One evening late last summer I took the most expensive workout of my life. In my hurry to meet a friend at the gym, I left the house, leaving my computer and hi-fi on despite the ominous look of the sky. In the South, experience teaches you to dash about disconnecting everything at the first sign of a thunderstorm. Usually I do, but this time my mind was elsewhere.
I headed across town toward my favorite gym. Stopped at a hilltop intersection, I saw one of the new office towers take the biggest lightning strike I have ever seen. The building, 40-some stories of Gothic Modern topped by a decorative open-ironwork chisel point, lit up for a few seconds like a gigantic searchlight. Then came the deluge. For a quarter-hour rain fell like Niagara Falls, visibility shrank to about 20′, and traffic slowed to a crawl.
During a lull I parked and dashed into the gym. It wasn’t very busy—just me and five or six other lunatics. I trained for about an hour while the thunder boomed and rolled. My friend never showed up. He missed a great experience; there’s a primeval charm to pumping iron while Nature rages. Outside, it looked like Zeus was pressure-washing the city with a galactic firehose. Inside, the lights dimmed and brightened, went out and came back on. Power failures are common in this part of the world: trees fall across electrical lines, cars slam into utility poles, lightning strikes everywhere. It’s like earthquakes in California: you accept their inevitability and assume that you’ll be lucky. This particular evening my luck ran out.
When I came home I found Jodi standing in the dining room looking at hundreds of pieces of plaster scattered over the table and carpet. The house had taken a direct hit! The innermost wall had a shotgun-blast hole near the ceiling, which in turn had a smaller hole by the outer wall. (Entrance and exit wounds? I wondered.) We began a cursory examination of the damage.
The phones were dead. The bedroom TV worked but the cable was out. Sound but no picture on the big Sony. Two VCRs were inoperative. My software was still displayed on the monitor, but the computer wouldn’t respond to the keyboard. A rack’s worth of audio gear was kaput. In the kitchen, a small TV was dead, but the KLH model 21 table radio plugged into the same outlet worked fine. So did the kitchen appliances, including the microwave oven. Curiously, there was no correlation between surge damage and whether or not anything was actually powered up at the time of the strike. We walked around testing and unplugging things, as if that might prevent further destruction. The storm continued all night.
The next day I began some inanimate-object triage. The damaged were divided into three groups—the irreparable, the easily repaired, and those that with great effort might be brought back to life. There were some pleasant surprises: among the survivors were a Pioneer CLD-2080 laserdisc player, a PS Audio 200 Cx power amplifier, and a Randy Tomlinson–modified JVC XL-Z1010 disc player (which to my plebeian ears sounds as good as almost anything on the market. Doubters are directed to John W. Cooledge of The Abso!ute Sound.) Light casualties included a Panasonic portable phone (new AC adaptor) and an Adcom GFP-565 whose tape-out buffer chips were blown even though its phono and line stages worked normally. My old reliable answering machine was beyond hope; its printed circuit board was charred. A cheap telephone attached to it had suffered permanent brain damage—it would receive calls but dialed wrong numbers. It was trash-can time for the two of them. The phone line which fed them was burned open.
A stack of line-level gear (tape decks, tuner, cheapo carousel changer, etc.) had been plugged into a “surge-suppressor” outlet strip, which was in turn plugged into an isolation transformer. The strip didn’t get a chance to do much suppressing; the isolation transformer suffered an open primary. This was actually fortuitous for everything it supplied—it all came through unscathed. Worst hit were the NEC video recorders in another room, which, being connected directly to cable and AC outlets, were doubly susceptible. One had some shorted power-supply components; the other was so far gone I decided to strip it for parts.
Fixing the computer was a comic nightmare. I have an IBM XT with a monochrome monitor and some outdated software, which works just fine for what I do with it. If I sound a bit defensive, it’s because I know a certain percentage of readers are technoholics, which is fine; it’s just that my testosterone level and self-esteem are not directly related to the size of my on-board memory or the speed of my microprocessor. Occasionally I write up an invoice or mull over a piece for the magazine, and I’ve found every time that, even at my best, I can’t out-type the old IBM. Most of my writing time (which is a rare enough occurrence—sorry, JA) is spent staring out the window or changing “glad” to “happy.” In other words, I need a 486/50MHz with glittering, variegated fish swimming across its high-resolution screen like I need a third leg. My fondness for the XT stems from my days as a computer tech, when Big Blue was shipping this machine by the millions, and it was standard equipment in every respectable office and le derriere du chat for the home-computer jock. It’s big and accessible and easy to work on, and parts will be available forever. Or so I thought.
If you think the audio world is badly infected with the latest-and-greatest syndrome, you haven’t been paying attention to computers. Or maybe the fact that newer and better DACs seem to be unveiled every month has made you aware of rapid developments in the digital realm. My particular sad truth is: the XT is several generations out of date. I called around to computer stores to find parts. Sample responses: “We don’t service those anymore.” Click. “Why do you want to fix that old hunk of junk? It’s a dinosaur!” Click. “Sure, we can get you an original IBM motherboard, $250 I think.” Click. “Why try fix? XT obsolete. Need 386. Come in, we make deal.” After three days of this, I heard about a computer salvage shop, literally an electronics junkyard, in a disreputable part of town. There I found everything I needed, at prices so low I had to stock up just in case: motherboards $17, keyboards $20, printer ribbons two for a dollar. I was up and running again.
So, what does this have to do with audio? Big repair costs, that’s what. How much? Let’s ignore my resourcefulness and add up the tab as if this had happened to a typical retail customer:
Beyond Repair: Replacement Cost
1 NEC hi-fi stereo VCR $465
1 answering machine $90
1 telephone $40
1 isolation transformer $60
1 AC adaptor for phone $28
1 Adcom preamp $125
1 Sony Profeel monitor $200
1 NEC hi-fi stereo VCR $150
1 computer $250
1 13″ TV $85
The phone line was repaired by the phone company (maintenance fee: $24/year), and the TV cable at the utility pole, two weeks later, by the cable company at no charge. “That storm’s given me 50 hours of overtime so far,” the repairman grinned.