The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part XLIX: Subjectively Speaking, of Course
"Seriously – about tubes – yeah, I'll debate all day, as I personally still like them, but LP is dead compared to digital. Especially DVD-A/SACD."Just when you think things are all rosy in the world of vinyl – that LPs and turntables and cartridges and tone-arms and record cleaning machines and phono preamplifiers are here to stay – you venture out into the real world and discover that, for the most part, people still feel that the LP is inferior to the CD, and that it's utterly obsolete.
Seven years ago, when I first discussed the Vinyl Anachronist with PSF publisher Jason Gross, he suggested I concentrate specifically on the analog vs. digital debate, which he found fascinating. Over the subsequent forty-eight installments, I've tried to comply, even though I've found myself wandering off on various tangents, such as tube amplification vs. solid-state, mono vs. stereo, multi-channel vs. two-channel – even Nitty Gritty vs. VPI record cleaning machines. But when it comes to the basic CD vs. LP argument, things are still as heated as they were back in 1998, perhaps even more so. The introductory quote from this article, taken from a 2005 post on a Usenet newsgroup, sounds almost anachronistic to me, but I've been sheltered lately, basking in a small, happy world where everyone listens to LPs, and sends me e-mails telling me how right I am.
All it takes is one encounter, however – one accidental slip where I tell a neighbor or a coworker about the wonderful world of analog – and the response is brutal. My new next-door neighbor asked me, just a couple of weeks ago, "Do they still make turntables?" I must have looked at him as if he had three eyes, green skin, and a giant pair of antennae protruding from his forehead. But I'm sure he was thinking the same thing about me. I've always been at a bit of a loss when it comes to the fervor, the downright rage – and especially the ill manners – that surface when discussing audio matters. There are a lot of problems in the world: having a preference for one musical format over another certainly isn't one of them. But when you've been firmly entrenched in format wars over the last few years – as I have – there's a point where one day you climb out, look around, and wonder what the hell the fuss is all about. It's all about loving music, folks, at least theoretically.
And I had this epiphany just a few days ago, when two things happened. First, my wife told me, in an offhanded way, that I was spending as much time arguing and writing and reading about audio as I was actually listening to my supposedly beloved stereo system, and my beloved LPs. I blamed part of it on the fact that I've never been happy with my new listening room since we moved into our house two years ago, that it's too small, and it's in too high of a traffic zone in my house, and I really don't like the leather couch we bought for it. But she was right. I was getting too fervent, too full of rage, and too ill-mannered about audio, just like the objectivist, anti-vinyl bigots I supposedly despise.
The second phase of the epiphany occurred when I was...reading some more about audio. It was a recent copy of Stereophile, and while I, being a staunch subjectivist, usually skip the more technical articles, I was caught up in an interview with audio legend Edgar Villchur. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, this is the guy who started Acoustic Research, better known as AR, as in the AR-XA turntable, perhaps the most legendary turntable ever made. He also invented a little thing known as the acoustic-suspension loudspeaker, which pretty much revolutionized speaker design fifty years ago.
In other words, this guy is pretty much what we audio nerds call a Real Audio Guy, a giant in his field. I've also owned a few of his products, which revolutionized the way I felt about audio, so I was more than interested with what this 87 year-old engineering genius had to say. "Objective measurements in audio are primary, but they're useless unless they've been subjectively validated as predictors of musical accuracy." At first, it seems there's nothing that controversial about this statement, and almost everyone who's into audio will agree with its rather broad philosophy. But what Mr. Villchur said made me think about the whole analog vs. digital debate, which is directly related to the tube vs. solid-state debate, which is directly related to the stereo vs. mono debate, which is directly related to almost everything else in the universe.
It's all about objectivity vs. subjectivity.
It's about science and research vs. experience and belief. It's about thinking vs. feeling. It's about the right side of the brain vs. the left side of the brain. And in the world of audio, it's about a bunch of geeky nerds with pocket protectors who still live in their parents' basement vs. a bunch of wild-haired touchy-feely drug addicts with spinning pinwheels for eyeballs. In other words, Mr. Villchur reaffirmed the lesson I keep learning in life, over and over. The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
"What is the real content of your control-freak mind? Is it a parade of swastikas, or do images of Tommy-guns and hand grenades dance through that dark little attic?"
"Why don't you drop your propaganda bullshit for a second, Herr Snothard? Quit using ridiculous, transparent code words like 'content.' Say what you mean: Measurements. Specifications. Technobabble."
"I wonder if [his] delusional, psychotic episodes are the result of the (illegal) drugs he takes or the prescription drugs he doesn't take."
"Phillips, no matter how you posture, lengthy, unexplained absences are part of your MO. According to Google you've been in jail or some other place without internet service for the past two weeks."
While it is easy to paint the objectivists with a broad, angry stroke, it is equally easy to make the subjectivists look like they went off the deep end. Yes, these are allegedly adult males, presumably possessing the intelligence to own and operate a computer, and yes, they are talking about audio. They're not even talking about the nobler aspects, such as the music itself, but the cold, steely hardware used to play that music. How did we veer this far off course? I guess it helps to break down each side and look at their views. The objectivists, for example, think that measurements tell the whole story, and that when you accomplish certain goals when it comes to the measurements of certain devices, it will result in an accurate sound. That is their mantra, "accuracy," and that is noble in itself, since it gives credence to the very meaning of high fidelity.
And they certainly have the data to back up their position, since most of the major advances in audio were the result of hard work and a strict adherence to the Scientific Method in the laboratory. But many of them have no patience for the intangibles in audio, which they call "snake oil" (or worse). They believe that the biggest improvements in an audio system can be made with loudspeakers and room treatment. They believe that there are few audible differences between amplifiers (except for tubed amplification, which sounds so different because it is distorted, inaccurate, and flat-out wrong), and compact disc players (which have always been close to perfect). They believe that there are no differences between power cords, loudspeaker cables, and interconnects, that "wire is wire." There is no room for tube amps or analog in their world, because the measurement of these devices – compared to digital and solid-state technologies – is abysmal at best.
The subjectivists, however, believe that subtle differences exist between components, and what the listener prefers is paramount. It's all about preference, preference, and preference – it doesn't matter how something measures, it just has to sound good. Single-ended triode tube amplifiers are a good example; they have measured distortion levels so high as to be clearly audible, yet audiophiles wax rhapsodic about their pure, smooth, euphonic sound. Most turntable manufacturers don't even offer a set of specs with their products anymore, because it just seems so ludicrous to do so, especially in comparison with compact disc players. But it just doesn't matter. It's whatever sounds good. It's all about having fun, and most subjectivists think that the objectivists are trying to take that aspect away. It is a hobby, after all.
Although I've committed myself to being a member of the latter group, I do have to admit to experiencing a lot of subjectivist goofiness over the years. I've experimented with a lot of silly tweaks, and more often than not I've heard little or no difference. I've placed quarters and dimes on the tops of my speakers, I've placed my speaker wires on little porcelain trestles to keep them off the carpet, and I've placed small, pea-sized ceramic dots in various spots in my listening room, all to no avail. But I've also noticed huge differences in such things as equipment stands, turntable supports, and acoustic room treatments. And yes, I've heard distinct differences in cables.
This is perhaps the biggest source of tension between the warring factions, that there should be no difference as long as the wire is of sufficient gage and of equal (and not too long) lengths. But here's where I take off my "layman" cap and put on my "professional" cap. I am, by trade, a telecommunications technician, and I spend all day testing wire. I can receive different measurements by placing the cables in certain directions, by placing them in relation to a high voltage source, and by terminating them differently. I can achieve different results at different times of the day, under different atmospheric conditions. Wire may be wire, but cables are more than that. They are cable jackets, they are terminated ends. They perform differently. I've heard it. I've used Radio Shack lamp cord, and I've used pure silver loudspeaker cables made by an old Japanese Zen master who charges $2300 for an eight-foot pair. Wrap my head in a wet wool blanket and I could still hear the difference between those two sets of wire.
The truth does reside somewhere in the middle. I've actually made friends with more than a few objectivists over the years, which has tempered most of my gross generalizations for the most part (my father worked in the aerospace industry, for God's sake, and my mother was a programmer, and I like them just fine, too). And I've been equally put off by some of the more flowery, ethereal audio subjectivists, too. I had a bit of a rude awakening when I delved into the world of tube amplification last year, when every choice I made seemed to anger one group of people or another. When I decided to buy that Scott 299B amplifier, I received equal parts congratulations and condemnation. If I'd chosen a modern tube amplifier, the vintage contingent would have disowned me. If I'd gone with a low-powered SET amplifier, the McIntosh fans would have lynched me. If I'd chosen a Mac, then the vintage Marantz group would have clicked their tongues in unison. If I learned a lesson through all of this, it would be to keep my next audio investment a little more private.
In "2004: Year of Music," I mentioned how most of the more advanced audio technologies seem to attract the older guys, while the more vintage technologies attract a younger crowd of audiophiles. So it makes sense that as I get older, the objectivist platform seems a little more sane than it did just a few years ago. When I attended the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas a little while back, I paid a visit to the Shun Mook room.
Now, the Shun Mook "monks" are perhaps the greatest and most polarizing example of subjectivism in all of audio. They make this little hockey puck thingies called Mpingo Discs which are made out of a rare ebony wood from somewhere deep in the forests of Africa. The Mpingos are designed to be placed everywhere in your listening room, but most prominently on the tops of speakers. The most interesting thing about these perfectly round discs is that they are directional, and a certain type of sound can be "dialed in" by rotating them. A Chinese character carved into each disc helps determine this positioning. Though they are only about two inches thick and one inch tall, the Monks charge $50 a pop for them. Ostensibly, you can experiment with what they can do by merely buying two of them, and placing one on each of your speakers. It will, they guarantee, make an audible difference for the better. Of course, they recommend placing more than that, but only in odd numbers, never even. So you can spend $100 for two, and $300 for six, but never, ever $200 for four.
In the Shun Mook demonstration room, the monks went nuts: they put possibly a hundred or more discs around the room. There were several on each speaker, a few on the turntable base, a few on each shelf of the equipment rack, and some on top of each amplifier. Some were stuck on the walls, and some were arranged on free-standing wooden stands they called "Spatial Control Kits." The coup-de-grace was the record clamp, which was made out of pure ebony Mpingo wood and retailed for $1200. And you know what? The sound was extraordinary, unbelievable. We didn't even mind when they put on Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" as a response to someone's request for some rock music. Sure, the equipment they were using was sensational, including the tube amplification, which retailed for $30,000, and the turntable, which was good for another $15,000. But my friends and I had already heard much more expensive gear in other rooms, and it sounded nothing like this.
After about an hour of beautiful music (they changed the Richie LP), we walked out of the room stunned. I turned to my companions, however, and said something I didn't think I'd ever say. "What do you think that system would sound like if they ran around and removed all those discs? Would we hear a difference?" And both of my friends agreed that it probably wouldn't. But we'll never know for sure.
Like I said, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
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