The old and the new

Pioneer amp

My stereo consists of a 1979 Pioneer amplifier, a 1990 NAD compact disc player, and a pair of Magnepan speakers from 1991. The combination gives warm, full sound, and I’ve never had an urge to update. Affordable modern equipment looks so plasticky and sounds hard to my ears, too boosted in the bass range and too shrill in the treble. It’s possible to get the same kind of sound I’m used to, but only by spending more euros than we have at hand. Why bother?

But having an amp that dates back to 1979 does pose some problems. It only has one auxiliary jack, which the CD player is plugged into, and things like Airplay and streaming music might as well have been part of a Jetsons cartoon when this amp was built.

For a while, I used an Airport Express plugged into the auxiliary jack to play music from my iTunes collection, but it was a pain in the butt to switch the cables back from the Airport Express to the CD player every time I wanted to play a new disc. We tried a cable switch box, but it was cheaply made and stopped working after a few months. Eventually I gave up and simply played iTunes on my office computer speakers, and CDs on the living room system. The Airport Express was repurposed into turning a USB printer into a wireless printer. A few years later, we bought a new wireless printer and the Airport Express no longer had a reason for living. It languished, unloved and unwanted, in the living room bookcase.

Then came Spotify. We’re late on this bandwagon, having finally tried it just a couple of months ago, but this month we decided to bite the bullet and buy a premium subscription. I am wowed by the vast library of music now at my fingertips, and my office speakers are no longer good enough. This stuff needs to be on the Pioneer amp and the Magnepan speakers.

This morning I picked up my six-year-old Airport Express, dusted it off, and plugged it in. No go. The utility software on my MacBook Air wouldn’t talk to it — the device is now “legacy” and has been left behind by current software. Undaunted, I tracked down and installed the older utility software, only to find that it wouldn’t run on the current operating system. Okay, fine. I tracked down a hack that changed a library file in the old utility, enabling it to run on my system. That worked, and I happily set about configuring my Airport Express. Everything worked great until the very end, when the Express was supposedly resetting itself with the new configuration. It spun its wheels until finally timing out, and the next time I tried, the utility couldn’t even find the device. A manual reset of the Express allowed me to try to configure it again, which ended in precisely the same result.

Grrr. Time for the nuclear option.

I hauled out my 2004 PowerBook, booted it up, and connected it to the Airport Express with an Ethernet cable. Then I fired up its old utility and boom, it found the Express immediately. I configured it in about three minutes, reset it, and watched in glee as the blinking amber light on the Express turned green.

Time for the acid test. I pulled up Sarah Vaughn on Spotify (she does a great version of “Fever”), set my laptop to play through the Express, and hit play.

And then pumped both fists in the air as Sarah’s voice came out of my speakers, rich and full and warm. Oh, yeah — this is how streamed music is supposed to sound.

It took about 90 minutes of Internet research and general farting around with two laptops to make it happen, but I not-so-secretly love geeking over stuff like this, and the endorphin rush when it works is so worth it. My 35-year-old Pioneer amp is now playing streaming music from the cloud, and life is good. The old can still talk to the new.

About Fletcher DeLancey

Socialist heathen and Mac-using author of the Chronicles of Alsea, who enjoys pondering science, politics, well-honed satire (though sarcastic humor can work, too) and all things geeky.
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9 Responses to The old and the new

  1. Alma says:

    This little story makes me very happy on all levels, and I loved your description of the abandoned AirPort Depress. So does this mean it now works on your newer computers? I don’t suppose Spotify would run on a PowerBook…

    • oregon expat says:

      AirPort Depress, LOL! Nice. And yes, any computer in our house can now find it, along with our iPads. So I can pull up NPR Music on the iPad and listen to that on the house system, which is cool. So much to choose from!

      As for Spotify on older OSes…I don’t know. You’d have to check their page, or just try a download and see.

  2. reacher411 says:

    This is now a favorite post. I have no stereo but it is my fondest hope go do it in the next year. I will be searching for for old school, electronics.
    And when I do you will get email.

    • oregon expat says:

      When the time comes, check eBay. You can find a lot of classic electronics there for cheap, but keep in mind that most of them will need further investment in the form of cleaning and repair.

  3. joanarling says:

    LOL! Dip your toes into Debian GNU/Linux — lots of geeky things to do, like making WLAN work. Don’t use (x)ubuntu, that’s too easy 🙂

    • oregon expat says:

      I’m holding Linux in reserve for when I have time to fiddle around with all sorts of stuff that “just works” on my current OS…such as when I retire. 😉

  4. Krista says:

    My first thought on seeing the photo is that it is very pretty and I want one. 🙂 I can’t imagine someone saving up for an amplifier at the age you would have been in 1979. Did you acquire it a little later?

    • oregon expat says:

      It IS pretty! I love the looks of it, and they sure don’t make ’em like that anymore. And you’re right, my paper route money wouldn’t have paid for it when it was built. I bought it used from an older audiophile friend, who was going on an around-the-world tramp and sold off all sorts of stuff beforehand. He came to Portugal to visit a few years back, and was amazed to see his old Pioneer amp still in service.

  5. John in the USA says:

    I knew what that was the MOMENT I saw it! How I LUSTED after receivers like that. They were out of my price range, back in my college days. But I could dream.

    But yeah. WHY don’t they make things like that, in that fashion, to last thirty years today? I’d sure as heck buy one.. Except I’d put on the Dies Irae from the Verdi Requiem, and turn up the volume on my four foot high speakers from the same era, with the exposed wires that screwed into the back of the speakers… no RCA cables or plugs back then…whoo too!

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