Monday, November 23, 2009

This year has been full of changes in the circumstances under which I listen to music. In January I shipped all the records I had kept for years at my parents' house in California back to my home in Western Mass. Having all those old records to listen to anew was great, and after some 20 years of having my collection split across a whole continent it was gratifying to have it all in one place.

And so it was until some time in September, when one day my turntable decided to die on me. I hadn't had it for all that long - I think I bought this particular turntable, a moderately priced Technics (paid around $200 for it), about 5 or 6 years ago. The problem seems to be with the motor, since it just stopped turning, but I'm no mechanical expert so I have no real idea why it broke.

I knew that I couldn't live for long without a turntable. But I was surprisingly indecisive about what I wanted to do about the situation. My dilemma was straightforward enough: I wasn't sure if I wanted to try to get the broken turntable fixed or just buy a replacement for it. Within the first few days after it stopped working, I explored my options. I went to the local high-end audio store, where I found some really nice looking new turntables that were much more expensive than any piece of stereo equipment I'd ever bought. And I went to the more cost-effective store where I bought the turntable that broke several years earlier, where they had a pretty lousy selection of new turntables but said they could probably fix the old one.

(As a side note, neither of these places are big chains, and I'm lucky that living in a town as small as Northampton, I actually have a choice as to where to look to buy a new turntable without going online.)

Then, I froze. For two solid months I remained undecided as to what I wanted to do. The dilemma became complicated because it somehow transformed into a lifestyle choice, not just a practical matter. Did I want to save money and fix my serviceable old turntable, or did I want to splurge on a new piece of equipment that was probably better than I need for my listening purposes but that would be of higher quality and (hopefully) more reliable? I could afford the more expensive turntable without any great financial strain, but it still seemed an extravagance, and yet at the same time, given that listening to music is both my greatest pleasure and integral to the work I do, would this really be a frivolous expense?

As those two months went by the inconvenience of not having a working turntable at all became more and more apparent. Every time I looked at my records I felt a pang of regret that I couldn't play any of them. It also became a challenge to prepare for my classes, since much of the music I've been teaching this semester is stuff that I own on vinyl. I found myself having to bring things to my office on campus just to listen to them, rather than listen in the comfort of home (one of the perks of being a music prof is that I have a full stereo set-up in my office, including a turntable, courtesy of Smith College).

I finally resolved my dilemma and reached a decision a couple weeks ago, and I kind of surprised myself. I decided to go high-end, after years of resisting the notion that stereo equipment needed to be more than serviceable. So, I bought a Music Hall MMF-5.1 turntable, highly rated by all the audiophile sources I've been able to find, and got it for the princely sum of $800. It's a nice piece of equipment, and there are times when I'm able to convince myself that I can in fact hear a difference listening to records with it compared to my old $200 machine. But I'm playing it through my old, cheap JVC 30 watt receiver that I got back in 1983 (it was my 16th birthday present from my parents), so I'm sure I'm not hearing it at its optimal level of clarity. And there's the rub - it's hard to go just a little high end; one good component deserves another.

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