Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XXIV: 2000: Year of Compromise
(January 2001)

It took a long time for me to decide what subtitle to give the first year of the new millennium (or the last year of the old millennium, depending upon which geeky theory you subscribe to). I labeled 1998 "Year of the LP," because the Vinyl Renaissance seemed to be in full swing. I called 1999 "Year of Transition" because I saw many new formats, such as SACD (Super Audio Compact Disc) and DVD-Audio, poised to knock the LP off its somewhat precarious perch. I also discussed, prematurely I'll admit, that the end was near for the garden-variety compact disc.

 And now here we are, unbelievably, in the year 2001, and in looking back upon the last year I can only say that, well, nothing much happened. SACD didn't revolutionize the way we listen to music. The public, as I predicted, didn't make it a resounding success, mostly due to the high cost of the players and the very limited catalog of titles available on this new format. There was also a bit of a backlash against the overall sound quality of SACD, even though the audio press was nearly uniform in their praise. I guess the most telling sign that SACD may be a flop was an e-mail I just received from a reader saying that the lower-priced Sony SACD player, which retails for $3500, was being discounted by the mail-order firms for as low as $1500. If I was a Sony executive, I'd be sweating that upcoming stockholders' meeting about now. BetaMax indeed.

 DVD-Audio, which I thought might succeed where SACD failed, also seems to be meeting a lukewarm reception. Late last year a handful of players were released, at relatively inexpensive prices (usually about a grand), but the reviews were tepid, especially when compared to SACD (I still think Super Audio Compact Disc comes uncomfortably close to the sound of the best analog). I think the jury is still out on DVD-Audio, and the very sloppy introduction of this format needs some real finessing if it is to gain acceptance by the consumer.

 And what about my beloved LP's? It's too early to see what the actual sales numbers look like, but for the most part the vinyl market looks like it did in 1999, and 1998, and 1997. At least it doesn't look like it did in 1988.

And is CD dead, like I had originally hoped? Well, the last time I visited the local Tower Records, it was still filled to the rafters with the li'l guys. Bummer.

 In other words, not a lot has changed. I thought we'd see major shifts in the format wars this year, but it just didn't happen. The music industry seems to have settled into a tentative stasis, and for now I'm just going to sit back and watch in silence. Which brings me to The Third Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for analog excellence! Since the analog world hasn't changed much, I've decided to change the categories around a bit this year. Enjoy!

Best New Release In The LP Format

 Last year I complained about the relative dearth of vinyl new releases. This year was an embarrassment of riches! I actually wrote quite a few record reviews for other publications (but PSF is still first in my heart!), so I had access to a lot of hot vinyl. New LP releases by Sonic Youth, The Eels, Belle and Sebastian, Elliot Smith, XTC, Jeff Buckley, Veruca Salt, and a few others caught my attention. The latest Neil Young album, Silver and Gold, while unfortunately representing the mellow country-folk Neil of Old Ways and Harvest Moon, was the best-sounding Neil LP I have ever heard. (The British pressing cost me $35, though!) But this year's award has to go to Yo La Tengo's and then nothing turned itself inside out. I bought this on CD the week it came out, and immediately proclaimed it to be the best album of the year. Then I taped it on cassette for my car, and wondered where all the music went. The secret to this album, which seems to have eluded so many music critics, is in the details, the very subtle, organic details. So when I finally purchased it on vinyl, it was almost a rediscovery. The songs seemed to breathe on their own. And once again, it was proven to me that analog still kicks digital butt.

Best LP Reissue

 It wasn't such a hot year for reissued vinyl, however. In fact, I thought about skipping this category this time around. And then I remembered that there were a lot of noteworthy reissues this year, but I hadn't gotten around to buying any! There's the Led Zep reissues on Classic Records, which are supposed to sound incredible, and the Japanese pressings of the Steely Dan catalog, Simply Vinyl's reissue of Kate Bush's The Whole Story, and even several Mott the Hoople reissues. I guess it's time to start ordering some of these. Geez, I need to spend less time on e-bay.

Coolest Overall Vinyl Purchase

 If you read last issue's installment, Mrs. Vinyl Anachronist, then you'll know this section is all about e-bay. For instance, just yesterday I won a nearly mint original pressing of Blonde On Blonde for $19. But I think I'll have to pick The Flying Burrito Brothers' Gilded Palace Of Sin, which I bought a couple of months ago, in almost mint condition, for $17.

 For the last couple of years I've been revisiting the '70's, and I can't believe how much I missed the first time, when I actually lived through them. I always thought I was the coolest kid on the block, listening to great bands that no one else had ever heard of, introducing my friends to The Ramones, Blondie, Elvis Costello and Talking Heads, while at the same time maintaining the appropriate love and respect for The Beatles, The Stones, The Who, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd. I thought I rocked. Now I know I didn't. I'd never even heard of MC5 or Captain Beefheart or Can or Big Star (well, almost no one had heard of Big Star back then). And I largely ignored the Stooges and Zappa and The Byrds. What was I thinking?

 So this is the year of Gram Parsons (last year was the year of Chilton, Bell, Stephens and Hummell). Gilded Palace of Sin is nothing less than transcendent. I've always hated country music, and I've always avoided country-rock (I've never quite "gotten" The Eagles). And if you want to see me go into a grand mal seizure, just play some Skynyrd. But lately I've noticed that much of my favorite rock has country influences, from X and Meat Puppets to Yo La Tengo and Camper Van Beethoven. And a couple of years ago I fell madly in love with Lucinda Williams. So it only makes sense to follow the path to Parsons, who refined and started it all.

 But here's the heartbreaker: I listened to Gilded Palace twice, transfixed by the wonderful, passionate music, and then, when pulling the LP out of its sleeve for a third listen, I howled in agony as I spotted a HUGE scratch all the way across Side 1. Everyone in the house ducked for cover. Many expressed sympathy, but no one 'fessed up. Back to e-bay, I guess. And don't you dare tell me about the CD version.

Best Analog Accessory

 In LP TLC, I stressed the importance of owning a record cleaning machine if you consider yourself to be a serious collector. I've owned my Nitty Gritty 2.0 machine for 15 years now, and just a few months ago it started to fall apart. The spindle assembly became unglued, and eventually the spindle, which holds the LP in place just like on a turntable, actually broke off. I've scolded many people for thinking that record cleaning machines are too costly (it's your LPs we're talking about, fer Chrissakes!), but I really didn't look forward to spending another $300 to $500 for a new one. So I looked up their website to see if they could repair it. As it turned out, their headquarters were just a few miles from my house, so with my 2.0 under my arm, I paid them a visit. And they got my machine back to brand new for...get this...ten bucks!

 So sure, record cleaning machines are expensive. Nitty Gritty's start at about $265 and run to over $700. But mine has lasted fifteen years, almost as long as the compact disc, and now, with the refurbishing, it will probably at least fifteen more, long after the CD has gone the way of the dodo! (Oops...I said I'd stop predicting, didn't I.) Point is, buy a Nitty Gritty if you own and love LP's. Don't even think about it. Just do it.

Best Turntable

 Last year I disqualified my Rega Planar 25 as Turntable of the Year, because, at $1275, I felt that it wouldn't be relevant enough to someone who was new to collecting vinyl. So how am I going to justify giving the award to a 'table that costs over $73,000? It's easy.

 The Rockport Sirius lll is $73,750. When you want one, you have to put half of that amount down as a deposit. Then it takes several months to make it. Then you have to have the thing, which weighs several hundred pounds, delivered to your house, where, unless you have concrete floors, you will need to put supports under the floor so that the beast will not wind up in your basement. I have not heard this 'table. I have not seen one in person. I have only seen pictures of it, and I have only read about it. But can you think of a better Turntable of the Year?

 My point is this: Andy Payor, a brilliant engineer, decided to construct the most accurate music playback device he could, using everything he knew about physics, mechanics, and electronics. Price was no object. Did he create a CD player? Nope. Did he create a DVD player? Nope? Did he create a reel-to-reel tape player? Nope. Did he invent a new format, like Sony did with SACD? No way.

 He built a turntable. Which plays good old-fashioned LPs.

 The audio press, most notably Michael Fremer of Stereophile, is floored by this magnificent machine. Mr. Fremer felt it made his reference 'table, which isn't exactly chopped liver at $10,000, sound almost like a joke. He said the Rockport Sirius lll (which, as I have mentioned before, is a direct-drive turntable), comes the closest to live music. Amazingly close. And before you say that at $73,750, it should, remember that there are digital rigs that cost almost that much. The new Burmester transport/DAC combo from Germany runs over $60,000, and that's before you add the fancy-schmancy digital interconnect cables which can run into the thousands on their own.

Movie of the Year about LP's

 See? I promised you I'd add something new to the mix. Unfortunately, this will probably only be a one-time occurrence. How many movies have been made about record collectors, anyway? Just one... High Fidelity.

 This John Cusack film is especially insightful because it depicts the difference between the collector-geeks and the true music lovers. And I like how it shows how music really defines the events in our lives; in Cusack's case, his failed romantic relationships. And who can forget the numerous "Top 5" lists the characters spontaneously create throughout the film, such as "Top 5 Side 1's, Track 1's"?

You may think I like the movie just because it's about LP's, but in addition to being an audiophile, I pride myself on being a movie buff, and High Fidelity is an extremely accomplished film, full of great dialogue, great acting, and great characters (Cusack's two employees at his record store, played by Jack Black and Todd Louiso, are hilarious). One thumb up!

 That's it for this year. Next year, we'll talk about the discontinuation of all digital formats, and all the great turntables that will be available for under $100. These are great times, bros. We' vinyl lovers are jolly green giants, walking through digital valleys...

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