Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XXXIX: King of the Vinyl Mountain
(July 2003)

Well, I finally went and did it. I bought my new turntable.

Actually, I went a little overboard, or at least that's what I've been told by some family members and friends. I didn't just upgrade a little. I bought an analog set-up that is considered one of the best available at any price. I can no longer sit around and dream of what I'll own one day when I get rich, because the turntable I'd buy is now sitting about twenty feet away from where I'm typing.

How did this happen? Trust me, I've been walking into my living room almost every day for the last couple of months, and my first reaction is "What is THAT doing here?" I keep waiting for a phone call where the more-than-slightly exasperated voice on the other side tells me that I've borrowed it for long enough, and now it's time to give it back. But it's mine. Really. And in all seriousness I can say that I will never have to worry about wanting another turntable for as long as I live.

I owe it all to the real estate market and its current melodramatic upswing. I was able to sell my crappy townhouse in the foothills above L.A. for enough money to pay off all my debt, put twenty percent down on a lovely house in the San Fernando Valley, and fill it with all-new furniture. And I had enough left over to buy myself a new car if I wanted. Or a turntable. It took some wheeling and dealing with Mrs. Vinyl Anachronist to get what I wanted, but she finally gave in (after I let her get a wide-screen TV, that is). She's happy, I'm happy.

I'm really, really happy.

For those keeping score, I wound up with a J.A. Michell Orbe SE turntable, the special Silver Edition. For a tonearm, I went with the world's finest, the SME V. And I upgraded my Koestu Black cartridge to the Rosewood model. Now let me temper all of this by saying that while the retail price of this monstrosity settles in at just a tad over the five-figure mark, I didn't pay that much. Remember, I deal with Gene Rubin, at Gene Rubin Audio, and one thing I've tried to stress with all of you over the years is the importance of building a long-term relationship with a trustworthy dealer. The main reason why I wound up getting what I did, instead of something cheaper, is because Gene kept making me offers I couldn't refuse. When I balked at the SME V, for instance, which is $3500 by itself, asking instead for a more modest Rega tonearm, Gene upped the trade-in allowance for my Rega Planar 25. In fact, it really did get to the point where I genuinely believed that Gene was going to start losing money on the deal. I know that sounds naive, but commerce is a two-way street, and I hate being a pain in the ass.

When Gene showed up at my house to set it all up (something every respectable dealer should do when we're talking about this exalted level of audio gear), I realized that the days of Rega Planars and easy, trouble-free set-up were over. The Michell Orbe comes in several pieces, and everything has to be leveled and positioned and zip-tied. Since the Orbe has a spring-loaded suspension (it bobs up and down slightly when you touch it), it's a much more precarious thing than you'd expect. For instance, you can't just pick it up and move it like a Rega. It's much heavier, to start with, and the motor assembly isn't even attached to the rest of the turntable. The only thing touching between that motor and your records is a very thin rubber belt, which is the right way to isolate vibrations. And to make things even more complicated, there is an outboard electronic speed control that makes sure that 33 1/3 RPM is really 33.3333333 RPM. So, if you include my LFD Mistral PhonoStage phono preamplifier, there are actually four separate components I need just to play a friggin' record now.

The tonearm, if anything, is a magnificent piece of engineering, made out of cool things like magnesium. The SME V, which was first introduced in the mid-eighties, is still considering, along with the Graham 2.0, to be the world's finest tonearm. When I told some audiophiles that I was thinking about getting one of Rega's top-of-the-line arms to go with the Orbe, such as the $1595 RB-1000, or one of the highly-respected Origin Live arms, which are basically heavily-modified Regas, more than one person replied that they would work just fine until I could afford to get a "real" arm like the SME V. Real arm? I thought. What's a REAL arm? So when Gene told me he could get me the V, my eyes started spinning like pinwheels. To paraphrase Wayne Campbell, I wasn't worthy. But after walking around in a daze for two days, chanting "s-m-e-five, s-m-e-five" over and over, I finally told Gene, 'oh, all right.' If I must.

The Koetsu Rosewood cartridge wasn't quite the leap the other two items were, considering it was just the next model up from the Koetsu Black I already owned. But one thing that separates the Rosewood from its little brother is the fact that the body is made from a solid block of real rosewood. Cartridges made from real wood are quite popular right now because wood definitely adds something to the sound, a warmth and a richness you just can't experience with a plastic- or metal-bodied cartridge. The Rosewood is an improvement over the Black, but both cartridges share that special Koetsu sound, one that is famously lush, romantic and--yes, I'll say it--sexy. The Rosewood is also gorgeous to look at and to touch.

OK, you're saying, 'enough with the bragging.' And trust me, I thought a lot about how I wanted to tell you all about this purchase. I was torn in two at first. Part of my mission with "The Vinyl Anachronist" has always been to get people back into vinyl, and usually the way to do that is to show them how cheaply they can do it. I've spent a lot of time listening to vintage Duals and lowly plastic Technics decks at the local Best Buy to try and find out exactly where analog bliss kicks in. I used to say it was $500, which meant a Rega Planar 2. Then I dropped it to $300 when I heard some of the Music Hall and Pro-Ject 'tables. Then I started hinting at the possibility of $100 analog euphoria when I started perusing eBay for deals on AR's and Garrard's. I tried to be a man of the people, vinyl-wise.

But, as I've mentioned before, I do get e-mails from guys asking me advice about upgrading to analog rigs that are better than mine. My response is always, "Uh, sure, go for it! When can I come over?" I've had the occasional person start off an e-mail saying something like since I'm the analog expert, or that since I know everything there is to know, then I'll be able to make the right decision for them. Well, that simply isn't so. As I've said before, I'm one of you. I'm not an audio engineer. I'm not even an audio salesman. But one thing buying this wondrous piece of machinery has taught me is that there is more to all this Vinyl Renaissance stuff than I previously thought. I mean, I knew this stuff sounded good, but NOT THIS GOOD. And when it comes to the burgeoning digital formats, like SACD, that made me realize that little silver discs could sound almost as good, well, all bets are now off.

This, of course, brings us to the subject of why a product like this justifies its existence. What does the Michell Orbe SE/SME V/Koetsu Rosewood do that my previous turntables haven't? Let me illustrate this by telling you a story. A few weeks ago, we threw a house-warming party. I wanted to invite all of you, but there just wasn't enough time. One of the first albums I pulled out was Sgt. Pepper. Now, I have a really nice copy of it, an original UK Parlophone pressing, and I've played it about a million, trillion times. Everyone in the room had heard it probably a million, trillion times, too. But not only did we listen to the album in its entirety, but some people asked me to go back and replay certain tracks ("A Little Help From My Friends," by the way, sounds really amazing). After we finished, I turned to my best friend Scott and thanked him. "For what?" he asked. "For the birthday present," I replied, motioning over to the album. It slowly dawned on him that this was the same Sgt. Pepper that he'd bought me for my birthday twenty-five years ago. Another guest did a double-take. "You've had this since you were a kid?" he asked incredulously. "It sounds perfect!" Of course I used the opportunity to preach about the importance of record care, but the Michell Orbe deserved most of the credit. I've never heard the Beatles sound so good as I did on that day.

In a nutshell, a state-of-the-art turntable makes you relax and forget whether or not vinyl is better than CD, or whether or not you have the right speakers, or whether or not you're hearing everything the record producer intended you to hear. I used to think that the really expensive audio products would hit you over the head with their excellence, that they would be louder and more overwhelming than you were used to, kind of like watching Tommy in Quintaphonic sound at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood back in 1975. In reality, the very fine equipment is much less aggressive-sounding than inferior equipment. Everything is more quiet and laid-back, but at the same time larger and more detailed. Music seems to exist in a much larger space, as in real life, and sometimes it even defies physics and expands beyond the boundaries of your rooms, which is a truly amazing phenomenon. It goes without saying that you hear details you've never heard before, like what the voices in the background are actually saying during Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall. What's even more interesting is that you can pick out a drum line, or a bass line, or a backing vocal, and follow it throughout the song with greater ease. You realize that Paul McCartney is a better bassist than Les Claypool. You understand most of the words to "Radio Free Europe." Sometimes you can even hear the singer moving around behind the microphone. You can almost see them turning their head to look at the guitar player to smile and nod at them.

It's worth it. I've said in the past that while my Internet contacts about my love for vinyl are overwhelmingly positive and supportive, I still get lots of strange reactions in the "real world." Those guffaws and expressions of disbelief have been compounded by the fact that I now own a $10,000 record player. No one in my personal life, except for Mrs. Vinyl Anachronist, of course, knew such a thing existed. None of these people, needless to say, understand the need to own something like this. But I can genuinely say that it has improved my life. It relaxes me, excites me, makes me happy. It makes me want to hear new music, and it makes me want to rediscover things I haven't listened to since I was a kid. I may take a picture of it, frame it, and put it on my desk next to the pics of the wife and kids.

It's worth it.

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