Buying or collecting stereo equipment, like other hobbies such as golf, frivolous litigation, autocrossing, travel or elective surgery requires disposable income. Given that my peer group (late thirties, early forties) is generally out of the day-care expenditure phase (or close to it- I can think of some folks counting the days), one would think that the people I know who are so inclined would generally have more to spend on stereo gear. Unfortunately, given the current economic climate and the promise of higher taxes on what little is earned in the very near future, we find ourselves in a position relative to consumer electronics purchases not that different from when we first entered the workforce. As a newly employed college grad in 1989 or 1990, it was unlikely that you were earning enough to purchase new stereo gear from the likes of Conrad Johnson, Mark Levinson or McIntosh (did all of those companies exist in 89? I know McIntosh did, and I think CJ started in the late seventies) while at the same time renting that first non-slum apartment, replacing Aunt Edna's 67 Volvo wagon that faithfully got you back and forth to school on only 2 quarts of oil a day, and starting to pay off the student loan debt you incurred (for fun and extra-credit, calculate what each slept-through class cost you, with interest).
So, many of us turned to less-expensive Japanese brands for gear that was a step-above the once-piece rack system with pressboard sides and wood-vinyl decals that could be purchased at Sears or Service Merchandise (remember them?). For the most part, many of those brands are still with us today, such as Sony, Pioneer, Yamaha, Denon and Onkyo. Alas, many others, such as Sansui, Nakamichi, Aiwa, Akai and Kenwood no longer have the market presence in home stereo they once had. Japan had not yet entered into the "Lost Decade," which began when the period of Japan's post-war miraculous economic growth abruptly ended. A combination of unreasonably high land valuation and very low interest rates leading to excessive speculation and easy availability of credit created a bubble. After the bubble burst, economic growth ground to a halt (sound familiar?). Banks disappeared, the Nikkei crashed, and corporations saddled with debt lost the capabilities of capital investment they had formerly enjoyed. In reality, Japan has still not recovered, which should be a sobering thought for those in the US who watch helplessly as the Federal government blunders and bloviates its way into a Keynesian non-solution to our own problems.
Prior to the massive loss of investment capital at the start of the Lost Decade, Japanese consumer electronics corporations were free to invest in new technologies and design exercises that advanced the state of the art in stereo. Many masterpieces of audio gear were created during this time, and for the best overview available on the web, I highly recommend: http://www.thevintageknob.org/ if you enjoy reading this site at all, then a visit to TVK should be considered mandatory. Those "audiophiles" (yes, that's a disparaging usage) who dismiss Japanese stereo equipment of that era are not acknowledging the fact that the Japanese recognized the demand for their products overseas and aggressively pursued it ( in 1984, consumer electronics outpaced car exports- see: Burton and Saelens, (1987). Japanese Strategies for Serving Overseas Markets: The Case for Electronics. In Management International Review [online] available: http://www.jstor.org/pss/40227856). Government support was available to further the industry's efforts. More importantly for the budget-minded consumer, the Japanese consumer electronics industry was consciously pursuing a: "value-added" strategy which allowed many expensive, esoteric and innovative technologies in premium stereo gear to trickle-down to lesser product lines. Which explains my love of almost everything Sony made for their ES (Elevated Standard) line from 1984 to 1990. Again, check out TVK to see some great examples of what I mean.
Which brings us to D.'s $40 Denon PMA-720 Integrated Amplifier. As I've mentioned in previous posts, D. has a killer listening room with an all Wharfedale surround system run by a Pioneer Elite AVR. We have had many listening sessions in D.'s room and typically the sound is very, very good. But as you may remember from our May 10, 2010 post, we recently learned that a small NAD C350 Integrated Amp really made D.'s Wharfedale Diamond 9.6 towers sing in ways the Pioneer AVR never could, whether in direct mode or with processing. The NAD was not as powerful nor did it have the measurement clout that the Pioneer had but the evidence was in the listening (alright, alright, in deferrence to subjective reviews MAYBE I will keep my subscription to the Absolute Sound, but I am so sick of Fremer and Dudley's nonsense, that my sub to Stereophile is toast. It's a good thing- strangers won't see copies of the magazine on the table and think I listen with my pants off). That night, D. decided he would get a two channel. I figured he would spend a great deal of time hunting, but that was not to be.
A short while later, D. scored a Denon PMA-720, circa 1988 (although they made them through 1991, I believe, and I don't have the info on where in the production run this particular example was created). The PMA-720 is a small, 90 wpc amp that is capable (according to the little I could find on it) of driving difficult speaker impedance loads, and uses an optical circuit to optomize its bias current (the optical circuit invented by the famous Amercian Amp designer, Nelson Pass- the same Pass who licensed his "Stasis" design to Nakamichi, and was used famously in their entry-level two channel receivers of the same era). For $40, the thing looks like all it really needs is a decent cleaning of the faceplate. It's in that good a condition, certainly much better than anything one might find at the local thrift shops. D. hooked it up to a brand new Onkyo C-S5VL SACD player (I will devote an entire post to that machine when I can) which is a very slick piece of kit in and of itself.
We listened for over an hour, but I'm only going to refer to one piece of music. In 1988, I saw Wynton Marsalis play at the Niagara University Gallagher Center, and Marcus Roberts was his pianist at the time. I had never heard of Roberts, but the very next day I went out and bought his album: "Deep In the Shed." Find it here:
This disc has been at every equipment audition I have been on for 20 years, and in that time I have never purchased a new piece of gear without hearing tracks 1 and 4 on the potential purchase first. The key is, as you may have read in my April 15 post, it's pretty hard to express music in linguistic terms, but there is no denying when you FEEL something. At that concert I felt blown away by that ensemble, and by the tracks Roberts played from the album. To this day, when I listen to the disc, I get a little bit of that night back. At the same time, when I listen to the album played back on a system that is really dialed in, the experience is that much better. So that's how it was on the Denon/Onkyo combo. More than when I had heard any of the album on the Pioneer, I felt excited about the music in the way I had when I heard it live. The million dollar question of course is: WHY?
Simply, I don't really know. I can hazard a guess or two, though. D. and I both agreed that the Denon must have been built with a totally different purpose in mind than any AVR, and no matter how obvious that sounds, it shouldn't be taken for granted. Denon meant that for the $500 1989 USD that the PMA-720 cost, it should sound as good at playing back 2-channel sources as possible. The Pioneer, in contrast, has that mission plus the need to process a bazillion different soundfields, decode numerous audio for video formats PLUS the video, and be THX certified as well, for what that's worth. All designed to meet a particular price-point in a very highly competitive market. The Pioneer also has to contend with the possibility that the industry will change as home theater often does, so it has to be able to cope with some of this change in order to be considered a viable purchase (not that that is really possible- just anyone who's tried to recoup any of the purchase price of a non -HDMI equipped AV receiver recently). There simply isn't the real estate inside the Pioneer AVR to have the audio-grade components that are a luxury in even a cheap integrated like the Denon. Bottom line is, they're different animals.
The complaints of audio snobs about Japanese "Plastic Black Boxes" (or more disparaging labels) that can't play music that were not justified in the past may be ringing more true today. It's hard to say. But in order to clarify things, one needs to compare apples with apples, and the Denon PMA-720 is a pretty rare beast today in the stable of the Japanese giants. The Yamaha AS series (highly reviewed, BTW), Pioneer Elite A-35R and Onkyo A-V5L are among the few. There are some digital two channels as well, such as the Onkyo A-9555, and the Sony STR DA1500ES stereo receiver, but overall the inexpensive Japanese 2 channel market is occupied by tumble weeds. So, for those in the know (and that's now YOU, dear reader), the used market is the only place to turn, but we can't all be as lucky as D. (a $40 amp and the sex appeal of Antonio Banderas. Some guys have all of the. . .)
Today, globalization and corporate consolidations (Harman kardon, Denon and Marantz are all under the same ownership, for example) have impacted on the pursuit of a market almost completely integrated with video, in the form of home theater. Consumers have fewer dollars, so home audio equipment is more and more a compromise between quality playback and a comprehensive set of features that will appeal to buyers and include the latest gadgets. The results have been less than encouraging, as the DVD-A and SACD, BluRay and HD-DVD format wars have shown. Technologies come to market that are not optomized for sound quality such as earler versions of HDMI or the early adoption of high-jitter USB for the transfer of computer audio files. The upside is that many of the gems made in the eighties were built to last, and like my TA-F444ES, with a thorough cleaning and a few judicious upgrades can easily hold their own against any reasonably priced AVR. So if you're interested in hearing your favorite tunes closer to the way they were meant to be heard, cruise eBay for a cheap integrated or 2-channel receiver. Drop an e-mail if you're looking for some reccomendations. Just don't expect to win that Sony Champagne TA-F808ES in mint condition. I'm prepared to set a maximum bid that will make your eyes water.