Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XLII: 2003:Year O' Plenty
(January 2004)

For the last few months, I was going to name 2003 the Year of the Turntable. For the first part of the year, that's where all the action was, with continuous and numerous releases of brand new models, and even brand new brands. The exciting part of this was that all of this activity seemed centered around relatively affordable 'tables that really pushed the performance envelope, as opposed to state-of-the-art analog setups that would further indicate that listening to LP's had become a very specialized luxury hobby that only appealed to a select few (I say "relatively affordable" because there are still a lot of you out there looking for the perfect Dual on e-Bay for under $50).

I also wanted to call this 'The Year of the Turntable' because, on a personal level, I was finally able to enjoy true analog excellence when I purchased my J.A. Michell Orbe SE turntable with an SME V arm and a Koetsu Rosewood cartridge (this, of course, has been documented gratuitously in King of the Vinyl Mountain, and every single column since then.) I can't understate the improvement this has brought to my love of music, and the joy I get from collecting vinyl. As a result, I rarely listen to CD's at home anymore, and the only reason I buy CD's at all is for listening in my car. Usually this sort of lopsided performance would prompt me to start looking for new killer CD or SACD player, but for those of you keeping score at home, you'll know that I tried this, and it didn't work out. I can't imagine anything sounding better than listening to LP's on my new rig.

As the end of the year neared, however, I started noticing just how much vinyl was available out there. I'm not just talking about the endless reissuing that has charcterized the last few years, but NEW releases, tons and tons of them. When I submitted my Top 15 picks for 2003, three-quarters of them were available on vinyl, an almost unheard-of ratio in this day and age. And almost every time I went out and purchased some brand-new and highly recommended recording on CD, three or four months later it came out on some wonderfully-packaged 200-gram triple LP set with previously unreleased tracks and liner notes hand written by the artist themselves. It's gotten to the point where I'm woefully behind on my buying of new music because I'm afraid of buying it on CD, which explains why my favorite album this year, The Shins' Oh, Inverted World, actually came out in 2001.

Which, of course, brings us to the Sixth Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence! This may be my most detailed ceremony yet, and may surpass the four-and-a-half hour mark set back in 2000 when Whoopi hosted the show.

Best New Release in the LP Format

Unlike years past, this was a tough, tough category, with lots of potential winners. One thing I've noticed about new LP releases is that they almost always come in 2 LP sets now. That's because back in the old days, albums used to run about 40 minutes, which always seemed like a perfect length to me. Then CDs came along, and they found you could fit about 75 minutes of music on one disc, and the music companies started pressuring artists to put more music on each release, which of course meant more filler. Back in the day, the only way an artist could put out a double LP was if they had a lot of clout, and the whole album was THAT good. Things have changed, and everyone seems to want to put out at least an hour's worth of music, even if they run out of ideas after the first three songs. So when you convert these CD's back into LP's, they don't fit onto one disc.

This, however, is a good thing for LP's, because that means the sides aren't necessarily twenty minutes long anymore. Sometimes they're only ten or twelve minutes long. And for every vinylphobe that thinks this is too inconvenient, there's also a vinylphile who realizes that this helps eliminate that dreaded flaw of the LP, inner-groove distortion. Ever notice how a lot of record companies put the weakest songs of an album on the ends of the sides? That's because albums start sounding crappy then due to the tracking angle of the cutting lathe (I know, I know. You don't have that problem with CD's). But no more. The White Stripes' Elephant, Lucinda Williams' World Without Tears, Radiohead's Hail To The Thief, Yo La Tengo's Summer Sun, and many more of my faves this year came in beautiful, well-packaged, gatefold double LP sets.

I think I have to give the nod this year to Radiohead's Hail To The Thief. There was a lot of buzz earlier in the year about how Radiohead was going back to their roots, and they were going to start rocking again. Personally, I loved Kid A, but Amnesiac left me cold, mostly due to the lack of a really good single song. When I first put Hail To The Thief on my 'table, I was appalled. It started with a sluggish dirge that sounded like Thom Yorke had listened to White Light, White Heat one time too many. It was awful. I took the record off, and before I could put it back in the cover, I noticed a number out of the corner of my eye. That number was 45. As in 45 RPM. Duh.

So I put the record back on, changed the speed, and loved it. I know that there's a lot of backlash now about this group, that they're too self-important and too self-indulgent for their own good. But I think about the progressive arc of this group, and the continual evolution of their sound, and it reminds me of how quickly The Beatles' grew up and transformed music, and that there's only four years between "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Revolution 9." Many groups wait four years in between albums these days, and then they sound the same. But personally, I don't need another song like "Creep." I really like Hail To The Thief. I like how the single, "There There," is actually one of the best songs on the album, for a change (think "Optimistic," from Kid A, aka "Pictures of Matchstick Men Revisited"). And I have to admit that I think "Where I End & You Begin" is one of the most captivating rock songs I've heard since the Cocteau Twins' "Blue Bell Knoll."

Best LP Reissue

I bet you're going to think that just because I devoted an entire column to it, that I'm going to pick the 30th Anniversary Release of Dark Side of the Moon. You'd be wrong. For instance, there was a wonderful 30th Anniversary reissue of Ziggy Stardust. And a stellar 32nd Anniversary reissue of Who's Next, not to mention a 27th Anniversary reissue of The Who By Numbers. Also, I was really impressed with the 21st Anniversary release of Peter Gabriel's Security, which was available in both a 180-gram version, and a 200-gram special edition with lots of added materials. And who could forget the special 180-gram 20th Anniversary reissue of Violent Femmes' first LP? And there's all the stuff I haven't heard, like the reissue of Neil Young's On The Beach, or the entire Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog on not one, but two different labels in addition to SACD. I won't even mention reissues from BTO and Deep Purple, well, for obvious reasons. And how about that reissue of the soundtrack for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls? Buy it now, before it's gone!

My choice, however, for Reissue of the Year, would have to go to Classic Records' detailed and comprehensive release of Procol Harum's eponymous first album, remastered, of course in glorious mono. Sure it's sixty bucks, but the packaging is unbelievable, and you do get a bonus LP, and a 7" single that offers an alternate version of "Whiter Shade of Pale" in stereo. This one is in very limited numbers, however, and really may be worth a lot of money some day. So buy two.

Best Vinyl Accessory

For years I used LAST stylus cleaner to clean my, uh, well, stylus. And for years I've heard warnings that this particular fluid, while effective, can work its way from the stylus tip along the cantilever and into the body of the cartridge, gumming up the works. In fact, when I wrote for the now-defunct magazine Ultimate Audio, I was told in no uncertain terms by the editor to cease and desist using Last immediately. To be fair to the folks at Last, I never saw anything that indicated that I was doing any irreversible harm to the Regas and the Stantons and the Shures and the Grados I've owned. But when I switched to my first Koetsu, I refrained from using Last, even though I knew there were obvious sonic benefits.

After all, replacing the friggin' needle on a Koetsu Black or Rosewood costs $880. I know, because I accidentally bent the cantilever on the Black, which is why I now own a Rosewood. It actually cost as much to replace the stylus as it did to upgrade! (And I now ALWAYS use the stylus guard when not spinning LPs. You probably should too, especially if you have pets or kids, like I do).

So how do you clean your stylus? With a record brush? With a soft, wet cloth? With YOUR FINGER? No, no and HELL NO. A few years ago I read in Stereophile about a stylus cleaner that is basically a big glob of goo in a plastic dish. You lower your tonearm, allowing your stylus to plop into the goo, and then you raise the tonearm, bringing the stylus out of the goo. Sounds like a simple and effective solution, right? Well, I looked for this stuff for years, and never found it. Now, in the last few months, everyone seems to be selling the goo. It's officially called Onzow Zerodust, but you can probably ask for Stylus Goo, and they'll know what you're talking about. The only problem is that this goo costs $70, which I think is way too much, even if it does include a nifty magnifying glass. But if it prevents me from spending another $880 on a friggin' needle, or having to upgrade to the $4000 Koetsu Urushi, then it's worth it.

Cartridge of the Year

Earlier this year, I wrote a column entitled Dude, Where's My Cartridge? in an effort to stem the tide of e-mails merely asking for cartridge recommendations. Well, it didn't work. I still get as many requests for information about cartridges as before, which underlined a basic problem with my column. It seems that "The Vinyl Anachronist" has been linked and cross-linked and mega-cross-linked so many times that a lot of you don't realize that this is actually a series of articles within the spectacular music e-zine Perfect Sound Forever, as opposed to some independent website that I run. I get questions like, "Hey, pal, I just read Vinyl Anachronist XIX... when is Vinyl Anachronist XX going to be available?" Well, pal, the answer is April of 2000. My latest column, and all of the others (including the now-famous, hard-to-find Vinyl Anachronist XXX), are ALWAYS available on the PSF website. So stop asking why every "new" installment seems to be two months old already!

Anyway, in "Dude, Where's My Cartridge?", I basically narrowed it down to two spectacular cartridges, the Clearaudio Aurum Beta and the Dynavector 10X4 mk.II, for everyone. Even if $350 seems like way too much money for a cartridge, you should still buy one of these cartridges, since they offer such a clear window into actual musical events (wow, I sounded almost like a real audio reviewer there for a minute!) In fact, I picked these two cartridges as Cartridge of the Year two years ago. I didn't even have this category last year, because I would have just repeated myself.

So what's different this year? Well, the Dynavector has been discontinued. But before you panic, and say, "I really don't like the sound of the Clearaudio!", I must announce the introduction of the new Dynavector 10X5! Yes, it sounds better than the 10X4 mk.II, so much better that they named it the 10X5 instead of the 10X4 mk.III. And yes, it is still high-output, so it will work with most phono preamps, integrated amps, preamps and receivers provided they have an actual phono section. I had a chance to hear one mounted in a Rega Planar 3, and even though it's been a couple of years since I put a 10X4 in my Rega Planar 25, it sounded really, really nice. Before, I felt that the Clearaudio and the Dynavector were equals, even though they sound a little bit different (the Aurum Beta is a little more cool and dry compared to the Dyna). In fact, I used to give the edge to the Aurum Beta. Now it's clear that if I was looking for a cartridge for less than $500, the 10X5 would be a no-brainer. And the greatest part is that Dynavector didn't raise the price on this baby. It's still just $350 (I've seen it listed with a $360 MSRP, but most places are selling it at the lower price). And before you say that that's a lot of money, more than you want to spend on an entire analog rig, let me once again say that if you buy one, you will not be sorry, and you will never look back.

Turntable of the Year

Okay, this is where it gets complicated. Last year, the Music Hall MMF-7 almost won by default, since there wasn't really anything that exciting going on in the world of turntables. Well, what a difference a year makes. The first exciting development was when Rega actually lowered the prices on their two most popular turntables. The Planar 3 (now just called the P3), one of the best-selling turntables of all kind, and definitely my vote for best 'table under a grand, is now just $650, instead of $750. And the exciting Planar 25, which used to be a steal at $1275, is now only $1150. And remember, this includes an excellent, legendary Rega tonearm! I've owned both of these 'tables and I highly recommend them over such contenders as Music Hall, Pro-Ject, and even the VPI HW-19 jr. In fact, Music Hall actually increased the prices of their turntables this year by as much as $100, so I think that makes the buying decision that much easier!

Next, a number of very reputable turntable manufacturers came out with new entry-level 'tables, all of which offer superb sound quality. First, Nottingham came out with the $1000 Horizon, which actually borrows quite a few design cues from their flagship $10,000 player. Amazingly, it includes a Rega RB-250 tonearm, THE tonearm to use for after-market modifications. Nottingham offers some spectacular 'tables, although if you're used to Rega 'tables, they can sound a little dull in comparison (which may or may not have to do with the Rega's slightly fast running speed). Then Roksan introduced the Radius5, which looks nothing like their old Radius 'table. This one is a striking, all-plexiglas design. My favorite dealer, Gene Rubin, is a huge fan of this 'table, saying that it is much better than a Rega Planar 25, for about the same cost, And yes, this one includes a tonerarm, too. Next, my favorite turntable manufacturer, Michell, came out with the Tecnodec, which costs only $995 without arm, or $1295 with a Rega RB300. I've already had a reader e-mail me to say that he bought one, and absolutely loves it. Finally, Clearaudio has introduced another visually stunning plexiglas 'table which should be available by the time you read this, and it will retail for just $800. I'm sure it will be a perfect match for the Aurum Beta cartridge.

Then, a number of manufacturers of affordable turntables stretched their wings a bit a came up with new flagship designs. Music Hall, which seems to offer another new turntable model every year, came out with the $1695 MMF-9. This looks like a $3000 'table at least. Yes, like all other Music Hall designs, the price includes not only the tonearm, but a nice Goldring cartridge as well. And yes, I've heard that an MMF-10 is in the works for next year. And while we're on the subject, some of the quality control issues I mentioned last year seem to have largely disappeared. I've conversed with quite a number of happy Music Hall owners in the past few months. Pro-Ject, which is Music Hall's main competitior, and sources the parts from their 'tables from the same Czech plant as Music Hall, introduced the RM-9 for $1295, which is very similar in parts and performance to the MMF-9, albeit without the Goldring cartridge. Both of these 'tables are receiving rave reviews.

But it's time to pick a 'table for Turntable of the Year. This time, it's a no-brainer. Only one 'table has received rave reviews across the board from reviewers and consumers alike (one reviewer said that the designer "has whapped the ball so far out of the park with this one, it isn't even funny"). Stereophile placed this 'table firmly in Class B, where all the other 'tables cost from $2500 to $6995, tonearms and cartridges NOT included. Only one 'table seems to be on every third page of all the audio mags, not just because it is very photogenic, but because everyone wants one, and they're selling like crazy. And only one 'table made me stop for a while and think, before I spent almost ten grand on a new 'table this year, that I should just spend $1500 on it instead and spend the rest on LPs. Many of you have probably already figured out that I'm talking about the ubiquitous VPI Scout, which may go down in history as one of the greatest and best-selling 'tables in history, along with the AR-XA, the Linn Sondek LP-12, and the Rega Planar 3.

I've never been a big fan of VPI 'tables, but that is only a matter of preference, because there are plenty of people who feel the opposite, who prefer VPIs to Regas and Michells. But I have to tell you that the VPI Scout is the first VPI I've heard that really mesmerized me, and I have a friend who owns their top-of-the-line, $5000 TNT model. You really have to see and hear the Scout to know what I'm talking about. VPI could easily charge twice as much and still have a hit on their hands (VPI is one of the very biggest turntable manufacturers, probably in the top three overall.) A lot of people are trying to figure out why the Scout sounds so much better than much more expensive 'tables, including VPI's own. Some people say that the Scout has benefitted, in a trickle-down sort of way, from research put into their more expensive 'tables. Others say that it was just a happy accident, that the synergy of all the parts, while modest by themselves, is somehow magical all together.

My new set-up is better than the Scout, but not by that much. After hearing the Scout on three or four occasions, I could still live happily ever after with it, even after almost a year with the Michell. I can't say that about my old Regas, or even some of the other VPIs I've heard. Sure, $1500 is a lot of money. But first, it includes an excellent, world-class VPI tonearm that costs $700 by itself (the 'table is just $900 by itself, so you save $100 by buying them together). And if you restrain yourself and stick with the Clearaudio Aurum Beta or the Dynavector 10X5 (I almost said 10X4 out of habit!), you have a fantastic, first-class analog rig for about one-fifth of what mine would cost. It's a fantastic 'table, and Harry Weisfield, the designer, should be thanked by every living, breathing vinyl addict in the world for still caring as much as he does about music reproduction.

Not to wrap things up on a down note, but I'd like to take a moment to recognize two people who are no longer with us, but have personally enhanced my vinyl-listening experience. John Michell, head of J.A. Michell, designer of some of the most influential record-playing equipment in history, died October 23 at the age of 67. Not only did he create the Gyrodec, a turntable that is selling stronger now than it did 20 years ago, when it was introduced, but he also designed that really cool futuristic 'table in 2001: A Space Odyssey, not to mention C3-PO's eyes in the Star Wars films (I can hear Johnny Carson's voice in my head right now saying "I did not know that"). Also, my mother-in-law passed away on Oct.1, at the young age of 51. Although that's obviously more of a personal issue, she did, surprisingly, leave me her record collection, which had more than a few absolute gems, including some very rare Cuban LP's that her mother owned, not to mention quite a lot of Beatles' albums (she was a go-go dancer in Hollywood when my father-in-law met her!).

And as for y'all, go forward and buy some LP's, and some VPI Scouts, and some Clearaudio Aurum Betas and Dynavector 10X5's. Keep the Vinyl Renaissance going for strong for many years to come!

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