The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Year of Getting Real About Vinyl
I've been harping about this all year. I've been harping about it for the last twenty years, if you want to be truthful. But if this year comes down to a single theme, it's that you can't really experience the magic of vinyl unless you buy a well-designed turntable. By well-designed, I mean one that spins the platter at a steady speed while fully isolating the vibrations of the motor from the tip of the stylus. After playing with a few chintzy turntables this year, I've realized that those two goals are not as easy to accomplish as you would think.
This year I've been approached by so many people who want to get back into vinyl, but they want to do it on the cheap. In my opinion, they're not really serious about it. They think vinyl is cool and they hear all their friends talking about how great it sounds, and they think they're going to hear that magic from a toy, something that looks like a little suitcase with a tiny amplifier and a pair of speakers built into the case. If you think that's what analog's all about, you're better off with Spotify and an iPhone. Sorry but that's the truth.
I went over this in more detail in 2017 articles such as "A Turntable Is Not a Toy" and "A Good Old-Fashioned Record Player." I'm not going to beat this dead horse. But I will say one thing, something that I brought up while talking about the concept of an all-in-one record player--it's starting to happen. The industry is starting to accept the fact that more and more young people are getting into vinyl, but they want a turntable that's simple and convenient and offers a ton of features in a small, compact package. But now there's a new twist.
Vinyl newbies are starting to understand that quality is important when it comes to turntable design. That's big news! They're tired of buying cheap, disposable record players that last just a few months before all the plastic parts inside start breaking off. They want to jump up to Regas and Pro-Jects and U-Turns and Music Halls, but they're also hesitant about having to buy a phono stage, or a separate cartridge that needs to be installed and aligned. They're hesitant to spend more than a couple of hundred on EVERYTHING. They want to, but most of them can't.
That's why I'm starting to see more and more well-made entry level turntables include a built-in phono stage. I'm also seeing plenty of powered speakers that sound decent enough--I've already talked about pairing Audioengine speakers with a Denon turntable and getting pretty good results in “A Good Old-Fashioned Record Player," but that costs $800. We're getting close, though, to a self-contained record player with built-in (or better yet, detachable) speakers that will reveal all the wonders of analog for an affordable price.
I think that by this time next year these products will start to appear. I hear the rumbling in the distance. People are working on this as we speak!
That brings us to the 19th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. It was another great year for LP releases, new turntables and more--and I was able to sample most of it!
Best New LP Release
I admit it. I got a thing for the Norwegians. Last year I chose Ingvild Koksvik's Og sangen kom fra havet as the best new release of the year. This year, her husband Lars Jakob Rudjord released a haunting and icy new LP called Indiepiano, which I just reviewed for Positive Feedback. Its quiet keyboard music that sounds like the soundtrack for a cinematic masterpiece. I can't get this music out of my head, so it has to win.
But there were plenty of great LP release in 2017, ones that might have taken the gold in any other year. Sasha Matson, a musician who is also high-end audio reviewer for Stereophile, released an original and exciting piece of chamber music called Tight Lines. Thurston Moore's Rock and Roll Consciousness was probably my favorite overall release of the year, but the LP pressing was a bit noisy so I mostly stream it on Tidal. You know, like once a day since it came out. And Tinariwen's Elwan won the Broadened Horizons Award for its amazing blue rock straight out of the Sahara Desert.
Best New LP Reissue
Anyone who loves the Richard Linklater films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight has probably made a conscious decision to search out Nina Simone and explore her catalog. I love those films, but I had NO Nina in my record collection until Chad Kassem's Analogue Reproductions came out with this reissue of Simone's 1957 debut, Little Girl Blue. Pressed on 200-gram vinyl, this album will startle you with how realistic and quiet it sounds. I recently had a person ask me about “black backgrounds" on LP's and what it means. It means that music rises out of the silence in a dynamic and surprising way, just like it does in real life.
I used this album as an example.
I'll offer a conditional award to the upcoming Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs' reissue of The James Gang Rides Again, but I haven't received it yet. I've been on a strange early Joe Walsh kick this year, which followed a Canned Heat kick and a Guess Who kick earlier in the year.
Cartridge of the Year
Back in 2013, I picked the entire Soundsmith cartridge line as my winner, mostly because I had limited experience with any specific model. But every time I listened to an analog rig with a Soundsmith cartridge mounted on the tonearm, I was impressed.
In 2017, I spent a significant amount of time with one particular model, the Carmen. When I first got my hands on the Carmen and mounted it on a Rega RP6, it was $700 and located somewhere in the middle of the line. In the last few months, the incredible Peter Ledermann has pared down his line and the Carmen, now in a Mk. 2 version, is $1000 and is actually his entry-level cartridge.
I don't know if that makes any difference. Both versions are absolutely wonderful cartridges, with an easy and relaxed presentation that sucks you into the music. While the RP6/Carmen was part of a relatively modest set-up, I found myself unable to come up with any criticism. This $2200 turntable/arm/cartridge conjured up a beautiful sound, one that I could live with forever. I finally heard the Mk. 2 on a more ambitious VPI ‘table, and while I couldn't do an A/B comparison between the old and the new I had the feeling I was listening to more detail and warmth, which is always a good thing. I felt like I was listening to something that cost two or three times the price.
Best of all, it's a high-output fixed coil, which mean you can run a more modest MM phono pre-amp. I used the Carmen with Soundsmith's affordable MMP3 phono stage and found it exceptionally quiet and refined.
Turntable of the Year
In the spirit of the good old-fashioned record player, I was going to give this award to the Shinola Runwell and its matching bookshelf speakers. I've heard this attractive, high-quality, made-in-the USA combination of powered speakers and turntable/arm/cartridge/phono stage a couple of times now, and I think this is an important product that will lead to our goal of a decent self-contained unit for the masses. What prevents the Shinola from winning this year is that the system costs $4000, so it doesn't quite meet our most important criteria of affordability. But you know how the prices of these bellwethers tends to come down over time, and the Runwell is certainly one of those revolutionary products.
The winner this year is an old legend, although it's not quite as famous as some of its brethren. Last April, I was in Chicago with two of my Australian manufacturers, John Reilly of Axisvoicebox and Ian Robinson of REDGUM Audio, and I started talking about my great quest to choose the last turntable I would ever own, something I discussed thoroughly in the column "Ten Turntables to Lust After." We started talking about the Thorens TD-124 idler drive turntable. The TD-124 is the rage right now, with people spending $10,000 and up for a perfectly restored model with a handsome custom plinth matched to an expensive 12" tonearm and an equally expensive cartridge.
Ian and John were unimpressed. “Have you ever heard the TD-125 mk.2, mate? From an engineering standpoint it's a much better machine. Buy some extra belts on eBay, and it will last you forever!" I know that Dave Archambault at Vinyl Nirvana, who I interviewed back in 2014, is a huge champion of the TD-125 and always has a few beautiful restorations for sale. I managed to spend some time with another TD-125 mk. 2 this year that belonged to a friend, one that was mated to an Origin Live arm and an Ortofon Winfield cartridge.
There was absolutely no sign that I was listening to a 50-year-old turntable that cost just a few hundred when it was new. The TD-125 was solid, quiet and stable and didn't sound that different from a number of five-figure turntables I've auditioned in the last year. I'm not sure if this is The One, but it is currently at the top of my list.
Hopefully next year, I will purchase ‘The Last Turntable I Will Ever Own.' I'm starting to get bored talking about it, and everyone else is too. But I promise it will be something cool and unexpected, and I will finally jump off the high-end audio merry-go-round.
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