The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XX: Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun
How do I know all of this stuff?
Normally I'd paraphrase Rosie Perez from White Men Can't Jump and say I have retained more useless information in my head than anyone else. It's true. I'm a trivia freak. My mind is a sponge. I once won a match of Trivial Pursuit in a single turn. It's a gift. It's an obsession. It's a disease.
A reader e-mailed me recently asking me a similar question. "Where do you get all of this information about turntables and LPs and hi-fi in general?" he said. And I thought long and hard about it... how did I come to travel this long and winding road of vinyl appreciation? I'd like to don my expert's cap and say that I've had a long and distinguished career in LP mastering or music publishing or audio engineering or something like that, but the truth is that I'm just an ordinary guy, someone like you... a music lover. Oh, and I read about this stuff. A lot.
So I thought it would be only fair to turn you onto some of my favorite resources- all the wacky places that supply all that vital information about the Vinyl Renaissance. Sometimes the best information comes from audio and music magazines. Sometimes it comes from right here on The Net. And sometimes it just comes from talking to others that share an enthusiasm for LP playback, and especially those who are experts in the field. Believe me, I've asked my share of dumb questions about turntables and LPs and music. And the answers have always been worthwhile.
And so, to awkwardly rip-off Pink Floyd, let's set the controls for the heart of the heart of the Vinyl Renaissance, and let's find out what's really going on...
This is where I got my start into what we call audiophilia nervosa. I first got interested in hi-fi when I was a teenager back in the '70's. My older brother was stationed with the Air Force in Okinawa and was able to get great deals on Japanese mass-market stuff. Back then, the simple stereo receiver was extraordinarily popular, and there were a lot of good ones from Pioneer, Kenwood, Sansui, Marantz, Luxman, and many others. I started reading magazines such as High Fidelity, Stereo Review, and Audio, which specialized in featuring what I now condescendingly refer to as "mid-fi" products.
By the beginning of the '80's, however, I was growing restless with this hobby, and I was beginning to hear and see certain components that were much better than what I was used to- Linn turntables, Quad electrostatic loudspeakers, Audio Research amplifiers, and the like. A friend of mine told me about a new stereo store that had opened up nearby, featuring components we had never heard of, and they all, in his words, "absolutely kicked major ass." We went, we saw, we listened. We promised to buy, but we were still just kids, and we didn't have that kind of disposable income yet. But I discovered a magazine, Stereophile, that talked frankly about such products, and that wasn't afraid to give a bad review like those other magazines, and that seemed to be telling the truth. The rest is history.
Yes, Stereophile is the granddaddy of all hi-fi mags. They pioneered the idea that stereo equipment should be judged by how it sounds, not by test measurements, specifications, or features. After 37 years, SP still leads the way, with great writing, useful reviews, and a great music section. I've been reading SP now for nearly twenty years, and their assistance in my discovery of great-sounding gear cannot be underestimated. And although they spend a lot of time talking about digital gear, they still, for the most part, maintain that the best sound out there comes from placing a needle onto an LP. In fact, Michael Fremer's monthly column, "Analog Corner," may be my single most reliable source for what's going on in the world of vinyl. Check out their website at www.stereophile.com if you want to find out more for yourself.
The Absolute Sound has been, for many years, Stereophile's chief rival. Indeed, founder Harry Pearson is considered by most in the audio world to possess the finest set of Golden Ears in existence. And Mr. Pearson has been very vocal in stressing great recordings as well as great hi-fi equipment. But it took me a long time to warm to the magazine's charms. It always seemed that TAS merely concerned themselves with the finest sound that money could buy. In other words, they didn't talk a lot about affordable gear, the kind of stuff people like me might actually buy. It also seemed like they delved a little too heavily into the technical side of things, and very often I lost interest in what they were trying to say.
Well, a couple of years ago, TAS nearly became extinct. In fact, a few months went by without an issue, and the word was that after many years, TAS finally lost the battle against Stereophile. Harry Pearson actually started writing for other audio magazines. Luckily, an infusion of new capital has resurrected TAS, and it is now the best it has ever been. The last couple of issues have easily matched the overall quality and utility of Stereophile. It 's now so good, in fact, that for the first time in my life I'm subscribing! And I see how reading TAS actually complements the information I get from Stereophile- they're both clearly on the same team when it comes to promoting good sound, especially on vinyl.
As important as SP and TAS are to the world of audiophiles, however, I actually enjoy reading Listener more than anything. Modest in comparison to the other two, Listener, a quarterly, seems to be written by guys like me for guys like me. They actually talk about products that people are buying and using, as opposed to dreaming about. They are very high on vinyl and turntables. They love Rega. They love Spendor. They dig people like Gene Rubin, my audio dealer, and their reviewers own a lot of the same equipment I do. They are very definitely a part of my world. Will they be a part of yours? Well, all I can say is that both Stereophile and TAS take a lot of flak in the world of audio- people say they're out of touch, that they're slaves to advertising, that they speak of hi-fi equipment in ethereal, reverent tones that have no place in the real world. But I have never, ever, heard anyone criticize Listener on any level whatsoever. Hell, even the other magazines speak well of Listener. How strange is that?
The up-and-comer of this group is Ultimate Audio. Another quarterly, UA is much like the old TAS, and, much like their name implies, they are only concerned with the very best money can buy. But they too are high on vinyl playback. In fact, UA is one of the very best authorities on vinyl accessories and cleaners- the magazine is an invaluable resource for that alone. And the writing is excellent, too. But before I say anything else... yes, I write for them (I review music, though, not equipment). So I may be slightly biased. But I'm excited to be a part of UA. While magazines like Fi and Audio are going out of business, and others are actually shrinking in size due to decreased advertising space, UA actually is growing in both size and scope with every issue. There's talk of them going to a bi-monthly schedule soon and that, I truly believe, is good news for vinyl lovers.
There are other, lesser magazines you may consider. The Audiophile Voice (which bravely picked up Fi's subscription list when they went out of business), The Sensible Sound, and great hi-fi mags from the UK such as Hi-Fi Choice, Hi-Fi News & Record Review, and What Hi-Fi? (the British magazines feature a lot of reviews on turntables, tone arms, and cartridges- the Brits never really abandoned LPs like we did). Needless to say, all are helpful in my pursuit of analog heaven, even though I spend too much time reading them, and not enough time listening to music!
I spend way too much time on the computer, too. Most of it, however, is devoted to reading and learning and talking about audio. In fact, there are some very intriguing discussion groups that will help you with any questions you may have about turntables and LPs. Two Usenet newsgroups, rec.audio.high-end and rec.audio.opinion, are very popular resources on the net for open discussions, recommendations, and general information on vinyl playback.
rec.audio.high-end (RAHE) is the more straightforward of the two. The postings there are, for the most part, polite and informative. Because it is moderated, people act civilized and are probably more apt to give you genuine, useful tips and comments than in most other newsgroups. However, the main criticism of RAHE is that it is too heavily moderated, and that it sometimes takes an act of God to actually succeed in getting a post through. The posting guidelines are so stringent and, according to some, arbitrary, that there is no passion, no controversy, no dissent, and, as a result, no interest. Sometimes the posting activity slows to such a crawl that it's no longer worth consulting. But some very knowledgeable people lurk there, so it's worth trying.
In contrast, rec.audio.opinion (RAO), in the words of a friend of mine, is "an absolute fucking horror-show." This unmoderated newsgroup is so out of control that many newcomers quickly flee from its profane, rancorous presence. Ask, for example, what the best turntable under $1000 is. On RAHE, you might get a handful of valid recommendations. On RAO, one person will say "Rega Planar 3." Another will say, "You moron, the VPI HW-19jr. wipes the floor with that British piece of shit." A third will say "Why are you stone-aged fucks even talking about analog anyway? Digital rules!" Another will say, "You vapid pricks... you can't even hear differences between products anyways!" The thread will eventually produce about 1000 posts, and will end up discussing why McCain will never be President as long as that peckerhead Bush has all the money.
So why bother? For one, it's very entertaining. Very few people take RAO seriously. But I have to admit that if you have a decent BS detector, you will be able to extract some very useful advice. For the most part, though, it's a free-for-all. Another reason is that some of the giants of audio lurk and sometimes post there. Equipment manufacturers, magazine editors, prominent audiophiles, all of them check out RAO at least once in a while. But beware- RAO is rife with sockpuppets (people who post under aliases to not only attack the others, but to agree with themselves) and trolls (people who ask provocative questions because they know they'll start a shitstorm). If you can recognize and successfully avoid the two, you'll be okay...maybe. I lost the better part of a year embroiled in the battles of RAO. I've just quit cold-turkey, but I'm not sure how long it will last. It's addictive, but not in a good way.
The class act of Internet discussion groups, however, is Phonogram. This is where the pre-eminent vinyl junkies hang out. Again, the giants of the audio world belong to Phonogram. There's audio writers, magazine editors, turntable manufacturers- a very heady crowd if you're into it. This is the best, most unbiased resource for record collecting and turntable information I've found.
Your questions WILL get answered here, with a minimum of crap. The only downside is that Phonogram is not a newsgroup, so you don't log onto it and then read posts. No, it's a mailing list, which means every response is delivered to your ISP account via e-mail. That means after a busy week end in Tijuana, you'll come home to about 300 e-mails that have nothing to do with you personally. I actually had to establish a separate e-mail address to handle the sheer volume of posts. But there is so much valuable information (even the "insider" kind), that I definitely think it's worth the aggravation. Send an e-mail to email@example.com if you're interested in joining Phonogram.
Finally, there's a neat little website called The Turntable Gallery that I stumbled upon one day. I talk about a lot of turntables here, and most of the time I wish I had a photo to accompany my comments because, let's face it, turntables are generally things of beauty. I love looking at them, touching them, holding their tone arms between my fingers. Yes, I'm a vinyl pervert. Well, The Turntable Gallery is nothing but photos of most of the turntables available right now. After a hard day, I log on and look at some of these works of engineering art, and everything seems a little better afterward. Say what you will. Check out http://members.xoom.com/engchye/turntable.htm to see what I mean.
There's an audio dealer from Florida who regularly posts on RAO, and he takes a lot of heat for it. Everyone is warned not to take advice from him because he has "ulterior motives" and is only interested in making a sale, even though I have seen him recommend components that he does not carry, and he has even recommended other dealers for people who do not live in his area. For the most part, this guy has gotten a raw deal on RAO, and I'm surprised he continues to post there. But, as it turns out, he just loves talking about audio.
I replied to a post from one of his detractors, stating, "Who is better to discuss a wide variety of products than an audio dealer? Most of us are intimately familiar with maybe a dozen or two specific products, while a dealer is exposed to hundreds on a daily basis!" It's true- so what if the guy IS trying to sell you something? I have learned more from sitting around and chatting with audio dealers than any other single source. In "Who's Yer Dealer?" I warned most of you about dealers who are snobbish, slick, and unknowledgeable. For the most part, however, I have been lucky with my dealings with these people- sometimes I'd rather talk with dealers than with other audiophiles!
So, as I've recommended before, if you really want to explore the wonderful world of analog bliss, and you want to learn as much as possible, find your local purveyor of turntables and befriend him. Tell him your likes and dislikes. Bring in some of your most treasured recordings and share them with him. Ask him to show off his best products. And, every so often, buy something from him. Reward his patience. And whatever you do, don't waste the time of a local dealer by putting him through his paces, only to buy the product you liked from a mail order firm in order to save a few bucks. The karmic punishment you'll reap will be unfathomable. A long-term relationship with a good dealer will yield much greater deals anyway. And I guarantee that an afternoon spent with the right dealer selling the right turntable will be more intellectually rewarding than you'd ever guess!