Thursday, October 22, 2015

Remembering my old Newcomb phonograph

A "Throwback Thursday" memoir.

When I was growing up, my mother and I often visited thrift shops. You never knew what great treasure might turn up, priced at next-to-zero. (A sad commentary about our throwaway society: today's expensive item is tomorrow's $1 find at the thrift shop!) One very memorable treasure I found was an old Newcomb phonograph.

The Newcomb might well have been an old school phonograph. Certainly, I remembered seeing many Newcomb phonographs at school. A Newcomb phonograph with a brown case was standard equipment on the back counters of my elementary school classes, and they were a common sight in junior high and high school. But the one I found was far older than any I'd seen before - it probably dated to the monophonic LP era, and it had a tube amp.

The tube amp was probably the selling point. I liked tubes! They seemed so neat in an old technology way. (I now wonder about my love of modern audiophile tube amps. How much of it is sound quality? How much are secondary issues, such as liking the glow of tubes?) Needless to say, the phonograph "followed me home" that day.

There was, however, one small, itsy-bitsy problem. The phonograph was equipped with a cartridge that could not play anything newer than a mono LP. (Stereo cartridges can play mono LPs, but a mono era cartridge will totally destroy a stereo LP.)

So...I knew I needed a mono LP. Fortunately, as I dug through my record rack, I found I had one. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, which had come from a used book sale. Today, I have no idea why I bought it. This was before I listened to classical repertoire - apart from a Hooked on Classics record. Indeed, as far as I can recall, I had not listened to that record, not even for a second, since buying it. But that day I was happy I had it - it was something I could play on my new-to-me phonograph!

I powered up the phonograph, and let the tubes warm up. (Back then, I was totally unaware of old electronics safety, including the thought that you don't just plug in something and turn it on. It may be a miracle I never burned our house down.) Once the phonograph amp was warm, I started the record.

And, at some point, I got hooked. I mean really hooked. While normal kids my age were playing some rock recording, in stereo, with the volume set to rattle the windows of the house across the street, I'd be playing my Beethoven record at fairly moderate volume. And so the phono gave me one gift: my first real, extended, enjoyable experience listening to classical repertoire.

In time, something went wrong, and the phonograph refused to turn on one day.

After that phono stopped working, I lost interest in the Beethoven record. I did make a couple of attempts to make cassette copies on newer stereo systems. (Back then, like many kids of the 80s, I'd typically play a record only to make a tape copy. Indeed, one big shock I gave my mother was when I told her that when I got my first good turntable, I'd actually play records. For real. No cassette copies.)

But I never really liked listening to the cassette copies. I never really felt like playing the record itself, either.

I don't know if I questioned this back then. Why did a favorite record suddenly end up collecting dust? I might have said that I'd probably just listened to it too many times, and lost interest. This is certainly possible.

But today I wonder if there also isn't another answer. Perhaps that old phonograph performed better than either modern system I had access to in the late 1980s.

Many would, of course, find this thought laughable. An old school phonograph (with who knows how many hours on the tubes?!) is better than a fairly new mass market stereo system? 

And to be sure, this phonograph was not an audiophile product. It also would seem hopeless to the average mass market system buyer. It wasn't stereo. It didn't have 100 watts of output power. It didn't have big speakers. It didn't - 

No, it didn't have a lot of that. But somehow it managed to communicate something important on that record. And it did a better job of communicating that than either modern system.

I now vaguely recall something else. I tried other classical works on the modern stereo systems. I found some things that interested me, but I seem to recall it was harder listening. It was harder getting interested in the works.

That school phonograph helped teach me an important lesson, although I didn't understand it until years later. The lesson is that a lot of technical and performance issues so important in the audio industry are really secondary issues. You can have the best transparency and stereo imaging in the world. You can have massive amounts of power. You can have many technical features that have been marketed to death over the years. But if the system doesn't convey the musical soul of the performance, then it's really no better than a cheap transistor radio at KMart.

Edited 10/23/15 and 11/7/15. Editing was minor, mostly for clarity in the last paragraph.

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