I’ve been collecting records for a decade now, and I’ve been meaning to get a turntable for about as long to actually play them.
The way I see it, record players are the gateway drug of audio equipment. Once I commit to one, naturally, I would have to upgrade my amp, which, of course, would require better speakers, maybe some dampening tiles on the walls, and so on. And then there would be the weekends lost to tweaking every component. Since I figured that I wanted to keep my friends, my records have stayed dusty.
But recently, after someone swiped my stereo, iPod, headphones, and CDs, I found myself huddled around my tinny laptop speakers. As they streamed lifeless-sounding audio, interrupted by countless, overly enthusiastic advertisements, I finally broke down. It was time to get some decent equipment.
Whether you find yourself like me, aching for an affordable record player and speakers, or ready to upgrade your current hi-fi to a hand-built system wrapped in aircraft aluminum, here are some local shops staffed by folks who can point you to equipment that suits your ears and your budget. Just bring along your self-control.
Go here if: you’re looking for some vintage equipment on the cheap.
Those in the audio business say that the golden age of sound peaked in the ’70s with solid-state amplifiers and minimally engineered recordings. Unfortunately, industrial design didn’t quite match up, and it was also a time of fake wood laminate and ill-proportioned knobs. Fortunately, this has kept prices down. The guys at 101 Music scour flea markets for the uglies and fix them up. And they can tell you how to mix and match them into great sounding systems, like an early-’80s NAD receiver ($75) with a pair of mid-’80s Nakamichi speakers ($65), and a ’70s Technics turntable ($70) upgraded with a new, Ortofon Omega cartridge ($50).
Specialty goods: Once highly coveted equipment like Nakamichi cassette tape decks ($50–$500) will pull such sumptuous sound from your Bangles tapes, you’ll cry once again to “Eternal Flame.”
Any weak link can screw up your sound system, but bad speakers can make a particularly big impact, the guys at 101, Jeff Smothers and Brian Finley say. “Toss out your earbuds and listen on a set of good speakers and you will be surprised at what you can hear,” Brian says. “You’ll get the music, not just a recording.”
Go here if: you’re ready to amp up your digital library.
This place is crammed with slick, steel-encased amps (Cary SLP 03 Stereo Preamplifier, $1,900) and shiny speakers with sculpted curves (Dali Fazon F5, $4,500 a pair), but the current best sellers are the mostly plain-looking network players. Inside these boxes, however, is the magical technology that will finally put all of the media files on your computer and hard drives in easy reach and, thanks to integrated digital-to-analog converters (DACs), make them sound a lot better. Components start at a few hundred dollars (Sonos Connect, $399). One with integrated amps, receiver, iPod dock, and DAC will run a lot more (Naim SuperUniti, $6,000).
Specialty goods: Raidho floor-standing speakers with hand-cast ceramic drivers and walnut burl cabinets (Ayra C-3.0 Reference, $36,000 pair), which, despite the price, are not big enough to sleep in.
“Disconnect whatever you’re listening to from the power strip that you got from Home Depot and plug it straight into the wall,” Marlen Kirby, managing partner suggests. He says power strips can create an electrical bottleneck and introduce interference, both of which keep your system from sounding its best.
Go here if: you think the best part of The Godfather is the score.
If you are the sort of person who waits for the end of the credits to see who did what for the soundtrack, this is the place for you. The basic setups are not so basic, but you get sound quality so clear, as Josh Rudner, assistant manager puts it, “You are enveloped in the sound, and films become an experience.” I didn’t believe it, but a 5.1 Paradigm speaker system (from $279 to $450 each) really did create such a mind-blowing experience that I immediately noticed the shoddy speakers at a movie theater I went to later that night. Best of all, you can test out the possible configurations in the plush, leather seats of the demo rooms.
Specialty goods : For those with the most discerning cochleae, Synergistic Research makes tiny, Buddhist prayer bowls that ring at certain frequencies to balance out bad acoustics ($500–$3,100).
“The biggest impact you can make to your sound is to get good cables,” Josh says. “Cables have very different sound qualities and can make a system sound brighter or mellower.” Devote 5 to 10 percent of your budget on cables, he says, and keep in mind that like most every part of an audio system, they need time to break in – at least 200 hours of use.
Go here if: you want to take your grooves on the move.
There are a few special considerations when building an amazing sound system in a vehicle. You have to find space for speakers, which need a decent amount of air behind them to prevent distortion. You have to seal out engine and road noises by padding the doors and floor. And then you have to hide everything. Peter’s Auto Radio shapes custom panels out of molded fiberglass and covers them with full grain leather, wood, or even a broken radio facade. A top-end setup with custom panels can run $9,000, but a simpler upgrade to a Kenwood stereo and speakers costs $650.
Specialty goods: A custom-installed, Arc Audio system with hybrid speakers ($20,000) produces such balanced sound that (I am told) you can play Metallica cranked to 25 while doing 90 and still hear Kirk Hammett’s palm hit the strings.
Listen for distortion and then fiddle with your bass and treble levels until the sound improves. The default setting may not be the best for your car. Owner Rick Theis also says, “People listening to hip-hop generally have the bass jacked up too high for their systems to handle.”
Go here if: you’ve always wanted a buddy who happens to be a high-end audio fanatic.
When a client called to ask how to tone down the brightness of his new system, Tim Nguyen greeted him like an old friend, and then, recalling exactly how he’d configured the speakers in the man’s living room, suggested flaring them out in increments of three-sixteenths of an inch. When he is not administering personalized advice over the phone, Tim is making house calls or demonstrating equipment out of the polished showroom he set up in a studio in his home. If you make an appointment, he may show you a steam-punk amp with vacuum tubes (Zesto Audio’s Andros PS1, $3,900), or a futuristic turntable (Rega RP1, $450), depending on your budget and listening tastes.
Specialty goods: Minimalist turntables by a Brit named Simon Yorke ($10,000–$25,000). Simon or his son personally shape each platter on a lathe and rub beeswax into the steel for a satin finish. Whatever they’re doing produces sound of such clarity that the Library of Congress is using Simon Yorke players to archive its collections.
Don’t pick your equipment based on its specs or label. “Sound is very personal to each person and each space. Big speakers don’t sound good in a small space, for example,” Tim says. “You have to listen to it yourself to really know.”
Go here if: you want two turntables and a microphone.
Your friendly neighborhood DJ will tell you that World of Stereo might as well be an open trunk in a back alley crammed with audio equipment. The selection is haphazard. Dodgy characters stop by. Prices are usually negotiable. It cannot be missed! Just arrive with some idea of what you want – the first-floor selection alone is vast, and upstairs are stockpiles of used equipment. If you’re looking for a setup for your next bar mitzvah, for example, you’ll kill it with a shiny, lacquered controller with a built-in sound card (Vestax Typhoon, $299) and coffin-sized speakers (JBLs, $800 a pair). Add a pair of spinning lights and a smoke machine starting at $75 (rent for $20 per day) and you might even get some kids to dance.
Specialty goods: World of Stereo has hard-to-find, used Technics turntables (SL-1210M5G, $1,399), which are built like tanks to handle whatever you want to lay down.
You can get the intro version of the do-it-all mixing, sampling, and scratching program, Serato, packaged with a relatively cheap controller like the Vestax. Play with that before you invest in the full features of Serato Scratch ($699 with hardware interface).
Visit 101 Music, AudioVision San Francisco, Music Lovers Audio, Peter's Auto Radio, Tone of Music, World of Stereo, or any of San Francisco’s other local audio stores to audition their equipment, and once you settle on something, buy it from them. Unlike online and big box retailers, they will come to your apartment to help you figure out where to hide cables, how to angle your speakers, and figure out which of your old equipment is worth keeping. Also, many offer great deals on used equipment and generous trade-in programs.