Old-Style Stereo Equipment Offers Up-To-Date Sound
Let's step into the time machine with all the other retrosexuals out there and put together a classic stereo system updated for the 21st century.
Of course, it has to be stereo. That's two channels, or, in today's digital age, a 2.0 system.
The centerpiece of our system is a retro knockout, the Outlaw Audio RR2150 receiver. Outlaw, an online-only company (outlawaudio.com), pays loving tribute to art-deco table radios with triple-tiered control panels and yet another, gently arched.
The RR2150 ($649) looks like something out of the 1940s or 1950s, but it doesn't ignore the present. The front panel has a minijack connection for an iPod or other digital music player. On the back side, a USB input invites access to a nearby PC or laptop and its digital music library.
It does not have a digital audio connection for either a CD or DVD player. You'll just have to do it the old-fashioned way, using the RR2150's analog inputs. Unlike most stereo receivers, old or new, the RR2150 has a connection for a subwoofer. So you an make this a rock-'em, sock-'em system, too. (Outlaw's own LFM-2 subwoofer is an excellent value at $299.)
The RR2150 is a serious, well-built (27 pounds) receiver that also has a crucial element for our retro system: a phono input for a turntable.
It's not retro without vinyl, baby. You must have some LPs somewhere. Rummage through the closets, scour the boxes in the basement or start looking at local tag sales or on craigslist. Elvis Costello released his new album, "Momofuku," on vinyl in April two weeks before the CD came out. Jack White's Raconteurs and Tom Petty's Mudcrutch have also released recent albums on vinyl.
Vinyl sales are still minuscule next to CDs and digital downloads, but the Recording Industry Association of America says vinyl sales of 1.3 million in 2007 represented a 37 percent increase from the previous year.
Here are three options:
Rega P1 ($395): This is the entry-level turntable from the venerable British manufacturer. It comes ready to spin with an RB100 tonearm and an Ortofon OM5e cartridge already mounted. It has a dust cover, but be forewarned: Today's better turntables are manually operated. The tonearm does not lift automatically at the end of a record. Information: www.rega.co.uk.
Pro-Ject Debut III from Sumiko ($299): This could be the least-expensive quality turntable available. Like the Rega P1, it comes with an Ortofon OM5e cartridge already mounted and a dust cover. For $30 more, you can the turntable in any of nine colors, among them blue, red, lime green and champagne. All you'll need then is a lava lamp. Information: www.project-audio.com.
Music Hall MMF-2.2 ($399): Music Hall updated the previous version of this turntable with a glossy black finish, improved cartridge and a cartridge that has a replaceable stylus. Information: www.musichallaudio.com.
Now, the final pieces that deliver the sound to your ears: the speakers. Not much has changed in basic speaker appearance the past 50 years. We'll concentrate on bookshelf speakers here to keep the retro system price close to $1,300.
This is the most personal choice when assembling a system, whether it's stereo or a full-blown home-theater surround system. Deep bass or crystalline vocals? Peel-the-paint-off-the-walls loud or higher-quality sound at lower volume?
It's best to audition speakers in person. The big-box stores are too loud and poorly set up to get a good read on a speaker. Try a local independent specialty store, which usually has individual sound rooms. I like bookshelf speakers by PSB, Infinity and B&W, among others.
A few tips:
For smoother sound, look for a speaker with a soft-dome tweeter, usually fabric like silk or mylar. A metal-dome tweeter, often titanium, has greater detail and plays louder but sounds harsher at higher volumes.
Try the speaker with a few of your favorite songs. It'll make it easier to identify differences between the speakers you've heard.
Knock on the speaker cabinet as you would someone's door. A hollow sound indicates less internal bracing, leaving the speaker more susceptible to distortion. A solid thud indicates more solid construction and less likelihood the speaker would distort at higher volumes.
A sealed cabinet offers more accurate sound, but less bass output, than a ported speaker.
Let your ears make the call.
Kevin Hunt can be reached at email@example.com. To see previous columns, visit www.courant.com/shopping.