Audio, Etc. (Jan. 1982)

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What seemed at first to be no more than a cosmetic development in recent top-level hi-fi, I'm beginning to think, can turn itself into a significant change in our long-time system of componentry, separate, semi interchangeable equipment units from many manufacturers, assembled to choice in individualized home systems. It has taken us some 30 years to work out the multiple standardizations which this demands are we now turning a corner back in the other direction? Not really. But we are indeed creating a new option. Here's how it came home to me, figuratively and literally.

Phone call from the Editor in New York, a bad connection. He had some sort of equipment he wanted me to try.

A Clmlzztxn? I didn't get it. A what-? A COLLECTION, he replied, ever so distinctly. I started to ask again but thought better. Oh sure, I said casually, just send it right on. Glad to oblige. And hung up, mystified. A collection of what--? Five minutes later I got the idea. I was looking at a hi-fi ad. It featured, not components, but something called "Separates," amplifier, record player and so on. Ladies' wear? "A pink blouse and a blue skirt," said a lady who was with me at the moment.

No dear, not any more. This is hi-fi.

And so in a flash I saw what a Collection just had to be. Haute couture! In hi-fi terms, of course. Like something out of Christian Dior or maybe Bill Blass. Ensembles of the fanciest, all from one glamorous designer. Separates, but going harmoniously together, with panache. That would be a Collection.

In this case the glamorous designer turned out to be Technics, a name, as they say, to conjure with. And the mail soon brought me the promotion, in four-color glossies. There it was: The Technics Studio Collection. Top of the line.

After a suitable pause for shipping, the Collection itself began to appear chez moi. What a spectacular entrance! First came four big boxes via UPS and I tried to help the driver in with them, which was a faux pas because she was a lady.

Then, while I was out, another UPS truck delivered more boxes to the local grocery store, where I had to retrieve them. I began to catch on to the awesome scope of this Collection.

You can, of course, buy these units one by one if you so desire. These are still compon--, I mean Separates, and they will operate in the traditional fashion, connected to items from elsewhere all over. But the impetus is clearly and impressively on a one-ness, a Whole. E pluribus unum. That's the idea.

Now if you think I could get through all that marvelous pile of goods in time for this writing, you do even the packages a grave injustice. After all, it takes a good half-hour just to undo one of those foxy shipping boxes and get its parts all stowed away for future reference. At this moment I have worked extensively with only one of the Separates, the linear tracking turntable, which got me so interested I put all the rest aside. More in a moment.

My eyes are already fixed on the enticing box that contains what must be one of the most fabulous cassette decks around, among numerous other fabulous machines. And then there are the speakers, with the new Technics honeycomb flat piston radiators replacing cones and domes. I'll insert these into my present system for a bit, to see what they can do.

In the end, given time, I'll put the whole Collection together, but that will be in another room, another place, away from all present hi-fi. I need a whole new start for this Collection on its own.

For your info, here are items sent to me as part of the Technics Studio Collection. Two SB-6 speakers (there is a larger and a smaller model); three matching units, in identical slim and stylish cases, the SE-A7 stereo/mono d.c. power amp, the SU-A8 control amp and the ST-S8 quartz synthesizer FM/AM digital tuner. And finally, the second generation SL-QL1 quartz linear tracking table, astonishingly compact, styled to match the rest. I assume that when you mount these in a rack there must be a bit of ventilation in between each; even so, the economy of space is impressive and the haute couture definitely new and unusual. Technics provides its own home style rack for all this, optionally, and you'll probably want it. That's the clincher that makes the many into one, the pluribus into unum.

I must add hastily that, whereas at the moment I am overwhelmed with Technics, other manufacturers are clearly onto the same trend, if with different nomenclature. Also from Japan, for instance, came Nakamichi's early and widely admired line of matching black components, though these weren't officially billed as a Collection or such. The idea was there, nevertheless, and still is.

And you have seen the ads for Technics' simpler blood relatives, the Panasonic SoundScape systems, ready mounted in another handsome rack. These go further they even feature collective model names, the P-9, for instance, and it is pointedly suggested that you "escape from the world of technical intimidation." Does that smack of anti-component propaganda? And yet in that rack you see five genuine, uncompromised components, Separates, including another linear tracking turntable, all matched in size and looks in the same way as the higher-up Technics Studio Collection.

You can have your hi-fi cake and eat it.

Good. Because all these units match electronically as well as visually, and they are newly compact good, good! And, above all, they forcibly avoid the hideous compromises of a million older unified hi-fis and stereos that have tried to bridge the gap between the old single piece radio or phonograph and the multiple systems that have made our business what it is. This time, it's for real: none of these new systems, whatever they are called, are compromised merely to get them into one piece or onto one rack. That's a big positive. I find it indeed wise, and appropriate, to start this new, uncompromised, centralized one maker equipment at the top level. Even a hint of corner cutting, today, could kill the idea dead for all of us. We've seen enough of that. In due time, quality for quality, price by price, the Collection idea can surely move downwards towards simpler but still valid formulations.

That is, until we reach the bottom, where those cheaper monstrosities that now call themselves hi-fi manage to look extremely pro, replete with shiny knobs and switches and readouts, but boast monster 3-watt power amps inside and a cheapo turntable on top, plus little outrider speakers in cardboard boxes.

Not that! There, friends, I hope we will stop. Let those who will. Not us. That's no Collection.

Fortunately, the Technics turntable, the only part of the Collection that I have really got to know well by this time, was reviewed in an "Equipment Profile" here (November 1981). What remains is for me to communicate my deep musical enthusiasm for this remarkable little player with its motor-driven arm that moves directly sidewise across the disc, with no pivot at all in the rear. It is, frankly, the easiest, most effective turntable I have ever used and, so far, there are no reservations except maybe that I'd prefer to have my own cartridge, rather than the fixed "house model" that came built into my player. (You can, as an option.) This machine is so SMALL! It is a pleasure just to look at it. It is 17 inches wide (to match the other Collection items) but stands only 312 inches high with a depth of under 14 inches. It fits beautifully into my equipment cabinet.

The top dust cover which, remarkably, carries with it the entire arm and cartridge system is only an inch tall above the motor board; I can really open it wide, in contrast to the bulky plastic covers on other tables.

The thing just plays. Astonishing.

From the very first try it worked to perfection. It lowers its little arm precisely and quickly, plays anything, even a violently warped disc I had around, and tidily winds itself back to the start after each play in short order. Always starts right, always stops right. And no swinging arm here! The cartridge is so far in the back it is well out of the way of most danger.

If the top is open, nothing happens.

Won't play. Close it and the machine goes. All so casually. No complications, no problems. The mark of good design, good ergonomics, a machine modeled for the human being who uses it.

But what has capped my joy is that the necessary remote cueing system, for an arm that cannot be moved by hand, works better than a charm. On this table, I hit a chosen LP band by remote control right on the nose four out of the first five times I tried. I couldn't believe it; I got an outsider to try. On the nose, too, every time. It can be done! No space to describe the compact two-speed action, but I'll stand on my statement: This machine cues up via buttons with as great accuracy as any hand cueing I have ever performed, and maybe better. Also minus danger. All you need is a proper light, which is nothing new.

I think what really fascinates me in this type of player (there are others, past and present, including, for example, the current Bang & Olufsen line from Denmark) is the sheer fact that the things work at all. Until we had our present microprocessors and their relatives, plus tiny d.c. motors, super-correction via light beams, and so on, the sidewise drive arm was mechanically impractical and often dangerous. It could cut its own grooves right on top of yours, or shave off hundreds of feet of signal. You just can't track a groove sidewise the way you track it out at the end of a pivoted tonearm.

True, Edison's original phonograph played this way and so did a million later cylinders. But in those days the signal modulation was all vertical and, more important, the pitch of the record spiral was fixed. You could screw an overhead player across with a reasonable chance that it would match. No more! Today, with both vertical and lateral excursion, our LP grooves are variably spaced, according to the musical amplitude. No fixed mechanical screw drive could cope with that. The drive has to be adjustable and there must be a way to tell the thing when to go faster or slower, controlled by the grooves themselves. All in all, a seemingly horrendous problem, you'd think. So you see what I mean. It is now as though the problem never existed. No wonder I marvel. That's your new linear tracking table.

Go out, then, and gander at the new hi-fi haute couture. It's well worth the trouble. And be sure you look at that turntable.

by Edward Tatnall Canby (adapted from Audio magazine, Jan. 1982)

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