Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Preserving High-end History - Part 1

This morning, a friend sent me a link to a TEAC TS-85 magnetic levitation turntable, one that used large circular magnets at the center of the platter arranged in repulsion to "float" the platter on an invisible magnetic field (no thrust bearing required). This was a great idea but its drawback was that it attracted metal and other magnets that came near them, such as the things phonograph cartridges and tonearms are made.

The Innovative TEAC TS-85 Magnetic Levitation Turntable circa 1972
Another attempt to eliminate thrust bearing noise was the air-bearing approach by Makato Ikeda where the platter was floated on a thin cushion of air supplied from a tiny, very quiet air compressor.

The Fabulous Micro Seiki SX-111 Air Bearing Turntable circa 1982
Not only did engineers create novel solutions to audio problems, they did so in an aesthetically pleasing manner to appeal to those who consider high-end gear ugly toys. Blending style with design at least improves the chances of such a highly-desirable piece of gear making it past your live-in censor and into your listening room (yes, the dreaded spousal-approval-factor rears its head for anything that appears in a home in most relationships).

This got me thinking about the many other types of innovations in audio design that have come and gone over the decades since Edison's first cylinder, not just these unique approaches to eliminate a problem with turntable noises. Ah, the price of progress... And then I thought of how the designers and technicians who developed and maintained them are now either deceased or retired and how - if we are not careful - their novel ideas and innovative approaches to advancing the state-of-the-art could be lost, a thought that made me a bit melancholy seeing myself included as one of those same people.
The Edison 1877 Phonograph
For example, if it weren't for musicians and high-end audiophiles insisting that the sound of tube audio gear was superior to that of transistors, all equipment today would be solid state (I shudder at the thought). If people back in the 1980s did not listen to the music played back through CD players, all music today would be digitally mastered and streamed.

A friend recently asked me to restore his Audio Research SP11 preamp, undoubtedly one of the finest pieces of tube electronics ever manufactured. I felt honored to attempt this restoration knowing that parts could be difficult to find (an issue with restoring any old technology independent of the audio category). I was correct when trying to source the gain and volume potentiometers having to source them from a specialty shop in Japan. Other parts were still obtainable and even better than those used in the original design. It took six weeks and parts coming from three continents to get this classic piece of gear working again.

The Listening Test of the Restored ARC SP11
Like restoring a classic car in one of those reality TV shows, it takes a lot of time to do things right and a lot of love to coax a fine piece of audio gear back to life, or upgrade it to even beyond what the original designer had in mind. There are a few of us out there who take the time to tackle such audio restorations and in the next part I will introduce you to another one of them. Until then, think about what favorite piece of gear you have gathering dust in your basement, closet, or attic and seriously consider bringing it back to life.

In Part 2 of this series, I will discuss the origins and evolution of the technologies that made what we take for granted possible.

If you wish to contact me for a restoration or upgrade, you can email me at
philip at okstatealumni dot org
I cannot guarantee I will respond quickly but I eventually get to all of my messages. Until next time, keep listening with your ears and not your eyes.

Yours for higher fidelity,
Philip Rastocny

Skeptics are essential to keep us sane; skeptics do little to keep us inspired. Philip Rastocny, 7-16-2014

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