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Vinyl review : Time-Life Great Men of Music series

One way to enhance your hipster cred is to feign interest in the high arts, so what better way than occasionally listening to classical music? Classical music on vinyl at that…

Time-Life Great Men of Music LP Boxsets
I own 8 out of the 13 pictured

Much of my LP collection started out as stuff my parents previously owned. Nearly all of the classic punk and new wave I own once belonged to my dad, but I also claimed the classical music he got via mail-order back in the early eighties. These were from the Time-Life Great Men of Music series, which consisted of 4 records each from all the major classical composers. Each set had the composer’s most famous works (e.g. Symphony No.5 for Beethoven, Rondo alla Turca for Mozart) but also had some of their lesser known pieces. The full series pretty much covered everyone from the Baroque to the early Modern period (Bach to Copland), but my dad only had 8 of the 30 box set.

The records come in sturdy, attractive boxes with anti-scratch sleeves and a booklet containing the history of the composer and notes on each included recording. Many of the recordings are sourced from the well-regarded RCA Living Stereo series. Internet research later backed me up, but I had originally suspected this when I first played the Living Stereo SACD of Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto and found it…somehow familiar. Sure enough, they are the exact same recording.

The overall sound quality of the records is pleasant and mellow; as I write this I am listening to Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto #2, which flows smoothly from the speakers while demonstrating a well defined soundstage (that is, every instrument has a discernible “place of origin” emitting from the speakers that mostly corresponds to how an actual chamber orchestra is set up). Mozart’s piano works are crisp and believable , if not a tad bright, while Beethoven’s Fifth is immersive and effective. The recordings aren’t always perfect though, some of the tracks, like Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, aren’t true stereo but are “electronically reprocessed” , which I personally don’t like but YMMV. Some of the speedy glissandos in Chopin’s Etudes kind of smear together, but I suspect this is a weakness of my system rather than the recording.

These boxsets are a great way to start a classical collection, and they seem like the kind of thing you could score from a yard sale, thrift store, or Craigslist. Amazon has just the Beethoven set starting at 22 bucks, but if you’re more of a completist then eBay has most of them, unfortunately sold separately.

Final scores:

Music: A

Sound: A- to C+, depending on each recording.

Vinyl records versus CD = what do hi-fi lovers prefer?

Vinyl vs CD

An endless debate has raged among audio lovers since the introduction of the Compact Disc in 1982. Detractors of the format complained of a “harsh”, or “bright” sound and stood by their vinyl records as the truest form of music reproduction. Those in the CD camp extolled the format’s ease of use and setup, lack of pops and clicks, no need for extensive cleaning procedures, and the fact that they could hold more music.

Both sides had valid points; early CDs did not sound very good for many reasons. The first CD players released used inferior decoding equipment and frequency cutoffs, fixed in later players by better circuitry and processors. Additionally, recording engineers in the early days of CD were not used to mixing and mastering for the format, hence the unpleasant sound. As for vinyl, the drawbacks are still clear: dust and dirt affects the sound, the grooves eventually wear out, and the frequency response is slightly more limited. Not to mention that turntables can be fiddly, complex things to set up (although some people like them for that).

My opinion on all this is that both formats are equally valid in anyone’s colleciton, and like pretty much anything in hi-fi, it’s all up to the listener’s personal preference. My vinyl collection is currently bigger than my CD/SACD library (and my MP3 list is bigger than both, more on that some other time). My preference for vinyl or CD depends a lot the type of music. Jazz and classical seem to fit CD better since there is a lack of surface noise, which can be distracting with quieter instrumental pieces. Rock music is more at home on vinyl, partly for the “authenticity factor”, but also because louder instrumentation tends to cancel out any noise caused by debris on the record.

But what I like the most about vinyl is the artwork. It’s much larger, bolder and overall nicer to look at than the tiny renditions squeezed onto a CD booklet. For example, the artwork on the CD version of The Grand Wazoo is cramped and compressed, but on the vinyl version’s cover you can see much more amusing, Sergio Aragones-esque detail.

So for hi-fi newbies, there is no need to throw out your CD collection. If you’re looking to start a vinyl collection, a good place to start first would be a local thrift or charity store. The records are usually incredibly cheap, but the drawback is the selection (hope you like Barbara Streisand or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!) and the physical condition of the records is often quite poor. But at around a buck a pop, its not a huge loss if you take one home and find it unplayably damaged. Within all the crap, there are hidden gems at these stores; recently I got the first two volumes of The Beethoven Bicentennial Collection (by Deutsche Grammophon) for 20 bucks. It includes all 9 of his symphonies and were in great condition.

More debate and discussion on Vinyl vs CD from Google Answers

My current system and how I got there

I first got into hi-fi in my senior year of high school. I had already been a bit of a video/home theater geek, so the extension came pretty naturally. My first setup was some hulking Aiwa minisystem and a Denon automatic turntable. I soon decided that the Aiwa’s onboard CD player was woefully inadequate so I hooked up some cheap Hitachi DVD player that had a 24/96 upsampling DAC (pardon my jargon so early in a beginner blog!) and used that to play discs. Overall, the sound probably wasn’t that bad, but in my mind it was still nowhere near hi-fi.

I eventually saved up enough to replace the weakest link in my system – the speakers. I went to the area hi-fi store and after laying out my budget and requirements, he left me alone in a listening room to A/B compare two candidates. I settled on the Energy C-1, a neat little pair of bookshelf speakers that I still use to this day. That summer after graduation, I managed to get my first full time job that I held for a few months before I started college. Instead of saving my money wisely, I went kinda nuts and put most of my earnings into building my system. The ugly, cheap minisystem I had used as an amp was replaced by a NAD C320BEE , the Denon was put away for a Pro-Ject Debut II, and the DVD was put back to DVD playing duties to be replaced by a Sony SACD changer.

Save for a few cable changes and vibration isolation tweaks, my system has remained mostly the same since then. And i’m pleased with the sound…mostly. There’s a lot more that can be done. My next big purchase will be speakers, which I feel are always the weakest link in any system. The Energys have served me well over the years, but it’s time to move up to floorstanders, mostly for the better overall frequency response, but also cause they look cooler! I’m thinking of the Polk Audio TSi400 , as it is nearest to my budget right now. When and if I get them, i’ll be sure to post a review.

It’s interesting to note that nearly every piece of equipment in my system is no longer manufactured. For example, the entry level NAD integrated amp is now the NAD C326BEE which is practically the same as mine performance-wise but has additional features like a line-in jack on the front for MP3 player hookup and a subwoofer connector.

Here’s a couple pics of how my system looks now (yes, my listening room is really bare right now, i’ll fix it, I promise!):

Full list of equipment used:

Amplifier – NAD C320BEE

Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut II

Phono Preamp – NAD PP-2

CD/SACD Player – Sony SCD-CE595

Speakers – Energy C-1

Vibration control – Vibrapods (under turntable), Vibrapod Cones (under SACD)

An introduction

I guess it’s appropriate for my first ever blog post to explain what this thing is all about. I created this site with the idea of promoting hi-fi audio as something anyone can afford and enjoy. Hence the tongue-in-cheek name “hi-fi hipster”, as i’ll cover equipment that one could afford with, say, their trust fund money or Starbucks paychecks (i’m half-kidding here).

Too often hi-fi and the audiophile world is ridiculed as the anal-retentive hobby of aging white males with too much money. People scoff, and with good reason, at turntables that cost more than a Mercedes E-Class, $485 volume knobs, and bags of magic rocks that enhance your system’s sound..somehow. How could these possibly be better, they say? Isn’t an iPod good enough?

Indeed, most of this stuff can be chalked up to placebo effect, conspicuous consumption, confirmation bias, and “the rule of cool” (and these are all topics that i’ll cover in future posts). But in a world where people are mostly content with listening to their music through the medium of 96kbit/s MP3s ripped from overcompressed CDs, good 2-channel stereo sound is a sadly dying art. This is why I decided to make this blog; to prove that enjoyable sound can be had for a reasonable price.

This blog is also a learning journey for myself, as I only got into hi-fi about 5 years ago. My current system is modest and my LP collection remains fairly small. I plan to document any changes to to my equipment I make, as well as reviewing new recordings that I get (as well as old favorites). I think this will present an unique perspective, as I’m not a seasoned audiophile like professional reviewers, who have listened to millions of dollars worth of high end equipment.

And since I haven’t been at this for very long, I make no claims of being an expert. At this point, I could barely tell you what a decibel or signal-to-noise ratio is. But I have learned a few things, and I can give recommendations appropriate for anyone getting into this hobby. If you take exception to anything I post, feel free to leave a comment, so I can learn, and so others may too.

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