COMMENTARY

Ralph Gardner Jr.: Nothing says Christmas like a '60s-era KLH Model 11 22-gauge speaker wire

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GHENT, N.Y. — Christmas arrived early this year, courtesy of Amazon, as much does these days, when I opened a mailing envelope containing a KLH Model 11 22-gauge speaker wire dating back to the Johnson administration. I purchased it on eBay.

This may not sound like the kind of gift that makes small children, let alone large adults, jump for joy on Christmas morning and believe ever more ardently in Santa.

However, the nondescript white cord did serve a useful purpose. It got my high school stereo, which has been out of commission for many months, running again. The functioning speaker wire, replacing one that didn’t, was the last piece of the puzzle.

This is not a story celebrating the superiority of vinyl over all subsequent audio technologies. For all I know, vinyl is indeed superior. But I don’t possess the musical discernment to tell. Whether I’m listening to music on my record player, the radio, or coming through some other device courtesy of Pandora or Spotify it all sounds great to me.

Also, I’m not one of those audiophiles whose copy of the White Album is as pristine as the long ago day I ripped away its cellophane wrapping.

There are scratches, smudges, warping, as well as innumerable wounds caused by the tone arm dropping onto the record from a significant height or skating across the record’s surface. And let’s not get started on the stylus. That hasn’t been changed since Madonna first sang “Like a Virgin.”

My stereo wasn’t state of the art even back when I received it as a birthday present from my parents. If it deserves bragging rights, beyond the fact that it still survives, that’s only because it’s luggable. The turntable and speakers fit together into something that resembles a large, chunky gray Samsonite attaché case.

You may also be asking yourself where does one, or at least this loser, go to get his stereo repaired, since expertise let alone spare parts are increasingly difficult to find.

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I had the same question when it returned from its last visit to the repair shop. Turns out that my longtime repairman, who I tracked down at his retirement home, had lost his touch.

The turntable did rotate, only not at 33 ⅓ RPM. That’s the maddening thing about music: Even if it’s playing just a nanosecond too slow, you can tell the difference.

Fortunately, I finally found someplace else that condescended to fix the unit.

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It’s called Waves. Waves is more an antique shop than a stereo store, located in Manhattan’s West Twenties. It probably says something about my equipment that these days Waves survives less by repairing stereos than by renting out its equipment — things like 1930s standing microphones with the NBC call flag and dial pay phones — to Hollywood studios making period films and TV shows.

You’d think that this information alone, apart from the amount of time and money my stereo has lately been costing, would get me to throw in the towel. Especially since I’ve experienced the ease of music streaming, even though I have so far refused to pay for the service, and find all those ads for erectile dysfunction cures rather exasperating and overly targeted.

Why don’t I just bite the bullet and pay for my music, as my wife and children often beg me to do? It’s not because I’m cheap. Actually, I am cheap. But that’s not the primary reason I refuse to pay up. It’s because there’s a certain magic about music that comes at you unexpectedly, randomly. It’s somehow more precious than a playlist over which you exercise total curatorial power.

When a favorite song turns up on the radio, the enchantment you experience is of something as much overheard as heard.

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Admittedly, some of that serendipity is lost when I replay the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas or Jefferson Airplane on my stereo for the umpteenth time. At least according to my spouse.

However, carefully placing a record on my turntable, watching the stylus gently descend onto the playing surface and the living room fill with music, offers a sense of completion.

You’ve no longer a passive listener but a minor yet indispensable participant in the art-making process.

Sometimes I’ll put on a song — say the Beatles’ “Blackbird” or Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth” — and ask my grown children if they’ve ever heard it. This is a joke, of course. They’ve heard it and not just because they’ve been listening to my stereo since they were infants.

The same songs are also on their devices, as well as more recent stuff. It’s not because I’ve brainwashed them. It’s because the Sixties and Seventies constituted a golden age of music. Not unlike Vienna in the 19th Century.

In fact, when their friends visit they get excited by my retro record collection and my KLH Model 11 stereo.

So I feel something of a moral obligation to keep using it and fixing it. For art. For history. For the holidays.

Ralph Gardner Jr. is a journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and The New Yorker who can be reached at ralph@ralphgardner.com.


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