Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Marantz '77 & Project Debut III - My New Stereo System

I've had a busy weekend, folks. My obsession with vinyl records went to the next level, as I've finally hunted down and bought a new stereo system. Yay!

For the past year, I've been using a Newmark PT-101 Portable Turntable. It's been great fun, it's a great little toy, and the price was dirt cheap - only $100. My current vinyl kick would never have happened without it. But I always knew that this would be a temporary fix, until I get the full stereo setup. And my weekend record hunt confirmed this.

I was at a vintage record shop in St. Paul called Hymie's. It's a terrific place, loaded with records of all styles and stretching back decades. It's here that I also found another copy of Black Sabbath's Paranoid. This time is was a 1976 NEMS pressing, with a label printed onto the vinyl label, "Made in Holland." I already had the NEMS reissue, and I'm quite happy with it. But I was too curious about this older version...would it be the same, or is it different in any way? I scoured around for the store record player, threw the disc on the turntable....

....Where I was completely blown away. This was fantastic! The sound was so much deeper, the guitars far more liquid. Everything blasted out like fog and shadows rising from a boggy swamp. The record included new sound effects I've never heard before, such as a guitar echo on Iron Man, and several instances of tape echo. When I was finished with side one, I finally realized just how ominous and heavy Sabbath were in their prime.

This dark, swampy groove was never present to me before, and I became obsessed with finding answers. I bought the album, of course (marking the sixth version of Paranoid I've come across); but when I played it on the Newmark, that groove was missing. In its place was something familiar, but somewhat watered down. I wanted that sound, and it the portable couldn't deliver. I needed to grab one of those old, beat-up '70s stereos. That's the way the music was heard back in the day, after all, and the music was far better then.

So back to Hymie's the next day. The store also sells stereo equipment, used and vintage, as always. I found a Marantz stereo receiver, wood grain, knobs and dials, electric blue lights. It was perfect! Today's blackened digitized stereos look so inhuman, so unfriendly. The Marantz wanted to be your new best friend. Oh, did I mention that it cost only $65?

Kids, that's a steal. Turns out that this model was the top of the line 30 years ago. I'd be paying hundreds for the same or similar stereo today. This was a great find. I also scored a pair of big speakers for $30, again a real bargain. Never discount the value of the vintage market! Another perfect example of why consumer electronics is a scam.

Dragging it home - courtesy of an older man who traveled back and forth to Texas and collected 78-RPM records - I hooked the stereo up and was immediately impressed. It's great to have a stereo again. I haven't seen one of these things in so long...since I was a teenager, I think. The age of portable CD's and computers and iPods took their toll. Doesn't help to be a poor college student, either. I was immediately brought back to my younger days, to the tunes of Tom Petty and Temple of the Dog.

Strange thing happened, then. I connected the Newmark portable to the stereo. For some reason...well, let me put it this way. Have you ever been on a date with someone new, and by accident run into your ex? It was something like that. These two musical friends of mine were not getting along. I tried to mess with the knobs and settings, and make peace with what was obviously an inferior, overpowered and muddy sound. But I knew things had to change and change fast.

When I get into one of my impulsive moods, I'm not one to sit and wait things out. I want my music, dammit, and I want it to sound just right. Scouring through the internet brought me back to the realm of audiophiles, and all their damned stereo parts. This scene is just like the car junkies. You have to piece together and hack together everything, and you'll always be tinkering away at some new gadget. Ah, well, so be it. This was the life I chose. I could have stayed with my free MP3's off the net, but I had to insist on hearing Sgt. Pepper's on vinyl...just once. Once was enough to hurl me through the Land of Oz, and now it's too late for Kansas.

Which brings me back to today. I wandered into a local spot in Dinkytown, a place called Needle Doctor. Seems they have a reputation online for bringing the goods. I walked in to see what they'd offer, expecting nothing. I came away with a brand new $300 turntable, a little beauty called Project Debut III. The guy who helped me recommended it as a budget turntable - these babies start at five hundred and only get meaner. Analog music can quickly become very expensive.

Thank goodness for the clerk and Needle Doctor. This turntable is relatively cheap, but has won numerous awards, and widely impressed those in the know as a record player that's far cheaper than it has any right to be. Goody for me.

I will say that putting the damned thing together was a trial in itself. Oh, have I mentioned that you have to basically put these things together when you get to this level? You're long past the realm of mere plug-and-play. You have to attach a belt to the motor and platter foundation, attach the platter, and then fiddle around with the tone arm, adjusting a series of weights that remind me of high school science class. All this is done so that arm and the needle won't carve up your precious records. Also, and I'm sure you'll see this coming, the needle cartridge can be replaced and switched around. More tinkering with the cars. In fact, just about every component of a turntable can be mixed and matched, and very often are. Some junkies will use one cartridge only for mono records, then use a specialized cart for the 78's. Yadda yadda.

I'm not quite there yet. But I am already planning my next move - a quality preamp, preferably one with a lot of vacuum tubes sticking out. And maybe a subwoofer for Stevie Wonder. There goes my next two paychecks.

Well, I suppose I should finally get to the point of the story, which is how it all sounds once I put it together. My new stereo system sounds....fantastic! Absolutely amazing! I've never been happier...at least not since I came back to the Dinkytown Pizza Hut in September 1999 with a brand-new Sega Dreamcast. That was another highlight. This is just the latest technological fix for the hunter-gatherers in cyberspace. There will be more.

So, if you're curious, Project's Debut III is an excellent turntable at a reasonable price. I'm thrilled with it, and it didn't break my wallet. Only dinged it a little. You'll be more than happy with one. But good luck figuring out how to put it all together....you'll need it.

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