Friday, April 1, 2016

8-track Adventures

Note: this was written for April Fools' Day, 2016. Thus, it is not to be taken seriously!

Recently, while poking about a dusty thrift store in Seattle, I came across an old Radio Shack 8-track player. It was pure 1970s—down to the simulated walnut veneer on the case. It was only $4.95, including a stack of 8-track tapes. I bought it. I figured that it would make an interesting conversation piece in my listening room.

Of course, I couldn’t resist trying it out in my audio system. The sound was—as I expected—appallingly bad. It was so bad, in fact, that I could not bear to listen long enough to form any opinions past “this is horrible!” Although, the one problem I did note was speed instability—long notes, for example, had a tendency of noticeably wavering. Even my neighbor—who can’t hear the difference between cassette tape and CD—could hear how bad it was.

And then...the thought hit. It wasn’t surprising that it was appalling, 8-track player or not. Anything would likely sound that bad under the same circumstances. It was powered from cold after who knows how many years of storage? I’d made no effort to clean it. I was even using the supplied, well-aged interconnects! If you are going to condemn 8-track like a good audiophile, I thought, you should at least start by giving it a fair shot.

So...I cleaned the RCA connectors. Cleaned the heads. Replaced the belt. And then ran it for 24 hours straight to warm up. (An 8-track player, unlike a phono cartridge on a high end turntable, is easily run in. Just shove in the cartridge, and it will keep running forever...) I dropped it back into the system, using a pair of Nordost interconnects.

And wow! The sound improved at least 100%! Musical notes were far more stable now (probably due to the new belt). Indeed, it was impressively stable. Bass was now impressively solid.

Beyond this, it was now involving. I listened to the stack of 8-track tapes that had come with the player. With each new tape, I intended to take detailed notes. But I quickly lost myself in all the supplied musical gems, whether it was Greatest Rock Hits of 1978, or Bach.

My favorite tape was one featuring an accordion. There was so much emotion to the performance! One song touched me so deeply that I thought tears would get squeezed out of my eyes with each squeeze of the accordion.

Somehow, the 8-track player served the music. It got out of the way of the performance. The only reminder it was there would be the occasional click as the 8-tracker player changed channels.

All this—with just a cleaning and new cables! What more could I do? I got to work. New Shunyata power cord. Spikes under the 8-track player. Damping compound in the 8-track player case. The sound quality improved with each step.

In the end, the sound was staggering. Impressively stable. Deep bass. Good treble. Palpable midrange. Transparent sound. Explosive dynamics.

I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. A second opinion was in order. So I hauled the 8-track player to a local dealer, and compared it to turntables. The best turntables, of course, out performed the 8-track player. But we both agreed the 8-track player totally slaughtered every turntable in the $500 and under price range. It made them all sound like Fisher-Price. We had to go to go to a Rega RP6/Denon DL110 to get a turntable/cartridge combination that could compete.

Perhaps 8-track was a lot better than we’ve been giving it credit for all these years. Understandable, as I think of it, because 8-track was never heard at its best years back. Audiophiles used LPs or open reel tape. 8-track was mostly used with cheap, junky systems. Those systems restricted the performance—just like you wouldn't hear LPs at their best when played through such a system.

Or perhaps all that I said above can be explained by the fact that I'm posting this on the first of April...

Edited 4/2/16 to add note at start.

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