Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part C, Section 3: Marc Philips interview

To help celebrate the 100th edition of the Vinyl Anachronist column, we decided to pick Marc's brains about the present state of and the future of vinyl and audio systems.

PSF: Do you think the vinyl crazed has peaked or will peak soon?

MP: I think I've always wanted analog to return to its glory days and experience the same popularity as it did when I was a teenager. Over the last few years, I've operated on the idea that "growing" the love of vinyl was the ultimate objective, but now I'm not so sure. It's been such a pleasure to champion vinyl for the almost 17 years I've been writing the Vinyl Anachronist columns, and trying to convince the masses that it was still a viable format for listening to music in the 21st century. Now that it's truly taking off, it's a little anti-climactic--it's not as special and personal to me anymore. It's sort of like that band you discovered back when they were playing in small clubs and now everyone likes them.

When I interviewed Daniel Louis White for my column last year, he said something that's really stuck with me since- "all the cool kids listen to vinyl." While that's certainly exciting for the industry in general, it does suggest that the success is fleeting, that those kids will be doing something completely different in a few years. On the other hand, there will always be the core vinyl lovers like me who will go to the grave listening to LP's on turntables.

PSF: What do you think the future of vinyl is going to be in terms of production and numbers? Will there be an eventual glut or growth?

MP: We're seeing that glut now. All these new turntables companies are appearing out of nowhere, taking advantage of the upswing in analog sales. Some of this new equipment is exciting and features excellent technical performance, but in reality, people are generally sticking with the brands that have been around forever. VPI, in particular, has gone from being merely one of the top analog companies in the industry to the hottest marque in the audio industry. Rega, who has always been an industry leader, keeps breaking sales records which allows them to go back and develop new products that sound even better. In audio, people play it safe because good sound usually requires a significant investment of time and money. So a lot of these new companies probably won't make it, especially if the trends start to reverse over time.

As far as the software goes, I see the current trends continuing for a least a decade. Despite all the talk of cool kids listening to records, a majority of these consumers will find out what the perennial vinyl lovers have known all along--that listening to vinyl is really fun, and it sounds spectacular. Those people will always stick around. The Johnny-Come-Latelies will eventually find something else to do--probably once their first cartridges need a stylus re-tip.

PSF: What are your thoughts about new vinyl releases carrying download codes with them?

MP: I'm pretty indifferent to the whole thing. I've only downloaded the codes a few times, and I really didn't see the point, but it certainly increases the number of reasons to give vinyl a try. I do like buying an LP where the full CD is also included--mostly because I can't play the LP while I'm in my car. If your car has the ability to play downloaded files, then why not?

But it eventually begs the question of why you want to listen to vinyl in the first place. The reason should always involve superior sound quality. People used to constantly ask me about ripping LP's to CD, or now it's transferring them to a hard drive. "What method do you use?" they'd ask. "None," I always replied. I don't rip LP's to CD's or FLAC files or anything else. I listen to LP's on turntables because that's how I listen to music. A hard drive can crash or get corrupted. CD's will stop working completely if they get scratched or too dirty. Yet I can take any LP from my collection and place it on a turntable and listen to music. So when it comes to "preserving my music collection for eternity," why would I do anything other than take good care of my LP's?

PSF: If a university gave you a multi-million dollar grant, a lab to use and a few assistants, what kind of new vinyl or new turntable innovations would you want to create?

MP: Back in the early '80's, I had a little black box from SAE that eliminated pops and clicks from records. Unfortunately, it eliminated some of the music as well. It was just an equalizer that focused on the frequency of surface noise, but there's also some music at that frequency so it sounds like something is missing. I was frustrated with the sonic effect it had on the music and I wound up selling it.

I think I'd like to come up with something that eliminates surface noise from LP's without affecting the sound. I wouldn't do it for me--I've learned to listen around the surface noise--but it is an obstacle for many people who want to get into vinyl for the first time but are too distracted by the pops and clicks.

Or maybe I'd build a robot that goes through your record collection and plays your LP's for you. That would be cool.

PSF: In terms of future wishes, what do you NOT want to happen in the world of vinyl and audio quality in the future?

MP: Well, it's already happening, but I hate watching all these manufacturers try to cash in on the vinyl craze by introducing crappy plastic turntables made in China that are then sold at Best Buy for $149. These are the kind of turntables that made everyone switch to digital in the first place!

I wandered onto a popular music/audio discussion forum a few days ago, and there was a thread on some cheap POS turntable from some electronics giant, and there were all these people talking about how "it's good enough for me" and "It's pretty good for the money" and "it was all I could afford with the budget my wife gave me." These people will not stick with vinyl because they will become bored by vinyl. They'll wonder why they bothered, especially when the FLAC files on their laptop, routed through a $99 Chinese DAC, sound so much better.

Vinyl's not for everyone. You have to go above a certain level of performance before you hear vinyl's real potential, and that costs way more than $149 unless you find a cherry Thorens TD-124 or Garrard 301 at an estate sale. Which you probably won't.

Marc on the far right at an audiophile event in San Antonio in 2013

PSF: What do you think the prospects are for Neil Young's PONO and other ventures like that?

MP: It's hard to make a judgment on PONO until it's been around for a while. Will it stick around and become the next big thing, or will it go away after a few years, a noble but commercially unsuccessful venture? The problem with new technologies like PONO is that they seem magnificent on paper when they first come out, everything you could possibly want from a music format, but then after a while something else comes along and makes it obsolete, or there are flaws and inconveniences that people don't like and ultimately reject.

I think PONO could be awesome, but I'll have to wait and see if it's a worthwhile long-time investment. I like Neil Young a lot and I hope it takes off for him. I have dabbled in other types of music formats--I'm very impressed with some of the hi-rez digital formats like Blu-ray audio right now--but do I think they're going to take off? I'm not even going to pretend to know the answer to that.

PSF: How do you think innovations (or lack of them) in audio have changed the way music has been made by artists in the last 10-20 years?

MP: I'm not that involved with the music side of the business, but what I've been told by vinyl-loving musicians such as Barry Brusseau and Daniel Louis White is that there are still a bunch of people who want to do things the old-fashioned way and use analog equipment to mix, record and master records. Look at Jack White, who insists on using ancient recording equipment from the '50's and even older to make his records. Look at Neil Young, who loved vinyl so much that he always made sure each release was made available on LP, and how he didn't get behind digital until he found something that sounded great to his ears.

I think it's really interesting, some of these newer production techniques used by people like Kanye and Pharrell Williams and others that change the way we listen to music. But then again, I don't necessarily want to change the way I listen to music, so I still prefer listening to the purist stuff that was recorded with minimal miking, compression and processing.

So I think the answer to your question is that things will continue as they are, with a vast majority of people getting excited about new music technologies and a small minority still trying to score some sealed Blue Note jazz records from the late '50's and early '60's.

PSF: What are some of the most misunderstood things about the vinyl and audio world that you'd like to clarify?

MP: I just dealt with this today, a guy who emailed me about "Little Black Boxes," a 2003 column I wrote about phono stages. He started off by saying my article was a waste of his time because he auditioned several phono preamplifiers and didn't hear a difference. After a few terse exchanges back and forth--saying I'm peddling snake oil is not a great way to start a discussion with me--he disclosed his system to me and it was very modest at best. Simply stated, you need a highly resolving system to hear obvious differences between anything but loudspeakers and his system was not the best tool for comparing $1000 phono stages.

High-end audio is like many other luxury goods. To the uninitiated, the price of some of these products seems extreme, and therefore bogus. People balk at the prices for state of the art audio gear and start talking about the Law of Diminishing Returns, and how people pay exorbitant sums of money just to realize an extra 1% improvement in sound. Of course, that really isn't the case. For those who have the pleasure of being exposed to the best audio gear in the world, the differences from more modest gear are anything but subtle. They're huge!

I wind up telling these people not to take it personally. If you can't afford it, don't worry about it. The gear is not designed for you. I told this guy, "would you write a letter to Enzo Ferrari saying his automobiles are rip-offs because you can't afford them? Same concept here." There are so many people out there who rail against expensive products, but in every single case, they're afraid to name examples. Maybe they're afraid of getting sued by manufacturers who can justify every dollar they charge or, more likely, a little bit of envy is involved. There are more important things to get riled about, and they should just listen to music on whatever system they can afford and enjoy it.

PSF: Any stories of over-obsessed vinyl/audio fans that you can share? (my own personal fave came from Robyn Hitchcock who claimed that he knew people who could name several songs based on minute/second lengths)

MP: There are plenty of vinyl lovers, collectors mostly, who obsess over things like first pressings and who signed their name in the dead wax at the end of each side. If the obi--a rice paper band covering the outside of the album cover that features additional text for Japanese pressings--isn't intact, it's worthless to them. Then again, there are plenty of audiophiles who obsess over setting the proper VTA (vertical tracking angle, an adjustment for the height of the tonearm in relation to the record surface) on each and every record--something that can be extremely time-consuming, especially if you have OCD (there seems to be a correlation between being obsessive-compulsive and being an audiophile).

One of my favorite vinyl aficionados does something I think is very cool and very crazy at the same time. Every LP in his vast collection is protected by a clear vinyl sleeve--something I do as well. Inside each sleeve, however, is a sheet of paper for him to write notes. He includes the date he listened to the record, his listening impressions, the overall condition of the record, which songs had more surface noise than the others, the last time the record was cleaned, where he purchased it, the correct VTA setting and more. I'd tease him about it but his system sounds fantastic!

Marc with audio pals Bob Clarke (left) and Dan Muzquiz (center) at the 2011 Consumer Electronics Show, his last official gig as a journalist before he went to the business side of the audio industry.

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