Looking for hi-fi in all the wrong places

I’m not sure which is the more embarrassing interest of mine to admit to, automobiles or audio. Tell someone you’re a Car Guy, and folks automatically think you’re the held-back twat backfiring on the overrun out the driveway every morning at 6:30, or one of the legions of stunted children teeming in Instagram and YouTube comments sections, simultaneously loathing BMW owners and anyone else who loathes BMW owners. It’s why I’m more of an old fire truck kind of guy anyway.

Tell people you’re—and I despise using this word more than the sound of babies crying on airplanes or people eating with their mouths open—an Audiophile, and people leave the room. The not-unfounded association is with that of insufferable Golden Eared anoraks, spun up on speaker spikes and wire that costs more than the GDP of the Seychelles, who pontificate on Fletcher-Munson curves and Thiele-Small parameters while also using terms like “distracted” and “Byzantine” to describe the sonic signature of a USB cable and never enjoying anything. I can’t with you fucks.

I, however, like to enjoy things, and I’m not made of money. The same set of circumstances got me into instrument repair, back when I couldn’t afford to pay anyone to do anything. Now look at me. Things being what they are, low-budget but high-quality has been the guiding principle since I was given my first set of fried-egg Smaller Advents by a neighbor and jacked my parents’ old Scott receiver as a young teen. Run what ya brung, the old racers said. Make do with what you’ve got, and if you can’t, make do with what you can get. Don’t fall for the bullshit. And most of all, like the Duke said, if it sounds good, it is good.

As an old East Coaster, I took a steadfast liking to the East Coast sound: KLH, Advent, AR, anything Henry Kloss ever laid his hammy hands on. Smooth, buttery, inefficient. One of my most transcendental audio experiences in memory was finding an original pressing of The Carpenters’ “Close To You” at one of the beloved Boston record shops—In Your Ear, Cheapo, Looney Tunes, I don’t remember—spinning it on a secondhand turntable I’d scared up, through a Kenwood KA-3500 amp I bought off a woman in a wheelchair in Braintree, into a set of mighty KLH Model Sixes that I’d restored, and playing Track Nine, “Crescent Noon.” My jaw about made it to China. Karen’s voice leapt out of the drivers and landed in my lap and tickled my neck. The harmonies swirled like they were being drawn into the Hoover Dam. I felt like the guy in the Maxell ad. This must have been what Jimi was talking about when he asked if I’d ever been experienced.

I kept that setup for quite a while, but certain components came and went at different times. The KLHs got sold to Mike Mackey just before I left Boston for LA. The Kenwood amp ended up with Rama. Various Wharfedales, Hitachis, ADSs, you name it, drifted in and out of my audio orbit. As more money came in, the quality of components trended upward, but never into the woo-woo bullshit realm. In the last few years, though, I’ve found a tao of audio that has yet to be fully colonized by well-heeled hipsters, unscrupulous flipsters, and frustrated middle managers spending their way to happiness: old pro gear.

No one wants old pro gear. I don’t mean vintage outboard signal processing or instruments, because everyone wants that stuff. I mean old monitoring and PA equipment. Passive studio monitors, PA speakers, power amps, things from before today’s era of brilliant self-contained powered speakers. Actual sound reinforcement and recording professionals have no reason to mess with separate speakers and amps anymore, and home audio dorks look down their noses at lowly work-a-day pro gear that isn’t made of spun unicorn dung, so you can get great stuff cheap. Things like old Crown, BGW, and Bryston amplifiers were built to quality standards that would shame any “boutique” manufacturer, with the mandate being to simply take the signal that’s coming in and make it louder. Nothing added, nothing taken away—or at least as little as possible. A simple concept in theory, rather more difficult in practice, and in my mind, the central—nay, the only—tenet of this pursuit of High Fidelity.

Here in Los Angeles, the local craigslists and Marketplaces and OfferUps are lousy with bedraggled Captain Eds offloading their Santa Monica sheds full of road-tested Crowns and Crests and stories if you’ll stay and listen. When around 2018 I decided to get back into the low-buck high-fi pursuit, I couldn’t help but notice this embarrassment of old pro gear riches for the taking, and dove in. One such geezer whose name escapes me sold me a Crown D-150A Series II power amp, and later, what would join the short list of things I will be buried with: a set of Camber 3.5ti monitors. No one except a few hardy Canucks have ever heard of them. Forged in the Canadian National Research Council’s testing facilities and used by the CBC for decades as their standard studio monitor, it was everything I’d been looking for in a speaker wrapped into one. Detail, depth, midrange, reasonable efficiency, accuracy without being dull, I absolutely love them. Driven by a good, powerful, no-nonsense, professional-grade amplifier like the Crown Com-Tech 810 that now serves as my main stereo amp that I got from Guitar Center for about eighty bucks, you’ll wonder why you’d spend thousands on any tarted-up snake oil. Mine even have CBC property tags on them, so who knows, they could have once been used in the production of The Red Green Show or SCTV.

During that circa 2018 wave of gear buying, I snapped up a set of 1990s-era Bag End TA-12 PA speakers from an old drummer friend in Van Nuys to use in the shop. Bag End is a legendarily clever, engineering-driven company, and these speakers were no exception. “TA” stands for “time aligned,” and I won’t go into what that means (you can read about it and the iconic engineer behind it and these speakers, Ed Long, here), but suffice it to say, they’re awesome, and I think I paid less for the pair than what the coveted Electro-Voice ST-350B “baby cheek” radial horn tweeters inside them are going for on eBay these days. Paired with a nice old BGW 250C power amp from another bloke, they made a wonderful, if over-qualified, critical shop test rig. Even in that setting, down on the floor playing raw tones off a Hammond tonewheel generator or music from a freshly-rebuilt amplifier, they always delighted me with their spooky horn-loaded detail and unreal efficiency. They had this certain…je ne sais quoi. Like so many great things in history, they were built to an engineering specification and a vision, not a price point. They stood for something.

But it wasn’t until earlier tonight that I really found the Yellow Brick Road. In a fit of manic ADHD motivation apropos of nothing, I got the notion to move the Bag Ends into the main living room system and give them a try there. Why not? I removed the set of KLH Model Thirty Twos that were serving as the “B” set beneath the Cambers, dusted the shop schwag off the Bag Ends, and put them in. After Sarah finished watching Harry Potter and went to bed, I threw on the Steely Dan.

This was it, man. This was just what I needed. This was the Tao, the Way, the True Vine. I’m really going to try not to stray into the dreaded audiophile anorak stilted language tropes here, but bear with me. The almost surreal detail and immediacy flowing from the EV horns, the top-to-bottom completeness of the sonic picture, the dynamics, the heft, the realism—from PA speakers. Who knew? The audistas will surely excommunicate me for this. I flipped the speaker switcher back and forth between the Cambers and the TA-12s, and each time the difference in the presentation was more surprising than the last. This isn’t to say that I don’t still adore the Cambers, I certainly do. But man, these are everything I imagined they could be, and more. Another league. They sound good. They are good. And since they’re so massively efficient (103dB/1W/1M), they’ll undoubtedly play very well with the little Monarch SA-614 stereo tube amp I rebuilt not long ago as well.

As I write this, I’ve had everything from Rodney Crowell to the Squirrel Nut Zippers to CSNY playing through the Bag Ends, and with Sarah asleep and needing to keep the volume low, they have been egging me on, teasing me, begging me to feed them the onions from the big Crown, yearning to sing out. They are PA speakers, after all. Maybe tomorrow night. So why don’t you go out looking and see if you can’t find audio love in all the wrong places. Just leave some for me.

Author: Bunny Butler

I'm the last of the good old-fashioned steam-powered trains.

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