The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXVI: Heroes of the Analog Revolution
I've been running into a lot of jerks lately. No, I'm not talking about the garden-variety assholes who cut you off in traffic because they're chattering on a cell phone, or the mental patients who live in the apartment above yours and pray at the top of their lungs while listening to Creed. I'm talking about people who publicly display their ignorance about vinyl LP's and turntables. I'm talking about advertisers who start hawking their Disco Fever Party Mixes on TV by saying, "Remember how bad your old scratchy records used to sound?" I'm talking about professional audio reviewers who, amid their rather tepid rhapsodies about subwoofers and surround-sound processors, emit such banalities as, "I don't need to listen to a state-of-the-art turntable to know I'm still going to prefer the sound of CDs." I'm talking about people who walk into your house, see your turntable, and say, "Why are you still listening to those?"
In fact, when I wrote my year-end column, 2000: Year Of Compromise, I thought about an "Assclown of the Year" section. I mean, these people were really getting to me. You go on about this stuff for a while, you tell everyone that you think LP's sound better than CD's, and a lot of people e-mail you to tell you that they agree. All seems right as rain in the universe, and then you get clobbered. Some dork pops out of the woodwork and slobbers, "Isn't the phrase 'Vinyl Anachronist' redundant?"
But I think back to my college days, and I remember, thanks to a minor in Psychology, that positive reinforcement always works better than a opening a big can of you-know-what. So instead of writing a somewhat dour installment entitled, "Enemies of the Analog Revolution," I will concentrate on those patron saints of the big black discs, those blessed souls who have risen up and taken the charge of bringing musical ecstasy to the homes of millions. They are... sniff... true heroes.
I've been mentioning lately that listening to vinyl seems to be turning into a hobby of luxury. $73,000 turntables mated to $15,000 cartridges seem to be what's exciting in the world of analog right now. Sure, I love reading about stuff like that, and I enjoy looking at the pretty pictures, but I think about the people who are new to analog, people who may have listened, on a whim, to a Dylan record on their dad's old Garrard, and discovered that they enjoyed the unfatiguing sound. These very people then find out where they can buy a new turntable, and either meet some pimply teenager at the local Best Buy who could care less whether you buy the $129 Sony 'table or the $129 Pioneer 'table, or they get an Audio Snob, who tells them that it takes at least three grand to "hear music."
Roy Hall is a breath of fresh air. This ruddy, somewhat demented Scot has been importing the excellent and affordable hi-fi products from Epos and Creek for many years, and just recently he has turned his distribution company, Music Hall, into an actual manufacturer. His first product, the Music Hall MMF-1 turntable, brought affordable yet excellent analog performance to the masses for $300, including tonearm and cartridge! While I never warmed to the sound of the original MMF-1 (my recommendation at the time was to save another $200 and go for a Rega Planar 2), I still thought it was a great product for the price, and I was thrilled that it was a success.
Then Mr. Hall did an interesting thing. Less than two years ago he revamped the MMF-1, and made many small improvements which yielded a much better sound. I heard this new version and I liked it... a lot. I put my Rega bias (no obscure pun intended) on hold, and started recommending the new MMF-1 without reservation (except for maybe replacing the stock Goldring Elan cartridge with something a little more vibrant). Here's the best part, though. The price of this new, improved, great-sounding little 'table stayed at $300. Analog hero indeed!
Not content to rest on his laurels, Roy Hall then introduced the Music Hall MMF-5, a more sophisticated 'table that borrowed a few ideas from Rega (the glass platter, for example), and a few ideas from other, more expensive tables (the sandwiched, insulated base). He included the decent-sounding Goldring G1012 cartridge, and even threw in a bubble-level and an extra belt, all for $500. Finally there is some serious competition for Rega at this price point. Hell, this is even cheaper than buying a Technics SL1200! What are you waiting for?
It's very satisfying to know, of course, that Roy is selling a lot of these 'tables, proving that there is indeed a market for entry-level analog. Sam Tellig, in a recent issue of Stereophile, got Mr. Hall to admit that he sold about 1100 turntables last year. While that may not compete with the number of CD players that Sony sold last year, it is definitely encouraging. Imagine if you started making turntables out of the blue. (Better yet, imagine your family, your friends, and your accountant, trying to talk you OUT of doing such a crazy thing!) Then imagine that after just a couple of years you were selling them at a rate of three per day. I'd call you a business success. I'd call you a Hero of the Analog Revolution.
Sure, after I've gone on and on about the affordability and value of Roy Hall's turntables, I'm going to lionize some Dutch woman whose turntables look more like modern sculptures than record players, and start at $19,000 to boot. But Ms. Spotheim's creations are exciting because, from a purely artistic standpoint, they perfectly meld form and function to an uncommon extent. Undeniably beautiful, complex, and awe-inspiring, SpJ turntables also manage to make music sound incredibly lifelike. Owning one of these handmade masterpieces should foster the kind of pride in ownership you might enjoy with an Aston-Martin Volante or a mint, sealed copy of the butcher-baby version of the Beatles' Yesterday and Today.
If you want to see what an SpJ La Luce or an SpJ CS Centoventi 'table looks like, check out http://www.trenner-friedl.com/SpJ.htm. As amazing as these plexiglas machines appear, those photos really don't do them justice. If you put one of these things in a room full of naked women I'd... well... I'd, uh... let's just say I'd walk out of that room with a serious case of whiplash. When I attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas last year, the SpJ 'table on display in the Cardas room was THE talk of the show. "What was that turntable?" people asked in hushed yet ecstatic tones. "Did you see it?" "How much do you think it costs?" "Who cares! I want one!"
I don't want to come right out and say how unusual it is for a women to design such things, because it isn't unusual. But very few women are involved in the hi-fi world. Very few women buy high-end audio, and even fewer call themselves "audiophiles." I have a theory that this is because women listen to music for its content (what it means), while men listen to music for its sonics (what it sounds like). So it's refreshing to see a woman come along and inject this much excitement in the world of analog. After reading an recent interview of her, I also find it refreshing that Ms. Spotheim is not some ethereal, snobbish aesthete. She is, in fact, a very real, warm, and down-to-earth person who seems genuinely surprised her designs are embraced the way they are. The photos accompanying the interview, in fact, showed her barefoot, in blue jeans, playing with a cat in her garden.
Maybe she and Roy Hall should get together and make something almost as beautiful, but for around $1500. I'd mail in one of those pre-approved Visa Gold brochures for THAT.
I've discussed Mr. Fremer before. I get a large chunk of my analog-related news from his many articles. I've even been called Michael Fremer Jr. before, but it was by one of those aforementioned Assclowns of the Year ("analog is bad, BAD, and we must smite it!").
Mr. Fremer has written for almost every single audio publication ever, from Stereophile to Listener to The Absolute Sound. He even headed his own magazine for a while, The Tracking Angle, which discussed analog hardware and LP's equally. It sadly went tits up a couple of years ago, much to the dismay of vinyl lovers everywhere. Mr. Fremer is probably the foremost authority in the country, if not the world, on everything having to do with the world of turntables and LP's. If you run a business having anything to do with analog, you know Michael Fremer. In fact, he's probably on the phone right now, on hold. Go ahead and get it. We'll wait.
He almost single-handedly campaigned for the Allsop company to bring back the Orbitrac, a very effective and inexpensive way to clean LP's which was discontinued back in the Audio Middle Ages (the mid-to-late 80s). Whenever a newspaper or magazine reports whimsically about the nuts who still prefer LP's to CD's, Mr. Fremer fires off a scathing letter to the editor. If the magazine doesn't print it, don't worry. It WILL get printed via his many audio outlets. He has an ongoing battle with The New York Times that is the stuff of legends. Call it persistence, vigilance, or pestilence, but Michael Fremer gets the job done.
In fact, this is exactly what analog industry needs, a very vocal, very pissed off contingency. If we sit quietly in our homes, listening to our cherished LP copies of Stump's A Fierce Pancake, then our LP resources will slowly and steadily dry up. That's why the LP almost disappeared a dozen years ago. No one knew yet that a lot of people really hated the sound of digital playback. It took us a while to figure out what was wrong. We just thought we were getting older, and music meant less to us. But what really happened was WE MISSED OUR LP'S. And as soon as we realized we didn't care if people thought we were crazy, the turntables came back, as well as new vinyl. So we need to remain vocal. We need to remain stubborn and bothersome. And we need to keep buying stuff on vinyl whenever we can.
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