13 November, 2020

Start of my audiophile journey

Letter from Hungary (20-02)

In bigger cities of Hungary, there's a system in place which can be described as municipal bulky waste collection. In even more descriptive terms: the purgatory for stuff that you relegated to the attic, basement or the darkest, most unreachable corners of whatever storage facility you have 2-10 years ago, because you successfully convinced yourself that it _will_ be good for _something_. This rationalization then neatly masks the fact that you can't get to terms with loss of value and/or emotional departure. But feelings eventually fade out, and the day comes when you finally say goodbye to that possibly ok-ish faucet which you rescued the last time you renovated the bathroom along with the broken chair that, sadly, could not rise to the occasion and be good for _something_.

I loved these events, as I could discover time and again that someone else's trash could be my treasure and be endlessly fascinated by my findings. Apparently I wasn't alone with this as roaming the city at night to browse through heaps of stuff before it was collected in the morning became an event onto itself. And on one spring afternoon in the city of Pécs, an old Tesla turntable appeared in the purgatory.

Let's diverge: a little Tesla history. For those of you who are not yet familiar with communist-era Czechoslovakian turntable industry, Tesla was the state-owned, consumer electronics manufacturer in the country operating until 1989. This means two things: First, due to the peculiarities of the era's economic system, you've already learnt about every player of the Czechoslovakian turntable industry. Second, Tesla turntables were designed and built for the masses, definitely not for the "discerning audiophile", therefore they were not particularly renowned for their sound quality. They played the approved records and the cool stuff form Yugoslavia and mostly that was it. However, two models were supposed to be good enough to be sellable in the West, but these were marketed under different brand names: both the NAD 5120 and Lenco L-802 was basically a Tesla NC 470 while the Lenco L-500 was in fact a Tesla NC 500. Try to spot the differences in the photos below!

Tesla NC 500 (Source: phono.cz)
Lenco L500 (Source: lencoheaven.net)


The idea was to market the Lenco version in the West and the Tesla in the countries of the Eastern block but typical of the era, not much went according to plan. So much so, that in Hungary both versions were available simultaneously. To add a little bit more confusion to the story, the L-500 was also available in an upgraded version (white plinth, different platter, cabling, modified tonearm and better cartridge were included), which was in fact only available in the Western countries and was also simply called L-500. According to reports of the Hungarian hifimagazine, only this latter, upgraded version was up to audiophile standards.

So how many incarnations a turntable can have? - I hear you asking. This is a valid question, but I'm not sure if there's a universally fixed number for this. What I do know is that the NC 500 had one more, which turned out to be the most successful. Have a look at the Pro-Ject P1 below.

Pro-Ject P1

It looks familiar, doesn't it? Yes, you've guessed right, this is also the NC 500 in yet another disguise. In fact, one could argue that the NC 500 was the ancestor of the current Debut line in Pro-Ject's portfolio. This could happen because after the fall of the Iron Courtain, Tesla ceased operation as a sate owned electronics manufacturer and the turntable division - including remaining stock and tooling - was acquired by an Austrian businessman, Hans Lichtenegger, who then started his own company, the now well-known Pro-Ject.

My Tesla wasn't an NC 500, it was one of their lesser models, but unfortunately I can't remember the exact model number. I can't even say anything about its sound, as I've practically never listened to it. Right after I found it, I checked if the motor and the mechanics work. They did. Unexpectedly, I also found out that on ordinary line input is not suitable for turntables. I had a lot to learn! I badly wanted a suitable amp for my turntable so I went online to figure out what I need exactly and what are my options. I soon realised that I'm probably better off with visiting hifi shops. This turned out partially true as my limited budget and lack of experience triggered some sort of weird arrogance in some dealers, which I found very off-putting. It must be said that to this day, my relationship with dealers remains a bit of hit-and-miss. That said, I did met very helpful dealers and I actually managed to buy a decent, second-hand integrated with phono input from a shop. This was from a fairly unknown Italian company called Aeron. The amp was their A4 model.

Aeron A4 integrated amplifier (Source: audio4.it)

Since at the time I was busy surviving without having a boring 9-to-5 job and making sure that I'm regular to minimal techno parties on Wednesdays besides the weekends, I had very little left for speakers. Of course I wanted floorstanders, because my techno records needed bass and because they looked more serious. This is where I made my first mistake, because I ended up with a pair of floorstanders from a home theater series from Swedish brand, Eltax, simply because they were affordable. They were not terrible at all, but in hindsight I could have done better at that point. And I also believe that I could never actually hear what the Aeron was capable of. To be completely honest, I don't even consider my first setup being a system per se, rather than a bunch of components connected to each other and to electricity. However, the setup proved to be a quite effective gateway drug.

By the time I got home with my phono-capable integrated, the belt on my Tesla became so loose that it could hardly spin the platter. Most likely the turntable hasn't been on room temperature for years before and the new thermal conditions were just too much for poor 20+-year old rubber belt. I've tried my best to find a replacement, but I ultimately failed. I gave the Tesla to a friend who likely used it for some of art project.

The next logical step? To buy a more advanced Tesla, the NAD 5120, of course! Since this was the go-to turntable pre-'89 for Hungarian audiophiles, it is very easy to find on the second-hand market for very low prices. The 5120 was routinely modified by Hungarian audiophiles, but mine was in its original condition with the flat tonearm and intact plinth. I liked it's quirkiness quite a bit, less so its sound. It was unable to deliver the drive, weight and bass that I heard in the clubs and at friends' places from Technics 1210s. Eventually, I sold the NAD and bought a Pro-Ject RPM1 instead. It was much better than the NAD, as it played a significant portion of my collection quite enjoyably. Yet it still sounded bland, gray, boring playing the rest of my collection. Truth to be told, I enjoyed listening to my iPod through headphones a lot more than the turntable and when it came to my portable Sony minidisc palyer, there was absolutely no contest.

NAD 5120 (Source: zstereo.co.uk)


Soon after I acquired the Pro-Ject, a pretty hectic period started in my life with lots of moving involved. Hifi was not a priority. In fact there were several periods when my equipment and records were all boxed up and tucked away in a corner for months. When this ended, I found myself alone in a lovely, rented flat in downtown Budapest that was all mine. I concluded this was the end of a period in my life, and it's time for a fresh start. In cases like this, I have a tendency for big, symbolic gestures to mark the moment or something along these lines. Some have a radical haircut. I sold every piece of hifi I had. I only kept my iPod, a pair of earphones and my turntable.

My first system Once I had a clean slate prepared, I started again from scratch with one clear goal in mind: to build a system this time. I knew I still had some homework to do, so I started reading online magazines, blogs, frequent to forums, visit shops and homes to have a listen to systems which were set up by experienced listeners. Admittedly the latter was a rare occassion, because honestly, I couldn't really relate to most of the people in the local hifi community. Way too many dogmas, arrogance, frustration for my liking. I prefer a more easy-going, relaxed and open minded attitude. I'm in it for joy. So I was pretty much left with reading. This of course led to information overload. It was time to act. The problem was, I still had no idea what to do exactly. So I figured, I'm going to do this in my own way, I'll take my time, because there's no rush to make the ultimate decision right now. What I need now - I reasoned - was a solid baseline, a good reference point against which everything else can be evaluated.

So I set out to build such a system. I wanted a fairly neutral and transparent sound to facilitate future evaluations. I also wanted components from well-known manufacturers, so that they could be easily resold if need be. I decided to keep spending as low as possible and only buy stuff that was easily affordable to me. I wanted to avoid a situation in which I might start convincing myself that "this stuff must be great, because you spent a lot on it!". Finally, I liberated myself from all opinions and "common wisdoms" and bought stuff that truly "talked to me" in one way or another. Eventually I bought a Yamaha A-S500 integrated and the matching S300 CD player. These were demo units from a shop, so I could buy them for half the retail price. I loved and still love the looks of Yamaha integrateds, so I could tick the "talk to me" box as well.

After congratulating myself for being compliant with my own purchase specification in case of the amp and the CD player, the tight process control immediately slacked a little bit and I bought speakers from a relatively unknown German manufacturer. This was the Nubert nuBox 483. I say relatively unknown manufacturer, because they are apparently quite popular in their home country, but not so much beyond borders of Germany. This is due to the fact the Nubert does not seem to be interested growing further: while they mostly rely on direct online sales, their website is only available in German. They don't advertise in US/UK magazines, English reviews of their products are scarce. However, I really liked what little I read about them as well as the engineering-based approach to product design and the obvious restrain from growing the company larger than it's comfortable to its founder. Finally, I loved the short, stocky cabinet and especially the big, 8" mid-bass drivers.

One iteration of a system: Yamaha, Pro-Ject, Nubert

Later on, I added the Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable together with a Schiit Mani phono and - as streaming became increasingly prominent in my life - Schiit Modi 2 Über DAC. All cabling was from Van Damme.

In hindsight, this system provided exactly, what I expected and needed at the time. Most importantly, for the very first time, I indeed felt that I have a hifi system and I acted accordingly. I cared about placement, cabling, support, etc. I started paying attention to finer details of the performance. I tested various components in that system, and I could observe differences. I knew that this is now a level, where the basics are covered.

Would I do something differently, if I were back in time and I had to start over again? No, I still believe that I chose a sensible approach. But I would worry far less. I reckon that choosing components for a first system is among the toughest decision one faces on the audiophile journey. That is, when you are actually there with your limited experience and - likely - budget and have to make up your mind whether to go with component A or B. And you probably heard them in two completely different systems 3 weeks apart. If at all. Today, I would recommend my younger self to have fun and consider the first system as such: a first, that will be followed by others. From that first system, I've already sold the amp - and to be frank, I missed the looks more than the sound. I passed on the DAC to a collague, as I often found myself preferring the built-in Burr-Brown DAC of my humble Yamaha CD player. And the speakers also had to go, even though that was a difficult decision to make since I have a tendency to antrophomorphize objects which are close to my heart. And you just don't toss away a friend, just because you don't go out together so often any more, right? But on the very same token, eventually it just saddened me to see those lovely speakers tucked away in corner collecting dust, instead of bringing pleasure and joy to someone day by day. Luckily, they were bought by someone, who really appreciates them and that ultimately makes me much more happier than me owning them for the sake of owning.

6 comments:

  1. What a delight! Like you said before, people are more alike than different! I can relate to much of that sentiment. When I started, there was no internet, so I ended up with a pair of HORRIBLE loudspeakers, which nonetheless accompanied me for almost 6 years. Nonetheless, when I was living in the medical school dormitory, I was regarded as the "expert" and helped at least 2 people buy their systems!

    I also love what could be found on the streets. All the chairs in my old Manhattan apartment were picked up from the streets. Lovely they were. Not much hifi though...I did pick up a Marantz receiver for $20 but spent $80 repairing it!

    I'll never sell my first turntable, the Pioneer PL-10, still competitive!

    We know Tesla more as a vacuum tube manufacturer.

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    1. first thought - where did I end up? - furniture from the garbage can - this is the bottom ... But then another thought arose - probably he is a brave guy and runs fast - these chairs are from a street cafe)))

      You can't stop a real music lover! and the coolest was this

      https://youtu.be/xWeb7i8IjYs

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    2. The tube division of Tesla also survived. That became JJ Electronic.

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  2. Very interesting narrative. Everyday life beyond the iron curtain is still almost a mystery in the West. (Even though I knew a few people who were brave enough to visit the DDR.)
    Eastern block manufacturing allowed for some business opportunities after the fall of the USSR and mr. Lichtenegger is a remarkable example, since he has been smart enough to become the no. 1 turntable producer in the world.
    I wonder how much of the old Tesla went into the P1 and then the various Debut incarnations. If I just look at the pictures (I have never ever touched any of those turntables, and it would be difficult now to find very detailed technical descriptions all the models) the tonearm seems the part that has been changed more and more, many times. In fact the P1 tonearm looks completely different from the Tesla, starting with the headshell. And they're still improving tonearms and changing materials.
    Another part that's subject to changes is the platter, especially the platter material.
    A comparison would be interesting, at least for history of technology's sake, if only anyone were able to make it.

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    1. As for comparisons, I can only rely on two reports posted on vinylengine, both stating that the P1 is actually a somewhat downgraded version of the Tesla. Whether it's nostalgia talking, or it was indeed the case - we will likely never know.

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  3. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZRGox-EwZRY

    Argentina - 3 days of mourning ((

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