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'There’s not so much difference between music and cars, is there?'

Rediscovering the joy of classic hi-fi has proved a revelation for Meaden

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A few weeks ago, I decided I was going to buy some old hi-fi equipment. Not just any old stuff, either, but specifically some Technics separates made and sold in the late 1980s. Big, beautiful, monolithic slabs of proudly Japanese electronic excellence. 

I should say at this stage that I am not (yet, at least) a beardy hi-fi buff. If you’re expecting deep knowledge of the sort that can explain why tri-braid field geometry and reduced inductance are vital qualities to look for in speaker cables, then Hi-Fi Choice guru and fellow evo alumni David Vivian is most definitely your man. 

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What I can tell you – but can’t fully explain – is the deep satisfaction I’m finding in rediscovering the wonders of this old Technics kit. And why, quite unexpectedly, this nostalgia trip sparked some four-wheeled comparisons and even led me to finally feel at peace with the future of driving as we know it.

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Perversely, the catalyst for my eBay spree was the imminent purchase of a Sonos 5 wireless speaker to pair with one I already own. Like most of you, my daily music comes via a streaming service such as Spotify or Amazon, which when combined with the impressive sound you get from a Sonos system makes the listening experience hard to fault for convenience or quality. 

Still, when it came to shelling out £500, I hesitated just long enough to wonder if there was a more enjoyable, engaging alternative on a similar budget. Something I’d have to work at rather than get instant gratification from. Cue my headlong plunge down the vintage hi-fi rabbit hole.

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Inevitably there’s a nostalgia aspect. Specifically, the opportunity to revisit my mid-to-late teens and build something approximating the system my dad bought after many (many) visits to our local branch of the long defunct high-street hi-fi store Laskys. Browsing eBay might lack the sense of anticipation as we entered the warm, pungent and palpably charged atmosphere of the listening rooms, but it still transported me back 35 years. 

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Long story short, I am now the proud owner of a freshly serviced and surprisingly tidy amplifier and CD player (SU‑V450 and SL‑P550 for the Technics coneheads amongst you), paired with some deeply ’80s – and sweet-sounding – Mission 707 speakers. And all obtained for £25 less – and sounding far better – than the Sonos 5. A suitably slick Technics turntable (and expensive vinyl habit) will surely follow, as and when Man Maths® allow. In other words, right away.

As for the four-wheeled analogy, well, there’s not so much difference between music and cars, is there? Like modern motoring, the consumption and enjoyment of music has become split between the frictionless convenience and affordability of non-physical, streamed music – in other words our daily drivers – and the ritualised, fetishised and altogether more involved process of buying a physical collection of music and investing in bulky equipment made with the sole purpose of playing it.

Now more than ever there’s a tendency to feel like there’s little or no room for moderate opinion on anything. At least if you profess to be invested in a subject, cause or interest. In car terms that often means hating EVs on principle, or blindly extolling the virtues of internal combustion. Preferably mated to a manual transmission for added virility. 

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Meanwhile the more fundamentalist factions of the hi-fi world might sneer at anything other than vintage vinyl played on a £15,000 deck, just as others might shake their heads at the notion of dragging a needle around a fragile, dinner plate-sized and fiercely expensive piece of black, grooved plastic. The truth is if you remain open to the strengths of each they can actually complement the other.

Having limitless amounts of music at your fingertip for the princely sum of £10 a month is an extraordinary source of immediate and entirely portable pleasure. Yet the soulless swipe of your iPhone screen can’t hope to match the occasion of selecting an album, removing it from its sleeve, placing it onto or into your player of choice and operating rotary volume and tone controls of such weighty tactility they make Lexus switchgear feel like a Lada’s. It’s Netflix versus cinema. A beer at home, or a pint in the pub. Or, dare I say, digital media or print magazine. All good in isolation, but better to have both.

If, as seems likely, purely petrol-powered cars are effectively priced off the roads – at least as daily transport for those lo-fi miles nobody cares for – would it be so bad if those of us who choose to continue indulging our love of internal combustion come to truly relish those recreational miles, just as someone might savour listening to a favourite album on vinyl or CD through a quality hi-fi? I don’t know about you, but I rather like the sound of that.

This opinion piece by Richard Meaden was first published in evo 296. If you wish to subscribe, or purchase any back-issues, head to our shop at evo-shop.co.uk

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