The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CI: 2014: Year of Not Getting It
An article came out this year that claimed Urban Outfitters was the largest purveyor of LP's in the United States. That claim was quickly disproven, however, when it was discovered that Amazon was actually the number one vinyl retailer, with 12.3% of the market (Urban Outfitters, a retailer I've never patronized, was actually #2 and accounted for 8.1% of sales). Other unlikely companies in the top 10 included Hot Topic, Barnes & Noble and Best Buy. So the obvious question is, "Where are all the real record stores on this list?"
Hold on a minute while I put on my "Get Off My Lawn" T-shirt. Okay, ready. I know that I should be happy that vinyl sales are up, way up, almost exponentially up. For many years new LPs sales floated around the one million unit mark, then suddenly we saw two million and then in 2013, it exceeded six million. Many market analysts are now saying that vinyl sales should go over ten million in 2014, maybe more. So why am I complaining?
I'm not. It's just that as I'm getting older, I'm remembering how cool it was to hang out at the record store and walk out with two, four or even a baker's dozen of the latest new releases on LP--all for $4 or $5 a pop. Flipping through the endless record bins filled to the brim with titles while great music was playing in the background--it was so much more fun than going online, and sampling songs and then waiting a week for a new LP to arrive in the mail. Back in the ‘70's and ‘80s, record stores were unique social experiences. My record store memories are filled with classic images such as clerks smoking weed behind the counter while they made awesome suggestions to customers, making a purchase based upon something that was playing in the store and immediately grabbing that LP from the bins and then going on to be a major fan of that band, and taking an LP up to the clerks and asking if they could play it for you so you could decide whether or not you wanted to buy it.
I also remember one place where you could always find the store mascot, a beautiful English sheepdog, sleeping on the floor somewhere. Sometimes the dog was sleeping right at the front door so you had to step over him to enter, and sometimes he was deep in the store, hidden, and we'd make a game out of who could find him first. If there's a place like that today, I want to know about it so I can give them plenty of my business.
So shopping for LP's in 2014 is much less enjoyable than shopping for LPs in 1978, or 1985 or even 2000. The times they are a-changin', I suppose, but it bothers me that so many brick-and-mortar record stores are closing up these days, including a few of my favorites. An audiophile friend of mine recently offered this theory: so many young people listen to headphones these days that listening to music has become an activity of isolation, so it follows that these music lovers also want to buy their music in an isolated environment. These days, sharing music means sending your friend a FLAC or MP3 file, as opposed to actually sitting down with said person and listening together.
I think that will be my mantra for the coming year: are we getting it? Now that we're buying LP's again in relatively large numbers, will we rediscover what it was like in the old days when music was everywhere, music that was just too awesome to hide in the background, music that's just too good to keep to yourself? ‘Cuz I'm going to say something controversial right here. Are you ready? All these modern technologies have not helped us to enjoy music more. All these new, convenient ways to listen to music have only helped the people who really never made music a big enough part of their lives. Push a button and hey, there's music in the background! The people who have always loved music and have not relegated it to the background are largely listening to music the same way they always have--in front of a stereo system in their home, one that sounds amazing. They're flipping records over without bitching that they're getting only twenty minutes per side, and they know how to properly use a cue lever. They're not playing Candy Crush Saga on their iPhones while doing it, either.
That brings us to the 16th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. These winners--manufacturers, record labels, performers and recording engineers--all get it. They know that the best way to put more music into your life is to sit down in front of an audio system that recreates the original musical performance, and that you should share these experiences with others.
Best New Release in the Vinyl Format
Thanks to the local Hastings expanding their vinyl section, I've had more exposure to some of the newest LP releases than I have had in years. While Hastings is still following the same approach as some of the retailers I criticized above--hey, let's put out a few LPs on the sales floor and see what happens!--I'm thankful for them because I live in a small, isolated Colorado city where it's hard enough to buy a CD, let alone a slab of black vinyl. This year I've been able to purchase such noteworthy new LPs as Jack White's Lazaretto, Beck's Morning Phase, Black Keys' Turn Blue and many others.
The winner, and by a long shot, is Ingvild Koksvik's Nattapent on the Norwegian Fyrlyd label, which I did not buy at Hastings. Haven't heard of Ingvild? Neither had I until my Norwegian friend Trond Torgnesskar sent the LP to me last summer. Sure, Ingvild sings in Norwegian and I can't understand a word, but it doesn't matter. It's been years since I've heard an LP sound this realistic. Ingvild's voice is tender, beautiful and heartbreakingly vulnerable, so much so that I almost understand what she's saying. On the surface, this is yet another "female vocals" recording that middle-ages audiophiles adore, but there's a point about halfway into this album where you might say, "I've never heard anything that's this simple, direct and stunning." If you don't get goosebumps from this recording, well, I don't want to get too gushy here. You get it. It's good.
Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format
Back in 1999, I gave this award to the Classic Record 45 RPM reissue of Harry Belafonte's Live at Carnegie Hall. In 2014, I'm giving Harry the award once again. The difference, of course, is Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds (and Analogue Productions and Blue Heaven Studios), who seems to be on an incredible roll lately when it comes to best-sounding remasters of old classics. (Acoustic Sounds purchased Classic Records a few years ago, so there's that.) In the last couple of years Chad has remastered Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, Norah Jones' Come Away With Me and most of the RCA Shaded Dogs, titles that may prompt you to ask, "Do we really need another version of this?" and then you hear it and say, "I guess we did" (except for maybe the Norah Jones, of course, but after her appearance in Ted I fear I may have misjudged her).
The Classic Records 45 RPM version of Live at Carnegie Hall contained eight LP's and cost $80 to $100 for the box set. Chad's new 33 RPM version costs about $50, has only the two original LP's and still manages to surpass that other version in terms of dynamics and realism. I played it almost constantly at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest this last October and it never failed to bring crowds into my room. Even if you think you're too cool for Belafonte (you're wrong, by the way), or you hate calypso music for some strange, obtuse reason, or even if you avoid live albums because of their inferior sound quality, this record will change your mind.
Analog Accessory of the Year
After switching from a Nitty Gritty record cleaning machine to a SOTA record cleaning machine this year, I've played with a couple of exciting "one-step" record cleaners that have made my life so much easier, especially after using a four-step cleaning system that often required up to five labor-intensive minutes per LP. The first fluid, the SOTA cleaner that came with their record cleaning machine, allowed me to achieve almost the same exact results as the more complicated cleaning system. I blasted through that stuff in just a few weeks, something that's never happened before.
Instead of buying a new bottle of the SOTA cleaner, I fulfilled a promise to myself to try one of the Audio Intelligent record cleaning products since the manufacturer and distributor of Audio Intelligent, Jim Pendleton, is my Missouri dealer for two of the brands I distribute. I chose his No. 6 Premium One-Step Cleaner because I really enjoy not spending five minutes to clean a single LP (Audio Intelligent has its share of multi-step live enzyme cleaners as well). The Audio Intelligent has roughly the same cleaning power as the SOTA fluid, but it's sucked up much more quickly by the vacuum in my SOTA machine. As a result, I think I can clean a single LP in less than a minute--a great feature for those times when I have to clean 40 to 50 albums for an upcoming high-end audio show.
Cartridge of the Year
Earlier this year I found that I needed a new cartridge because the styli on my usual Zu Audio DL-103 and Unison Research UN1 cartridges were getting a little long in the tooth. I could have sent them both in for re-tipping, but I had an upcoming trade show and I couldn't spare the month or two it usually takes for a decent factory re-tip. Besides, I wanted a very, very serious low-output moving coil to mate well with my very, very serious PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier. The Vinyl doesn't like high-output carts like the UN1--kinda noisy--but it really sounded nice with the DL-103 despite the relatively worn tip.
That realization made me investigate the original Denon DL-103, the legendary low-output cartridge that has been modded by the likes of Zu Audio, Soundsmith and more. While those modifications turn the somewhat modest DL-103 into a super-cartridge for a relatively reasonable amount of money, the original DL-103 offers an amazing level of performance for an MSRP of only $229 (the $379 Denon DL-103R is an updated version of the 103, but many people prefer the older version for a number of reasons).
I wound up borrowing the $2500 Transfiguration Axia from Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery in San Diego--and quite honestly, I believe that's the cartridge for me--it's nice to know that I can spend just $229 and get one hell of a cart, one that's been around for almost as long as I have.
Turntable of the Year
You probably already know about VPI, one of the leading turntable manufacturers in the world. Founded by a visionary designer, Harry Weisfeld, VPI is now being run by Harry's young son Mat, and the new prez has a very definite vision for keeping vinyl as a viable format choice for his generation. One of the first new products released under Mat's watch was the excellent $1300 Traveler, which definitely fired a warning shot over Rega's bow. Then, just a little bit later, Mat announced the release of the $995 Nomad. I said to myself at the time, "Why do you need a $1000 ‘table when you already have an excellent $1300 one? Aren't you crowding the field a little bit?"
Then I took a closer look at the Nomad. This well-made, nicely-finished $1000 ‘table also includes the tonearm. And the cartridge. And, most notably, a very nice little phono stage! It's a complete plug-and-play package for crazy cheap. I've heard the Nomad a couple of times now and each time I think, "It's doing everything right. I can't criticize or complain about this sound at all!" The VPI Nomad is now the standard-bearer for all $1000 vinyl rigs. Nice work, Mat!
That's it for this year. I don't have any real goals for 2015 other than listening to music, and sharing excellent sound with as many people as possible. I'm doing my best to "get it," and I hope it's contagious. See you at the record store.
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at email@example.com and see his Blog site
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