Music systems I have lived with: part 4

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The hostel lounge

I joined the IIT at Bombay in 1984, and within a few months, I heard that our hostel would be replacing its music system in its lounge, using the hostel funds collected from students over the years. I was instantly interested in knowing what we would buy. The Music Secretary of the hostel, who handled the music system in the lounge among other things, was a friendly final-year chap named Advani, and we got along well. So, after a lot of discussion, the hostel bought a new system. I do not remember its price, but it was far more expensive than the Sonodyne system I had seen and used at home. I seem to have vague recollections of a total bill of thirty to forty thousand rupees.

This one had the same Sonodyne turntable as the one I had at home. It also had a Sonodyne tape deck, with metal tape support. The tape transport's controls were all mechanical --- if you pressed one of the piano-key-type switches hard, you could see the tape head moving up and down by a millimetre or two. That was the beginning of my aversion for mechanical piano-key controls for tape transports.

The amp and speakers were by Sony's Indian arm at the time, called Sony Orson. The amp had the words "Legato Linear" written on its front panel, and was quite powerful. The front panel had LEDs and push buttons for controls. There were no rotary knobs at all. These push buttons proved to be very robust and well suited to the rigour of hostel life, where the system saw two or three hours of loud playing time every evening. The speakers were three-way bass reflex floorstanders. I wish someone more knowledgeable about Sony Legato Linear amps would point me to some more information about this system.

How was the sound of the system? I somehow cannot say for sure, because it is difficult to get on intimate terms with a music system in a hostel lounge, where late-night denizens hang around playing chess or carrom till three in the morning every morning. So, my memories of the music system are that it used to play very loud, without any of the limitations of the Sonodyne system at home. The bass was good enough to lay the foundation for a party in the lounge. At two in the night, when someone played Judas Priest or Dire Straits on the system, you could take a walk around the Gym grounds and hear the sound from five hundred metres away.

We all used this system heavily, till I graduated in 1988. One of the legacies of this system is the collection of TDK and Sony cassettes I recorded on this system, from LPs the hostel owned, or from cassettes that my friends owned. I still have most of those cassettes, and they sound lovely even today.

The Akai boombox

I graduated in 1988, and began earning a living and paying my bills. I got married in 1992. CDs hit the Indian market. But I never had a music system, not even a cassette player, till 1997. This is because I never had the money to buy anything I liked.

In 1997, my wife and I decided that a life totally without any music system seemed silly beyond a point. So we would buy something which we would discard eventually, but which would at least allow us to listen to music in some shape, however mediocre. Therefore we set a clear goal for ourselves: we would go looking for the least expensive boombox which would play both CDs and cassettes. I added another refinement to this goal: I wanted something which would have logic controls for the mechanical movements of the cassette decks: I believed that solenoid-controlled logic-driven cassette mechanisms were more reliable and more precise than purely mechanical, spring-loaded mechanisms.

With this clear specification in mind, and with relatively little emotional investment, we went visiting the boombox and TV shops of Vashi, in New Bombay, where we then lived. We found an Akai system, with the lightest plastic speaker enclosures you can imagine, but it played both CDs and cassettes, and had a full-function remote control. It also had a tuner to boot. The speaker enclosures were probably nine to ten inches tall. We paid seven thousand and five hundred rupees for it --- this was 1997. As per the exchange rate prevalent at that time, I believe this sum would have translated to about USD 200. As per today's exchange rates, this sum would be about USD 150.

The PMPO revolution had hit the audio system market, so our tiny system was rated at some 400W PMPO, if I recall correctly. The specs page said that the system had a peak power rating of 3W RMS/channel. Go figure.

Not for one moment did I feel that the sound quality of this system came close to the Sonodyne system I had heard at home. But then, that was not expected. And I had acquired a deep aversion to merely the look of these plastic speaker enclosures --- in my eyes, speakers were not worth touching with a bargepole unless they are finished in wood-finish. This was just my reaction to all the grey and silver finishes on the boomboxes I saw around me, together with their aerodrome displays and Turbo Bass Boost buttons.

This system signalled the start of a very important era for my home music listening. It did not have a turntable, but it had support for CDs. The epoch had changed. This was also the first system I bought without the knowledge or participation of my parents.

I used it till 2000, when we purchased our current music system. After 2000, I gave it to my parents, who are still using it occasionally. The laser in the CD transport has grown weak; it frequently fails to detect a CD when one is inserted in the drive. The rest of the system is working reliably, including the cassette deck.

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