How did I get here?
A few years ago, I took a very deep dive into headphones. I became a regular on the Head-Fi website, and began reviewing headphones, digital audio players (DAPs), headphone amps and DACs.
This is when Instagram became a part of my audio and music journey. Called myself HeadFiYYC (YYC is Calgary’s airport code). Loved sharing the new stuff I was listening to (both music and gear) and interacting with other obsessive headphone enthusiasts.
I gave it all up after a couple of years. I truly loved the writing part, but instead of “using gear to listen to music” I was now “using music to listen to gear,” and the joy went out of it. And at the end of the day, it’s all about the music.
I don’t regret this phase of my music life though. I learned a lot and discovered some great gear – headphones and amps and DAPs that I still have and enjoy, and that elevated my music listening.
Music has always been a big part of my life. As a kid in South Africa, I was exposed to music of all sorts: school choir (religious, contemporary and African songs), the local annual Highland Gathering (bagpipes!), live musical theatre (western productions like Godspell, Lucky Man, Jacob and His Technicolor Dreamcoat, and African ones like Ipi Tombi), recorder and piano lessons, and music at home.
My folks had a pretty basic music system – Philips amplifier and tuner, Sony cassette deck, forget what turntable, and loudspeakers my dad made in his university days – but it sounded good and in the evenings was always on, with mostly classical playing, and also the odd pop and folk records. In retrospect, I had a solid grounding, learned to appreciate music across a broad spectrum, and was hooked.
It should come as no surprise that anyone professing to be an “audiophile” (or who thinks of that term as a bit pompous and calls themself simply a “music lover,” which is essentially the same thing) will see their experience of music evolve as their lifestyle changes: as they mature, leave home, move into and live in different dwelling types, see incomes rise, and grow in other ways. My childhood and my headphone phase were two distinct stages in the evolution of my musical experience.
No matter the stage, there’s a way to enjoy music, and the music lover will adapt how they consume it. Lack of space may dictate portable devices, or mini systems. A tight budget may mean going used. Spousal preference may translate into “out of sight, out of mind” arrangements (or the opposite). And buying a house may allow multiple systems, of varying age and componentry, in different rooms.
Back to “a kid in South Africa.” Yeah, I’ve moved around my whole life. Born in Holland. A couple of years in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Formative years (4-13) in South Africa. Canada through high school and university, then 7 years in Japan, 4 in the UK, and 5 more in Japan before returning to Canada in 2008. Plenty of lifestyle changes, plenty of music systems to fit them, and all part of the journey to today.
Arriving in Canada in the early ‘80s, my folks upgraded their stereo. Technics SA-500 receiver and SL-220 turntable, and ADS L420 speakers. I inherited the Philips amp, Sony cassette and homemade speakers, and later picked up a used Ariston turntable cheap at a flea market. My first system. Satisfied teen!
University saw a shift to something smaller for a dorm room, with a Technics Micro System amp and tuner (SU-5 and ST-5, which plugged into each other and didn’t require RCA cables), Aiwa bookshelf speakers, and an Akai cassette deck. I inherited the Technics SL-220 from my folks when they bought a linear tracking turntable.
Then I moved off campus and over the next several years as I finished school, began working, and all along lived in shared houses with other students and friends, I bought and sold equipment and renewed my system, with a pair of Mission 737 Renaissance loudspeakers (would LOVE to find another pair) and a Yamaha A500 integrated amp (also one I’d nostalgically love again). The SL-220 stayed with me throughout. Somewhere in there I also got into CDs.
In the early ‘90s, the economy in Ontario sucked. I had a strong interest in Japan, and an interest in teaching, and I decided to combine the two and move there as an ESL teacher.
Sold all my gear. Sold my records. Sold most of my CDs. Flew west to get to the East. Arrived in Sapporo with about 10 “desert island” CDs and no system. Tiny apartments with paper-thin walls and a nomadic existence over the next ten years (7 years in the Land of Rising Tech, and 3 in the UK) saw me limited to mini-component systems (JVC, Onkyo, Denon, Sony), portable MD players, and later laptop, MP3s and powered speakers. This certainly represented a period of “make do,” but I stayed addicted to music (and somehow got into jazz) in spite of everything.
Fast forward to the early 2000s. Now married, my wife and I moved back to Japan. Tokyo to be precise. Bought a good-sized condo on the outskirts of town, about as far from the central business districts as it was possible to be and still have a Tokyo postal code. Now we had space, and I had 3 hours of commuting daily on jam-packed trains and subways.
Space meant a “real” home system. Commuting meant portable. Thankfully the iPod was released soon after our Tokyo return, and without its soothing influence on my commutes, I honestly might have ended up in jail for assault or something worse as I battled heaving throngs on trains and in stations.
The oasis of home welcomed a simple system: Marantz PM4001 integrated amp and Bowers & Wilkins DM601 S3 speakers, with a laptop or iPod as my CD/MP3 source. A nice, modern, clean system.
Still thinnish walls, so never pushed hard. Satisfactory but not overwhelming. Good for our situation.
Five years later another move, this time back to Canada and Calgary. The Marantz and B&Ws came with us. They continued to supply musical sustenance in a low-volume world in our new condo here. Another five years and we were ready to purchase our first house. Single family dwelling. Space. No need to worry about neighbors and noise. Time to dream about a dedicated audio room and a really decent system.
At about that time, I got into vintage audio. Funny how these things happen. I’d just “dropped out” of the headphone game. I visited my mom in Vancouver and discovered she still had the Technics SA-500 from when we first came to Canada (sitting unused under the sofa for 20-plus years). It came home with me. Coincidentally, my brother contacted me soon after and asked if I knew how best to get rid of his Sansui AU-555 amplifier (given to him by his boss at his first part-time job in high school). My suggestion? “Sure, give it to me!” That too became part of my collection.
Both vintage pieces were cosmetically beautiful, but in poor working condition. Into the local vintage audio shop they went for service. Two re-caps (replacement of end-of-life capacitors) later, went to pick up both pieces. The shop hooked them up – first one, then the other – to a pair of early ‘80s B&W 1200s for a sound test. My jaw hit the floor. Organic, beautiful, vintage sound. Not an evolution, but a revolution in my thinking about audio.
And the rest, as they say, is history. We’ve since moved into our house. I have my dedicated audio room. I’ve amassed a collection of vintage audio pieces, and have begun growing a vinyl collection again (lots of jazz) after 26 years as a digital nomad. And I’ve changed my Instagram handle to @AudioLoveYYC.
I’m looking forward to writing for you about vintage audio. I want to keep the focus on the love of music and vintage audio as a lifestyle. It won’t be too technical. I’ll wax poetic about growing my system, and how you can grow yours. I’ll delve into systems that fit different kinds of environments. I’ll venture every now and then into record collecting, and particularly into the music I love (certainly lots on jazz). I hope you’ll join me for the ride.