Shed two tears (L&R) for death of the stereo

by | Oct 28, 2013 | Comment, Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BOSTON — As the plane descended, I found myself recalling when I first came here for college. Which reminded me of my first dorm room. Which reminded me of the first thing I did in that dorm room. Which reminded me that nobody hooks up a stereo anymore.

A recent piece on lamented “the death of the home stereo system.” Kids today listen to music on laptops or through earbuds. Why bother to wire up racks of equipment?

How sad. As I looked out the airplane window, high above Harvard, Brandeis, Emerson and Boston College, I felt as if I’d lost an old friend.

And if it died, I must speak on its behalf.

Kids at universities — yes, you with a miniature MP3 player! — you don’t know what you’re missing. You don’t know the joy of unpacking two giant, wood-encased JBL speakers, lugging them up six flights of stairs, feeling the envious eyes as you grunted past mumbling, “Uh-huh, 15-inch woofers, two-inch tweeters, that’s right.”

You don’t know the thrill of carrying your “components” like newborn babies up to your dorm room.

You won’t know the joy of bragging over new equipment, comparing watts per channel or signal-to-noise ratio.

You’ll never know the exquisite labor of wiring all that equipment together, which only took, oh, four hours.

Trust me. It was an art.

Never cross the wires

You began with your receiver — maybe a Kenwood, a Craig or, if you were a rich kid, a Yamaha.

Then you ran wires (line in, line out) to your tape deck, maybe a Technics, a Panasonic or, if you were a rich kid, a TEAC.

Then you ran wires (line in, line out) to your turntable, a Dual, a Linn or, if you were a rich kid, a Thorens.

Wait. You don’t know what a turntable is?

Of course you don’t. That’s because you don’t know what a record is. That’s because you think you are supposed to carry your entire music library in a one-inch, 64-gig jump drive, when in truth, you are supposed to carry your music library the way God intended man to carry his music library:

In milk crates.

That’s how we transported our record albums, which many of us kept in the original plastic wrapping. We will return to the art of playing a record album in a moment.

But back to the wiring.

Once you connected your receiver, tape deck and turntable together, then you had to get those giant speakers into the mix — JBL, Advent, Boston Acoustics or, if you were a rich kid, Klipsch.

You did this with spools of speaker wire that you purchased from Radio Shack and that wove behind your dresser, your bed and your mini-fridge and would somehow, over the semester, attach to every giant dust glob in the room. You stripped the wire ends with a penknife, twisted them into the speakers’ clips, then traced the white and the tan back to the receiver and did the same there, lest you — heaven forbid! — mix up right and left.

These wires allowed you to put your speakers anywhere, in the corner, around your bed or, on a sunny day, jammed inside your window frame, where you blasted the Rolling Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Stylistics or Bob Marley to the entire quad below.

And they loved you for it.

Try doing THAT with your iPhone, pal!

Always clean the vinyl

OK. Back to the records. The real music lovers removed them only by the edges, lay them on the turntable, which had a plastic dust cover that required lifting, unless you were a rich kid who had one that slowly popped open, and you lined up the record with the spindle.

Then you got this thing called the Discwasher, a wood and cloth device that reminds you of a shoeshine man, and you stripped it with liquid then lightly pressed it on the record surface as you spun the record around.

Once cleaned, the album was ready to be heard. You started the turntable, lifted the arm, lowered the cartridge — don’t ask what a cartridge is or we’ll have to hit you — and let the needle fill the groove.

And from that cartridge, through the turntable, into the receiver, down the wires and out through the woofers and tweeters came the sound of your favorite band, and you leaned back, closed your eyes, smiled widely and realized that you forgot to unpack your clothes.

Who cared? You had your stereo system. Today, you were a man. And if that tradition is dead, it should indeed be mourned, along with the preamp, the eight-track and metal cassette tapes.

What’s a cassette tape?

Oh, boy.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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