What we talk about when we talk about stereo equipment

Or, musical history, inflation, and AV receivers

Dynaco Tube Amp, 1988

A gift from my uncle, who’d built it from a kit; this stuff was serious hi-fi nerdery in the 1970s, and I was lucky to get it (along with a tuner, a pre-amp, a tape deck, and a pair of really great Fisher speakers).

Thanks to Uncle Bob’s largesse, I was a very well equipped freshman indeed. Perhaps my favorite parts of this era’s rig were that (a) the tape deck was a toploading thing, which interfered with stacking and (b) the CD source was actually a boom box with RCA outs, which made it a great mix of old and new.

Low-end Pioneer, 1988

Sadly, the Dynaco didn’t last the semester; I suspect it had been on a shelf for years, so putting it into constant usage in a dorm room was a bit of a shock. My friend Peter insisted he could fix it, so I let him have it, and have recently confirmed via Facebook that he STILL has it, and it STILL doesn’t work. Hilarious.

Anyway, I scraped together about $250 for this low-end Pioneer, but it served me well until I got out of the dorm and wanted to upgrade. It lived out its final years with Heathen Chief Legal & Pancreatic Counsel Farmer.

Surround comes to town: Onkyo, 1992

This was actually a bit of a debacle. I started out with a Sony, but the Sony kept crapping out, so the 2nd time I drove it back to Birmingham to swap out, I said “fuck it” and dropped more than I should have on what remains probably the most high end piece of kit I’ve ever owned. The Sony was like $600, but stepping up to the Onkyo was a cool grand (about $1700 in 2016 money). You could feel the difference in the weight alone, to say nothing of the feel of its controls (or my credit card bill, for that matter; I didn’t pay that off for YEARS). This guy was SOLID, and made my apartment into my first “home theater” experience with then-novel Dolby Pro Logic.

I actually used this one until 2000, when I upgraded to the next item on the list as part of moving into what remains Heathen World HQ. Even then, I used it as the bedroom stereo and then, later, as the stereo in my office until last year, when space and convenience led me to Sonos.

After that, it languished in the closet until I found a good home for it. (No, seriously. It’ll live out its life in the home studio of a musician friend of mine, which is approximately as close to “your old dog lives on a farm now” as you’re likely to get in this life.)

The Age of Digital Hothouse Flowers, 2000: Arcam AVR100

When I bought the house, I also bought some very fancy speakers and a new receiver, because modern home surround had gone digital, and the Onkyo didn’t know how to do that.

Eschewing more mainstream brands, I bought an Arcam from the same witch-doctor woo-filled audiophile shop that sold me the speakers, and it was a mistake. It was technically cheaper than the Onkyo had been, by which I mean its price tag was the same, but the 8 year gap meant it was about $300 less real money in 2016 dollars. It was British and idiosyncratic, which lead me to note that I could tell it was high-end audio because it was a pain in the ass to use.

It got back at me by requiring factory service TWICE before a third failure in 2008 led to its ignominious end in a recycling bin. Oh, and in this era, the Onkyo had a triumphant victory lap because we’d started buying used vinyl as cheap entertainment — it was the post-crash years — and the fancyboy Arcam had no phono stage. My old pal the Onkyo, of course, did.

Let’s just make the damn thing work: Yamaha RX-V863, 2008

With the Arcam dead, I bought this one quickly. And I think Mrs Heathen may have even paid for it just to get the TV and whatnot running again. It was the third straight box with the same price tag, but time meant that it was the cheapest $1000 box yet: about $1100 in 2016 money.

This one also marked the point when the AV equipment turned towards ease of use, which is great, because at one point when I was using the Arcam I sat down to write a quickie guide for a houseguest and ended up with five pages. To watch TV. Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot.

Can’t this be easy yet? It’s 2016!: Denon

Yes. Yes it can. For $399 from Amazon, I just bought last year’s model. We’re back into goofy no-pre-amp territory these days (Denon doesn’t include one on any model south of $1300, so fuck that), so I had to add an outboard one, but even so I was still spending WAY less money than on any previous receiver except the gifted Dynaco and the cheap Pioneer. My $528 this year is about the same as $261 in ’88, $309 in ’92, $379 in 2000, and $470 in 2008.

Oh, and this time around the device is smart enough to calibrate itself with an included microphone AND be controlled by an iPhone app should the remote be too far away. Progress!

(Hilariously, the speaker story is way simpler: from the Fishers to a pair of Cerwin-Vega D3s to a pair of Klipsch towers to the Vandersteens.

The Fishers got lost along the way somewhere when I got the hyperefficient (and thus CRAZY LOUD) CVs in 1988 (sorry, college neighbors!).

In 1997, I gave them to Tim Carroll and bought the Klipsches, which got demoted to surround speakers in 2000 when I bought the Vandys. They’re still there, which makes them the oldest bits in the kit and, come to think of it, eligible to vote. Wacky.)

Everything Old Is New Again

Almost 30 years ago, my friend Rob had a laptop-like device made by Tandy called a TRS-80 Model 100.

500px Radio Shack TRS 80 Model 100

It’s very much a sort of proto-laptop, and was widely used by non-geeks as a portable writing platform when similarly robust and functional laptops were still years away. There’s no hinge; it’s just a flat device with a small LCD screen. You could, if memory served, run programs (i.e., a simple word processor / text editor) or boot the thing to BASIC like every other TRS-80. I remember Rob using it backstage at the all-school production to catch up on a paper for AP English in about 1987.

(A few years later, Radio Shack was selling a descendent product called the WP-2; I bought one to take notes with in college, since (then as now) I can type much more quickly (and legibly) than I can write longhand.)

In the intervening years, laptops have gotten much, much more capable, to the point that for most folks there’s no reason to use a desktop at all. However, if you have a full computer with you, it’s easy to get distracted by other activities — especially if there’s a network connection. What if you just want to write without distractions?

Enter Hemmingwrite. It’s a little precious — the prototype is styled to look like a portable typewriter — but inside it’s reasonably clever:

The Hemingwrite is-a single purpose, distraction-free writing composition device. It combines the simplicity of a 90s era word processor with the modern tech we all require like cloud backups and integration into our favorite document editors like Google docs and Evernote.

They’re planning a 6-week battery life, internal memory for a million pages, and a proper, mechanical-switch keyboard.

I’m not sure I have a need for one, but it sure is neat.

So, what do watch people think of the Apple Watch?

Glad you asked.

This analysis is really astute and spot on, I think. Some bits:

The overall level of design in the Apple Watch simply blows away anything – digital or analog – in the watch space at $350. There is nothing that comes close to the fluidity, attention to detail, or simple build quality found on the Apple Watch in this price bracket. The Sistem51, for example, is a very cool, inexpensive mechanical watch. But it feels like it costs $150 (for the record, I bought one and adore it). Then, for closer to the price of the Apple Watch, you could own this, which is, well, downright horrific in just about every conceivable metric. Seiko does offer some nice things at $349 or less, but again, they feel like they cost exactly what they do. The Apple Watch feels like a lot of thought went into it, and no doubt it did. It feels expensive.


The Apple Watch, in its own way, really pays great homage to traditional watchmaking and the environment in which horology was developed. We have to remember that the first timekeeping devices, things like sundials, were dictated by the sun and the stars, as is time to this day. The fact that Apple chose to develop two faces dedicated to the cosmos shows they are, at the very least, aware of the origins and importance of the earliest timekeeping machines, and the governing body of all time and space – the universe. (Sidenote: this “Astronomy” face will make it super easy to set the moonphase on your perpetual calendar. #watchnerdalert)


Apple paid great attention to detail with this new wrist-bound peripheral, and it shows the Swiss that it is possible to have great design at low costs. That is the most exciting thing about the Apple Watch for me – it will push the Swiss to take the sub-$1,000 mechanical watch category more seriously.

Now, do I want one? Only maybe. I’d have to see one first. But I suspect later iterations will be even more interesting, so it does seem likely that, eventually, I’ll pick one up even if it’s not in 2015.

Hello. We live in the future.

You may have seen this video of fireworks as shot by a remote controlled photo drone by now; if not, go watch. Use the HD option, and see it fullscreen (just turn the volume down if you find Andrea Bocelli as banal as I do). It’s pretty remarkable.

What’s not immediately obvious, or part of the story in most of the links I’ve seen, is what I think is the coolest aspect of this. It wasn’t shot with professional or exotic equipment. It was done with less than $2,500 worth of gear, including the “live view” features. Basically, it’s a high-ish end remote controlled quadcopter with a GoPro attached. Check the link; it’s not even CLOSE to the nicest quadcopter that company sells.

File under: Whoa

(The footnote is that while this vid was apparently shot with probably $2500 of gear, improvements have already happened in the product line that suggest it’s now possible for about half that.)

Coolest. Watch. EVER.

Of course, it better be, as the Van Cleef & Arpels Midnight Plantarium Poetic Complication runs a cool $245,000.

The face itself is amazing:

Van Cleef Arpels Midnight Planetarium 20

At the center is the Sun, represented in pink gold. Surrounding it are gems representing the six innermost planets, each of which rotates the Sun in real time — by which I mean Mercury takes 88 days to go ’round, the Earth takes a year, and Saturn won’t make the trip for nearly 30 years. The actual time of day is represented by a shooting star on the outermost ring. By rotating the bezel, you can set the watch to note a “special” day — on which the Earth stone passes directly under a star engraved onto the crystal itself.

Click through for video. It’s totally ridiculous and over the top, but also cool as screaming fuck that this is all done with gears and springs.

The coolest video you’ll see today

SpaceX has been doing tests of a rocket capable of landing vertically (i.e. as opposed to splashdown). In this video, you get to watch a 2,440 foot test flight and subsequent landing from the vantage point of a hovering hexacopter with an HD camera.

To break this down for you even more: this is high-def video of a civilian space vehicle shot from a flying robot. Maybe we do live in the future after all.

In any case, it is very, very cool, and you will not find a better way to spend a minute and a half this morning.

What racing yachts look like now.

We had a great time on NerdCruise on the sailing excursion in St Maarten, wherein we got to crew a no-shit America’s Cup champion boat. The Stars and Stripes is the boat that Dennis Connor used to redeem himself in the sailing world; it’s also the last of the 12-meter monohull boats to win the Cup — which is to say, the racing boats of her era don’t look all that different from the day sailers you see at your local marina.

Times change. Nowadays, the race uses very, very different boats, with spectacular results. While the 12-meter class tooled around at 12-15 knots, the new catamaran multihull designs can nearly triple that.

Have a look at Oracle Team USA‘s craft.

(h/t: @hedrives)

What happened to Willis & Geiger?

I know at least two Heathen will be interested to read the history of the firm, and account of its loss.

The “modern” W&G was the work of Burt Avedon:

Burt Avedon (cousin of the famous fashion photographer Richard Avedon) revived the company two years after it went out of business in 1977 and helmed it until it was liquidated in 1999. Now 89 years old, Burt is one of the last remaining people to have hands-on experience with the brand. His bio reads like a Most Interesting Man in the World skit: He was a pilot by age 12, raced cars, played football for UCLA, fought at Iwo Jima, was awarded a Purple Heart in the Navy, went from Harvard Business School into cosmetics and fashion, married an Italian princess, and later led attempts to excavate downed World War II planes from Greenland ice. After a short search, I tracked him down at his home in Verona, Wisconsin, to find out what had happened to what many consider to be the greatest outdoor-clothing brand of all time.

Go read the whole thing.


Over at the Verge, they’ve got the first real coverage of what it’s like to use Google Glass. I’d really love to try one — especially for navigation when driving or biking.

I just wonder how they’ll deal with the fact that much of their market already wears glasses.

I’ll be in my bunk.

Porsche is letting journalists see its new hybrid supercar, the 918 Spyder.

First, the bad news: it’ll cost a million bucks when it’s introduced next year. But, oh my God, this car…


The 4.6-liter dry-sump V8, mid-mounted in the chassis, generates 580 horsepower at 8,500 rpm and 370 pound-feet of torque at 6,500 rpm. Redline is 9,000 rpm. Mounted to the V8, actually bolted together to form a single drive unit, is a 95 kW (127 horsepower) electric motor. The centrally located engine and motor send their power through a seven-speed PDK dual clutch gearbox, rotated 180 degrees on its longitudinal axis (lowering its mass closer to the pavement), driving only the rear wheels. . . . But there is more to the powertrain, as the 918 Spyder is actually all-wheel drive. Mounted on the front axle is an 85-kW (114 horsepower) electric motor, sending power to both front wheels completely independent of the rear powertrain.


Add up the output from the one combustion engine and the two electric motors and the 918 Spyder’s total system power is 795 horsepower and 575 pound-feet of torque. According to Porsche, the 918 will rocket to 60 mph in fewer than three seconds and reach a top speed in excess of 200 mph in its most aggressive setting. On the famed north loop (Nordschleife) at the Nürburgring, one of Porsche’s 918 Spyder concepts ran a 7:14 less than two weeks ago (for comparison, Porsche’s limited production Carrera GT, introduced in 2004, circled the same loop with a best time of 7:32). When it hits showrooms, the 918 Spyder will be one of the fastest street-legal vehicles in the world.

The performance numbers are impressive, but keep in mind the 918 Spyder is a hybrid – Porsche says it is capable of a scarcely believable 78 mpg on the highway.

Attention: Dudes My Age

The nearly-exhaustive Bionic Wiki might well eat your afternoon if you ever had one of these or one of these. The level of attention to detail — plot summaries! discussions of contradictions! chronologies! — is astonishing.

Incidentally, the list of toys hilariously confirms my recent recollection of the fundamentally sexist divide between Six Million Dollar Man toys and counterparts created for The Bionic Woman. In lieu of the Command Center, for example, Ms Sommers had to make do with a Bionic Beauty Salon.

Via this excellent Mefi post.