The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XV: Doc Goes Digital
Any technology is perfected just as it becomes obsolete.
I can remember reading this ol' adage back in 1985 or so, when Stereophile reviewed the SOTA Star Sapphire turntable and declared it to be the best turntable ever made. This was around the time Tower Records started liquidating their precious vinyl stock to make room for CDs, and it was a status symbol to proudly declare that you'd just bought a CD player. In fact, I can remember getting "lucky" with a girl from Poughkeepsie just because I let her listen to my CD player. It was her first time...er, uh, you know what I mean.
So what's happened in the last fourteen years? Well, SOTA went out of business. The Star Sapphire 'table shone brightly, and briefly. It was easily bettered by about two dozen turntables over the following years. Tower Records has re-introduced vinyl sections in many (but, unfortunately, not all) of their outlets. It's now a status symbol in many circles to say you still love the sound of LPs, and you have a good-sounding turntable with which to play them. And if I tried to woo a strange woman by telling her I had a CD player...well, she'd probably laugh in my face, and my wife would kick my ass when I got home.
So I've been thinking about that saying, the one about technology and perfection and obsolescence, especially in light of a phone call I received the other day. It was from Dr. Cameron, whom I introduced in "Life Without Vinyl." He's the allergist from Pasadena who retired, became a widower, and decided to spend a good portion of his savings on a truly spectacular audio spread. He said something to me that surprised me, something quite provocative.
"I think I want to finally get a CD player," he said, almost sheepishly.
"Really?" I asked. "After all this time? Especially now that it appears that CD is on the wane, and all these newer, superior digital formats are on the horizon that may finally live up to the promise Sony and Philips made back in 1982?" (I actually didn't go as far as to say all of that, but you get the drift.)
"Well," he explained, "I finally heard a couple of CD players that sounded right. One of them, unfortunately, cost twenty thousand dollars! Can you imagine?"
"Was it the Linn?" I asked him. It was. Linn, who has made perhaps the most famous and legendary of all turntables, the Sondek LP-12, has recently introduced a stunning CD player, significantly named the Sondek CD-12. It is redefining the sound of digital playback. Former digiphobes now reluctantly admit that there is a CD player that offers sound that is close or equal to the best of analog. The Linn Sondek CD-12 is THE hot topic for the analog-digital debate...apparently the playing field is finally, although arguably, level. Yes, the $20,000 Linn Sondek CD-12 sounds just as good as the $6000 Linn Sondek LP-12 (which includes their Ekos tonearm and their Arkiv phono cartridge). Hallelujah!
"Twenty grand is too much," he then said. "Especially for a CD player." This is coming from a guy who spent nearly ninety-thousand on an integrated amplifier, and thirty-five thousand on speakers. I saw his point, however. Compact disc technology has evolved at a very frantic pace during its history. It's never been wise to spend mega-bucks on a state-of-the-art player, because a better sounding player at half the price has always been right around the corner. And now that the future of CD is shaky at best, what with both SACD and DVD-Audio set to rule the marketplace, Dr. Cameron is right to feel uncomfortable with spending a bundle on a new player.
"If you wait until October," I told him, "you can grab one of the first SACD players from Sony. It'll only be about five grand."
"First-generation technology," he mused. "That doesn't sound too inviting. Didn't you own one of the first Sony CD players when they first came out?" I did. I owned a $900 Sony CDP-101, the first and worst-sounding CD player ever made. In fact, I bought my second player less than two years later...it cost $300 and sounded twice as good. So again I saw his point. Maybe buying a CD player in that technology's "golden years" makes sense. If someone came up to me tomorrow, however, and asked me, "What is the best CD player for under $500?", I'd tell them any DVD player which also plays CDs.
"So what are you looking at?" I asked Doc. He rattled off the names of a few nice single-box players (separate DACs and transports seem to be losing popularity)... Audio Research, Meridian, Krell, Classe, Mark Levinson, and a few others. I, of course, being a Naim loyalist, recommended Naim, not to mention my dealer Gene Rubin. "I know you have your loyalties," Doc said, "but I have mine, and my dealer doesn't carry Naim." So we discussed the scuttlebutt on a couple of the players he had in mind, and after a few minutes he seemed to have a bead on what he wanted.
A couple of days later, he called back to invite me over to listen to his amazing system. "Did you get the CD player?" I asked. "Of course," he replied. "Do you want to break it in first before I come over?" "No need," he said, "I got a great deal on a demo unit!" I almost laughed...it's funny to hear the owner of an Audio Note Ongaku talk excitedly about saving a few bucks.
As it turned out, he purchased a Meridian 508-24 CD player, a very well-regarded product, although a bit modest within the context of the rest of his system. In fact, with the demo discount figured in, the Meridian cost significantly less than the phono cartridge on his turntable alone! Doc didn't seem to mind, though...he carefully cleaned the glass faceplate of the player and admired its shine before he inserted the first disc. "I've purchased three CDs so far," he joked. "I guess I've entered the digital age."
How did his new addition sound? Really good, I thought. Of course I gave credit to the rest of the system...that incredible vacuum-tube amplifier which may carry a six-figure price tag before the year is out, those wild loudspeakers with the enormous blue tuba-like horns, speaker wire as thick as a garden hose...and I felt mildly embarrassed that I noted the same trepidation, the same sense of nervous awe, that I felt a few months ago when I attended the Van Gogh exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Art. But then again, I thought, this is art, too. Not quite in the same league as that Dutch guy, but still inspiring.
"Does this tickle your fancy, finally?" I asked Doc after we exhausted his entire CD collection.
"It does," he admitted, again sheepishly. He then went over a carressed the wood trim on the base of his Wilson-Benesch turntable. "Not like this," he said, "but pretty damned close." I begged him to play some LPs, and he did. Another two hours sped by uncontrollably.
"Now tell me about these DVDs," he asked.
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