The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XLVIII- 2004: Year of Music
I thought long and hard about what to call this year-end column. It no longer makes sense to keep harping on the continuing success of the analog formats, because LPs and turntables are, for the most part, here to stay. What is surprising, after watching the rise and fall of the newer digital formats such as SACD and DVD-A, is that, evidently, CDs are here to stay, too. I suppose that I could call 2004 the "Year of the CD," but that would go against everything I believe in. To do such a thing would cause the earth to fall off its axis. Chaos would ensue. But I do have to give credit where credit is due.
Personally, it was a strange year in terms of analog reproduction. My precious turntable was out of commission for a large chunk of the year – due mostly to my own clumsiness – and this forced me to seek out other ways to satisfy my musical needs. Yes, I did buy and listen to an unusually large amount of CDs, and I survived. I also plunged headlong into the glory of satellite radio, which I think is a very good thing. It's unlike me to favor a new technology that doesn't place ultimate sound quality as its first priority, but the programming is so much better than conventional radio that I will probably never go back. I'm sure, in time, that an audiophile-approved version of a satellite receiver will emerge, and then I will be truly, truly happy. But I will survive quite well until then.
The best part about having neatly severed the stylus of my Koetsu Rosewood cartridge with a stellar yet recalcitrant LP reissue of Sandinista! I saw a ton of live music this year. In fact, I saw more live performances this year than in the last ten years combined. For instance, I saw the Who at the Hollywood Bowl, and they sounded better than the last time I saw them, which was twenty-five years ago. Pete Townshend is 59 and Roger Daltrey is 60, fer Chrissakes. And they were spectacular, and, for the first time in several tours, genuine. I saw Paul McCartney, the first time I've ever seen a Beatle, any Beatle, perform live. I even got to see Paul sing a duet with Tony Bennett, which was pretty goddamned memorable.
I saw Sonic Youth perform a bunch of new material, and it made me want to run out and buy their last five albums, something I've neglected to do. I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers do a version of "Brandy," and it made me laugh out loud. I saw Heart perform in Vegas, mostly as a goof, but it turned out to be much better than I imagined (why Nancy Wilson never had a successful solo career is beyond me). I saw Neil Young, who is always pretty amazing. I saw Eddie Vedder, who confirmed that the reason why I've never liked Pearl Jam: the band was nowhere as good as its singer. I saw some other performers, such as Ben Harper and Los Lonely Boys and Tegan & Sara, acts I wouldn't normally listen to, but who still delivered the all-important message that seeing music live can be much more persuasive than hearing the same stuff on your car radio.
Best of all, I got to see a buddy of mine start a band, Milo, and actually get somewhere. I went to his first three shows and became the band's first official groupie. The greatest, most satisfying part of this was that I turned this guy onto some music about a year ago, including Yo La Tengo and The Shins and a few others, and now he cites them as influences. How cool is that?
So yes, this has to be The Year of Music. It's long been an audiophile conceit that while in the midst of assembling a world-class audio system, you must remind yourself that it will never come close to approaching the sound of live music. And that's absolutely true. But once in a while you can trick yourself, and you can come close. Sometimes things come alive for just an instant, whether it's the sound of Miles' muted trumpet coming out of nowhere, or Shelly Manne's ride cymbal, or even Lindsey Buckingham's acoustic guitar during "Never Going Back Again." And yes, these moments do happen more often, in my humble opinion, while listening to LPs, which, of course, leads us to the Seventh Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence! I know, I know, I've been using the same segue since the beginning. Still, this is my favorite time of the year...
Best New Release in LP Format
To tell you the truth, it was a much better year for reissues than new releases, mostly because the evil record companies, you know, the big ones (even Sony!), realized that there was still a market for LPs, and they started putting out most of their new product in that format. The problem, however, was that the greedy lazy shitheads sourced their recordings from digital pressings, so all you were getting was an LP reproduction of a CD! Sorry, but that just doesn't cut it. So, while I was able to get most of the new stuff on LP, it all sounded dreadful.
There were a few exceptions. Neil Young's Greendale, while slightly cloying in my opinion, still got the Classic Records 3-LP 140 gram box set treatment, and the sound quality is excellent. Elvis Costello's The Delivery Man is one of his best in years, and his new record label, Lost Highways, knows how to do analog right. But I have to give this year's nod to Elliot Smith's From a Basement on a Hill. I'm not going to rehash the usual dreck about how he's gone too soon and all that, but I think this is his best album, all the more haunting when you listen to the lyrics and realize that this was a guy at the end of his particular road (the same thing made Warren Zevon's The Wind so excruciatingly unforgettable last year). And I know this sounds shallow, but it helps that the 2-LP set from the anti- label retails for just $15, about the same as the CD. And yes, the sound quality is strong, better than his other albums, all of which I happen to own on LP, too.
Best New Reissue in LP Format
After praising Steve Hoffman's monumental Creedence Clearwater Revival box set in "More Heroes of the Analog Revolution," (which will be re-running shortly – ed.), I bet you think I'll choose at as the best reisuue of the year. You'd be right, except that I'm not that big of a CCR fan, ultimately. I want to like them. I certainly respect them. And I think Steve did a phenomenal job. I just wish he'd picked another group, one I loved more. I have heard that he's considering remastering all of the Big Star releases, so let me be the first to award them Best Reissue of 2005, or 2006, or whenever.
Like I said before, this was a fantastic year for LP reissues. We had a memorable Mobile Fidelity pressing of John Lennon's Imagine, and a great series of heavy vinyl Who reissues from Polydor, everything from The Who Sell Out to The Who By Numbers, all of which sound far superior to my original American MCAs, which suck. There was an impressive Yardbirds box set, The Shape of Things, from Earmark, an Italian label, who also released the first four Black Sabbath albums this year (which reminds me of the great Henry Rollins riff where he substitutes the phrase "the first four Black Sabbath albums" for "El Nino" in a weather report).
But I think this year I have to cast my net out a bit more broadly and praise the entire Sundazed catalog. I gave them the award a few years ago for the brilliantly varied and downright fun selection of titles. Back then there were a couple of dozen great titles to choose from. Now, there are a couple of hundred great titles, from Funhouse to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, from the Trashmen to the Incredible String Band. They've even started a series of collections of great garage band music of the '60s. I plan on devoting an entire column to them in the very near future, so I won't get too specific now, but I do once again have to stress that the great thing about Sundazed is that they do all this for $13-$18, excluding multi-disc sets. And the sound quality is uniformly excellent. Bob Irwin, head of Sundazed, is definitely an analog hero for the ages.
Cartridge of the Year
As I've said many times before, I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me about cartridges. And, as I've also said before, it's getting harder and harder to get excited about making low-cost recommendations to people when you have a Koetsu (even if the stylus falls off if you look at it wrong). I don't mean this to be snobbish. It's just that when you enter the realm of this rare level of performance, it's tough to take several steps backwards and say, "This is good. I like this." That's why I've resorted to making a blanket recommendation of the Clearaudio Aurum Beta and Dynavector 10X5 to almost everyone who asks. In my pre-Koetsu days, these sounded phenomenally good to me. I've even toyed with the idea of buying the Dyna for those times when my Koetsu has to make its annual trek back to Japan for re-tipping because I've sneezed within ten feet of it. The Clearaudio and the Dynavector cost $350, however, and for many people this is still way too much money for a mere cartridge. When pressed, I usually recommend a Grado Prestige or an Audio-Technica AT-440, even though it's become clear over the last few months that these are not cartridges to everyone's taste.
A few months ago I had an epiphany. I was listening to someone else's system, and while overall it was a bit modest, I was surprised at the very, very good sound. He was playing LPs on an old Thorens turntable, one he had and loved for many, many years. He had just installed a new cartridge, an Ortofon OM-20, and was very enthusiastic about the improvements it made. Now, I've always liked Ortofon cartridges, and I owned one, the X5-MC, for many years. The OM-20, however, was one of their more affordable models. It retails for $195, but it can be found for as little as $109. And, after a few hours of listening, I was mesmerized. The OM-20 is very smooth-sounding, the perfect antidote to razor-sharp digital reproduction. It's not the last word in detail and resolution, but, like tube amplifiers, it doesn't need to be. It's a great low-cost cartridge, and for those of you who can't afford the Dyna of the Clearaudio, or simply don't want to spend that kind of money, it's just what you need.
Turntable of the Year
Last year I picked the VPI Scout out of a very crowded field. In the last year, VPI has added the Scoutmaster, a much more robust version of the Scout, and by all accounts it looks to be just as successful, even at its $2400 price. There's even another model above that, called the Super-Duper Scout, or something like that. It is reassuring that a company, even in 2004, can still hit paydirt with a new turntable design, and reinvent itself as VPI has done.
It's also a good sign that many turntable manufacturers are back to designing all-in-one analog rigs, because that means they are appealing to the more casual analog enthusiast, as opposed to the hardcore anachronists who wouldn't mind using a hand crank to keep the platter moving if it resulted in a sonic improvement. T+A, a relatively new European company, has just released a 'table that not only includes the tonearm and cartridge, but a built-in phono preamplifier as well. As Michael Fremer found out in a recent Stereophile review, it's literally plug and play, and he had the whole thing running a few minutes after unpacking it. What's remarkable about this 'table is that it actually retails for $4000 to $7000, depending on options, which means that they have not sacrificed design, performance, and build quality for convenience, like the digital formats have done. This 'table should appeal to audiophiles who already have expensive digital players, and have been curious about getting back into analog, but dread doing all the tweaking, mixing and matching that good analog seems to require.
But that's not the 'table of the year.
"Last year I picked my then-current turntable, the Rega Planar 3, as Turntable of the Year. It is still the best turntable for under a grand. This year, however, I traded in my Rega Planar 3 on a Rega Planar 25, and although it costs twice as much as the Planar 3, it is twice as good, and an unbelievable bargain for the price. So I bet you think the Planar 25 will be this year's winner. Surprise! It's not! That's because I don't think a $1275 turntable is of much interest to the average music lover."
I wrote that back in 1999. Since then, a few turntables have won Turntable of the Year that cost more than the Planar 25, so my original point is kind of moot. I think, after five years, it's time to give the Planar 25 that distinction. You see, the Planar 25 was discontinued earlier this year to make room for the new Rega P5 and P7 models. The Planar 25 was always intended as a limited-availability kind of product. The "25," after all, celebrated the 25th anniversary of Rega. But this 'table wound up being very influential, not only to Rega, but to other 'table manufacturers as well. And it was certainly the 'table to beat at its price point.
An interesting thing happened, though. Dealers, once notified that the P25 was being discontinued, started discounting it like crazy. I guess they thought that everyone would want to ditch their P25s for the new P5 (which doesn't really seem to be happening). Prices for the P25 dropped to $1150, then even lower. Dealers were starting to offer the P25 for less than a grand. In fact, I saw a couple of P25s on sale for not much more than the Rega P3, which is nowhere near the 'table for the money. At those kind of prices, the P25 qualifies as one of the great analog bargains in history. And, if you were lucky enough to get one for that kind of price, congratulations!
Argument of the Year
Although I'm known for getting into my fair share of audio debates (which have increased exponentially since I bought my first tube amp this year), the greatest tiff in audio this year occurred between J. Gordon Holt, who founded Stereophile magazine back in 1962 and left amid controversy a few years ago to write for their biggest rival, The Absolute Sound, and Art Dudley, erstwhile editor and publisher of the great audio mag Listener, who now writes for Stereophile. The argument itself wasn't really that heated, but it extended throughout the audiophile community like a wildfire. Holt maintains that audio reproduction must strive to sound like as close to the live performance as possible, which for a long time was the standard in audio. Holt, predictably, listens to only classical music and claims that you can't really be an audiophile if you listen to rock, or any music that needs to be amplified or otherwise plugged in. Dudley believes that listening to music on a stereo system is an event in and of itself, and that it doesn't necessarily need to be an accurate reproduction of the real event to be enjoyable.
Now that makes for an interesting, albeit tame basis for a discussion, but it was very funny how everyone quickly picked a side and started bellowing frantically. I could see the point of each side, although I lean more toward Art Dudley's view. What I found most interesting about the whole fracas is that J. Gordon Holt is a man well into his seventies, an old curmudgeon in the classic sense, and he has fully embraced multi-channel sound, and the newer digital formats. In fact, most of the people I argue with about such things are usually ten to twenty years older than me, which I find a tad curious. Art Dudley, however, who is much younger than Holt, is totally into vinyl and tubes and mono recordings and the like. And I have to think that if the younger generation continues to embrace the older aspects of audio, then there will always be a future for such things. I continue to get emails from people in their teens and twenties who are pulling out their parents' turntables and totally getting off on analog.
As usual, the year ends on an optimistic note.
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