The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part CLIV: 2023, Year of...
Last year, around this time, I was boasting about my international travel in 2022. What I didn't know at the time was how much busier I'd be in 2023, traveling abroad on three separate trips and visiting many countries for the first time: Portugal, Ireland, France and Switzerland, and I still think I'm forgetting a couple. I also covered half a dozen high-end audio shows in the US, and I even pulled off a major house move in between all those plane trips. I'm still not boasting, because at the end of the year I am beat. I don't want to do that again. I'm hoping that in 2024, I get to spend more time relaxing at home, listening to LP's.
I've been so busy, in fact, that this annual wrap-up of mine wasn't ready in time for the last issue of Perfect Sound Forever, and I apologize for that. But it was all in service of knowledge, of digging ever deeper into the high-end audio industry and learning about how things are made (I'm halfway serious). I've come a long way since February 1998, when I submitted the first column for The Vinyl Anachronist. Back then I was just a layman who loved vinyl and could write from the heart about it. Now, hopefully, I bring a different perspective to the analog discussion, especially now that I'm finally falling hard for the latest digital technologies.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again--I will be spinning records until the day I die. I can't say the same about the compact disc, unfortunately. I spent much of 2023 immersed in digital-to-analog converters, network streamers, music servers and ethernet switches, and I got to the point where I started boxing up most of my CD collection and putting it into storage. I'll probably spend most of 2024 discussing this quickly shifting digital landscape. At the same time, I'm glancing over at the pile of review gear and there are plenty of turntables, arms, phono cartridges and phono stages to be evaluated in the coming months. I'm burrowing in for the winter, hibernating as they say in the Pacific Northwest.
That brings us, once again, to the 24th annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence, as well as the 26th anniversary of this column. Despite all my running around, I do have a clear choice in each category this year, and I won't be making any lame excuses about not having enough time to listen to enough music. It's been a frantic year, but it has been productive.
Best Reissued/Remastered LP of the Year
2023 was a fantastic year for remastered and reissued LP's, culminating in the awesome Steely Dan UHQRs from Analogue Productions. UHQR, if you recall, stands for Ultra High Quality Recordings, and Mobile Fidelity helped to introduce this technology back in the '70's. I've told my UHQR stories before--I've had only one, Cat Stevens' Tea for the Tillerman, which I bought from Tower Records for the princely sum of $50. I sold it a few years later for $250, and I replaced it with the standard MoFi remastered LP for $20.
One day, I visited that Tower Records, and there was an endcap filled with MoFi UHQRs for 50% off. The store manager told me his district manager got mad at him for ordering so many, and he had to blow them out. I always say that if I had a time machine, the first place I'd visit would be that Tower Records in Buena Park, on that day, and I would clean out that endcap and make a small fortune.
Analogue Productions, probably my favorite audiophile LP label of all time, has been releasing UHQRs for a few years now, and they sound spectacular. The Kansas-based company started working on remastering the entire Steely Dan catalog last year, working chronologically, so I've heard The Royal Scam and Can't Buy a Thrill and Katy Lied, but I haven't purchased them because I like Steely Dan, but not enough to pay $125-150 on every single LP they ever recorded--especially when I already own them on vinyl.
Here's what I said at the time, "Tell me when they release Aja, and I'll think about it." Aja is the only Steely Dan album that I could play over and over, beginning to end. It took a long time, but both Aja and Gaucho were released last year for $150 each, and I finally pulled the trigger. Quite frankly, Aja sounds stunning, but you might not realize how stunning it is until you go back and listen to one of your old copies--which will no longer do. I don't like spending triple digits on a single album, but I made this exception, and I don't regret a thing. It's almost like listening to Aja if it was recorded yesterday. So clean and detailed and dynamic.
Best New LP Release of the Year
I'm still getting these original, innovative jazz LPs from Western Europe, especially from countries such as Switzerland, Iceland and most of Scandinavia. For the last couple of years, the source of these LPs has been a mystery--I just assumed a publicist or a record label put me on some list that can be accessed by record labels and performers. What's so satisfying about these titles, aside from the fact that all of the LP pressings are first-rate, is that the musicians often slip a personal handwritten note about why they thought I would enjoy their music.
This year, two of these LPs really stood out. First is the Benjamin Gisli Trio's Line of Thought, from Reykjavic Record Shop record label in Iceland. Jazz piano trios keep me connected to my love for jazz--even these days, when I'm trying to fly solo into the nebulous realm of electronica without all these infernal distractions. Line of Thought instantly captured my heart because these are melancholy yet melodic compositions, told in the middle of a vast open space with plenty of distance between the performers (Benjamin Gisli Einarsson on piano, Andreas Solheim on bass and Vesleymoy Narvesen on drums). From the first notes of "Hum," the album's opener, I was mesmerized and romanced by the music despite its Nordic undercurrent of austerity.
Within a few days of receiving the Benjamin Gisli Trio album, after I had fully succumbed to its unyielding spell, another mysterious jazz album appeared from the Akku Quintet called Kinema. This is music that lives on the horizons observed from afar by traditional jazz, maybe blended with jazz fusion, but often propelled by a gentle rock and roll pace that reminds me of those instrumental albums by Bill Laswell, the type of music that can sound like everything and nothing all at once, set in a place where few people live. The Akku Quintet features compositions from drummer Manuel Pasquinelli--which may have something to do with the skillful and crisp sound of his playing and his kit. A great jazz drummer will capture my heart every time.
My perspective on this album shifted as I listened to it--I wasted far too much time trying to figure out where this road led, instead of sitting in the back seat and looking out the window and watching the landscapes speed by. While I kept visualizing wide open plains, this music comes from Switzerland via Morpheus Records. I'm going to listen to it again just after I finish writing about it--I have a feeling my opinions will evolve as I uncover more of this album's secrets.
Cartridge of the Year
It's hard to ignore the paradigm-shifting optical cartridges from DS Audio, which I mentioned in a Vinyl Anachronist column earlier in the year. It's rare when something new in the high-end audio industry, an innovation or a complete invention, catches fire and changes so many minds all at once. Yes, I did write an entire column on those DS Audio innovations, but when it came to choosing Cartridge of the Year, I had to remind myself that I still haven't reviewed an optical cartridge (I've listened plenty but I still have no idea what it's like to live with one). I felt much more confident about choosing the Luxman LMC-5 cartridge, the only cartridge I officially reviewed this year, as Cartridge of the Year.
No, I'm not saying that the Luxman is the best cartridge of 2023 because it's the only cartridge I heard in 2023. But the LMC-5 is the first cartridge this legendary Japanese hi-fi company has made in 40 years. Luxman didn't fall for the path of less resistance in high-end audio--namely, badge-engineering, aka OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer). Luxman designed this from the ground up and used the latest CNC technologies to build a solid aluminum body that is both practical (cueing is a breeze with the Luxman) and designed to control resonances and vibrations. Despite this high-tech gleam, the LMC-5 has a warm, wonderful and seductive sound, reminding me of much more costly phono cartridges from Koetsu, Kiseki and Phasemation.
The Luxman LMC-5 moving-coil cartridge costs $2,695, which is still considered a lot of money by non-audiophiles. Truth is, Luxman could have charged twice this amount and no one would have doubted those margins. In a time when the most expensive phono cartridges are sailing past $20-30K with alarming frequency, the Luxman is a sane phono cartridge that will take you much further down the road to vinyl perfection than you expect. Besides, I've heard rumors that Luxman plans to expand their phono cartridge line in both directions. There may be a Luxman in your future after all!
Turntable of the Year
It's hard for me to come up with a Turntable of the Year winner most of the time because I really want to choose something that reflects the state-of-the-art of analog playback. I'm talking about mega-tables that I listened to this year such as the Nagra Reference Anniversary Turntable ($200,000), the Kronos Discovery (also $200,000), and the TechDAS Air Force Zero ($450,000 for the basic model).
This year I fell in love with a direct-drive turntable that comes with arm and cartridge for a mere $1,695--the Music Hall Stealth. I've known Roy Hall of Music Hall for years, and many years ago I recommended one of his inexpensive 'tables right here in PSF.
Earlier this year, I heard the Stealth playing at a high-end audio show, and I couldn't get over how nice it sounded for such a decent price. Roy Hall was standing right there, and he asked me if I wanted to review it. I said yes, of course! I took it home, and I've been enjoying it for the last few months. I'm not sure I want to give it back.
The Music Hall Stealth is amazing at the price, but the included Ortofon 2M Blue is the icing on the cake. This is my favorite inexpensive moving-magnet cartridge, and it sells for around $230 by itself. During the review period I mounted such cartridges as the $6,500 Koetsu Urushi Black and the $3,295 ZYX Ultimate Airy D, and not once did the Stealth throw up its hands and proclaim "I'm not worthy! I'm not worthy!" The turntable itself is such a well-designed platform that it supports expensive cartridges without breaking a sweat. But before you start asking about a discount on the Music Hall Stealth without the Ortofon 2M Blue, think again. Keep the Ortofon around for those times when your main cartridge needs a re-tip or a repair--you might not even notice it's gone! The Ortofon has even won Cartridge of the Year right here on PSF, and for good reason.
That is all for 2023. I'm glad it's over. Not as glad as when 2016 or 2017 or 2020 ended, but I hope that in 2024 I can control the pace and spend more time listening to music. Happy New Year!