The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXIX: 2001: Year of Confrontation
What a year it's been, and I don't mean that in a good way. It's quite hard to talk about all the in-fighting that's been going in the audio world lately in light of what's going on in the actual world. To even try to bring up one to use as the context for the other is borderline offensive. But part of me thinks that the events of September 11th have made us all slightly more aggressive and slightly more pissed off, and that carries over into every facet of our life, including the way we choose to listen to music.
The Anti-Vinyl Brigade has been much more obnoxious of late, for instance. But now they no longer proclaim the advantages of the lowly CD, which, if you belong to the Format-of-the-Month Club, is dead, dead, and dead. (Was I right?) Now it's all about multi-channel surround SACD DVD-A with DTS and Dolby Digital and seven or eight speakers, all of which are run by controllers, receivers, and processors. And if you still want to listen to a turntable and a simple amplifier and a single pair of speakers, then you're a Luddite. You suck. You're an idiot. Go churn some butter.
If you read Perfect Sound Forever Again, then you know how I feel about all this. I don't hate it, and I definitely see the promise of it all. But right now, it's incredibly expensive, incredibly complicated and unwieldy, and it doesn't sound good enough, or real enough, to make me want to stop listening to LP's through a single pair of really nice speakers. The reaction I've gotten to this point of view borders on hostile, and it reeks of desperation. I think that a lot of people have invested a lot of money to make these new technologies available to the public, and the public is confused and they aren't really buying these systems in large enough numbers to finance further R&D. So if things don't get moving, all of this going to be dead in the water. You know, like Digital Compact Cassettes. Or the Pontiac Aztek.
So what is the strategy? Attack the Luddites!
One rather despicable hater of LP's and turntables I know started e-mailing me under an alias, pretending to be an avid PSF reader and eager vinyl newbie. He asked me for a recommendation for a $500 turntable, and I gave him the best choices, the Rega Planar 2, and the Music Hall MMF-5. First, he pretended to buy the Music Hall, and then complained to me how awful it sounded. Then, he allegedly returned the Music Hall and bought the Rega and had the same complaints. Then, as his regular loathsome self, he started trumpeting on newsgroups about how vinyl enthusiasts really don't know what they're talking about, and that he had been "steered wrong." Fortunately, everyone saw right through his trick, and shot him down. This is not the smartest person in the world that we're talking about, but I do wonder how much Sony, or some other multi-channel proponent, paid him to make an ass-clown of himself.
This, of course, is one isolated incident. But I've heard from several other vinyl enthusiasts, including audio reviewers, editors, and dealers, who have told me similar stories about digital espionage and surround-sound saboteurs. I've even had one writer tell me, after publicly debating me about the shortcomings of the new formats, that he agreed with me on most points, but was forced by the magazine he worked for to be positive about multi-channel because "it was good for the audio industry." Money talks, I suppose.
Which brings me to, you guessed it, the Fourth Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence! I can't believe I've done four of these things (thanks, Jason!), much less THIRTY Vinyl Anachronist articles, but here we are, in 2002, still spinning vinyl and loving it. So without further ado...
Best New LP Release
As I mentioned in the last column, Reissue Fever, it hasn't been a stellar year for new releases on LP, which does concern me. Of my top ten favorite recordings of the year, only a couple of them are available on vinyl. Radiohead managed, as they have for all their other releases, to come out with an LP version of Amnesiac, but I'm going to let you in on a dirty little secret- I actually prefer to listen to electronica and other heavily synthesized types of music on CD. It's something about listening to such pristine, sterile music on a pristine, sterile format that makes sense. LP's offer so much warmth, which can undermine the intent. One of the biggest reasons for me to buy a CD player back in the early '80's, after all, was because all the Klaus Schulze albums came out early on CD, and yes, they sounded pretty cool.
So we have to turn to Bob Dylan for our vinyl salvation, because his latest release, Love and Theft, sounds like the Bob of John Wesley Harding, or the Bob of Blonde on Blonde, or the Bob of Highway 61 Revisited. A friend of mine, a real Dylan fan, told me recently that he has yet to hear a single Dylan song on a CD player, and it made perfect sense. Bob was meant to be heard on vinyl, period. And Love and Theft is so stripped down, so fun, and so down-to-earth, that to listen to it on CD all smoothed over and wiped clean is anathemic. It's much better than the Grammy-winning (a damn with faint praise) Time Out Of Mind, which to me sounded almost like Dylan Sings Leonard Cohen. This latest one however is Bob for the Ages.
Best Vinyl Reissue
Now we're talking. There were tons of great reissues on LP this year. At first I wanted to crown the Led Zeppelin LP reissues on Classic Records as the winners. I devoted an entire article to them, Dazed and Confused, after all. But, after reading a couple of interesting PSF articles, Will Shade's The Thieving Magpies and The Incredibly Strange Saga of Jake Holmes, about the artistically shady past of Page and Co., I decided to temper my enthusiasm for now. Then I thought about the incredible deluxe versions of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On and Let's Get It On, with their alternate versions and live performances. These are probably my favorite reissues of the year, too, but they're not available on LP yet (hint, hint).
So once again we defer to Bob, whose Highway 61 Revisited, reissued by Sundazed Records, made me rethink how I feel about mono recordings. This sounds wonderful, and while listening, not once do I say to myself, "I wish it was in stereo." It sounds perfect the way it is, although, like most Dylan albums, it's a little bass-shy. But now I truly understand why there are still people out there who prefer to listen to mono over stereo, and even old 78's. Stereo can be overrated. (And as for surround, let me tell you...)
Coolest Overall Vinyl Purchase
I don't think I can get it down to just one this year. I had a lot of fun on e-bay over the last twelve months, scoring such successes as sealed copies of Aftermath and Let It Bleed, a German pressing of Tubular Bells, a sealed version of Kick Out The Jams, and a really cool sealed album of gamelan music from Bali, which is exotic, hypnotic, and just the thing to make one forget the problems of the world. I also found mint to near mint copies of Dick Dale's Surfer's Choice, Emitt Rhodes' eponymous first album, Television's Marquee Moon, and Introducing The Beau Brummels. So I can't decide. It's all cool.
It's a tie between two $2500 'tables, the Michell Gyrodec SE and the Nottingham Space 'table and matching tonearm. I know, I know. I used to pick the affordable ones, ones that the average Joe would need in order to re-enter the wonderful world of analog bliss without breaking the bank. Then, last year, I picked a $73,000 turntable because of the audacity of it all. Yes, I remember that I once disqualified my own $1275 Rega Planar 25 because I thought it would scare away potential vinyl enthusiasts. So what gives?
It's simple. Once a year I get a rather generous Christmas bonus from my company. And I've gotten into the tradition of using it to upgrade my stereo. Earlier this year, I decided to upgrade my CD player, my trusty Naim CD3, just because it was the oldest piece in the system. Naim has updated this model twice, with the Naim CD3.5, and now the new, fancy-schmancy CD5, which has been getting some great reviews, and is the first CD player that has convinced some CD3 owners to finally reach for the checkbook. Well, I heard it and it was nice. Nicer than the CD3? A bit. Enough to reach for my checkbook? Hmmm, that was a harder question to answer.
Then I decided I might as well take the new format plunge and get an SACD player. I heard one at the 2000 Consumer Electronic Show and liked it. It sounded much more like analog than regular CD did. But I know a couple of people who own SACD players, and all they do is bitch about the limited catalog. I've decided to hold onto my CD3 at least another year.
Then I heard the Michell and Nottingham turntables, and I thought, "Wow!" I was genuinely excited when I heard the improvement over my still-excellent Rega Planar 25. By investing in a better turntable, there would be no question as to whether or not I'd be getting my money's worth. I mean, if a $2500 turntable can sound so much better, than what does that $73,000 one sound like? And then I thought, you know, I'd never hear these kinds of differences if I was shopping for new CD players. Stay tuned for which 'table I actually wind up buying...
This is the first time for this category, mainly because you, the reader, asked for it. I get more e-mail's about cartridges than any other subject. People are alternately intrigued and confounded by these tiny little boxes, and they want to talk and talk about them all day long. I'm not kidding.
This year I had the good fortune of hearing a variety of excellent cartridges. I borrowed The Dynavector 17D2 mk.II for a while, which sounded excellent on my Rega Planar 25, much better than the Rega cartridge I was using. I also heard the Clearaudio Virtuoso, another excellent cartridge, and its lesser sibling, the still-phenomenal Aurum Beta S. Sure, these are fairly expensive cartridges, but they'll be the last cartridge you'll ever buy if you can fit them into your budget. I even heard an excellent $180 cartridge, the Grado Prestige Gold, which sounded very satisfying to my ears. But none of these prepared me for Koetsu.
Koetsu is a legendary Japanese cartridge manufacturer, known for creating pickups that are works of art and sound wonderful, too. People talk about Koetsus in the same hushed, yet excited tones they usually reserve for Ferraris and Lamborghinis. The bodies are hand carved from rosewood, or onyx, or lapis lazuli, by a Zen master and his two sons. They start at $2500, and go on to $7500. I never thought in a hundred years I'd ever own one. But I do.
Koetsu introduced a new entry-level model recently (actually, it was an update of a long discontinued model), the Koetsu Black. It isn't made out of the same exotic materials as the other Koetsus, but the pride and the craftsmanship are there. I placed one on my Rega Planar 25, and I took a ride to the moon. It sounded lush, romantic, captivating. It rocked my world. Who cares if it costs more than my turntable and tonearm combined? Doesn't that justify buying the Michell or the Nottingham? I think so.
Best Movie About Vinyl
I was pleased as punch to be able to pick an excellent movie two years in a row that deals with vinyl. But, as good as last year's High Fidelity was, this year's winner is even better, perhaps the best movie I've seen this year. Ghost World tells the story of a snide, sarcastic, utterly contemptuous young girl named Enid, played by the adorable Thora Birch, who finds herself thrust on an unsuspecting world after graduating from high school. She makes a connection with a lonely collector of 78's, played by Steve Buscemi, and they find comfort in their seething hatred of the mediocre society they inhabit. I love the scenes where Buscemi hosts a gathering of vinyl collectors, each one more of a neurotic misfit than the next, but the real gem in this movie is the music, the lost blues 78's he plays, which Enid discovers and grows to love. I bought the soundtrack CD just because I had to be able to play Mohammed Rafi's "Jaan Pehechaan Ho," which plays during the opening and closing credits. It's 'Dick Dale Goes To Calcutta,' and you've never heard anything like it.
A friend e-mailed me soon after the events of September 11th to tell me he just couldn't watch any more news, or listen to others talking about what was going on. He locked himself in his listening room, and listened to LP's for the entire day. He emerged, refreshed, and even optimistic. I took his lead and did the same, and I enjoyed a similar rejuvenation. I think it's easy in hard times to forget about simple pleasures, and to forget about the importance of music in our lives. And nothing communicates the sheer magic and joy of music than an LP played on a decent turntable. Remember, the Taliban didn't listen to music, and look what happened to them!
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