The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CXXVX: 2019, Year of Globetrotting
2019 was a spectacular year for me in many ways, but mostly because it seemed like I never stopped traveling--something I love to do anyway. I finally made it to Europe, to attend the High End 2019 in Munich, and...
Wait just a minute. I told you all about it last time, when I discussed "High-End Audio Shows and You." But now that we're coming to the end of another year, I realize that my travels have shaped the way I look at high-end audio. When I was a journeyman audiophile, dreaming of a day when I'd have the money to buy the music system I really wanted, I felt alone. None of my close friends really shared my hobby, although most of them loved music just as much as I did, so beyond a few listening parties over the years I pretty much pursued this hobby on my own, spending countless hours sitting in a single chair and trying to teach myself the proper way to listen to music and evaluate gear.
There's a joke we tell in the high-end audio industry, the tale of the audiophile with the million dollar stereo system and the dedicated listening room that probably cost another million, and there's a single, lonely Eames recliner in the center of the room. I've been that guy at certain times during my life. I'm an introvert, so that's not such a bad thing, but it's a far cry from my childhood where my friends and I put a record player on the floor and sat around it in a circle and listened to records all day.
Many decades later, I feel genuinely happy that most of my closest friends--including the woman I love--are part of this wonderful hobby. My best buddies live in Italy and Australia and Norway and Austria and New Zealand and Greece and Canada, not to mention all over the United States, and we all bring something special to high-end audio--ourselves.
When I think of my hobby, now that it's also my livelihood, I no longer think of it as a lonely pursuit. I still spend most days in my listening room, reviewing music and gear, all by myself, but I balance that with my travels and all my friends.
That brings us to the 21st Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. That's right, my annual awards are now of drinking age!
Best New Release in the Vinyl Format
There have been years where this category has been the toughest for picking winners, and it usually had something to do with disposable income and my lack of it. This isn't one of those years. No, I'm not rich. But I'm finally to the place where a ton of music is being sent my way whether I like it or not. ORG Music, in particular, has been filling my mailbox (actually, my front porch) with lots of new and resissued vinyl classics. Some of my favorites LP titles over the year have been from ORG--Sunny War's Shell of a Girl, First Fits from Fitted (Mike Watt's new project) and Tav Falco's Cabaret of Daggers.
But my choice for best new LP release of the year is something a bit more ambitious, and that's the three recordings jazz singer Lyn Stanley released as part of her tribute to singer Julie London--London Calling (cover songs inspired by London), London with a Twist (a direct-to-disc session with selections from the first album) and The Challenge LP, where the listener gets to compare three tracks from the second record, with Side A being the direct-to-disc recording and Side B being an LP cut straight from the master tape.
I've written a lot about Lyn's project this year, and I've reviewed it all for Part-Time Audiophile, so you can check it out there. I even got to spend time with Lyn in Hollywood and she took me to all the cool places such as Capitol Records, Bernie Grundman Mastering and Ocean Way Studios, but that shouldn't influence my pick. What does influence it is the simple fact that these are three of the best-sounding LP recordings and pressings I've heard in the last few years. Lyn is one of the few performers out there who really cares about sound, and it shows.
Best Reissue in the Vinyl Format
My choices in this category are a bit sparse. It seems that for the first time in a long time new releases on vinyl greatly outnumbered reissues. I enjoyed the 20th anniversary LP release of Filter's Title of Record--I've got some big loudspeakers in the house right now and a big beefy amp and I can only blast Tool's Fear Inoculum so many times. I also enjoyed getting the LP reissue of It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but it's not quite as stupendous of a jazz classic as A Charlie Brown Christmas.
My choice for best reissue, however, has to be the Craft Recordings remastering of the 1969 Stax legend Soul Explosion. This 2-LP set features classic Stax soul from the likes of Booker T. & the MGs, Albert King, The Bar-Kays, The Staple Singers, Carla Thomas and many more. This collection perfectly captures a time and place in music history, and it sounds phenomenal.
Cartridge of the Year
This category was going to be a slam-dunk, since I found an $1100 cartridge from Japan that sounds like a cartridge that should cost $3000, so I bought it. Right after I bought it, I had a chance to review two contenders that in any other year could have won this award--the Sumiko Starling ($1900) and the Hana ML ($1200). I even got to play around with a $7500 Koetsu Rosewood Signature Platinum earlier in the year, but I remember my time with these three relatively affordable cartridges much more.
I'll stick with my first choice, the one I gladly purchased--the ZYX Bloom 3. This is a Japanese cartridge from a highly respected company that is famous for their clear acrylic bodies, and the fact that they can cost a fortune (my fellow reviewer Richard H. Mak covered the $17,000 ZYX UNIversal Optimum 1 ohm cartridge, which might be the most expensive cartridge in the world this week).
The ZYX Bloom 3 is the entry-level cartridge for this company, but Richard and I agree that it sounds just as good, if not better, than the top models from other phono cartridge companies. It has a balanced, musical sound that I loved from the first minute the stylus hit the groove.
Turntable of the Year
I spent the last year with the most unlikely of analog rigs, the Technics SL-1200G. I've made it pretty clear over the last few years that while I still crinkle my nose at the original 1200, I love the G. I'd easily pick it as Turntable of the Year, but I've done that already. It seems I've set a precedent for the VAAE Awards--no repeat winners. So sorry, 1200G, I still love you!
It makes more sense for me to review the other turntable that was in the mix for a big chunk of 2019--the Dr. Feickert Analogue Firebird. This massive German turntable weighs almost 70 pounds, and it costs just shy of $13,000. Two 12" tonearms were mounted on this beast--the Origin Live Illustrious and the Jelco 850. Two cartridges were mounted--the aforementioned Koetsu and a Miyajima Madake. Total cost of this rig was well over $30,000. It was by far the most impressive turntable I've had in my own system.
I learned a few things about myself as a vinyl lover as I used the Feickert. First, I love the sound you get from a high-mass turntable. It's solid, with precise imaging and sound-staging and very low noise--especially from the motor. I've spent so much of my life with light, energetic turntables such as the Regas that I always assumed I had a preference for that type of sound. But the Firebird proved me wrong. High mass = lots of meat on the bone.
I have another high-mass turntable in the queue, the Palmer 2.5 ‘table from the UK, so we'll see if I can confirm my new fetish for analog rigs that I can barely lift out of the box (come to think of it, the Technics SL-1200G is pretty heavy as well, much heavier than the original).
That's it for this year's awards! I plan on globetrotting again in 2020, and I'll have a chance to spend time with new turntables from the UK (Palmer, Vertere Acoustics), Poland (J. Sikora) and even something special from Richmond, Virginia (Fern & Roby). See you next year!
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