The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LV: The State of the Turntable Union
"Well, I've been thinking about getting back into vinyl, and I'm seriously thinking about getting a Music Hall MMF 2.1 turntable based upon your recommendations..."
Hold on just a minute there, pal!
I've been writing this column for over eight years, and it's been a long time since I went back and read through all of them to see just how they hold up. You'd think that things in the world of turntables, that crusty, ancient technology, would remain pretty stable in the twenty-first century. But that's not really the case. Things have changed. And, more relevantly, I've changed, and the vinyl columns I wrote back in 1998 do not necessarily reflect my opinions in 2006.
This has been a long time coming. Back in May 2002, I wrote a column called Ch-ch-changes, which corrected and amended what I'd written over the previous four years. Well, another four years have passed, and a lot of vinyl newbies are discovering these articles. Being earnest and thorough, they're starting from the beginning, and this isn't necessarily bad. It might send them on the same musical journey I've been on for the last decade or so, a journey full of discovery, joy, and beautiful sound. That journey, however, was marred by the occasional big whopping mistake.
So, if you're one of those people who like to read the last page of a novel first, perhaps you should just start here.
I guess we should go back to the very beginning: the basic tenets I've set for the enjoyment of analog, and the guarantee that eventually you'll prefer the sound of good analog over the sound of digital. In my first column, I describe the two things you have to do to enjoy superior analog sound. First, you have to buy a decent turntable. Second, you have to take good care of your records. In that first column I stated, quite controversially, that you need to spend $500 to get that decent turntable. At the time, the Rega Planar 2 retailed for that amount, and the Rega was the most affordable turntable on the market that offered the kind of sound I was talking about.
Since then, things have gotten a bit more confused. First of all, Music Hall and Pro-Ject introduced a new line of turntables that started around $300 (incidentally, both turntables come from the same factory in the Czech Republic). And while I thought that those $300 'tables didn't offer the same sound quality as the Rega Planar 2, I reluctantly gave them my stamp of approval, because quite a few people had purchased them and were quite satisfied with the sound. Based on these $300 'tables, they told me I was absolutely right about analog, and I thought, Cool, the entry fee for admission into analog heaven just dropped $200. Hallelujah!
Then I started to get the bad e-mails, the ones from people utterly disgusted with the sound of these turntables. At first I thought it was a matter of the ultimate sound quality of these 'tables, that I was right about the $500 mark, and that I should have stuck to my guns. But I found out that these 'tables were actually set up incorrectly by dealers who were just cashing in on the entry-level turntable craze and who really didn't know anything about analog. I also discovered that Music Hall was having trouble keeping up with demand--stop me before I use the Lucy-and-Ethel-at-the-Chocolate-Factory analogy again!--and quality control was suffering (surprisingly, the Pro-Ject turntables didn't suffer from the same maladies).
For the first time, people were doubting what I was telling them, and not only did I stop recommending the Music Halls and Pro-Jects, but I refrained from making turntable recommendations altogther. Sure, I was still working hard at my night job, which was recommending cartridges to match people's existing 'tables. But for a while, when people e-mailed me to say that they wanted to dive into analog for the first time and needed to buy everything, I was deliberately vague, religiously trotting out that old chestnut about how it wasn't important what I thought, and that they should listen for themselves.
I did feel bad for dissing Roy Hall and his turntables, however, especially after choosing him as one of my "Heroes of the Analog Revolution," and I felt nervous about making public claims based on secondhand information. After all, I knew plenty of people who owned and loved their Music Halls, especially the more accomplished designs such as the MMF-5, which retails for $599 and is more competitive with Rega, and the MMF-7, which retails for a grand and is the reference rig for a friend of mine whose ears I trust. But I had the distinct feeling that I spoke out of turn, especially after I ran into Roy Hall at an audio show and he gave me the silent treatment after seeing my name tag. I seriously doubt I affected his sales, considering that they continued to grow despite my reservations, but I'm sure that there's a dartboard somewhere in Roy's house with my picture on it.
What I didn't count on was Rega's response to the success of these cheaper turntables. Last year, Rega quietly discontinued the Planar 2, leaving the legendary but $750 Planar 3 (now just called the P3) as their entry-level 'table. Instead of telling people that the price of admission for good analog sound was down to $300, I now had to break the news that by the time you added a decent cartridge, it was going to cost almost $1000 to get the kind of sound that would make you throw away your CD player. And while I'm sure that I've talked enough people into buying P3s to qualify me as an official Rega dealer, I probably caused at least as many to go back to digital.
So what about all those vintage turntables I talked about? What about those Duals and ARs and Garrards and Thorens that could be had for $100 or less? What about that AR-XA I bought and talked about in my column "That 70's Sound"? Well, that might still be the way to go, and to tell you the truth, I get a lot of e-mails from people asking me to check out some old Dual or Thorens on e-Bay to see if it's okay. And sure, for $100 you will be able to find a serviceable Dual that, let's hope, won't carve a new set of grooves into your favorite records. But that old AR I bought never really made me happy. It needed a lot of work and a lot of TLC to bring it to the level of performance I would find acceptable, and I'd rather leave that to the professionals.
The who? That's right, there are quite a few people out there who can take an old AR or Thorens or Garrard and turn it, surprisingly, into something worthwhile, even competitive with today's turntables. My current favorite is Vinyl Nirvana, which specializes in restoring AR and Thorens turntables to the point where they actually surpass their original specifications! But while wandering around their wonderful website (www.vinylnirvana.com), looking at the turntable galleries, and seeing just what can be done to an old 'table will definitely whet your appetitie for going vintage, the prices might shock you. Yes, for the most part, we're right back to that $500 price point again. And while, as my friend and audio dealer Gene Rubin says, there's something intrinsically good about finding a home for a used turntable, I wonder if you're just not better off buying that Rega, since it won't cost you much more, and it will be all new and sparkly.
Besides, the whole vintage-restoration scene can get quite nutty. Some of those modded Garrard 301s and 401s can cost a fortune. My new dream 'table is a Garrard 301 that's been modified in Japan by Shindo and is the most glorious-looking (and -sounding) turntable I've encountered (check it out at http://www.toneimports.com/shindo/garrard301.html). And yes, it retails for $19,000.
So, as you see, recommending turntables for first-time buyers isn't as easy as it used to be. I mean, what do I tell people? The fact is, the turntable industry is thriving. Several current turntable designs are very successful and profitable, most notably the VPI Scout, which everyone seems to be buying these days. But the Scout is $1600. And all the affordable turntables I truly recommend, such as the Michell Tecnodec, the Clearaudio Emotion, the Rega P5, the Nottingham Horizon, and that new Marantz, are all about the same price, which is a long way from $500. Or $300. Or $100.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, though, and it's one of those big five-hundred-thousand-candle-power spotlights that you can use to flag down passing satellites. Rega has just announced the new P1, which will retail for $350 and will include tonearm AND cartridge. I've seen a picture of it, and it looks like the old Planar 2, surprisingly enough. So it appears that there was an excellent reason to discontinue the P2. Roy Gandy of Rega seems to be targeting Music Hall and Pro-Ject, and something tells me that Roy Hall isn't sleeping well these days. I forsee a War of the Roys in the near future. With Rega's sterling reputation for reliability, I predict that the P1 will be the turntable everyone has been waiting for, and it will reintroduce tens of thousands to the wonderful world of analog...
...unless, of course, the price reduction is due to the fact that the P1 will be made in China, like almost everything else in audio these days.
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