The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CVI: The Year of Living on the Razor's Edge
I'm not sure if I want to let go of 2015 yet—it was that memorable of a year. I started off by losing 50 pounds and getting relatively fit and healthy, perhaps the healthiest I've been since I was in middle school. In addition, my 9-year-old U.S. passport finally lost its virginity when I traveled to Australia this summer to work as a consultant to help a new company finalize a line of loudspeakers. It was one of those years that come along in a great while, perhaps not ever for some people, where you start to feel like somebody and you finally feel like you're doing the types of things you thought you'd be doing at your age.
These types of years, I've found, are fodder for introspection. One of the dilemmas I've had to address however is how to walk that fine line between being a member of the audio industry and continuing to write about it. While I stopped doing equipment reviews years ago, and I've stopped giving specific gear recommendations to people who email me, I do occasionally have things to say. That, as I've learned, can be a problem.
Fellow audio scribe John Darko, who mans the impressive Digital Audio Review website from his dazzling high-rise digs near downtown Sydney, had a few intriguing suggestions for me when we met in Australia during my trip. John's one of those journalists who still maintains a modicum of integrity during his audio sojourn—we first clashed, er, met after I wrote that somewhat ill-advised meditation on getting women into audio about a year ago and he had a few issues with some of my more insensitive word choices. John first met my evil, unyielding online alter ego before he met me, the actual human being, and I'm sure I made a horrible first impression when I objected to his objection about my objection to worrying about getting women into high-end audio. I eventually apologized and admitted I was wrong. He, in turn, tolerates me now—I think.
During "brekkie" one day in Sydney, John told me that he had concerns about me writing for several audio publications while being on the business side of things. I responded by saying that while I constantly strive to avoid conflicts of interests while doing so, a little voice in the back of my head warns me that one day I will go too far and that I will be called out for it. John then informed me that those little voices in your head are often correct.
I have to say that I agree with John on many levels. I also have to say that I love to write, which is why I've been writing this column since 1998, and why I'm on the masthead at such audio publications as Positive Feedback Online and Part-Time Audiophile. Being a distributor and importer of six brands of high-end audio gear pays the bills—well, sort of—but writing keeps me sane. Perhaps that's why I maintain a blog—so I can damn those torpedoes and say whatever it is that I want to say. So I may have to spend all of 2016 working this all out in my brain.
That brings us to the 17th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. While I'm busy trying to figure out which side of the high-end audio industry I want to exist in, I still have a genuine love for music and the gear that allows that music to flow into my ears. It's been nearly five years since I decided to go over to the business side of things, and I can see where one could become jaded and not really care about turntables and cartridges and LP reissues and such after that amount of time. When I stopped being an equipment reviewer in 2009, I felt that burnt-out cynicism that came from seeing audio journalism from the inside out, and I wasn't sure if I wanted to continue. But I still get an unbelievable thrill when I walk into a room and see a turntable sitting there, ready to play. I'm not giving up yet.
Best New Release in the Vinyl Format
It's hard for me to not pick Wilco's Star Wars as the best new release on vinyl. I love Wilco, and I think I have their last three on vinyl (the CD's were included with the LPs, an added bonus!). I even downloaded Star Wars for free when it was available via the band's website. I've never done that before. Perhaps I love this album on LP so much because you get an even bigger version of the album's cover, a retro-ironic painting of a Persian kitty and some roses that is a total and endlessly amusing disconnect with the album's title.
It's a strange new direction for Wilco, which is something you can usually say about each of their releases. It's funky and funny and not all together serious, but that doesn't mean it's not covering new ground. While many of Wilco's older LPs aren't quite sonic benchmarks—Sky Blue Sky is definitely something to listen to in the car and not a reference sound system—this LP pressing is smooth and quiet and impressive.
What's even more special to me on a personal level is the discovery that Epitaph's fearless leader, who is spearheading the launch of a new pressing plant for his artists, is actually an old elementary school pal of mine. When I returned from Sydney, I had a layover at LAX and Dave Hansen came and picked me up and we had lunch and talked about his new commitment to vinyl. It was the first time I had seen Dave since we graduated from high school, and I'm looking forward to reporting on his progress with the pressing plant.
Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format
At this year's Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, we decided not to exhibit. Instead, we registered as show attendees and roamed from hotel room to hotel room like any other audiophile—something I haven't done in years. While spending time in the exquisite-sounding room featuring equipment from Endeavor Audio, Triangle Arts and Skogrand Cables, a gentleman entered the room and asked our friend Knut Skogrand to play a Dean Martin album he had just purchased downstairs in the marketplace. Knut hesistated for just a second, long enough for the gentleman to say, "Don't worry... you'll be happy when you hear it." The album in question was the brand-new Analogue Productions' LP remastering of Dream with Dean: the Intimate Dean Martin.
I actually really like Dino these days, but I was disappointed last year when I bought the Mobile Fidelity reissue of Martin's This Time I'm Swingin' and found it to be flat and definitely bass-shy. It sounded like an old recording spruced up and bit, but still not as natural and lifelike as the best recordings from that era. Dream with Dean is what I'd imagined I'd be getting when I laid down the cash for the MFSL—open, alive and musical. Dean's voice is so present, so realistic, than you can tell what brand of cigarettes he was smoking in the recording studio. His backing band, a spare jazz quartet consisting of Barney Kessel on guitar, Ken Lane on piano, Red Mitchell on bass and Irv Kottler on drums, is quietly understated, simple and elegant.
If you think Dean Martin is all Vegas-style flash and polish, this 45rpm 2-album set will change your mind. It sounds absolutely beautiful, and it's a true classic—one I never knew existed until now.
Analog Accessory of the Year
Here's where that razor's edge comes in. While in Sydney, I met a man named Les Davis who is doing a lot of experimentation with constrained layer damping (CLD) materials. CLD uses a sandwich-type of layered construction to eliminate vibrations and control resonances. Les manufacturers sheets of CLD material that, when placed under stereo components, provides obvious sonic improvements that are heard by most in controlled A/B comparisons. Best of all, these sheets can be manufactured for a reasonable amount of money, so Les' final product may be an inexpensive alternative to those costly vibration-control products common to high-end audio.
Les agreed to send me a few sheets for my own experimentation, and I'm going to try to sneak them into the next few trade shows I'm doing. I just received an email from Les saying that he recently sent a sheet to an owner of a record store who just happens to own a Rega P8 turntable, a personal favorite of mine. This gentleman reported that "music seems to play with better pace and the instruments have more sparkle." I heard the same thing—music sounded fuller and more detailed than before.
This is one of the most effective tweaks I've heard in many years, and I would love to bring the Les Davis CLD sheets, or whatever he decides to call them, to turntable lovers in the US.
Cartridge of the Year
Some years I give this award to a very affordable cartridge that achieves a new standard of performance at its price point, and some years I give it to an insanely expensive phono cartridge that somehow redefines the state of the art in analog reproduction for the price of a month-long vacation in Maui. This year I'm headed right toward the middle by choosing the finest $1000 moving-coil I've heard—the Ortofon Quintet Black.
I've heard the Quintet Black a few times now, and I can't find anything wrong with it. It's fast and detailed, tracks like a champ and still offers all that warm, romantic analog goodness that only an expensive moving-coil can provide. While $1000 for a phono cartridge is a lot of money for a lot of people, it's a great value considering that you can spend two or even three times as much money and not realize a substantial improvement in sound.
Plus, it's made by Ortofon, one of the oldest and biggest cartridge makers out there. After 95 years in the business, Ortofon is making some of the best cartridges in the world at all price points. Besides, Ortofon is one of the few cartridge manufacturers who deliver plenty of stock to its US dealers, so you won't have to wait months for one of those exotic, hand-made cartridges sourced from Japan because the Vinyl Renaissance is in full bloom.
Turntable of the Year
Speaking of John Darko, while I was in Sydney I was invited to his home to listen to his system which included a Vinnie Rossi Lio integrated amplifier, KEF LS-50 loudspeakers and a number of DACs. John asked me for a favor while I was there—he needed to mount a Dynavector 10X5 cartridge to a new Pioneer PLX-1000 direct-drive turntable. I happily obliged, even though I had to work with an unfamiliar alignment protractor, and within 15 or 20 minutes we were listening to vinyl.
If you've been reading my columns over the years, you know that I'm not a fan of the Technics SL-1200 turntable. I'm not even going to remind you of the reasons why I don't like it because I don't want to unearth all those bad memories. So when I first glanced at this Pioneer turntable, all I could think was that it looked like a ‘1200 copy right down to the tempo control, direct-drive motor, S-shaped tonearm and heavy black plinth. I didn't have high hopes for the sound.
But here's the thing—the Pioneer, mated with the Dynavector cartridge, sounded really, really good. Where the Technics sounds dark, the Pioneer is full of light and energy. Where the Technics sounds small and closed-in, the Pioneer is open and airy. Imaging was solid, and the soundstaging was deep and impressive in size. Yes, Pioneer has made a better 1200 than the three million made by Panasonic. Best of all, it's only $699 here in the US, and often discounted down to a little more than $500 in some places. Much to my surprise, I heartily endorse this inexpensive, mass-produced direct-drive turntable!
Despite the fact that I've heard two new turntable designs in the last year—Win Tinnon's $53,000 Saskia II and Mark Doehmann's $40,000 Audio Union Helix 1—that in my opinion redefine state-of-the-art analog design, the humble Pioneer PLX-1000 is my choice for Turntable of the Year.
It's been a wild, surprising year, and I look forward to 2016.
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