Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part CXXVI: 2020, Year of Cuarantena
(December 2020)

It's harder than usual to look back on this year and discuss the importance of listening to LP's and buying new turntables, especially under the current circumstances. Then again, music should be providing us all with a safe haven and, most importantly, a reason to stay home. Did that happen? The high-end audio industry, as well as the music industry, took big hits this year, and everything will look quite different when it finally and hopefully recovers.

For me, 2020 wasn't nearly as bad as it was for most folks. I work from home and I'm an introvert, so I didn't have to go through a lengthy acclimation to quarantine myself and stick to the rules. But I still tempted the virus gods by moving in July from New York back to the Pacific Northwest--pretty much where my professional writing career started.

I'm still okay. I hope you are as well.

I was quietly promoted as well, going from Managing Editor of The Occasional to the Editor-in-Chief of Part-Time Audiophile, the parent site of the magazine I ran for the last two years. As a result, the toys are getting better. People I barely know send me things that cost as much as a new BMW and I get to keep them for several weeks, even months, and then I write about them and publish them and a surprising amount of people read these articles. I really dislike that ubiquitous "living the dream" response everyone says in greeting these days, but I sorta am. Twenty years ago, around the time I first starting writing this column, I had no idea it was going to turn out this nicely for me, that I was going to have this much fun.

But there's more to life than fame and fortune and I'm in no mood to gloat about things going well. Just a few hours ago I reviewed an album, Cuarantena, from the John Daversa Quintet. Daversa won Grammy Awards last year for his American Dreamer big band release which celebrates the musical contributions of young DACA dreamers. Cuarantena is a follow-up, and it's much smaller and more intimate of a project because it's about staying home, staying safe and rediscovering your love of your family through music.

Maybe it hit me hard because I also lost my father this year, and these distances can be so tough to navigate. Just the other day, Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever and I had a Zoom meeting, my first ever, and I worried that he might have bad news, simply because we all kind of expect bad news these days. No, he just wanted to check on me and see if I was all right. I realized, right then and there, that we're supposed to be doing that. We're supposed to be bonding through our shared interests and loves, especially through music. We're supposed to communicate through our music.

That brings us to the 22nd Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. Despite the prevailing attitude that nothing is worth celebrating this year, and the high-end audio industry has struggled with its message to music lovers in these times simply because it is holding on for dear life, there are still reasons to celebrate and hand out well-deserved accolades.

Best New LP Release

You're a music lover. You know the deal. The more music you listen to you, the more you realize that you're never going to find the very best music for you, your soul. Your favorite song is still out there, somewhere. There's not enough time to hear it all. That's why I get snarky with people who say things like 'You haven't heard Screaming Girlfriend in Your Face's first two albums? OMG!' (that was a real band, BTW). I can play that game as well, and I'll make you cry. We can all play that game, which is why it's such a stupid game. Let's not play it anymore.

My point is this: I think I really love most genres of electronica. Over the years I've dipped my toes in the water a few times, come out with some real winners, and then I get lured back to the ordinary because that's what everyone else is interested in. But I had one album this year, loosely associated with the nebulous genre of electronica, that I loved a lot. The neat thing is that I wrote a glowing review of it, and now everyone is sending me more electronica LP's for review.

That album was Rasmus Kjaer's Turist. I can just refer you to my review on Part-Time Audiophile for the details, but the sound of this album was so free and untethered from anything I've heard before. It was a tremendous discovery for this year, and I can't stop thinking about it. I really want to block off a couple of years so I can dive in and find more music that's this full of imagination.

Best LP Reissue

My managing editor at Part-Time Audiophile, Eric Franklin Shook, kept joking about the undeniably sticky bond between Mobile Fidelity Sounds Labs' reissue of the first four Dire Straits albums and dorky boomer audiophiles who hang out on online music forums. I didn't disagree, but I did have to think of my long personal history with the band. I started to question myself. 'Wow, will I finally hear "Private Investigations" as it was meant to be heard, with less compression and surface noise? Will I be brave enough to cough up $50 for each title?' And finally, 'am I really that big of a Dire Straits fan? Do I need these?'

Then I heard these remastered albums, all in a row, at one of the high-end audio shows last year. I heard these 45rpm double-LP sets, still unreleased, on a stereo system that cost somewhere around $1.5 million. With the increased clarity and air and energy--"more meat on the bone" as fellow audio scribe Greg Weaver put it--I came to the conclusion that I am a Dire Straits fan, but I only really like two sides' worth of their output. We're talking side one of Making Movies ("Tunnel of Love," "Romeo and Juliet" and "Rollaway") and side one of Love Over Gold ("Telegraph Road" and, of course, "Private Investigations").

By the way, I don't like Brothers In Arms one bit--it's when I stopped following the band. It's the Dire Straits' Born in the USA. It's been remastered by MFSL, a few months after the first four.

My old LP copies of these two albums were scratchy and congested from the first drop of the needle. These MFSL pressings are dead silent. I've always gotten a kick out of listening to "Private Investigations," despite the sonic shortcomings, and now that is fixed. Completely. 'Oh my Lort!' It sounds stupendous. So do the other four songs.

I feel like I've been waiting for this for most of my life. Still don't know if I'm a real Dire Straits fan. Maybe. This helps.

Cartridge of the Year

Things have been quiet on the cartridge front (that's what happens when you start championing ZYX cartridges from Japan, like I have for the last year). I reviewed several this year--the $1200 Hana SL, the $900 Sumiko Songbird and the $1500 Goldring Ethos. All were excellent, but none could break up the loving relationship I have with my $1100 ZYX Bloom 3 (which won this award, obviously, just last year).

But that begs an audiophile question--aren't you ready to step up a level, Marc? I've been reviewing a lot of expensive turntables with cartridges that might be deemed as "not expensive enough." I've been accused in the past for obsessing over price tags, so I'm not setting any expectations here for a price-to-performance ratio. But have you seen the prices lately for state-of-the-art cartridges over the last couple of years? We flew right past the $10,000 mark and now we're seeing cartridges for $20K and even $25K. No thanks.

But I have been quietly obsessing over one cartridge that I've heard on many occasions--the EMT JSD Pure Lime. EMT is a very old company, and their classic 'tables from the 1940's through the 1970's are still considered by many as the finest record-spinning machines ever built. Yes, I want one of those restored models that do, in fact, cost as much as a new BMW.

Anyway, EMT still builds tonearms and cartridges, and those cartridges have a lovely yet neutral sound about them. The Pure Lime (yes, it is metallic green) is a little pricey at around $4,300, but ever time I hear one it calls my name. The sound is immediately clean and appealing, like most German cartridges, but there's a bit of the mystique you find in Japanese cartridges. If I can swing it, this might be the next move for me.

Turntable of the Year

I spent much of the year reviewing two spectacular turntables, the Fern and Roby Montrose ($7,500 with arm) and The Palmer 2.5i with the Audio Origami tonearm (about $14,000). Both turntables were superb in every way, and I could spend the rest of my life with either. That's how you know we audio reviewers seriously like something, when we say THAT.

Then, I reviewed the new Thorens TD-1601 ($3,500 with arm), and this was the first Thorens that reminded me of all the legendary Thorens tables of yore like the TD-124, the TD-125 mk.II and the TD-160. I really loved the 1601 for its bouncy, suspended design and its bouncy, lively sound that reminds me of all the great turntables I used to adore.

I was all set to crown it the Turntable of the Year, and then a minor complication arose when the LSA Magenta T-3 table arrived for about the same price as the Thorens. What's so special about the LSA? Well, it was designed by Margules Audio of Mexico for LSA, and I've been following the progress of this turntable for close to a decade.

I've known the Margules family for many years, especially its patriarch, Julian. He and I have discussed the evolution of his "Torna" turntable design, and it seems like forever since I put my name at the top of his list for review (Colleen even tried to get him to make her a pink one). Originally, Julian wanted to make a turntable and arm combo that surpassed the performance of the Rega Planar 3, but for under $1000. Over time, the Torna became a much more ambitious design. Now it is imported by Underwood Hi-fi under the Living Sounds Audio brand, and it's sitting in my rack with a Soundsmith The Voice cartridge, waiting for my final tweaking.

Yeah, I haven't listened to it yet. So it can't be Turntable of the Year, even with my extensive history with this design. The Thorens gets the nod, and it deserves it. But don't be surprised if I'm talking about the LSA next year.

I don't want to say something creepy like 'IF there's a next year.' I just made a joke earlier today about talking to someone next week, 'after this nation plunges into a bloody civil war.' One person on the Zoom call laughed, one looked shocked. We need to remain engaged with what's going on, but we also need respites. We need humor. We need music.

Stay safe.

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