Ode to Old Technology

On a curveball spur of energy, I decided to take out an old piece of kit. That was the start of an hour of grief and consternation from what was meant to be a few minutes of quiet enjoyment.

Near a decade ago I was gifted a portable digital audio converter (DAC) from an audiophile attempting to steer me in the direction of turntables and one-steps. To this day I don’t own any high end audio equipment and the five or fewer LPs I’ve ever bought for myself remain with the audiophile. But that DAC remains with me.

The purpose of the gadget is to “clean up” the musical quality lost when played from a digital source. Does it make the sound better? Yes. Combine that with a good pair of headphones and you have more than the sum of its parts, a full sound. There are far better products out there specifically made for musical engineers but ignoring the professional and amateur market it’s a fine little bump in quality. As an average music listener it’s more than I thought possible when I started with MP3s on a second gen I-pod through the early Apple headphones.

The device was an Oppo HA-2: a smartphone sized block of silver metal and textured black leather, checkered grooves on the volume knob, triple output and 3.5mm headphone jack, four pips of charge, bass booster, and gain switch. It serves its portable title well since it’s lightweight and easy to grip and operate by feel. It went without fault for near a decade accompanying me through two moves.

There’s nothing like throwing your head back on a pillow and staring at the ceiling as a great song kicks off all around you. You aren’t at a concert or in the studio; you’re in your own music video. I still remember a man leaping across city rooftops in silhouette as the Van Gough stars assembled and reassembled to the images of Mr. Brightside. Every time I create a story based off a song I get the Oppo and my big can headphones to play it on loop and set my mind in the right place. Most normal stories develop out of a couple ideas and images but those songs, from those speakers, can set up every scene like a stage play. Late Nights & Heartbreak; Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness (Nighttime Version 1); The Passenger; As We Go Up, We Go Down; Black Eyed Susan; We’re in this Together Now; Nabuma Rubberband; Gallows Pole; Chandelier; Ain’t No Sunshine; Witches’ Rave; Fool in the Rain; The Sounds of Silence, and more. I can bank on this method for story after story, a bottomless well. Due to that, I’ve developed an admiration for the Oppo.

Then on a spur, I decided to take it out of the shoebox in my closet and, for the first time since moving to my new place, give it a listen. I clicked in the power button to find only two green pips. Simple enough, plug it in and let it get up to full. It takes hours because the thing holds a good charge (an impressive feat on a rechargeable battery after so many years). But when I plugged it in the top green LED pip didn’t start flashing. Okay, I switched to a new outlet, no charge. I switched to a new wall plug, no charge. I switched to a direct USB port, no charge. I try a different wire, no charge. The next step was to troubleshoot online. First I found the owner’s manual (discovered the device had a power bank function, go figure) and learned I could reset it by holding the power button. Then the plug-in and no charge. Then onto YouTube to get the old clean the dust out the port videos but maybe it is the obvious thing after all. There didn’t appear to be much dust but I cleaned it out anyway just to be sure and no charge. Search the other videos and the manual again and find nothing. Check the port and the micro-USB is loose. Okay, now panic.

The micro-USB is God’s blight upon man for all sins Jesus couldn’t cleanse. Take the mindset of planned obsolescence into a boardroom at a time when all devices were being replaced by newer, smaller, slimmer versions on a weekly basis and you get enough free-with-your-device micro-USB cords to turn every drawer in your home into a canned snakes novelty trap. Their loose metal teeth warp from repeated use and fail after a painfully short time. But for the boardroom it didn’t matter when the device would be thrown out before that became an issue. Everything is replaceable except their seats on the board apparently. But as the plug degrades it can drag out the port causing it to become loose and fail. That is the only means to charge the Oppo. In frustrated desperation I try all combinations of cords and outlets again to no avail.

Then tense, I laid back on my bed cursing the man who invented micro-USB. Did he know of his failure or contort his mind into perceiving it as a needed stepping stone to get to the, in every way superior, USB C? Only one man knows the answer and I wouldn’t hear his reasoning over the blood in my ears if I ever met him. Losing that device to a micro-USB failure is the equivalent of losing a relationship because you tripped on a banana peel and landed headfirst up a woman’s skirt. I’d understand if the battery simply didn’t hold a charge anymore or the circuit board burnt out. Things happen. But a damned micro-USB failure is embarrassing, and I didn’t even make the thing.

So I was left with two pips of battery on the old DAC. (The manual says not to let the charge sit at low for too long as it could brick the battery entirely. Thanks.) I searched online for a repair shop but everything nearby was cookie-cutter phone and laptop repair clinging to whatever services Apple and the rest would let them get away with after struggling to find enough quality second hand materials. The entire electronics repair industry has been steadily squeezed out over the years because if the Genius Bar is the only place to repair your laptop then they can upcharge the ignorant consumer into spending five times what they’d actually need for a simple screen change. Showing up to any of the second-hand stores with a defunct DAC would just infinitely spin the repair tech’s brain. If anything I’d end up having to buy a new one in the low three figure range.

There I sat on my bed, worthless phone in my hand and the Oppo next to me. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘might as well send it off properly.’ Call me sentimental if you wish, I can remember a piece of technology fondly and I am a preservationist at heart. Perhaps it came from a moment at four years old when I glued a picture of Elmo’s face onto a popsicle stick and my sister wanted to hold it outside the window of a moving car. You can guess what happened to that little arts and crafts piece. Perhaps it’s due to the proliferation of technology at an early age exemplified by my use of the first Gameboy at five years old. Part of me wishes I kept my Gameboy as a commemorative item of that youth, more tangible than a photograph. Conversely, the Elmo popsicle could still be blowing along from car draft to car draft or decomposed into the soil on the roadside for all I care.

But so long as I had the Oppo operational I saw fit to give it one last listen. I plugged in the short USB to lightning connector between my phone and the Oppo, popped in the can headphones, set the bass and gain, and raised the volume to max catching the distant background hiss. The selection was Synesthesia by The Glass Pyramids. I’d played it on my phone speaker and up loud in my car but with the Oppo I finally heard the backing rhythm and got stuck into the song. I laid down with one foot upon the headboard and the other draped off the bed like a lazy cartoon character in a hammock. I had my moment with the song and then stopped after the first play.

Careful with the ports I unplugged each cord and gathered the components I’d tossed about in my failed flurry to charge the device. With everything in hand I put it back into the original black box and set that in a shoebox inside my closet. Like some old DVDs and Dreamcast discs I have I thought once a year I’d remember to give it a look over. Drag a finger across it and enjoy the echoes of old feelings. When so much of life is digital it’s a wonder to have a physical vector to draw in the mind. With that put away I went to bed and mentally drafted this piece.

Oddly enough, that same week I received a gift of a Bluetooth speaker. Not to disparage the person whom bought me the thing but it rekindled my distain for disposable product design. The thing worked well but the main draw was a headache inducing light display that (poorly) danced along with each song. On the side was a rubber strip overlaying the control buttons and beneath them it peeled back to reveal the aux and charging ports. The thing was bright, loud, the packaging highlighted the different colors it came in, but over time that rubber strip will be compressed and stretched till it snaps and leaves the ports open to the air. “This product is water resistant.” Bull. All the same becoming an old man complaints I had when trying to fix my DAC.

But then I realized the speaker charged with a micro-USB port. Maybe… With the new cable connected, I plugged it into my DAC and presto, the green pip started blinking. It took about six hours to bring it back to full, because the thing can hold a charge damnit. Now it sits on my dresser ready to be used at a moment’s notice.

There comes a time when you can no longer question technology and decide instead to enjoy the repair success while preserving your sanity. I had a functional device once again, as good as it was when it came out the box. I had saved myself from tripping up that woman’s skirt and merely landed headfirst in someone else’s wedding cake. I look a fool but that can be repaired in time.

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