The Vinyl Anachronist
Part XIX: Ten MORE Reasons Why You Need A Turntable
by Marc Phillips
I just got back from my first Consumer Electronic Show in Vegas, and I'm in a bit of a daze. I've heard Super Audio Compact Disc. I've heard vacuum tube amplifiers that cost over ten grand and have less than ten watts per channel. I've heard loudspeakers that are smaller than a bread box yet still break that five-figure barrier. I've seen products that resemble modern sculpture more than they do functioning stereo components. I've seen home theatre set-ups that will run the more financially fortunate of you the better part of a million bucks.
What I didn't see were a lot of turntables, dammit.
Well, I saw a few. I was able to listen to the $299 Music Hall MMF-2 'table, the very one I picked as the 1999 Turntable Of The Year a couple of months ago. I also listened to its $499 bigger brother, the new MMF-5, a budget turntable which might finally give the Rega Planars some decent competition. I also saw the entire Basis line of 'tables, which were very impressive (many of the models are now available made from see-through plexiglass... a new trend in turntables). I saw the unbelievably beautiful SpJ turntable designed by Judy Spotheim- again, an incredible piece of plexiglass sculpture, and a bargain at $19,000 (well, the tonearm, at least, is included).
In fact, my CES companions, most of whom do not actually own a turntable right now, and I agreed on one thing: the best sound at the show was found at exhibits where they either had a turntable or a very low-powered tube amplifier (I can always change my name to The Vacuum Tube Anachronist if I run out of ideas). Unfortunately, every system I enjoyed at the CES probably retailed for $50K or more. CES, evidently, is not the place for companies to show off their budget gear, or even what they consider to be "good values." It is the place to go nuts, to introduce "statement" products, to wow the press. Some of this excess sounded incredible, and made me hesitant to go back to my system at home, which isn't exactly chopped liver. And some of the super-systems sounded dreadful, having no business costing as much as they do. But I definitely have a new hi-fi wish list. My wife, who wants a new car, is thrilled with this idea to no end.
Once I returned home, however, I realized that I've been spending too much time thinking about hardware, and not enough on software. Over the last year, I've purchased new speakers, a new turntable, and I won a $4000 amplifier in a contest. But when Jason Gross, the editor of PSF, asked for my "Best of 1999" recordings, I balked (ED NOTE: as always, automatic weapons prove very convincing when trying to reason with writers).
I rifled through my music collection and realized that I haven't purchased very much music over the last year. For shame! I found it difficult to come up with five new releases that I enjoyed, much less ten (I snuck in a few 1998 releases, but don't say a word). When I glanced at catalogs from all of my favorite vinyl sources, I also realized that I've been missing out on what is still a bountiful supply of great new LP releases.
So I've been on a shopping spree of sorts lately, and I'm glad to say that there's more good vinyl out there right now than there was a year ago. I looked at my article from last year, "Ten Reasons Why You Need A Turntable," and I believe there's at least ten new reasons to buy a new turntable every month! So here's this month's ten reasons to buy a new Judy Spotheim SpJ 'table...
I've been sounding manic lately about the future of vinyl, one month I'm morose, the next month I'm ecstatic, but I still truly believe there's a vital, healthy market for vinyl fans. Sure, some of the mail-order outfits I mentioned in Shop 'Til you Drop are starting to concentrate on SACD titles, as well as 24/96 DVD titles (both are superior alternatives to the lowly CD), but new vinyl is out there, waiting to be pillaged. Over the last couple of weeks I've been one of the barbarians, raiding the bins, tearing through the Yellow Pages every time I go on a business trip looking for new sources (it beats spending all your scratch at "Gentleman's Clubs'"), and as long as they're out there, I'll be telling the world, at least until I really really want one of those nifty tube amps rated at 2.5 watts per channel (goosebumps!).
- The Beatles Yellow Submarine Don't you just hate ping-pong stereo? You know, that obnoxious artifact from early pop stereo recordings, where the vocals come from one channel, and the entire band comes from the other? Well, for all of the praise George Martin has received as a producer over the years, I've always felt he was one of the biggest proponents of ping-ponging ever. Sure, I own a Parlophone pressing of Sgt. Pepper that sounds like it was cut last year, and everything from The White Album on sounds normal, but frankly, the genius of Rubber Soul and Revolver are undermined by primitive recording techniques. Don't tell me it's because that's the way it was back then... just listen to some RCA Shaded Dog recordings from the '50's and then try to tell me they didn't know how to cut records back then. Well, hold onto your hats... Yellow Submarine has been re-mixed AND re-packaged. It sounds more like a normal, modern recording now. I always knew George Martin was capable of this (just check out the instrumental version of "Within You Without You" from the Anthology series... it's breathtaking), and I don't think it's sacrilege to mess around with his original intentions when it sounds this good. And you must pick the LP over the CD. Why? Because it's pressed in yellow vinyl, that's why!
- The Police Outlandos D'Amour I'd never heard of the Italian re-issue label Vivante Productions before buying this wonderful 180-gram pressing of The Police's first album (Vivante has also reissued Muddy Waters' Folk Singer and J.J Cale's Naturally), but they're defintely on the right track. Anyone who can help me to appreciate, understand, and hear more into Stewart Copeland's incredible drumming deserves a plug from me. (Sting and Andy Summers are no slouches, either.) This is "Roxanne" as you've never heard it... full, warm, and propulsive. "So Lonely" benefits from the silky-quiet pressing even more. This beats the CD in every respect, even in reduction of backround noise... I heard nary a pop or click in the entire album! A little bit expensive at $29.99, but the Italian export costs probably figure in somehow. Still highly recommended!
- Tom Waits The Mule Variations Sure, Mr. Waits isn't for everyone, and his trademark rasp is growing ever woolier of late, but his new album is unique and really brings out his true talent as one of the best songwriters of the past twenty years. There's a reason why his songs have been covered by so many others lately (check out The Holly Cole Trio's Temptation as the best evidence); beneath the creakiness and the musical idiosyncracies lie the musings of a big heart. Variations contains less of the great comic moments that tend to define Waits for me ("Frank's Wild Years," for instance), but let's face it, the man has wisened and matured into one of those old souls who's seen it all and lived to tell about it. And the sound on LP is vivid and exciting, chock-full of details and shadings that are probably MIA on the CD.
- The Beach Boys Pet Sounds Okay, I'm really not a Beach Boys fan. I tried, many years ago, to give this a chance, especially after learning that not only is it one of Paul McCartney's favorite albums, but that Sgt. Pepper was a direct response in studio prowess and artistic inspiration to that 1966 release. I like Pet Sounds, I guess, but not nearly as much as most, and I've always been amazed at the reissue mileage it's gotten... first as a CD (a press conference, fer Chrissakes?), then as an audiophile pressing (as both 180-gram LP and 24K gold CD), then as the three-LP Pet Sounds Sessions. I think what has always bothered me about this album is that despite being released in 1966, nearly twenty years after the advent of stereo, is that it's in mono. Again, Brian Wilson was praised to the skies as a producer/artist... but why mono? Well, they've gone back to the mixing board and have just remastered the whole shebang in stereo. And you know what? I like it more. I still think Sgt. Pepper runs rings around it, and I really despise the whole idea of "Sloop John B." But the sound really is good, worth buying anew.
- Dead Can Dance Into The Labyrinth I've always told people that the best-sounding CD I own is this one. So when I learned about the European LP pressing a couple of years ago, I had to have it (I own DCD's subsequent Spi ritchaser on LP, and it sounds incredible, too). Again, I can hear more detail with the LP version. I can follow the distinct musical threads more easily; trust me, with a recording this dense, there's plenty to discover even if you think you know the recording intimately. Of course the music on this album is so intriguing, so different than what you're used to from pop music (its Moorish influences are attractively exotic), that any exposure results in a connection. I once played the cassette for my work partner in our droning, noisy company van, and he begged me to find a record store immediately, and he probably couldn't hear half of what was really going on. So anything that can bring more of the music out, as the LP definitely does, is truly worthwhile.
- Paul McCartney and Wings Band On The Run I just bought this puppy on 24K gold CD last year, and it was definitely one of those frequent instances where $30 was way too much to spend on a supposed "audiophile" release. For the 25th Anniversary LP reissue, however, this sounds more like what Rolling Stone magazine called the Best Rock Album of the '70's (Not that I agree with that assessment in the least). Lots of nifty packaging helps, too, for this costly reissue, but McCartney fans will definitely be excited and will consider this the essential version. Personally, I think there's just as much filler here as on most other Paul releases, but I could listen to the ever-changing phases of the title track all day long. And I never really paid close enough attention to all of the familiar faces on the cover... I mean, James Coburn?
- U2 The Joshua Tree Every time I mention this album to someone, I get the same old God-aren't-you-sick-of-that-album riff. Apparently they played this thing to death on the radio, and fortunately I lived in Virginia Beach at the time, where there were no radio stations cool enough to play U2 in the first place, so I was spared the overexposure. Hence, I have always loved this album. Funny thing is, I can remember boasting about buying it in the CD version when it first came out because I wanted to hear it in the best possible way. Back in 1986, CD players still hadn't completely taken over, especially in the boonies of Virginia, so I remember impressing a few backward souls with that proclamation. And I always remember how disappointed I was with the sound quality of this album, how muddied everything sounded, how overrated Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois were as record producers. And then, this year, European LP pressings arrived, and Eno and Lanois were really geniuses, they were just enslaved to inferior formats. This new version of The Joshua Tree sounds so natural, it breathes. I don't care how sick you think you are of this album, hearing it this way is like hearing it for the first time, which, if you remember, was pretty cool.
- XTC Apple Venus Vol. 1 I picked this as last year's Best New LP Release a couple of months ago, so I won't rehash. I will say that it is very hard to find this on LP, especially the very erratically-distributed European version, so make the effort to find it now if you want to hear it in the best way. Audiophile International (888-SPIN LPS) has it in limited quantities for $25, and it's very much worth it. I will also mention that the guys at Audiophile International are also extremely smitten with this album... they've compared some of the songs to the best of modern classical music (Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Part), which is a lofty claim for pop as pure as this. But they're right.
- Cassandra Wilson Traveling Miles If you're not quite familiar with Ms. Wilson's work, you should be. It's not quite fair to categorize her as a jazz singer... she's much more adventurous and experimental and rewarding. Her voice is rich, deep and sends chills down my spine. I own her New Moon Daughter release on CD, and, along with Dead Can Dance's Into The Labyrinth, it's one of the best-sounding CD's I own. So when I learned that she was putting together a tribute album for Miles Davis, and that it would be available on LP, I jumped on it. And yes, of course it sounds great, with incredible soundstage depth (which means, in hi-fi geekspeak, that not only do you hear the performers playing from right to left between your speakers, but also FROM FRONT TO BACK). I haven't been able to directly compare it to the CD version (who buys both formats of the same recording anymore?), but it's my experience that the front-to-back thing is usually more vivid on vinyl. And when I say that it sounds like Cassandra is in the living room with me, it isn't hype. My cats even jumped back and looked around the room for our "visitor."
- All Classic Record reissues on LP. Yes, they must be crazy. I've told you in the past about Classic Records, as well as Mercury Living Presence and RCA Living Stereo. Back in the '50's and the early '60's, some of the most natural-sounding classical recordings ever were being cut by Mercury and RCA. Some mint copies of these pressings fetch four, even five figures. When they released these titles on CD a few years ago, it was a cause for celebration. Even the digital versions sounded great, and they retailed for as low as $9.99. Then they released this stuff on vinyl again, and although they weren't up to the ethereal quality of the original pressings, they beat the pants off the CDs in sound quality. Considering that they retailed for around $30, they'd better have! Now, apparently everyone is putting certain titles on sale for as low as $12.99 each! (The Elusive Disc, for example, is even offering 10 for $100!) You get some of the greatest performers (Reiner, Heifetz, etc.) AND the greatest sound, for budget prices. If you love classical music, or even if you're looking for a worthy introduction (several people I've talked to have said that they'd love to explore classical music if they only had a decent guide), then this is where to start!
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