$7,000 CD Player? It's Worth It to These Audiophiles
And why 78 records may sound better than a new compact disc
BOSTON — Clark Johnsen is looking for a lost needle.
"We'll find it," he says, as his crisp baritone voice, rolls around his Boston studio. He gently pokes through clutter, lifts some electrical cables, and even searches the floor. Stacked on shelves all around him are rare, old 78 records in brown sleeves.
Suddenly he finds the needle and slips it in a 1957 GE cartridge.
Johnsen is a high-end audiophile, a member of a cheery league of immoderate zealots who will spend $20,000 for a pair of handcrafted speakers or $7,000 for a CD player - all in pursuit of absolute purity in listening to recorded music.
He's about to experience the second-most ecstatic moment in an audiophile's life - playing a 78, CD, or LP on expensive equipment for an eager listener. The most-exciting is to hear the sound for the first time on their brand new equipment.
He puts a 1936 Pablo Casals recording on the turntable. The needle settles onto the record. And deep strains of cello warm the room.
For some audiophiles, rhapsody comes in hearing the clearest tones. For others, the fun is simply in the dazzle of playing with high-end technology. And many will tell you it's just a little ol' hobby. But don't believe it.
Real audiophiles don't rush to Radio Shack for sales. With all due respect, that's low end.
No one knows how many are out there, but the Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association puts annual sales at between $1 billion and $1.4 billion last year in the United States alone, up 7 percent since l996.
At Johnsen's Listening Studio - the exact proportions of Boston Symphony Hall for superb sound quality - a visitor can order all kinds of high-end equipment ranging from $40 demagnetizers to speaker cables priced from $200 to $1,200.
Visitors can also meet Johnsen, an ebullient ex-physicist who worked on the optics of various space programs before becoming a full-time audiophile. "It beats stamp collecting," he says.
He also entered the realm where enthusiasts spend endless hours and dollars perfecting sounds. They also compulsively share unlikely "tweaks" to improve sound performance. Polished stones put under turntables, quarters and dimes placed on the corners of speakers, for instance, all allegedly bring better sound.
"Some of these things work," says Johnsen, shrugging. "I've given up not trying them."
In his studio, five strategically placed chairs face his two VMPS speakers (a mere $7,000 for two). The sounds often coming out of those speakers illuminate one of his passions: old 78s played on today's high-end equipment.
"Play a 78 on a high-end rig," he says with booming voice, "and you'll be more convinced Pablo Casals is sitting here with his cello than you would be with a Yo Yo Ma CD or LP. And if you want a string quartet or a piano in your living room, its 78s all the way."
78s: Scratchy, yes, but real
Audiophiles often enter into heated, if good-natured combat over issues such as Johnsen's extolling of 78s, with their many justifications rooted in technical nuances.
Indeed, other audiophiles say Johnsen is in the minority on his conclusion about 78s, but few discount him entirely.
"When Clark says there's gold in them thar 78 grooves he isn't completely wrong," says John Atkinson, editor of Stereophile magazine, the logbook of the industry. "Seventy eight records always had a lot more information on them than could be played on players of the time."
Alas, shellac is the main ingredient in 78s. It's a material that produces more noise than vinyl or CDs. "So it's the noise level, and of course the sound is in mono," says Mr. Atkinson.
Indeed, some extra noise - partly due to nicks and scratches from 63 years of handling - are an irritant above Casals' notes, but the bass is deep and sure, the strings clear.
With your eyes closed, you figure Casals could be somewhere in the room, scratchy, yes, but there. Next comes Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong with many fewer scratches.
"Surface noise is there on 78s," says Gene Pitts, editor and publisher of Audiophile Voice magazine. "It depends on the listener as to how irritating it is, and Clark can listen past it."
Johnsen asserts that as complexity evolved in the audio world, playback capability improved overall, but recording quality has all but regressed even with CDs and vinyl LPs.
"Technology back then was simpler for 78s," he says. "There was more of a direct line from musician to the record, and only one channel and a ribbon mike. You had one tube amplifier, and no mixing consoles, and none of today's equipment to muck it all up."
Mr. Pitts disagrees. "After all," he says, "materials engineering has progressed, but whether 78s will sound better than a good LP played on high-end equipment, or on digital systems, I don't think so."
To settle some of these sound-quality issues or what is the best playback equipment - and to determine if it's possible to achieve nearly perfect sound reproduction - Johnsen says the "will" is lacking in the industry.
Unlike many other industries, the audio industry has no standards for quality.
Yet despite his defense of 78s, Johnsen clearly sees the sound scratches on the wall. "Let's be practical," he says.
"CDs are convenient and available. That is a big selling point. The answer is to improve the CD medium where it is at least the equal of the LP."
The final showdown
But to prove his point about 78s, Johnsen's wants to persuade the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) to offer a kind of public retrospective of its recordings.
In 1917, the BSO was the first orchestra ever to make recordings.
"I have three of those records in mint condition," says Johnsen, "plus many more from other years."
Johnsen wants to create a symphonic feast in a hall somewhere in Boston using the old records as the first in a recording progression - tapes, digital, LPs, etc. - of the BSO from past to present.
Of course, all this played on exquisite high-end equipment.
"Is this a fabulous idea or what?" he asks, followed by a cackle of delight.
"I promise to make the digital recordings sound the best I can, but I think what will be the case is that the peak of BSO recording will be the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony of l936. If RCA Victor wants to bring master tapes, okay, but that would be the only competition."