Listening on the extremes

Extremes. I love them.

I joke about it in my blog description about Manchester and Malaga.

But I’ve just realised my two main formats for listening to music couldn’t be more different.

I love vinyl. I love my turntable (a Thorens TD-150 MKII – with a Shure M97xE cartridge and a superb hand-made Japanese SAS JICO stylus – that I’ve spent many hours modifying, seeing as you asked).

I love the raw beauty of analogue. A belt-driven platter going around at constant speed. The stylus resting on the vinyl – with just the right amount of force – working its way through the groves inevitably towards the centre, sending a tiny signal from the turntable into a valve pre-amp (which is both a phono stage and a line-in preamp, best of both worlds – and heavily modded internally too), which boost the signal enough to send it on to a Pioneer A400 amp and out to a 1970s pair of B&W DM5s (and, since today, also wired to a sub for extra bass).

The warm glow of the tubes just feels (looks?) special. And you can have lots of fun changing the tubes in valve amps (tube-rolling, as it’s known) to get a different type of sound.

Using vinyl is like smoking cigarettes or taking drugs. It’s not just the listening, it’s everything that goes with it – the whole process. From tweaking turntables and matching equipment, letting valves warm up, sourcing records, cleaning them, taking them out, and generally having to make quite an effort to get the aural result.

And I’m limited to what I have. I tend to only either buy records I love (or sometimes records I think I’ll love), or if I come across lots of cheap ones I might buy in bulk but that’s very rare. And it means I have some utter crap I really need to get rid off…

I can spend hours going through second-hand vinyl looking for a few gems.

The point is I don’t just buy records for the hell of it. Generally it has to be something I really, really, want on vinyl.

And once I have an LP on, I listen to it. No jumping around from song to song, or artist to artist. No playlists. No suggested artists.

Worst case, I might decide not to put the other side of the record on (mid-70s Bowie springs to mind – surely everyone’s are worn out more on Side A?) But in general, if I put an album on, I listen to the whole album before deciding what I feel like listening to next.

Digital is completely different. I’m not talking about sound quality – although I’m now using TIDAL with its HIFI option which is a world-away from Spotify etc and I can highly recommend it.

But I’ve just realised the absurdity of the extreme between the effort (and reward) in vinyl, compared with how I now play digital files.

Because the Mac Chrome TIDAL web site isn’t very good, I now use my iPhone to steam music from TIDAL.

So I now use a device – originally designed so I can make and receive phone calls when I’m out of the house – to play my music on my home system.

My phone is connected to my home wifi network. My internet connection in Spain is wireless too (it goes from an antenna on my roof to a bigger antenna on a ‘nearby’ mountain, and then out to the wider internet).

So the path alone from the TIDAL servers to my phone is crazy enough. But then once it’s on my phone it starts another journey.

It then goes via AirPlay to my Apple TV (actually I have a new Android box that also has airplay so I may ditch the Apple TV, AirPlay is about all I use it for now).

Then, still in digital form, it goes out via the optical cable to a DAC. Only then is it finally converted to analogue (a DAC is a Digital to Analogue Converter). Wow, that’s a lot of miles my music has travelled! A lot of effort, but this time not mine.

From there it goes to the same valve pre-amp that my turntable goes in to (hence the benefit of the line-in I mentioned earlier), through a pair of tubes which gives the sound some warmth and smoothness, then to the Pioneer A400 and out to the DM5s and sub.

And I love it. I love TIDAL (all music streaming is great, TIDAL is just the best quality at the moment).

I love being able to go from artist to artist, song by song. I might listen to an album too, sure. But often I just want to jump around. Maybe going down memory lane, or maybe just going randomly. Whatever. And all from the comfort of my sofa, without having to get up and take a record out, clean it, etc

As long as what ends up in my ears sounds good and makes me feel better, that’s all that matters.

Yep, I love extremes. And I love music.

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