The cheapest tweak of all is of course the one that costs nothing. Such tweaks range from pulling your speakers away from the wall and toeing them in slightly or my all time favorite cost-is-an-object tweak, taking your Hi-Fi to bits and putting it all back together with the help of the King’s men.
There is even good science behind these tweaks, by unplugging and plugging back in the cables you clean all the contacts that the signal path travels along and speakers are rarely optimally sited. I don’t have a free tweak today, or I do if you count the first two, but I have a very inexpensive one: if you do not already have a tuner, get one!
In the golden age of Hi-Fi when such names as Dynaco, Marantz, Leak, Quad, Harmon Kardon, Radford, Pye and Mcintosh ruled the Hi-Fi roost and the idea of ‘new old stock’ made about as much sense as army intelligence, a tuner not only was an essential component of any self-respecting Hi-Fi, but was indeed one of the highest fidelity sources available to the average listener. Moreover, then as today, radio was able to offer something that no other Hi-Fi component can, live music in the home.
Of course spec-wise, signal to noise ratio, separation, frequency range, distortion and just about everything else that can or can’t be measured — even the best tuner is far inferior to that of the lousiest CD player, but to me there is something still indescribably pleasurable and intimate about listening to a good live broadcast through a decent tuner that no other source component, for me anyway, can deliver. Manufacturers used to put a lot of care into building the best tuners they could resulting in tuners with great ergonomics and sound and they charged accordingly. But their great efforts, I believe, have not properly been recognized in the secondhand market as whatever pawn shop I visit these days has good used tuners going for a song. The humble tuner, it would seem, has been humbled.
Of course, Clear Channel has homogenized radio across the nation, you may not need no money down do not pay a cent event furniture, and that many stations regularly employ the most egregious compression and sound processing imaginable to give their signal enough bite to grab commuters attention during the rush hour, but to tar the whole band with this brush is a mistake.
Among the dross where I live, and, I suspect if you look hard enough where you live to, there’s still wonderful listening to be had that is not even that hard to find. For it seems that whatever your tastes, you are all but guaranteed to find something worth listening to on National Public Radio, your local ‘Classic Rock Station,’ or those stations farthest left on the dial, college radio.
Is Anyone Listening? BBC Aerial, Ridge Hill
Don’t have a tuner? No problem. The pawn and thrift shops in my town seem to be chocka-block with them, many priced less than the cables you are likely to hook them up with. Last week I picked up a lovely hybrid solid-state valve tuner from Trio (now Kenwood) that has a tone reminiscent of a Leak Troughline, but in stereo! A few months before, at the same shop I picked up a lovely 70s Pioneer for even less which even sports decent sounding AM. Yes Virginia, there is such a thing. And if I didn’t already have a half dozen tuners, I would happily have brought home more, for most seem to be priced between $20 and $50 Canadian. Perhaps sometime I will trade them all in for a Magnum-Dynalab, but not today.
Neither of the recently acquired bargains have the sensitivity or selectivity of my Revox, or the monophonic glory of my Leak Troughline II, but they cost peanuts, sound lovely and are above all fun. And somehow I can always find a place for them, whether it’s under my computer monitor or in my son’s room.
Once you have secured your thrift store special — I like the ones with backlit analog displays and heavily weighted flywheels — popping the hood and applying a little WD40 to the pulleys and a little Caig Laboratories Dexoit to the switches is likely to extinguish any snap and crackle. A bit of pledge on the wood looks good too. If you should particularly like a new found tuner, an alignment at your local Hi-Fi repair shop is probably well worth it, but will cost you more than you paid for the tuner in the first place. If you’re really keen, a roof top aerial can make an astonishing difference but you would be surprised about how well an old pair of TV rabbit ears will do.
I am not sure how great an investment these old tuners are – indeed, I suspect that you would be hard pressed even on eBay to get more for them than what you paid — but nonetheless, I do think, they represent superb value. What’s the price of a couple of CDs if you can spend a glorious weekend afternoon listening to Opera at the Met? Free music can be legal and that’s why I believe secondhand analog tuners have to be the about the best bargain and cheapest tweak going in Hi-Fi today. And if you should be so lucky to be in radio-shot of BBC 3, damn you too!