The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LVI: 2006: Year of Implosion
"I don't mean to be confrontational, but I thoght [sic] that article was a total waste. I don't care if you like Technics or not, but this article was very poorly written and made no point other than 'I don't like [sic] and I don't need to justify why.' It was like reading a 9th grade position paper that got a C."
Well, the game has changed, but the players have remained the same.
For the last eight years, I've been fighting an uphill battle, and for the most part I've felt that I've done relatively well. In 1998, I received a lot of flak, both on the Internet and in the real world, for my belief that LP's sound better than CD's. In 2006, it seems that my nemeses, the audio objectivists, have given in, and now they seem to reluctantly accept the fact that vinyl LP's are preferred by a small, yet significant percentage of the population. Not only do they accept it, but I know more than a few of those insufferable varmints who have actually gone out and bought turntables just to see for themselves what the fuss is about.
But just when I thought it was safe to go back into my listening room, a new battle has emerged.
"This Phillips guy has an axe to grind. Of course the 1200 is not the best. But what do you want for less than 500 bucks? It goes up his ass sideways that a Panasonic anything can be good."
Yep, it appears that I've ruffled quite a few feathers with my column, Truth, Justice, and the Technics SL-1200. I made more than a few enemies by supposedly bashing the venerable Technics SL-1200 turntable. I even had a guy approach me in an elevator during the recent Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, saying, "You know, I used to love your columns, but you lost me when you wrote about the Technics." Then, he put his arm on my shoulder, like a Mafia don, and I was totally creeped out.
I'm still trying to figure it all out. How did the Technics, after all these years, suddenly gain credibility with audiophiles? Did they secretly improve recent production models, perhaps switching to a belt-drive design? An engineer friend of mine insists that the 1200 isn't a bad-sounding turntable because it's direct-drive, but because the tonearm is an utter piece of shit. More than ever, I want to hear one in my own system, where I can prove, at least to myself, that I'm not crazy. But since no one has taken me up on my challenge, I'll have to either buy one, or continue to dodge the spitballs.
"I can't imagine what it would be like to take a hated turntable to the home of a stranger (no doubt surrounded by his like-minded buddies), and endure a/b comparisons. Regardless of the 'true' outcome the Technics would lose anyway, 'cause homeboy has an axe to grind. No wonder he hasn't had any takers."
Seriously, dude, I'll be good. I promise.
This all supports my contention that we audiophiles are an obstinate bunch, always looking for a fight. I've sat next to my share of audio assholes at recent audio shows, audio stores, and even my own living room. I've met too many so-called music lovers who actually love very little, and think that there is only one true path to sonic nirvana--their way (sounds a little like a certain religious dogma, eh?). I've been having fun, however, listening to my two-watt-per-channel tube amps and single-driver speakers and wooden-bodied cartridges, and simply not giving a rat's ass about what the objectivists think. They're spending all their time arguing on Usenet and Audio Asylum, and I'm listening to music. Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke.
I'm not bitter, just slightly dazed. I'm really not a confrontational person, I just play one on the Internet. I am however getting tired of the constant backbiting. So, in the spirit of analog reconciliation, I bring you the Eighth Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence! (It should be the ninth, but I took last year off.) I hope to bring all analog lovers together to celebrate the fact that vinyl is still alive, and it doesn't matter whether listen on a $100,000 Continuum Caliburn or a $10 Hitachi you found at a garage sale, as long as you listen! Big group hug!
Best New Release in LP Format
Oops, I should have done my homework. I spent so much time and money buying amplifiers and speaker cables and step-up transformers and extra sets of output tubes that I forgot to buy some LP's! And I spent so much time traveling this year that I bought most of my new music on CD to listen to in my car. I'm so ashamed.
Nevertheless, new vinyl continued to be released despite my neglect. Bob Dylan's Modern Times was given the 180-gram treatment, pressed by Columbia themselves. One of my favorite albums of the year, Yo La Tengo's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, was available on LP, thanks to the always vinyl-friendly Matador label. And Asthmatic Kitty started releasing all of Sufjan Stevens' titles on LP, so I'll have to buy them all over again. But I'll give this year's award to Neil Young's Living With War, because it's on a gorgeous-sounding 200-gram pressing, because for the first time in my life I find myself really agreeing with Neil's politics, and because Neil himself is a fan of vinyl. He's aces with me.
Best New Reissue in LP Format
There were some great reissues this year, much to my chagrin, because I bought so few of them. I didn't even know, for example, that Big Star's 3rd/Sister Lovers was released on 180-gram by 4 Men With Beards. Hold on a sec- OK, I just ordered it. And look at that, they released Chris Bell's I Am The Cosmos as well. And of course, there's always the 40th Anniversary two-disc pressing of Pet Sounds, with the stereo version on one LP, and the original mono on the other. And yes, I finally admit it... I hate The Beach Boys. Evidently, I'm the only Native Southern California white boy who does.
But I've been big on The Who for the last couple of years, and while the vinyl reissues over the last couple of years have been uniformly excellent, the crowning achievement is Classic Record's 200-gram, tri-fold cover, $57 version of Tommy. I know it's a lot of money, but this is a gorgeous package. It may be $57 this year, but it'll go for $100 by the end of the decade, maybe even more. If you love Tommy (and I do), this is the one to own.
Cartridge of the Year
Like the Technics SL-1200 turntable, I've given very little respect to Shure cartridges over the years. In retrospect, I find this amazing, because my first decent-sounding analog rig, a Dual 510 I bought when I was a teenager, was equipped with a Shure V-15 Type III cartridge, and it was a really nice combo. I think over the years I was seduced by more exotic moving-coil cartridges, and I felt the Shures, while being world-class trackers, were a bit too pedestrian for my tastes.
I was a bit humbled, therefore, when I visited RTI, the premier record pressing plant in North America. In the master cutting room, I was treated to an audition of a master tape of the Wes Montgomery Trio on their incredible monitoring system. It may have been the best-sounding recording I've ever heard. While we were listening, they cut an LP master, and then played it back on their Technics (natch!) professional turntable equipped with yet another Shure V-15 cartridge (a more recent version than the one I had). And it sounded amazingly close to the master, much to my surprise.
Well, Shure discontinued the latest version of the V-15, the VxMR, shortly after my field trip, right before I was about to tell the word that I, The Vinyl Anachronist, officially endorsed it (note how I balked when it came to the Technics). Shure, apparently, wanted to focus on their new line of iPod headphones. So, another affordable yet decent-sounding cartridge bit the dust.
Fortunately, the VxMR's little brother, the M97xE, still lives on, and offers a good chunk of the VxMR's performance for--get this--$89. Yes, I've heard this little guy play, and it sounds quite nice. In fact, it is the only sub-$100 cartridge I can stomach, and is THE cartridge for your old Dual, Garrard or AR-Xa. In the VxMR's wake, the '97 is developing a very strong following that rivals the, er, Technics SL-1200.
Turntable of the Year
This year, I'm picking the Technics SL-1200 as the Turntable of the Year. No, I'm not trying to be a smart-ass, nor am I kissing up to the disgruntled analog throngs who now curse my name. It's because I can respect the passion of the people who love their SL-1200s. I think it's a good thing.
I should have picked the new Rega P1 as The Turntable of the Year. It is truly set to change the entire turntable industry. At $350, including arm and an Ortofon OM-5 cartridge (most people are upgrading to an OM-10 or OM-20 at the dealer, by the way), the P1 is going to make life tough for Music Hall, Pro-Ject, and yes, the Technics SL-1200. For years, I've been saying that you need to spend $500 to get a great-sounding turntable. That figure is now $350. And my fears that the P1 would simply be a P2 made in China were unfounded; the new turntable is made in the same UK factory that makes the other legendary Regas, such as the P3, the P5, the P7, and the now $4000 P9.
But I haven't heard the P1 yet. There's a waiting list, which is no big surprise.
So I probably should have given the new Marantz TT-15SI turntable the award, because Marantz, one of the many old great American hi-fi companies that left for Japan in the '70's, did it. They didn't crap out like Sony and Pioneer and Kenwood and a few others, offering some cheap plastic $129 'table to sell at Best Buy. They commissioned one from Clearaudio, a truly great analog company from Germany, fitted it with a Clearaudio tonearm, and, in a marketing master stroke, fitted it with the Clearaudio Virtuoso Wood cartridge, which is perhaps my favorite moving-magent cartridge. The Virtuoso alone costs $800. The entire turntable costs $1600. It's the bargain of the year, hands down.
But I haven't heard the TT-15. Supposedly one is on the way.
I haven't heard the SL-1200, either, at least in the last twenty years. But I want to. I really, really want to. Ron Cornelius, one of the bigwigs at McIntosh, which is perhaps the greatest American hi-fi company of all, tells me that a properly modified SL-1200 is a much better turntable than I think it is. I want to believe him. And I want to believe every single person who tells me that the SL-1200 is the best turntable for $500.
I just want them to prove it.
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