The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XXXII: Ch-ch-changes
I admit it. Sometimes I go back and reread every one of the thirty-plus installments of "The Vinyl Anachronist." I think it's great that Jason Gross, editor of Perfect Sound Forever, has indulged me for well over four years now, and what started off as a lark, a computer newbie attempting to make his first mark on the cyber-world, now has quite a life of its own. In fact, it came as a surprise to me when I started receiving e-mails from people who didn't know that this was part of PSF. I'd like to thank all those websites that posted links to my stuff, but let's give credit where credit is due. It's nice to receive e-mails from engineers and manufacturers and fellow audiophiles, but I've always written this column for PSF readers, namely, lovers of fine, under-appreciated music.
When I go back through the early columns of "The Vinyl Anachronist," however, I do find myself occasionally wincing. Things, after all, do change, even in the world of LP's and turntables. And while I'm not talking about actual mistakes I've made that require those strange "errata" sidebars like you find in newspapers and magazines ("the person identified standing next to Prince Charles in the photo on yesterday's front page was not Iggy Pop, as reported, but was, of course, Camilla"), I often find myself wishing there was a way to go back and edit that stuff without sending a sheepish e-mail to Jason. (ED NOTE: thanks Marc!)
It goes all the way back to the first installment, and to the very first sentence I ever wrote for PSF: "The only musical format that has increased its unit sales over the last three years has been vinyl LP's." Someone recently tried to take me to task for that, and I had to go to the trouble of pointing out the date when it appeared (February 1998). At that time, it was a perfectly true statement, as the music industry had experienced a hell of a slump in 1995 and 1996. Then, shortly after the column appeared, there was a bit of a rebound, and the masses went right back to purchasing their bland, lifeless, sterile-sounding little silver discs in record amounts.
Now here we are, in 2002, and the music industry is experiencing yet another alarming drop in CD sales. In fact, some labels are experimenting with dropping the MSRP on CD's to below ten dollars(!). Just last night I went to the local Target (pronounced "tar-ZHEY") and purchased the latest from The White Stripes, The Strokes, and Phantom Planet for $8.99 each. At the same time, I've been shopping some of the mail-order LP houses and I've been shocked with how the prices of premium new vinyl is steadily climbing, sometimes $30 or more per record (I recently agonized over whether or not to spend $75 on a Mobile Fidelity test pressing of Sonic Youth's Goo, but $50 seems to be my morally dictated limit on such purchases). But I guess it makes sense, in a cosmic sort of way, that vinyl finally costs more than its digital counterpart. You get what you pay for, right?
This newest decline in CD sales, many experts suggest, may be due to MP3's and Napster and all those other inexpensive music-download sites. I think many people who were dedicated to the CD format did so because of ease and convenience, not sound quality. That's why they're jumping ship at the first sight of a cheaper alternative. SACD, DVD-A, and all the newer digital formats certainly had nothing to do with it, since their sales are still relatively miniscule, even in comparison to LP's. So lovers of vinyl, who are more sensitive to things such as sound quality, nostalgia, and the sheer beauty of a nice turntable, have nothing to worry about right now. And while I can no longer say that LP's are the only format experiencing steady sales, our small vinyl-loving world looks positively luminescent and vivacious compared with the dour, pessimistic market analyses of the lowly compact disc.
I only have to flip to my second installment, Ditherin' and Jitterin', before I find something else I want to fix. Toward the end of the column I start talking about a CD player that was designed to sound more like analog, and was selling like crazy because of it. I didn't include the name of the player because I didn't want to openly advertise specific products back then. Of course that all changed later, when I started handing out awards like "Turntable of the Year." But I still get e-mails, four years later, asking about the identity of that CD player. Drumroll, please... it's the Rega Planet! I know, I know, I sound like the world's biggest shill for Rega sometimes, and I'm sure most of you think I've gotten plenty of freebies for pushing their products over the years (I haven't, although I'm wondering what the holdup is). But the Planet, at the time, was an exceptional player for the money, and anyone who e-mailed me at the time was certainly told its true name, and the name of their nearest dealer.
But how does the Planet hold up four years later, in the rapidly shifting world of consumer digital audio? I'm not sure that it does. First of all, it's been replaced by the Rega Planet 2000, which came out, you guessed it, two years ago in 2000. And the price went from $750 to $900, which while it is very fair considering the improvements made in both sound and construction quality, is way too much to spend on a CD player. Yes, I'm the same guy who spent two grand on a Naim CD3 back in 1996. Would I do it today? Hell no.
I thought about updating my CD player a few months ago. It was the oldest piece in my system, and while it performs fine (actually it performs spectacularly, even for a CD player), I still wanted to see how much better the new players were. Well, the answer was "not enough." With the advent of the new digital formats, there isn't a lot of R&D money being thrown at ordinary CD players anymore. The contemporary equivalent of my CD player, the Naim CD5, now costs $2250, and I'd rather spend the money where it can really make a big difference, like with a new turntable! Those who follow this column know that I purchased a Koetsu cartridge instead.
When people ask me to recommend an inexpensive CD player, I've always pointed them toward the cheapest DVD player that has 24-bit/96kHz sampling (there's a decent Pioneer unit that accomplishes this for a shade over $200). I'm starting to do the same thing even when they ask about expensive players. In fact, I think it is unwise to spend more than $300 on any CD player right now, even if you find one that you really, really like. The smart money is on the universal players, the ones that play CD's, SACD's, DVD's, DVD-A's, multi-channel surround formats, whatever. Sure, most of those cost more than a grand right now, but like with every new technology, the prices will come down. And when everyone finally picks the format they like (I'm rooting for SACD myself), and the others are discarded like Betamax, then it will be safe to spend big bucks again. I'm sure everyone who bought one of those $60,000 Burmester CD players hates my guts right about now. Those are the same guys who thought it was foolish to spend more than $2000 on a turntable.
In the next installment, Shop 'Til You Drop, I mention my sources for buying new vinyl. Amazingly, all those places are still doing well and selling lots of LP's. But I'd like to mention Red Trumpet (at redtrumpet.com, of course), which has emerged as my new favorite. Basically, everything that can be found at other sites can be found there, so it's truly one-stop shopping. The prices are competitive, the customer service is excellent, and the shipping is fast and the LP's still arrive unscathed. Between e-Bay and Red Trumpet, I get everything I need vinyl-wise. And no, I do not get anything for rallying behind these guys, although I'm not so ethically pristine that I'd object to any sort of gesture, hint, hint!
In Turntable 101, I did make an actual mistake when I said that the introductory price for a Linn Sondek back in 1973 was $795, when it was actually just $360. The first time I'd actually heard of a Linn Sondek turntable, probably the most famous of all turntables, was during the late '70's, and they were $795 back then. Of course, none of this matters to you, the music lover. But I did receive an angry e-mail about this discrepancy, which just goes to show how many anal-retentive anonymous assholes actually inhabit the Internet. And in that same article, I mention that the world's finest achievement in turntable design, the Rockport Sirius III, costs $53,000, when the actual price once it hit the market climbed to over $73,000. I, of course, stated the price correctly in subsequent articles, so there.
In Who's Yer Dealer?, I mentioned a rather unpleasant encounter I had with a snobbish audio salesman, and I mentioned the store, Optimal Enchantments, by name because I thought they had gone out of business. Whoops. They're still there. And the snobby salesman I spoke of is actually one of the proprietors. And others have told me that their experiences have been contrary to my own, so it must have been my breath or something. For the record, I still strongly recommend Gene Rubin of Gene Rubin Audio for you vinyl-lovers on the West Coast, and Tom Unger of Gifted Listener for those of you in the East. And in Chicago, Greg Singh of Simply Stereo will hook you up with the turntable of your dreams. I used to have a dealer friend in Florida, but he passed away about a year ago. And, unlike the goof I made at the expense of Optimal Enchantments, this particular situation will not be corrected, sadly enough.
In The Vinyl Brotherhood, I lamented the dissolution of Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs, producers of some of the greatest-sounding premium LP remasters and 24K gold CD's ever. Their failure was not due to lack of interest in their products, but rather financial mismanagement of the inventory, and every time I read about their convoluted demise, I shake my head in disbelief at the fragility of it all. Well, I knew this tale had to have a happy ending, and it appears that MFSL is being reorganized by a new set of owners. The old stock is starting to flood the vinyl market as we speak, and hopefully it won't be too long before new titles are released. I also sadly mentioned, in the same column, DCC's decision to no longer release premium vinyl releases; they chose instead to focus on their 24K gold CD's and releases in the new formats. I've reported since then that they reversed their decision after about a year, and the new DCC releases are as interesting as ever. It seems like every time the vinyl LP is down for the count, it comes back even stronger. When will these people learn?
Gee, this only gets me about a third of the way through all my columns. I guess an installment titled "More Ch-ch-changes" won't be far behind. I guess it's a good thing, as long as the change favors those of us committed to the enjoyment of vinyl, eh?
Oh, there's one last change. In the past, I've encouraged you to e-mail me with any questions or comments, and I'm constantly thrilled that I get contacted almost daily about "The Vinyl Anachronist." It means that I'm not preaching in a vacuum, and that a lot of people are really interested in this stuff (especially, it seems, in cartridges). The address I've given out, though, is my main ISP account, the one that is used by myself, my wife, and my two children (I hope that explains, once and for all, what the hell booniebug means). Between all the porn spam and my wife's indiscreet use of the delete button, I've lost a few e-mails, and I apologize to those who now consider me to be a tremendous flake. And a few people with AOL accounts have attempted to reach me via Instant Messenger, and have been a bit disappointed when my six-year-old can't recommend a cartridge for their Dual 1229. So I'm requesting all future e-mails to be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org (a screen name that I hope that will need no explanation). And never ever think that I don't enjoy answering your e-mails. I do. In fact, I brag about it constantly to those who tell me that the public isn't interested in LP's anymore. You people are the proof, and I thank you.
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