The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc PhillipsThe last time I recognized some of the true guiding lights of the Vinyl Renaissance, way back in May of 2001, the results were pretty satisfying on a personal level. First, audio reviewer Michael Fremer sent me an e-mail thanking me for recognizing his efforts to keep analog alive. That resulted in a fun exchange between the two of us that eventually led to Mr. Fremer sending pics of himself from back in the '80's, when he was a stand-up comedian and sported a huge 'fro. He remains one of my biggest sources for news on the vinyl front, not just from his "Analog Corner" column in Stereophile, but on his newly resurrected website, Musicangle.com, which used appear in print form a few years ago as The Tracking Angle.
Part XLVI: More Heroes of the Analog Revolution
Equally exciting was the response I received from Judy Spotheim-Koreneef, who designs and manufactures the gorgeous, exotic SpJ turntables from The Netherlands. No, I didn't actually receive an e-mail from her, but one day, not too long ago, I checked on her website (www.spotheim-spj.com), and found a link to my old article, right there at the bottom of the home page. I was non-plussed. I guess I hold her in such high esteem that it never occured to me that she'd actually see my modest little column. Yes, yes, I know, she probably just typed in "Spotheim SpJ" in Google to see what kind of buzz her works of art were generating, and "Heroes of the Analog Revolution" popped up. Don't ruin my moment.
I didn't hear from Roy Hall, owner of Music Hall, who makes what are probably the best-selling affordable turntables right now. Mr. Hall does have a reputation for grouchiness, and he may have been slightly upset with me for subsequently reporting QC problems in his 'tables a few years ago. Sales for his MMF line of 'tables didn't slow one iota, however, because he's selling them by the truckload, and his sales increase almost exponentially every year. He also seems to be introducing a new model every year or so, usually at the top of his line. I have no data to back this up, but from observing the market, I'd say the he sells more turntables right now than anyone else, even Rega. For every person who e-mails me about Regas, there's three or four who ask me about Music Halls. And the fact that he keeps his prices so low confirms his status as a true analog hero.
We're long overdue in recognizing more of these brave visionaries. When I wrote the first article over three years ago, I thought, "Wow, I could do this every week!" Well, I didn't. The new digital format wars stole much of the spotlight over the next couple of years, and now that the dust has settled, and vinyl is still strong and growing, it's time to talk about more great analog achievements, and the individuals who have fueled them. Drum roll please...
I've made a few references over the last year's worth of columns to recording engineer Steve Hoffman's excellent and informative website and music forum (www.stevehoffman.tv). Truth is, this has become one of the best places to hang out on the Internet if you want to learn more about recording, mastering, record collecting, tube amplification, DIY audio projects, new music releases, DVD releases, and, of course, all things analog. The people who hang out there are generally fanatical about music and reproduction, and you can get some fairly solid advice there. I started hanging out there when a PSF reader e-mailed me and told me they were talking about my column (it's true, I get a big ego boost from such things). I've steadily been spending more and more time there, learning much more than I thought I would. I recommend this site highly.
The great thing about the Steve Hoffman site is Steve Hoffman. It's not just his site in name--he's there all the time, commenting on posts, answering questions, moderating the various forums, starting new threads. For those of you who don't know who Steve is, well, it's kind of hard to know where to start. I referred to him once here as a "remastering guru," and then I was disappointed when I saw three other publications refer to him as the exact same thing (maybe it's on his business card). He's had his hand in recording some of the great classic records of all time. I first learned of Steve many years ago when he started remastering all those titles for DCC, first the 24K gold CD's, and then the LP's. I've always enjoyed the DCC remasters more than the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remasters, because while MFSL takes already good recordings and makes them sound better (sometimes only marginally), DCC often takes poor-sounding recordings (such as The Door's first, and Jehtro Tull's Aqualung), and makes them listenable, which is a more noble and difficult endeavor.
Steve's continued efforts in the world of analog are what make him a definite hero of the revolution. Take his latest project, the Creedence Clearwater Revival's Absolute Originals box set. Available in LP or SACD only, this includes a complete remastering of CCR's original seven studio albums, along with tons of liner notes, photographs, booklets, and even an essay from Steve himself. BUT THAT'S NOT ALL! If you buy the LP set, you get an eighth LP which includes rare stereo mixes of five CCR classics. Remember the old days, when the CD version used to have the bonus tracks? Well, the tables have turned (pun intended). And if you're a CCR completist and you want this on CD, well, you're screwed. Time to give Roy Hall a ring, I guess.
All of this probably wouldn't exist if Steve himself wasn't an avid vinyl freak. A true lover of vintage equipment, Steve personally owns a modern Thorens 2001, a 1960 Thorens TD-124 with ESL arm, a 1956 Garrard 301, and a 1966 Miracord for old 78's. He's also into vintage tube amps such as the rare and valuable Matantz 7C preamp and 8B power amp from the '60's, and the McIntosh MC-30 amp from the '50's. His website is a real haven for vintage enthusiasts, so much so that after hanging out and talking to these guys for a few months, I've decided to take the plunge and buy a meticulously restored Scott LK-48 tube amp from 1963 (much more about this next time). Steve's become as great of an influence on me as Michael Fremer.
Say you're a guy, like me, who loves turntables. And say you meet a couple of other guys on an Internet audio forum who also like to talk about turntables. Pretty soon, you start talking about how to make a great turntable, hypothetically, of course. And maybe some engineers who lurk on the forum start to contribute ideas. And one day, you say, hey, let's make a turntable in my garage and see how it turns out. And you do. And it ain't half-bad. So you tweak and you tweak to get it right, and after a while, you discover that the 'table you've made in your garage sounds better than the expensive one you have inside your house. So you make a few more and start selling them to your friends, not to mention some of the other guys on that audio forum. Then you create a website and go into business. And the next thing you know, you're swamped with orders, and established turntable manufacturers are paying you money to use aspects of your design on their turntables. Sounds, crazy, right?
Well, that's more or less what happened to the guys at Teres Audio. Chris Brady started what he called the Teres Audio Design Project on the Audio Asylum audio forum and received great ideas from all over the country. Soon, he enlisted various members of his family, such as his father Max, who is a master woodworker and creates the beautiful wood bases, his brother Bryce, who makes all the machined parts, and his other brother Todd, who assists 82-year-old Max. Even his son Ryan is involved, by doing the web design and graphics. If you think a tiny, family-run business like this can't produce a beautiful, competitive product, check out the 'tables at www.teresaudio.com. These are stunning designs, in many ways as breathtaking as the SpJ 'tables.
To this day, however, the Teres Audio turntables remain an enigma to the mainstream analog crowd. Reviews are few and far between, and although many have heard of Teres turntables, few have actually HEARD them. That's because each one is made to order, and they sell them directly to the public. They've just recently started popping up at audio shows. And since the Bradys haven't even quit their day jobs yet, one can probably assume that there aren't thousands and thousands of these 'tables floating around freely. I certainly haven't heard or even seen one in person yet, but I'm very intrigued with the whole concept. I briefly considered taking a chance and buying one last year before I settled on my Michell Orbe, but that's a bit of a risk when the 'tables run from $1890 to $6550, not including tonearm or cartridge.
When you look at the Teres turntables, however, it's clear that this is a labor of love for Chris Brady and his family. I've talked about pride of ownership with audio products before, specifically when talking about my handmade Koetsu cartridge. When you buy something that special and non-commercial and unique, I think you get a bit of the soul of the person who made the product, and that makes it perform better. Some of you objective types call that snake oil, but I'm a more spiritual person that I'll readily admit, and I truly believe in dealing with the artisan over the assembly-line worker. After all, I've been waiting almost three months for a guy in Northern California to restore that Scott tube amplifier I bought. He wants it to be perfect, and so do I. And that's the feel I get from the guys at Teres. I have heard wonderful things about their products. I can't wait to hear them. And I hope, like Roy Hall, that they become wildly successful by manufacturing turntables, a supposedly dead format.
Anthony Michaelson has a problem. He owns an audio company named Musical Fidelity in the UK, and their products are too good. More Musical Fidelity products appear on Stereophile's Recommended Component List than any other brand. Readers write in and complain that they're sick of hearing about how good Musical Fidelity products are. Internet audio forums are thick with cynics who believe that Musical Fidelity MUST be paying off the magazines. People are tired of Musical Fidelity. So tired that they're buying lots of Musical Fidelity products, apparently with the intention of making Anthony Michaelson so rich that he'll retire.
Musical Fidelity, which used to be known as British Fidelity in the U.S., gained fame back in the '80's for making good, inexpensive integrated amps such as the Synthesis, and the legendary A1. My own introduction to MF was definitely inauspicious. I bought a Synthesis amp back in 1985 via mail-order. It arrived damaged, so I sent it back. UPS lost it, I lost the receipt, and to make things worse, I moved across the country in the interim. The paper trail turned cold, and I was out $600. I hated UPS, and Musical Fidelity indirectly, for many years. Musical Fidelity, however, prospered without me, introducing interesting and innovative products along the way. They introduced one of the first separate phono preamps I'd ever seen, not to mention the first separate headphone amplifier. Then they started using a military-spec miniature tube which was made out of metal instead of glass, and had a life expectancy of about 100,000 hours. In other words, you had the glorious, smooth, sexy sound of vaccum tubes, and the reliability and measured performance of solid-state. He offered these tubes in a series of amps, preamps, and even SACD players, made these products in limited runs, and sold out each time.
So what do you do when your audio company is thriving, the reviews are ecstatic, and people hate you for being so good? Anthony Michaelson said, "I'm going to build a turntable!" I guess he wanted to hear how good his amplifiers really were!
At $5600, the new M1 certainly isn't going to keep Roy Hall up at night worrying about how he's going to sell more $199 Music Hall MMF-1s. It's definitely an assault on the state-of-the-art of turntable design. And while it isn't an especially innovative design, it is based on solid engineering principles, and the result is an excellent-sounding turntable (I have heard one of these). It's also a beautiful turntable, consisting of stacked plexiglas plinths. Lately, there's been some backlash about the sound of plexiglas 'tables, that they're not especially neutral-sounding, and that they can border on lifeless and dull. The M1 sounded nothing like that. During my brief audition, the music sounded exciting, lively, and full. And while $5600 is a lot of money, it does include a new SME tonearm that was designed specifically for the M1 (a new SME arm is big news, considering that the SME V that I bought last year was first introduced twenty years ago).
Evidently, introducing an exciting new turntable to the market wasn't big enough of a contribution to the analog world for Michaelson. For a long time, he's been lauded as one of the best amateur clarinet players in the world, and now we finally have a chance to hear for ourselves. Stereophile editor John Atkinson recently recorded Michaelson playing Mozart's "Clarinet Concerto," and it's being released, on vinyl of course, so you can play it on your new M1! For those suspicious of the relationship between Musical Fidelity and Stereophile, this collaboration is certainly going stir things up, but I can definitely tell you that I've also heard the LP, and the sound quality is magnificent. Anthony Michaelson has, through his efforts of the last year, become one of the great Heroes of the Analog Revolution. Now if only he can retrieve my Synthesis amp from UPS limbo...
Hopefully I won't wait three more years to thank more people for their vital contributions to the act of listening to music on LP's. Off the top of my head, I can think of dozens of names such as Roy Gandy of Rega, J.A. Michell (who passed away just last year) and a variety of audio dealers who still believe in vinyl and who get genuinely excited at the prospect of showing someone how good a proper analog set-up can sound. But maybe the real heroes are the millions of people out there who are still buying LP's at a pace that increases every year. They're the ones who keep it all going, aren't they?
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