I like hi-fi. I come over all doe-eyed, hopeless and weakened when I visit a hi-fi dealership and find myself surrounded by brands such as Meridian, Musical Fidelity, PMC, I would go on but the resultant drool could cause a short in my keyboard.
At home I have what I maintain is a good sounding setup, even though it’s made up of a rag-bag of brands it would cost me a considerable hill of cash to swap it in for anything that would offer me a worthwhile upgrade. My girlfriend and I like nothing (well, maybe a few things) more than to sprawl across the sofa together with a carafe of wine and a good CD, something we can close our eyes and really get to grips with. It’s not about entertainment, it’s about escaping into the music. It’s a drug.
In the car, well, things are different.
I have never been gripped by the urge to install a monster stereo into any of my cars. My first car, the Triumph, was blighted by a Motorola longwave / mediumwave unit which was usurped almost immediately by a highly comedic Saisho radio cassette, which caught fire. Twice. I binned it in favour of a Wharfedale (Wharfedale in name only, the identity was whored out across a plethora of lowest-bidder brands in the late ‘90s) FM/CD machine. Then a pair of Wharfedales (the genuine article) in the dash and a set of godawful Goodmans rear shelf speakers. It was a mess, visually and sonically, but it made my tunes audible.
Next came my first Rover, fitted from new with a Phillips FM Cassette and eight speakers. This sounded OK, actually. Very nearly good. But inevitably I upgraded that with a JVC Cassette / CD changer combo picked up dirt cheap in a French hypermarket. This system actually lives on in my sisters Ford Puma, I sold it to her for £60, £14 more than I got for the entire car.
Both my current cars came from the factory with similar setups, being similarly aged both hedged their bets by having tape and disc on board. The Audi carries the in-house Concert head unit that became ubiquitous, the Rover comes with a Phillips-badged unit, of considerably lesser build than the Audi. These days though, I don’t have any temptation whatsoever to replace any of it.
Neither of them sound brilliant, the Rover system sounding pretty dreadful thanks to mean-spirited 8cm speakers. The boy-racer forums are awash with people bemoaning the lack of phat bass ™ from the Audi A4 stereo, but the midrange and beyond is pretty reasonable, and these days all I really want is to hear the presence of music and discussion, I can wait until I return home for the chance to wallow in sound.
Things are different when it comes to choosing the actual material that pumps from the system. I absolutely love my CD collection, and either car can take six at a time in its boot-mounted server, but unless you make scheduled stops on every journey to play DJ, you’re stuck with whichever six discs you install at the beginning of your journey. So choose wisely.
Inevitably you’re going to get bored with your selection at some point, and you then revert to the radio for relief. And the relief lasts for about fifteen seconds before you get very angry. Our national FM radio choice in the UK is appalling. I’ll let BBC Radio 4 (common affairs), Radio 3 (classics, culture etc) and Classic FM off the hook as they’re of a more specific appeal, but across the board, all our radio stations of nominally broader appeal range from bland and inane to absolutely dismal.
This could become a “youth of today” whinge, complaining about the music of now not being a patch on what it was “when I were a lad”, but it isn’t. I can accept the fact that kids today are programmed to listen to corporate sludge written not for the art but to generate revenue and ever more impressive bling for the protagonists to decorate themselves with. When Black Eyed Peas release a new single you can bet your life it’ll be played several times every day, and with something as calculated as the sort of unexciting drawl that they purvey, the novelty wears of very quickly. The question of why people feel the need to download these tracks is puzzling; if you want to hear the latest Cee lo Green tune, just switch the radio on and it’ll probably be played within the hour anyway.
This isn’t to say that there isn’t great radio out there, it just doesn’t appear, by and large, on FM. I apologise if you’re a DJ somewhere that genuinely does play great music, but it seems I haven’t chanced upon your station yet. And the chances are you’ll play commercial trailers between songs, and this gets annoying in itself.
The above little box of tricks is pretty much the solution to all my audio woes. It’s a DAB radio with an RF output enabling it to play through the car system, and it finds itself perma-tuned to BBC 6, AKA the finest radio station on the planet. Commercial free, as per BBC dictum, of course. To give you a flavour in the last half an hour messrs Radcliffe and Maconie have played Richard The Third by Supergrass, Somewhere, sometime in summer time by Simple Minds, Ruins by Portico Quartet, and driving home last night I was accompanied by Stiff little Fingers, Geoff Buckley and James Brown. It’s a truly diverse canon, and never ever gets boring. There are other great stations on DAB too, special mention must go to Absolute Radio, based up North somewhere, who play some terrific stuff by new and unsigned bands. Keep up the good work.
The only drawback to DAB is that good reception can’t be guaranteed, high pressure weather conditions, built up areas and electrical interference all hinder receipt of the relatively low-power transmissions the system uses. And if absolutely everything fails, I’m bored with my CDs, I Can’t Get No Radio Satisfaction… There’s always the mixtape.
Hallelujah to the mix tape. For the first twenty years of my life the unreliable spooled media was the only way to compile tunes into little portable collections. I could bootleg recordings from the radio, steal music from my friends and mix it all together on a TDK D90, using my Bush MS351CD with twin tape decks and high-speed-dubbing. For a long while all my old, unlabelled cassette tapes had lay dormant, waiting for either rebirth or oblivion.
Then, suddenly I found myself back in a car with a cassette player and an opportunity to rediscover some of those old recordings. The greatest thing about them is that there is almost total mystery shrouding what can be found on each of the numerous cassettes; I was never very disciplined at maintaining tracklistings. Furthermore, I rarely had a blank tape handy when I needed it; if an amazing tune came on I would just grab the nearest BASF and hit record. Resultantly, if you listen to my cloned recording of Pink Floyd’s Animals, you’ll find Brown Paper Bag by Roni Size dubbed over the top. This comes as a surprise on playback, every single time.
There’s another bonus to having a cassette deck in the car, and that’s that you can employ that most ‘90s of accessories, the cassette adaptor. This black tape-shaped thing takes the analogue signal from you’re the headphone jack of your MP3, Minidisc or DAT player and rams it directly into the pick-up head of the deck. These days I do actually own an MP3 player, a six year old Olympus M:Robe I picked up from eBay onto which I wound all the music I had misappropriated onto my hard drive during my time at University. It’s properly diverse, like a four gigabyte mix-tape, and the best thing is that none of the tracks have names to them, a legacy of my utter disorganisation when committing small scale piracy.
When I remember to have the Olympus both in the car and with a battery that is actually charged, it’s like having access to a magical radio station with zero repetition, no commercials and playing 100% music I like.