5.  I had made another post about the fortunate timing of my speaker stand purchase, which saved me around $50 or almost a third of what I had budgeted.  So the items have come in and are ready for implementation.

The first piece that came in was the stereo rack.  All black glass and chrome, it allowed each component a shelf of its own, but I still kept the amplifier and equalizer together.  Quality-wise, the stand is a big meh.  I didn’t pay a lot for it, so I can’t be disappointed, but I expect at some point, I’m going to be getting a better rack.

The next day, the speaker stands come in.  Heavy steel plates and posts, which are supposedly the key to keeping bass and separation.  No disappointment here.  We’ll have to see how they perform.

I disassembled my setup and moved the current table out of the way for the new pieces.  While behind the system, I did a little wire management for tidiness sake.  This is what it looked like.

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What did it sound like?  Well, I don’t want to get into all the audio snobbery adjectives, but I will say it sounded better.  Significantly better.  Of course, maybe it’s a placebo effect, I’m not going to rule that out, but I tested out two different CDs, with widely differing musical styles and both sounded more impressive to me than I remembered before.  So I will call it a success.

What’s stage 5 again?  Tower speakers.  Well, that can wait for some time now.  I’m going to have to get tired of this new sound, which could be a little while.

Collection Completion And Expansion

I want to start off by mentioning that CDs are collectables.  There is one irrefutable reason I can make this claim.  That reason is the irrationality of the pricing of any particular CD.  While it shouldn’t be a surprise that any particular thing can be collectable and priced unreasonably high when it becomes scarce, sometimes, the outrageous prices set a particular expectation when researching and shopping.  In this way, I suspect there are a lot of dealers of collectables who will list items at outrageous prices to get people’s expectations set, then actually sell an item (maybe even as a different vendor) at a price less than that expectation, while still being somewhat unreasonable.

So anyway, this is about the last CD in a series that I need for absolute completion.  I’ve been satisfied with what I’ve had so far because those that I have are all of the retail versions out there.  The one I have been missing is a promo-only copy.  Not only a promo-only copy, which could include retail copies with a "Promo, not for resale" sticker or stamp on it, this is a promo-only version.  Obviously far less available and made in much lower quantity.  All this time, there has been one seller of this disc, offering it for $50 plus shipping.  The guy knows the scarcity.

Very recently, a new seller popped up, selling it for $30.  This guy knows, too.  And he’s looking to make a sale based on the one and only one person who has this CD in his wantlist (me).  And you know what, he almost had me.  I was getting ready to buy it when I decided to do a quick sanity check on eBay.  eBay has never had that CD before, but you never know.  And amazingly, it’s on there now.  And only $10.  It’s an immediate buy for me.  Sure, I just paid a decent amount for a used CD, but it’s been unavailable for years and has had an unflinching price of $50.  And now, my collection is absolutely complete.

Do I have other discs in my collection like that?  Yes I do.  Will I be fortunate enough to reap the benefits of scarcity when I sell?  Collectors don’t sell.  That was a trick question.

So, like I said, that completes the collection.  The IRS NoSpeak series is now complete.  The original CD collection that got me into being a completist was the MCA Master Series, which I’ve posted about many times.  Out of curiosity, I did a search to see how much of that series was available for sale on eBay right then.  That would give me an idea of the scarcity of my collection.

I would say it was maybe 50% available and of those, many were double-digit prices, so that’s actually pretty promising, from a value perspective.  But as I was browsing the results, I didn’t have any category filters set, so I was seeing CDs, cassettes, and vinyl.  But there was another product that was in the results – a promotional poster from the record label for the MCA Master Series. 

Well, now.  There’s a product you don’t see very often.  In fact, I’ve never seen one ever, nor heard of it existing.  And that would be understandable.  Posters are given to record stores and other record label contacts, are hung up until they fade or rip (or the label goes out of business), and are discarded.  No one keeps promo material like that.  But here was a surviving example.

I’ve posted before about my big artwork project of scanning, printing, framing, and hanging all of the MCA Master Series album covers as art in my house.  There should not be any doubt whatsoever that this poster must belong to my collection.  And so it became.  I don’t buy a lot of posters.  I don’t really know how much they go for.  But I got this poster for $16 shipped.  Considering the thing is over 30 years old… I don’t think that’s too bad.  It’s a decent size, also:  28" x 26".  I have a place picked out and expect I’m going to spend the big $$$ on a professional framing job.  Once stores open again, of course.

In all, this has been a spendy weekend.  But, a lot of stuff is changing in my music room.  Now stands for stereo speakers and components, a few new CDs are on the way, and a neat poster to hang in there.

It’s Never Been A Better Time To Buy…

…from someone other than Amazon.

It was about a year ago I had made a post about how I’ve wanted to try and reduce my dependency on Amazon.  For the most part, I feel like I’ve been successful.  Sure, there are still things I buy from the empire, usually quick-need things or small trinkets that they’ll ship free where other places couldn’t be bothered with such a small order.  Seriously, I’m buying an electrical wall plate for $2.50 and you’re going to drive it to my house, tomorrow, for free?!  That’s just dumb.  But I’m sure they’re getting it back somehow.

Anyway, since everyone is stuck at home, Amazon is the place for supplies now, right?  And everyone is also trying to scratch their consumer itches, too, so there’s Amazon, again.  But, if you do your research every time, you might just find that there are other options that are just as good and many times better than the empire.  Let me illustrate.

Example 1.  I’ve been without a microwave for quite some time now, maybe 8 months.  How I’ve survived without my dedicated popcorn maker, I don’t know.  But I figured enough is enough.  I want popcorn.  So I went on the hunt for a microwave that was simple and basic-duty.  The options: Amazon, Target, Sears, and Lowes.  Because I’m a brand whore, my preferred brands were Panasonic and Kenmore, which ended up excluding Target and Lowes.  But would you guess?  The winner was Sears.  Sears!  And get this – no free shipping!  But, even including the shipping (a whopping $15), the price was the same as Amazon and I still got it in two days.  Who says only Amazon can do that shit?

Example 2.  I’ve had some stereo speaker stands on my Amazon wish list for some time, just waiting for the right time to make that move.  Today, I decided to make that move.  The stands are made and sold by Monoprice, and sold through Amazon (as well as through their own website).  The stands on Amazon?  $76 each.  The stands on Monoprice?  $55.  Both with free shipping.  I work at a company that sells some product through Amazon and I know it’s not exactly a win-win to make a deal with the devil.  You may gain a lot of eyeballs, but your profit margin is going to suffer greatly from the cut they take. 

And that leads me to example 3.  eBay has become my primary Amazon alternative.  Just some simple hair product purchased today.  $18 at Ulta, $12 at Amazon, and $10 on eBay.  Ok, so I’ll get 3-day instead of 1-day delivery from eBay, but this isn’t a need-now product.  More importantly, I think it’s important to buy from eBay because it’s smaller retailers or even individuals doing a hustle.  You’re more likely to be helping people than a company.  And while eBay is a company and yes, they do take fees for their service, it’s not a egregious as the empire.  Plus there’s the whole flea-market atmosphere which has a slight appeal to me.  There’s less Ai involved, so when you find something you like and a great price, it’s because you’re smart, not because the empire’s computer knows everything (fucking EVERYTHING) about you and tossed you a biscuit.

And speaking of eBay, I need to go now and buy the stereo stand that is also in my Amazon wish list.  Same product, same price (actually 9 cents cheaper on eBay), free shipping.  Why not patronize the little guy?  Make them happy in these bleak days.  Amazon is going to do just fine.

Stages (Parts 1 – 3)

Being cooped up in the house with the COVID stay-the-fuck-at-home orders has led me to express my shopping needs in other ways.  The subject at hand is my stereo system.  An earlier post reminded me that I’ve had this goal to recapture the stereo excitement of my youth for quite a few years now.  And that’s not to say progress hasn’t been made – it definitely has.

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It started with a cheap thrift store stereo, a tape deck, and headphones.  Then a CD player was added.  Then another CD player was added.  But still, very little listening was being done.  Then the milestone of having a dedicated room for listening was reached and I cobbled a new and different stereo system together using my powered studio monitors and a new preamplifier to handle inputs and volume.  A dedicated listening chair completed the arrangement.  This setup has worked very well for over a year.

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But I’ve been envisioning the real stereo experience, with a powerful amplifier and full-size speakers to go with it.  However, in these uncertain times, I don’t want to blow a wad of cash all at once, so I’ve planned out a phased approach to get there relatively quickly.

The primary hardware to complete the goal is really only two items: the amplifier and the speakers.  There’s also some ancillary bits as well, including furniture for the hardware.  I’ve kind of been stalled on progress because I didn’t want to buy the amp and the speakers all in one go, but I didn’t want to buy either one and just have it sit unused until I bought the other.  Then, I had a revelation, which came late, but probably at a better time.

If I buy an amplifier, it would be a waste until I bought my speakers, because my existing speakers have built in amplifiers without any way to bypass them.  My revelation made me realize that although the amplification in my speakers can’t be bypassed, the amplifier circuit in the right model of amplifier could be.  That would reduce the amplifier to only preamplifier functions, just like the preamplifier I currently own.

The search was then on for a receiver that had preamp outputs on it.  And the critical decision needed to be made: do I go vintage or modern?  In my original plan, I had current, modern products picked out and a pretty large budget for them.  And now, after experiencing a number of vintage CD players, I’m not sure I need anything more modern than them.  So vintage it is.  And in keeping with my nostalgia, I’m going to choose the Technics brand.  Justly or no, Technics has a bad reputation for their 80’s gear.  There are fans out there as well, but they get shut down often by "the ones who know better".

The model I picked was the SU-V98, which has the required preamp outputs and will also be suitable for my future speakers with 110 watts per channel.  That’s actually pretty respectable as many of the amps I had been looking at were 30-50.  As luck would have it, a listing just popped up on EBay selling one for $70.  Others were priced in the $150 range, so the purchase was made.  Step one complete.

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Now, the last step in the transition will be the purchase of the speakers.  I’ll be able to run everything right the way I have it now, simply substituting my preamp for this new Technics amplifier.  But, it’s not going to be a viable long-term option.  See, my stereo setup is on a long Ikea table.  Ikea stuff isn’t known for its durability and even with only a couple of CD players sitting in the middle of the span, I can see the slightest bit of sagging happening.  Adding a 15lb amp to the table isn’t going to make that any better.  So step two in the mid-term is going to be new furniture.

Replacing the Ikea table will require a new stereo rack and stands for the studio monitors.  In the final stage, the studio monitors and stands will be replaced with tower speakers.  Since the speaker stands are only temporary, I can skimp out on them, but I should get the stereo rack with the goal of having it be suitable for the future.  However, when shopping for speaker stands, there is a clear distinction between "good" and "good enough".  That difference is the size of the mounting plate on top.  In most all affordable stands, that plate is 5"x5".  My speakers are about 8"x10".  Balancing those heavy, expensive speakers on a tiny platform 32 inches off the ground doesn’t sound appealing to me, especially with cats in the house.

That alters my plans a little bit.  It essentially doubles the budget for the speaker stands.  But, to remain positive, the stand quality will be excellent and the speakers are already excellent, so there won’t be any unnatural need to rush to the last step and buy the tower speakers.  There will be time to enjoy and appreciate the configuration as it is. 

And that’s really the plan:  to enjoy the upgrade journey.  Sometimes when you get the end result all at once, you can’t appreciate al the elements involved, because you have no history of change to compare it to.  This is really the best way to grow a stereo system.  Will it ever end?  For a lot of people, it never does.  In fact, I do know one more step I can take after "the last step".  If I find my amplifier doesn’t sound as good as I think it could, the preamp outputs in the SU-V98 can be used for what they were designed for – running an external amplifier.

A New Piece, And A Little Less Peace

After lunch today, I had the idea to visit the Cash America pawn shop.  I don’t bother much with pawn shops anymore, and it’s rare that I visit them, much less buy anything.  I have the assumption that most everything there is overpriced or has some problem with it.  Although, I do admit, I bought two Wii systems from pawn shops and those have been just fine.  That’s probably my last purchase, a couple of years ago.

So today, I browse around and ended up spying and buying a graphic equalizer for my stereo setup.  It’s made by Technics and is the correct vintage for my CD player.  The model is Technics SH-8017.  The EQ was $25, but was marked down to $20 early for President’s day.  And when I checked out, they made it $20 after tax, so even a little extra. 

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But when I went to check out and pulled out my credit card, they asked for my ID.  I said, "That’s new," and the manager said it was, because, you know.  Yeah, pawn shop.  And then, I was completely set up in their system with an account.  Name, address, phone number, date of birth, the whole works.  To buy something!  midway through, I though this wasn’t worth it for $20 and almost pulled out cash, but also considered, this was going to happen sooner or later and the sooner I can get in the system, I won’t have to do it again.

But what a weird thing, to have to create a customer profile to buy something.  Then again, is it weird?  You do it all the time when shopping online.  It is weird when buying something over a counter.  But is it?  You usually give up all that stuff when you sign up for loyalty or reward programs, too.  And it is a pawn shop, after all.  Everything behind those doors is a strange legal limbo.

But anyway, with all that behind me, I took the device home and plugged it in.  Everything worked quite well.  I noticed no additional noise when running it inline with the Technics CD player.  The only thing wrong with it is it’s missing one rubber foot (not seen in the front right), which I’ll be able to buy replacements for easily enough.  I tested out its capabilities using my CD of ZZ Top – Afterburner, which is notoriously anemic; even more so through the Technics CD Player.  As shown, I simply boosted the lower two bands and that raised the bass level to something more appropriate.

Could I have done the same with the tone controls on my preamp?  Well, yeah, but two things: first, there’s no quick bypass for the tone controls, so I would have to adjust them every time.  With the EQ, I just turn the device off to bypass it.  Second, the bass control is probably centered around a higher frequency than the lowest two bands on the graphic EQ.  That usually causes some "boominess" and is why tone controls aren’t that good for sound shaping.

I recently read a quip from a blogger whose opinion I trust and he said while using studio monitors for music listening (as I do) is fine, they tend to make the music more clinical, whereas normal amps and speakers are designed to reproduce music with a bit more excitement or punch.  So now, I have to consider if I want to go that route and if so, what amp and speakers to get.  My setup has been pretty good to me so far.  I guess it’s time to go to the next level.

Not For A Lack Of Trying

Fresh off my success of building two CD shelving units, I set my sights on what else I could do.  I have plenty of resources available to me in both time and money, so I have a desire to use both of them up.  It’s a well-established habit of mine to try lots of different things and generally abandon them shortly afterwards.  In most cases, the abandonment leaves behind some investments in the hobby.

Looking back, I have some photography equipment sitting idle.  I could certainly pick that back up at any time again.  I have a decent GPS unit from my geocaching times.  I have a vinyl cutter and heat press from the derby days.  I actually have a vinyl sticker designed for one of my cars that I want to cut, but haven’t taken that step yet.  I have a sewing machine that’s been still in the box for months planned to help me hem my curtains and maybe for some other craft projects someday.  I have plenty of power tools, which actually were used in building my shelves.  Do I have all the tools yet?  Of course not.  So when I get a fresh idea, I have to buy the tools to execute that idea.

Before the shelving unit project, I did the most basic of woodworking projects: a rack for my sunglasses.  And when I say basic, I mean it.  Literally, cutting six pieces of wood, sanding the edges and screwing them together to look like:

As time has gone on, I have grown my sunglass collection and outgrown my storage.  Now I need a bigger rack.  Fresh off my success at building shelves, I figure I can build a nicer storage unit.  I did some research and found a design that I like and I should be able to replicate.

To have someone make this for me is $132.  It’s about $10 in wood, if even that.  The construction is interesting, using joints of some kind (dado? box? rabbet?  Hell if I know).  I have plenty of tools, but the ones I have are way too robust for working with wood this thin.  First, using a circular saw on 1/4" plywood would probably just shred it.  A jig saw would probably work, but in both cases, I have to consider that I’m losing a bit of wood each time I do a cut.  When your target size is only a couple of inches and you’re sawing away 1/8", that’s a fair bit of waste.  Additionally, the holes for the joints are pretty precise.  Too much for the jig saw.  I researched using the Dremel for this, and it probably would work, but it’s not the ideal tool for the job.

The answer to these problems is another tool, the scroll saw.  I am actually not a stranger to the scroll saw.  It’s probably the first power tool I ever used, way back when I was probably about 10 years old.  Maybe I used a power drill first, but the timeline is really close.  I have no idea how the Craftsman scroll saw came to the house or if it was even meant for me.  I can’t imagine my dad bought it for himself.  Regardless, my parents had just had the kitchen flooring redone so there was a lot of scrap wood around that I was able to saw up into nothing of any interest, since I had no goals or plans.  But I did learn how to use the saw, so I will be able to apply that old, old knowledge for this project.  Humorously enough, at the time, I never knew what the saw was called, so when I eventually broke all the blades, I couldn’t get any replacements because I couldn’t explain the device to the hardware store people.  All they offered me were jigsaw blades.  And with no blades, that ended my time with the scroll saw.

Scroll saws don’t have to be expensive, but they can be.  I bought the cheapest one I could find for $115 since I was not someone who would require a $500 tool to make a $10 sunglasses case.  The other tools I would need are a drill and I think I’ll be using files to square off the holes and make the openings precise.  I have both of these needs covered. 

While I’m waiting for the saw to be delivered, I planned out my design.  The design I’m copping needed the sizes boosted a little bit to accommodate the cases my glasses would be stored in.  Even so, I can still get all the pieces out of one 24"x24" sheet of wood, with a second sheet for the back.  Total size: 14" x 14.75".

So, to recap.  This is a $132 handmade item.  I’m spending $115 on a new tool and maybe $10 in wood.  I’m going to spend less money, test and expand my crafting skills, plus acquire a tool that I can use at any point in the future (like my camera, GPS, vinyl cutter, or sewing machine).  That’s what a hobby should be about – acquiring skill and junk.

What I’ve Heard Thus Far

I had mentioned in a previous post that I had a thing for buying cheap CD players, the reason for such was to compare the sound of each and see if I was able to hear any real difference between makes and models.

Well, this is what I’ve got in my collection right now:

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From top to bottom:

  1. Technics SL-P330
  2. Scott D980
  3. JVC XL-V311
  4. Onkyo DX-701

Of these four players, the ones that get the most play are the Technics and the JVC.  The JVC has a little bit better bass and the Technics, in the opposite way, has a brighter sound.  The other two, the Scott and the Onkyo, have a similar sound, which I feel is a little dulled.  The Scott has an additional handicap in that the display can display either the current track or the track time, but not both simultaneously.  All but the Onkyo have support for indexed tracks, and the JVC will show the current playing track and index.  I have yet to find one of my CDs that has indexes, though.  Still looking…

All four have headphone jacks; the Technics and the Onkyo have headphone volume controls, which is great.  All but the Onkyo can be run by remote control, and I purchased remotes for the Technics and JVC.  In both cases, the remotes were twice as much as I paid for the player.

And on the subject of cost, each player cost me less than $10, and each player was originally $150-$300 when new, so this is not an expensive endeavor.

Spending Money On A Silly Idea

One of the more dangerous things in this world is a man with extra time and extra money.  A danger to himself and to the world at large.  If it’s not an actual, you know, danger, then it’s just stupidity – a different kind of danger.  Semantics aside, I have some extra time and some extra money and wanted to get an answer on something.  With the entire knowledge and experience of the Internet failing me, or at least failing to convince me, I set out to get my own answer.  Am I going to change the world with my soon-to-be-found knowledge?  Fuck, no.  It’s so trivial, it hardly even matters to anyone.

To even appreciate what I am seeking, you have to be pretty involved in my hobby of CD collecting.  If you’re not, then the rest of this post won’t even really interest you.  Further, you have to be fairly experienced with technology and computers, otherwise, this won’t really make much sense.  So, warnings provided, now for the explanation.

In the early days of CD manufacturing, some CDs were pressed with “pre-emphasis”, which is a special equalization.  CD players as part of their manufacturing specification had to be able to detect pre-emphasis and apply a reverse equalization (de-emphasis) when playing back these early CDs.  Sounds pretty simple, right?  Over time (actually very quickly), pre-emphasis use was discontinued, so all CDs today don’t have pre-emphasis anymore.  That’s fine for the general public, but somewhat of a nuisance for early CD collectors like myself.

Now that you understand the situation, here is the problem in a nutshell: CD players – and especially computer CD-ROMs – do not have the capability to detect pre-emphasis anymore.  So if you play back an early CD, you do not get the corrective equalization applied to the music, which makes it sound thin and harsh.  This also applies to CDs that you rip on your computer.  There are software plug-ins that can apply de-emphasis to the files after they have been ripped, so the problem can be somewhat mitigated.  But aside from using your ears, because the CD-ROM cannot detect the pre-emphasis, you can’t know for sure if the CD you ripped has pre-emphasis.  Again, not a problem for anyone but early CD collectors.

And so what I am looking to know is:  I want to be able to detect pre-emphasis on CDs in my computer.  Thus, my project.

I’ve discussed the CD history, now for the computer history.  Early computer CD-ROM were literally mini-cd-players.  They had a headphone jack and a volume control and some even had a play button in addition to the eject button.  Additionally, on the back of the drive, there was a jack to run the audio from the CD drive to the computer’s sound card.  These old drives played audio CDs in analog.  They had build in DACs (digital-to-analog converters), but you can be pretty certain they were not of the quality found in home stereo CD players.  Still, because they were doing the digital conversion, they also had to support handling pre-emphasis.

As technology moved on, pre-emphasis was no longer a concern and also, Windows began reading the audio from CDs digitally.  So drive makers dropped the headphone jack, dropped the DACs and dropped analog output completely.  It made the devices cheaper and audio could be read at the drive’s full speed instead of the 1X speed of analog.  Technologically, a great step forward.  But in the process of simplifying the device, they removed the capability to read pre-emphasis at all – it wasn’t needed.

But now, I want to get an old CD-ROM that has a DAC and analog output so I can hopefully detect pre-emphasis when ripping a CD.  The problem is that all those old drives use the IDE interface, which is long, long obsolete.  Computers now use the SATA interface.  But that’s only a stumbling block because of course someone has made an IDE-SATA interface converter.  So, technically, everything is still possible.  I don’t have to go to the extreme of building an old Pentium computer from parts salvaged from the 90s, thank god.

Naturally, EBay is the order of the day.  Because this project is only for curiosity, I’m buying stuff as cheap as possible.  For $16, I have a 19-yr old CD-ROM and an interface kit coming by next week.  Then it will be a challenge to see if I can get my computer to see the new (old) drive, then it will be a challenge to see if the ripping software will talk to the new (old) drive, and if it does, will the drive report the pre-emphasis information to the software.

So, there’s still some unknowns.  For the $16 I’ve spent, I’ve purchased a lottery ticket for either frustration or a jackpot of, “oh, neat.”  What will I do with this incredible information?  Well, obviously, I’ll share it whenever I can.  It will be a good data point for my posts on Relative Waves and I’m sure some other collectors would like to know which CDs have pre-emphasis.

Road Trip In ATL

Over the weekend, I made a road trip up north to Atlanta to see some friends and explore some shops for CDs.  Before I left, I did some research on places I wanted to visit.  As is my default, I used Bing.  A lot of people dismiss Bing as useless, but it’s probably for the same reason that I dismiss Google – I just don’t use it.

Bing Maps has a neat feature where you can save places into an itinerary, and it will create driving directions automatically from the list.  This is what I came up with for Saturday’s run.

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The downside to using Bing Maps is that it’s not part of Android Auto, which is how I do the navigation in my car.  In the interest of being fair about the routing capabilities of Google vs. Bing, I took a look at Google maps to see if I could have done the same thing there.  What I found was that you can make a custom list of places, but you can’t automagically turn that into a multi-waypoint drive.  I suppose you could keep the list open and work your way through the items, choosing each in turn as the next destination.  So, it’s just a different way of accomplishing the same goal.  I’m not going to say "Google sucks, Bing rules" because that’s just stupid and we should all be more adult about this.

On one of the stops at CD Warehouse – a chain store that has been bankrupt for almost two decades; I have no idea how these ones are open – I found a CD to purchase.  It was a Japan pressing of an Eagles compilation.  I identified it as purchase-worthy because of the smooth case that had "Patent Pending" embossed on it.  These are some of the first CDs manufactured, when the jewel case was still a new invention.

I took the CD to the counter, paid and left the store.  After leaving, I snuck a peek at the CD and realized it was a common US pressing.  I was disappointed but unsurprised.  CDs can certainly migrate between cases, especially in a store that probably has a dozen of each title at any time.  I chalked it up as a buyer-beware failure on my part and moved on.  Later in the evening, I was looking at my whole day’s spoils and realized that the Eagles album was not in a smooth case.  I had been given a totally different CD instead of what I chose from the rack.

So I began debating if it was worth the effort to go back and demand the item I had chosen.  Would it still be there?  Would the staff just roll their eyes and say, "fuck off"?  Would I get the replacement and have it be no better than what I already had?  Was it worth the drive anyway?

I decided it would be worth the effort, and planned to go before driving back home on Monday.  My friends convinced me it would be better to try on Sunday because of workday traffic and were willing to sacrifice some of our day together to accomplish this.  So, with the store’s closing time quickly approaching, we set out for the store with the replacement.  We made it in the last 15 minutes.

I went to the rack and quickly found the same smooth case I had originally picked – they had simply put it back after I left.  I went to the counter and plead my case.  I had been rehearsing how to explain that I wanted this specific CD and not just any CD and had planned to try and be technical without being condescending.  At the most extreme, I would have to show them my Relative Waves website that explained the difference in CD masterings.  In reality, I was pretty awkward about the whole explanation, saying that I got a different CD, but it was the same, but it wasn’t the same.  Good job, Dave.  Way to explain it.

The guy at the counter said, no problem.  He went to the computer and scanned the old CD and my purchased CD, then retrieved the actual disc that was supposed to be in the case.  As he placed the CD in the case on the counter, he said, "there you go, Japanese pressing."  And at that point, I knew that he understood.  I didn’t need to say anything more than thank you.  And I left with my early pressing album.

Also on the list were some antique malls.  In my area, people seem to treat antique malls as consignment shops and as such, you can find people selling their personal CD collections (which technically could be antiques).  However, in this area, antique malls are filled with actual antiques.  Not of any benefit for CD hunting, but still a fun and interesting experience.  I did find some tiny décor items for the house, so it wasn’t all bad.

And finally, the thrift stores.  This is actually my second round of thrifting in Atlanta.  The first time was a long series of disappointments and this one was generally a shorter version of the first.  It just makes me more grateful that the thrifts in my area have some decent selection of CDs.  Maybe there are more collectors in Atlanta keeping the thrifts bare, who knows.

But the trip was not supposed to be about me and my hobbies anyway.  It was about the company and the experience.  In that respect, it was top-notch.  There’s plenty to be grateful for in spite of any success or lack of success in my hobbies.