What's this? It's available on vinyl? Ask your parents.
----John Stewart plugging the Foo Fighters new "album"
You never realize how old your audio equipment is until you try to replace part of it or get something fixed. Take the turntable pictured above. I can't remember when I got this Technics (D303) but at the time it was state of the art and Richard Nixon was President. Its virtue was reliability (no belts to break) and it runs as smoothly today as it did when I bought it. So the other day when I heard static instead of the opening song on Surf's Up, I began checking all the connections, thinking a cable had come loose or the receiver was developing a bad channel. After tightening everything I could, I dropped the tone arm again, only to watch it slide across the record. Lifting up the tone arm to check the needle for dust, I was surprised to see there was no needle left, just the cartridge. (Industrial diamonds are not for ever.)
I knew this was not going to be an easy fix. The last time there was a needle problem, I drove to the mall and a store called Needle in the Haystack, picked out what I could afford and stuck it into the cartridge. Of course today you can buy cartridges on the internet or you can ship a turntable to a repair shop. (Click here for instructions on packing your turntable.) But I no longer trust myself to wire a cartridge properly and had no idea what to replace my ancient Ortofon with (its model number no longer shows up). Maybe it would be cheaper just to buy another turntable but who buys a turntable today and how do you know what your getting if you pick up something used on Ebay?
The internet turned up no local repair shops (one place I called thought I wanted to replace the turntable in my microwave); the yellow pages showed nothing. My neighborhood list-serve yielded one suggestion (phone no longer in service) and one offer of their vinyl collection. Finally the nearby Appliance Fix-it shop gave me the number of AAA Electronics. Voila! They worked on turntables.
Turns out this was the same little shop where I had taken my VCR several years ago. It is stacked floor to ceiling with TVs, flat screens, speakers, cables, and a lot of dust. George had bad news: no needles. But he did have a cartridge. So for $85 plus labor I was back in business with a Pickering in the tone arm.
A funny thing happened last night when I decided to test it out with some well worn favorite albums. I heard new music. Turns out I had not milled the grooves into muddiness and filled them up with dirt and grit over the years. I just needed a better quality pickup. Pickering! By George, you have got it!
I have never been one who gets all syrupy over audio quality the way reviewers like to wax eloquent about the fruits and nuts they taste in wine. But I have heard the light. At the risk of sounding silly, it was like hearing the different instruments stacked one on top of another. I imagined that each recording track had its own geologic level in the groove. It was sound quality that I had not heard in my Bose systems or on XM radio. Oh, this is what deejays hear in their headphones! But I was listening through the same ancient KLH 17 speakers.
Until now, I had relegated vinyl recordings to the nostalgia category. Now I see why musicians want to record their new work on this old format. And I fear that I will once again start buying music on those big black discs.