It's gone now, lost to the ages: the mid-'70s Rotel RX-402 receiver that I bought with money I'd saved from — wait for it — delivering newspapers.
That machine, pumping classical music and jazz and soon "underground" rock from the thin lineup of FM stations that the disco-decade yielded, delivered warm, rich tones through my open-air Sennheiser headphones. A few months later I'd add a Pioneer turntable. Speakers would have to wait.
I joined the Columbia House Club. ("ELEVEN RECORDS FOR A DOLLAR!") I hung out at the shitty record store in our shitty suburban mall. I bought every Zeppelin album, every Yes album, everything Floyd and Bowie and Clapton put out. I discovered weed, punk rock and beer — in that order — and learned how to clean the seeds out of the former by using the center V in my copy of Frampton Comes Alive.
And then CDs came along and ruined everything.
Tinny, dinky things with nonexistent liner notes and postage-stamp-size graphics, early CDs eliminated surface noise — and seemed shrill and screechy at first. Of course, listening to Black Flag and Iron Maiden (guilty as charged) didn't seem to call for the same kind of sonic accuracy as Miles Davis or J.S. Bach, but something was missing.
The analog sound spectrum, to be precise.
There's a cartoon that popped up in the New Yorker recently, a balding hipster standing in front of his hi-fi, telling a friend, "What really attracted me to vinyl was the inconvenience and the expense."
It's true: The rebirth of the record has spawned a new batch of would-be audiophiles clamoring over fancy, exposed-tube amps that glow like the lights of some bayou bordello.
But if you ask a purist, a purist like Roy Griffith, owner, repairman and mad-scientist-in-residence at The Turntable Shoppe, most of the crap manufactured today is just that: crap.
If you want to relive the experience of cueing up Brubeck for the first time or marveling at how much depth George Martin could pack into that final chord of Sergeant Pepper, you've gotta get the vintage goods.
"The stuff made in the 1970s is of much higher quality than modern receivers. They over-engineered stuff in the '60s, '70s and '80s," says Griffith. "The transformers were oversized ... and now companies don't want things to last more than three to five years."
I ask: "If you were to buy a modern ..." Roy interrupts with a slow shake of the head.
"No. Vintage is far better. A thousand-dollar Marantz receiver will blow away a $5,000 modern receiver."
And if I'm sinking, say, $200 into a vintage, rehabbed model off Roy's shelves? "If it's from the '70s or early '80s? It would be comparable to a thousand-dollar modern receiver."
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I'm standing in the middle of Roy's Shoppe, a tiny storefront wedged between a barbershop and Rabble Coffee on 10th Street just east of Woodruff Place. If you visit, be forewarned: This is not so much a showroom as it is a garage. There are turntable parts and tubes and screws and cannibalized machines everywhere — it's a working shop, a masterpiece of dust and chaos that makes beautiful sound.
Like so many one-man niche businesses, Griffith and the shop seem inextricably linked, both somehow at once unkempt and precise. The walls of the store are covered with blown-up versions of the covers of some of Griffith's favorite albums: Roxy Music's Siren, Dizzy Gillespie's Afro and others. A console unit he's fixing for a customer occupies the middle of the room.
Griffith, a native of the UK (Manchester, to be exact), was formerly in the business of designing tanning beds and worked on stereo gear as a hobby. After his employer moved him to Indy, the firm was bought by a German conglomerate, and Roy turned his hobby into his profession.
Griffith's talent for gear repair was fostered early — Roy estimates he was roughly four when he began tinkering with stereo equipment. He began by learning how to swap out the needles in his first system, a plastic all-in-one platter-and-speakers affair that his folks had given him.
I point out that it's tough to play a record in your car. "Ah, but not impossible," counters Roy. "In the late '50s, early '60s, there were a few car models. They had, like a suspension system, springs. I think they were just playing 45s with them."
I ask Roy about the rarest gear he finds. He pauses, as if I'd asked a parent to name his favorite kid. "European tube amps ... oh, here's one." He points to a vintage turntable, a beast of a thing sitting in his window. "Made in New York. It's called an Empire — built like a tank."
When it's restored, it'll run about $1,000. The labor's the most time consuming part of any job, obviously — breaking down, de-gunking and rebuilding old motors can be grueling — but tracking old parts can be a challenge, too.
"Needles and belts are fairly easy to get ahold of, but if a plastic part fails, especially on some of these turntables from the '80s, or if a chip goes bad — they simply don't make them anymore." Griffith will reverse-engineer some things or even bypass circuitry to find a solution.
I note he's had a Marantz solid-state receiver pictured on his Facebook page. He's restored it and sold it — again, a piece close to a $1,000. But what if someone walked through the door looking for a complete system that amounted to "starter" audiophile components? Griffith figures such a rig would come in just under $600.
"I would recommend a Technics or a JVC, something like that — a turntable would be about $200. Receiver would be another $200 and then speakers would be $120, $140," says Griffith. There are also old 1960s "suitcase" models he's restored, and a plastic all-in-one system can be had for as little as $65 or so. For repairs, Griffith charges $65 hourly as well, and he notes that most fixes take about two hours. As for Griffith's home rig, he's got: "A 1964 Fisher tube amp, and my turntable is a 1981 JVC top-of-the-line from the early '80s — really the pinnacle of turntable design. It's all going through some vintage Polks."
I try to sound at least somewhat knowledgeable: What's better, belt-drive or direct drive tables? "It all depends. Some idler wheel models are wonderful." It's a drive I'm unfamiliar with, so Roy shows me, lifting the platter off a German-made device. An inner wheel rolls against the inside of the plate, spinning the record with friction. He sets the platter back down gently.
The man moves slowly, deliberately. When he touches the gear, it's as if he's handling eggs.
As I leave Roy's shop, it occurs to me that I still have an aging Bang and Olufsen turntable and two small Polk Audio speakers tucked away in storage. I'd nearly forgotten about them, yet somehow hadn't parted with them despite several moves. One of the speakers has what sounds like rhythmic cricket inside. The turntable has just been sitting in a box for perhaps twenty years — in need of a tune-up.
Most likely in need of some parts. And most decidedly in need of a Roy Griffith.