Musicians As Audiophiles: David Smith

Arriving at David Smith’s comfortable Queens apartment, he walks me into what was once a small dining room. Standing upright like a pair of wood-grained phone booths are the biggest speaker cabinets I’ve ever seen in anyone’s home—anytime, anywhere. What?

Measuring a colossal 23″ deep by 26″ wide by 66″ high, each 20 cubic-feet cabinet holds a vintage Altec 604E coaxial driver wired to a Mastering Lab crossover set in Smith’s custom-built MLTL cabinets.

I step, or rather stumble, back into the room, fall into a chair and wonder, “How am I going to photograph these monsters?”

The wow factor to Smith’s system doesn’t end there. Placed between the speaker cabinets on a custom-built rack is Smith’s all vintage, mostly rebuilt control rig:

• Rek-O-Kut B-12H turntable/Shield RP-12 tonearm (Gray 108 clone)/Denon 103R cartridge

• VPI HW-19 MkII turntable/Audio Technica 1005 MkII tonearm/Denon 102 cartridge

• Harman Kardon XT-3 SUT

• California Audio Labs Tercet Mk.IV CD player

• H.H. Scott 130 preamplifier

• Radio Craftsmen Model 2 power amplifiers

An acclaimed trumpet player, composer, record label owner and ever-traveling musician, Smith is that rare audiophile who not only buys vintage gear, but who rebuilt his treasures to create what is a beautiful, deeply narcotic hi-fi sound. Listening to rare LPs on Smith’s time-travelling system, which includes a preamplifier with multiple record EQ curves, is a humbling experience.

It’s an end-of-the journey setup that few of us would have the patience to research and buy, much less develop the electrical skills necessary to put this mega-kit in perfect working order.

“I consider [this stereo] an important part of things for me,” Smith says. “The music you listen to affects you in a different way when you hear it reproduced differently. Hearing John Coltrane’s Crescent or Miles Davis’ Some Day My Prince Will Come—the tone and the way they are playing, you get a different sense of that when it’s on a system that can render that music well, as opposed to an MP3 on a Bose Wave Radio.”

Not given to understatement or hyperbole, Smith speaks in even tones as he explains how he sought out a pair of vintage Altec 604E drivers after hearing them in a recording studio. Or the time he bought a single mono tube amplifier off the street not knowing its high value. Or about the many evenings he and his father spent listening to classical, jazz and pop LPs on his ’70s era Denon/Signet/Hafler/Bryston/Dahlquist setup in their Canadian home.

David Smith’s life is music, 24/7.

Smith has released three records as a leader: Circumstance (Fresh Sound New Talent FSNT 267), Anticipation and Impetus (Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records BJUR 0152010 and BJUR 054, respectively). Smith sideman credits include Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society, Alan Ferber Large Ensemble and Nonet, David Cook Quintet and Jon Gordon Nonet, among others. Currently touring with folk-rock artist Glen Hansard, Smith is also the co-owner of independent jazz record label, Brooklyn Jazz Underground Records and its related collective, Brooklyn Jazz Underground.

“His approach to the trumpet is unique, intervallic and harmonically sophisticated yet lyrical and emotional,” states Smith’s website.

Smith has appeared on over 50 recordings, including those of Harry Connick Jr., Alan Ferber (including his Grammy-nominated March Sublime), and Tom Jones, among others. Smith earned his Master of Arts Degree in Jazz Performance at the Aaron Copland School of Music in New York; he’s an adjunct faculty member at the College of Staten Island, CUNY.

As we discuss his rig and I marvel at its sound, Smith pulls out recordings unknown to me but not to classical cognoscenti. Mentioning, “anything on the red and black labels of Westminster Records is worth owning,” Smith spins vinyl gold: the double-LP set of Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker Ballet” conducted by Artur Rodzinski (LP, Westminster WST 203); Gary Karr & Harmon Lewis’s 1982 pressing of Adagio D’Albinoni (LP, Seven Seas K28C-170); a Columbia Six-Eye stereo LP of Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain (LP, Columbia CS 1480); and David Oistrakh’s Encores (LP, w/Yampolsky, EMI Columbia SAX 2253), which is so intimate and moving it seems the violinist’s instrument is weeping. Smith’s system is unlike anything I’ve ever heard, its tonal and spatial qualities stunning.

“I like this stuff,” Smith says. “A 1957 pressing on a 1956 table and a 1950s arm into a 1959 preamp and 1948 power amps and 1968 drivers. I like the delicacy of the sound.”

Why vintage?

“Most of my rig, budget figures into it one way or another,” Smith responds. “The Rek-O-Kut table is kind of a poor man’s Garrard 301. Even though back in the day it costs twice as much as a 301. It’s an idler-drive design and has a 10 lb motor, it’s extremely powerful for a turntable motor. A table with a motor like that is hard to find, but Rek-O-Kuts don’t have the cult following of the 301s. I gravitate to stuff that is possibly just as good but not as revered. I paid $50 for the Rek-O-Kut from Craigslist in 2007. It belonged to a bassoonist in the opera—it was his dad’s old setup. When my wife and daughter went to Japan for the summer, I took the time to make a plinth.”

Smith grew up in Mississauga, Canada. His dad was/is an electrical engineer. Dad’s rig included a Denon direct-drive turntable/Formula 4 arm/Signet cartridge, Hafler DH101 preamplifier, Bryston 4B amplifier, and Dahlquist DQ10 speakers.

“After dinner we’d listen to the same records, some 100s of times,” Smith recalls, “like Igor Oistrakh playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto with David Oistrakh, the father, conducting (LP, Deutsche Grammophon S71101). Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams (Asylum Records 6E-104). Harry James & His Big Band’s The King James Version (Sheffield Lab LAB-3 SL21/SL22). That is an incredible-sounding record.”

Smith’s first system purchased in the ’90s included a Scottish Fons CQ30 turntable, Profile tonearm, a Marantz 3250 preamplifier and Marantz 300DC power amplifier, and French 3A speakers.

“Later, I got a Marantz 7T preamp, and Lowther PM6As in Voigt pipes, then Klipsch Heresys,” he states. “I tired of solid state so bought a $500 Decware SET amp with EL84s, 2Wpc. I rebuilt most of the amp, replaced the caps and resistors, that made an audible difference. Then I got an EICO HF85 preamp, which I completely modded, took everything off the selector switch, and put the phono components right on the jacks and made it a more direct circuit. It was a great sounding preamp.”

His father was an electrical engineer, and Smith has inherited his talent for rolling his own. Electronics, that is.

“I was attracted to the simplicity of the circuits,” Smith explains. “I got the Navy book, Basic Electronics. It’s science. If everything is working you will get a connection. Even though you could combine all these elements and wind up with something complicated, on a most basic level and especially with the older amplifiers, it’s really simple.”

With not one but two vintage turntables, Smith is obviously a fan of vinyl.

“During college I had an important moment,” he reflects. “I was playing music while my parents were away. A number of CDs didn’t sound great, particularly of strings. I put on an LP, I think it was the Bach B-minor Mass, and the strings sounded great. I put on the CD of the same title, and the strings sounded awful. That was repeatable. I gradually started to notice that as clear and concise as the CD was, certain overtones were just not right. Voice and some instruments came across great on digital. But with other instruments it just sounded wrong. The dynamics, the attacks of notes were wrong. That was the beginning of my becoming a vinyl snob. But I still listen to digital. I don’t look down on digital I just have a firm preference for analog and vinyl.”

Smith rebuilt his H.H. Scott 130 preamplifier nearly from the ground up, replacing caps and resistors, even the power supply.

“The 130 was Scott’s stereo preamp from around ’59 or ’60,” Smith notes. “I rebuilt most of the Scott using Russian K40Y coupling caps throughout. There are five 12AX7s, two RCA clear-top 12AU7s, and one Mullard 6X4 rectifier. I use two Telefunken 12AX7s in the phono section, two Westinghouse 12AX7s in the line section, and a fifth 12AX7 that has something to do with the tone controls. I rebuilt it, including the RIAA components. I replaced the original electrolytics in the Scott with Solen film caps.

“The Scott is from that era when preamps offered a variety of EQ settings,” he continues. “If I have an old London or Columbia record I can set the EQ specifically for those records. The Scott came with a chart that shows every EQ setting for every record label. I like that flexibility and it does make a difference. There’s a pre-mid-50s Columbia setting, RIAA, AES, which is the European standard apart from London for EMI, then a European 78 setting. Each one sounds different, particularly with the early Columbia records which I used to think had mediocre sound, but with the right playback setting they sound great.”

Smith’s Radio Craftsmen Model RC-2 Hi-Fi Amplifiers were designed by Sidney Smith, the innovative designer who went on to create some of Marantz’s most desirable products. The Marantz Model 7T preamplifier, the Model 8B 35Wpc stereo amplifier, the Model 9 70W monoblock, and the Model 10B stereo FM tuner are all Sidney Smith designs.

“The amplifiers are Radio Craftsmen Model RC-2 Hi-Fis from the late ’40s/’50s,” Smith says. “They’re 10Wpc, which work well with the Altec 604Es which are 100db. This was Sid Smith’s first design for Radio Craftsmen; this is the revised design, simply called ‘Model 2.’ Then there’s the C400 and C500, the last Smith designed before he went with Marantz. My Model 2s are not as sought after as the C500s, but they have 6V6 output tubes, and healthy Stancor transformers. I paid $15 for one of these amps. I had no ideas what it was. Up until recently they were dirt-cheap used. I think I paid $125 for the other one. They were always mono amplifiers.

The circuit as originally designed is very noisy,” Smith continues. “It has way too much gain. I’ve eliminated the first gain stage. It normally has a 6J5 going into a 6SN7 into 6V6 output tubes with a 5Y3 rectifier. But I rewired it to go straight to the 6SN7. That solved the noise issue. It requires a high-gain preamp which the Scott 130 is. I used all film caps in the power supply and throughout the amp. KOA carbon film resistors. $1 each. K40Y Russian paper-in-oil coupling caps. Panasonic and Wima power-supply caps.”

Smith even makes his own cables, which resemble the single-strand pairs encased in plastic sheathing wires I once purchased from Mapleshade. Until they fell apart and I paid Mapleshade to fix them. Repeatedly.

“With $4 I can make cables that sonically are better than $100 cables,” Smith says. I believe him.

“These interconnects are 24-gauge solid silver wire,” he explains. “It’s one strand, positive and negative, separated by a piece of packing tape with a Radio Shack RCA jack on either end. They were better than everything Jerome Sabbagh had when we A/Bed them at his place. So I made a set for myself.”

Smith discovered his love for the Altec 604E coaxial driver while working as a sideman in the early 2000s.

“I was recording at Systems Two, one of the great New York studios,” Smith recalls [now sadly closed—Ed.]. “They had these huge speakers hanging from the ceiling. I asked the engineer if it would be possible to hear the mix on those. ‘Sure, nobody wants to hear them, but I’ll put them on.’ Oboe and piano were recording, and when he switched to those it totally freaked me out. The richness of the piano and the tone of the oboe, the accuracy and depth of the tone was amazing. The engineer told me they were Big Red speakers. It was an Altec 604E driver with Doug Sax’s Mastering Lab crossover, the cabinet made by Audio Techniques. So I started looking for a pair of 604Es.”

Smith found his Altecs in the possession of “a hippie family with seven home-schooled children” living on Houston Street in Greenwich Village.

“They had the entire top floor of this building,” Smith laughs. “Among tons of stuff he had nine pairs of Altec 604Es. I found an empty pair of Bozak cabinets that were made for 12- inch drivers but someone had cut them out for 15-inch drivers. I made a simple two-way second-order crossover. The 604 drivers in those Bozak cabinets were not ideal but still sounded pretty good, they went down to 80Hz. They had the rich tonal spectrum that felt really accurate.”

Smith borrowed a friend’s garage and tools to assemble his dream cabinets, which are mass-loaded transmission line (MLTL) design, tuned to 42Hz with a removable lower vent panel for different tunings (similar to the Volti Audio Rivals). Made of ¾” plywood with 30 lb railroad ties as corner support beams, Smith used fiberglass insulation on two inner walls. Each cabinet weighs 200 lb.

“The Altec 604E woofer has a huge alnico magnet and a super lightweight cone which is very efficient at 100dB,” Smith explains. “My concept was to build the ideal cabinet for the specs of the 604E driver. Designer Greg Montfort said the [drivers] are great but most cabinets are too small. He believed the 604 drivers ideally need 20 cubic feet. Makes no sense in the size of my apartment, but maybe someday I’ll have a bigger room to put them in. My wife, Misao (“Mee-SOW”) is extremely understanding. These cabinets are far from ideal. The low-frequency response is nowhere near what these are capable of. There is rolloff before 30Hz as they are presently, but in a bigger room and tuned a bit lower they are capable of going flat down to 30Hz. I like the quality and clarity of tone they produce in those low frequencies, something that sets them apart I think.

“If one thing makes the biggest difference, it’s the speakers,” he adds. “What I really care about which is the tonal accuracy and the fullness of the sound, I think comes from the speakers. That’s the biggest thing.”

Listening to Bach and Liszt Organ Recital with Karl Richter at Victoria Hall, Geneva (London LL 1174), the sound from Smith’s system is rich, spatial and though a little dry at times, sweeping with tone and color. I hear every gradation of the pipe organ’s many textures, at times lovely and calming, at others, quite deranged. Even in this small room, I can see the pipes in my mind’s eye, the hall, and practically imagine I’m at the original event.

David Smith is better informed than anyone to answer the question, why are so many New York area musicians enamored with vintage hi-fi?

“It’s economics. For a musician to spend a grand on a system is a big deal. A new 10-watt push-pull stereo amp costs more than the combined total of $140 that I paid for this pair of Radio Craftsmen amps. I could pay $800 for some Chinese thing but it wouldn’t be anywhere near as well-built as these amps. And also, a lot of musicians are attuned to the concept that older stuff can often be better than it’s given credit. Every saxophone player’s horn is from the ’60s. My horn is from 1955, my mouthpiece is from the 1930s. Most musicians like older instruments.”

I take notes, intent on finding these LPs that play so wondrously on Smith’s mysterious and magical hi-fi.

“But if you buy vintage,” Smith warns, “be prepared to fix things, ’cause over time vintage gear needs some kind of love. You can buy a vintage amp for a not a high price, but it might cost $800 to get it fixed up. And people often don’t want that hassle so they go with new gear. But I like listening to records on 604Es that were mastered on 604Es. I like listening to comparable gear to what people were listening to when a lot of the recordings I own were made. The best stuff from the late ’50s and early ’60s is fully comparable to anything made today.”

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