I have just had this missive sent to me by a long term customer who asked if there was space for it on this website. Now it paints Lyric and me in a very good light so of course there is space for it! It sums up beautifully how and why we work like this.
Thanks Alastair, owe you a coffee!
Ever had an experience where all the stars seem to align? I had one recently, courtesy of a trip to Lyric Hifi, an online vinyl purchase and a wet Saturday afternoon with just me and the dog at home.
My relationship with Lyric Hifi goes back to my student-teacher days in the early eighties when I arrived into Michael McClean’s shop (then on the Stranmillis Road in Belfast), with most of my first term’s grant cashed-in and stuffed in the pocket of my recently acquired Navy-surplus trench coat. Rather than investing in coursework books, a teaching-practice suit or other such nonsense, Michael ended up with most of my grant in his till, in exchange for a pair of nearly-new Mission speakers and a well-broken-in Marantz amplifier. These I hooked up to my dodgy Sony cassette player and a slightly ropy Technics turntable, all of which entertained me extremely well throughout my college days and well into my early teaching years. For me this was the era of Tubular Bells (Mike Oldfield), Discovery (ELO) and Horslips - The Belfast Gigs (live at the Whitla Hall). Back then Michael was not a high-pressure salesman, and he remains the same today - he sets up some gear in the listening room at a price-point to suit your pocket and lets the equipment speak for itself. If you want the technical info, he has it. If you just want to listen, he’ll let you do that too, and he’ll even provide you with a decent coffee.
So after 35 years of audio adventures - never sailing into super-expensive waters, but often making modest upgrades, I arrived back with Michael, (now set up in a gloriously and very expensively cluttered loft on the Lisburn Road) looking to reboot my relationship with vinyl. Over the years I had given away most of my records and my turntable got assigned to the attic when CDs became a thing. I brought with me my trusty Meridian F80 all-in-one system which for the past decade I had mostly been using to play my, by now very large, iTunes library through the Meridian’s iPhone dock. I was hoping to trade it for an amp, speakers and a decent turntable, and also had a notion that it might be time to consider a streaming service. So after a parallel experience to the one I’d had in the 80’s: a half-hour chill-out in the listening room, a few amp, speaker and turntable auditions, a decent coffee and an enjoyable haggle over the trade-in value of the Meridian, my pocket was once again emptied.
But I’m a very happy man: now on the sofa with a sleeping dog, listening to The Secret of Climbing (Stephen Fearing) (Rega Records) on a Rega Planar 3 turntable with an Elys 2 cartridge, through a Cyrus One amplifier to a pair of KEF Q350 speakers mounted on Linn stands. I’m also able to switch remotely between the warmth of analogue and the precision of digital, as the Cyrus amp came with a Google Chromecast WiFi streamer and a 6 month subscription to Tidal, through which I can stream recordings in master-quality, controlled by my phone.
Was the turntable a worthwhile purchase or just a nostalgic indulgence? Well it speaks for itself, especially when playing that Stephen Fearing record, which was engineered by Roy Gandy himself (owner of Rega Research) in his own home studio onto analogue tape, with the one aim being to capture the intimacy of the original live performance. Close your eyes, and Mr Fearing is pretty much in the room with you. And when I put on Mike Oldfield and Horslips (repurchased and remastered), well I’m back in my student digs, but I’m also hearing detail that my ancient Technics turntable could never have picked out (especially as the stylus would have been battling it’s way through fag ash and home-brew spillages to plough it’s way dto the music.) And the WiFi streaming experience? I’m quite blown away by the quality, depth and detail of some of Tidal’s ‘master-quality’ offerings - a significant step up from iTunes via Bluetooth - and when I move those solidly built KEF Q350 speakers away from the walls and crank up the volume - well the dog has to be banished to the garden so she doesn’t see me playing my air guitar.
I can still enjoy my iTunes collection too, albeit that some tracks sound thin at high volume compared to the Tidal masters, or to a well-engineered piece of vinyl. I was a reluctant subscriber to streaming - I still prefer ‘owning’ my music, but I have taken the plunge and through my £20 per month subscription I am constantly discovering new music, plus rediscovering old, re-mastered gems.
I would say I’m content, but of course young Ross, the audio engineer who Michael keeps mostly hidden in the attic has promised to keep his eyes peeled for a traded-in Cyrus or Rega CD player to compliment my system. And would those KEF floorstanders he showed me pick out more bass?
Dammit Michael, you’re just too good at the long game!
Great sound quality, great music and great musical experiences are separate things, yet intertwined, and subjective and elusive. But when the stars align - that’s what makes it a life-long hobby.