Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

Part 6: Life Without Vinyl
by Marc Phillips (July 1998)

After nearly four years of self-imposed exile on the East Coast, the Vinyl Anachronist is back home in Los Angeles. So it's a good-news-bad-news sort of thing. The good news is that I've been able to hook up with a couple of people who are responsible for my enthusiasm in regards to hi-fi... and the bad news is that as I wait for escrow to close on my new home, which currently has plywood and concrete for flooring instead of tile and carpeting, my stereo and my LP's and my CD's languish miserably in storage.

So I can't tell you how wonderful my Rega Planar 3 sounds this month. I can't tell you about the 45rpm single of "The Look Of Love" from the CASINO ROYALE soundtrack, and how it's probably the coolest vinyl purchase I've made all year. So as you sit there listening to your new turntables, marvelling at the warmth, the presence, the air, the emotion of vinyl reproduction, think of me, hanging out at my mother-in-law's house, wincing uncontrollably, struggling to remain polite as we listen to James Taylor's Greatest Hits playing in her GoldStar CD player.

But back to the good news. Like I said, I was able to contact a couple of people who have been very influential in my pursuit of analog nirvana. The first person was Gene Rubin, of Gene Rubin Audio in Ventura. I'm not supposed to openly advertise for particular products or companies or dealers in this forum, but suffice it to say that Gene has been the source of my musical enjoyment for the last several years, and it will be nice to actually see him again and listen to all sorts of great new products, rather than relying upon his advice via mail-order. The first time I visited Gene, back in 1991, I brought some of my favorite LP's with me for the audition (that's what we hi-fi enthusiasts pretentiously call making a purchasing decision). He took one look at the bounty underneath my arm and exclaimed, "Oh brought REAL music with you."

My kind of guy.

But Gene was out of town. He called me from San Luis Obispo and told me he'd be gone for much of the summer. So I'll have to write about his great selection of turntables for every budget and taste some other time. Cripes.

But my second meeting, with my old friend Dr. Cameron, was truly amazing. I know Doc from my days at Blockbuster Video. He and his wife were among my very best customers, and as ironic as it sounds now, I turned him onto high-end audio. He is a true lover of vinyl, and when I met him, he had a collection of over 2000 LPs. He had yet to purchase a CD player at the time. "It doesn't strike my fancy," he used to tell me. At that time I had yet to completely denounce the record companies' promise of "perfect sound forever," so I would tell him of some promising new players on the market. But he never took the bait.

Back then, Doc had one of the original AR turntables, the ones from the late sixties with the flimsy old-fashioned tone arms. Surprisingly enough, Doc was able to get some great sound from that relatively ancient set-up, and I was beginning to think, after a few visits to his house, that there was some truth behind his reluctance to enter the Digital Age.

Well, a lot has happened to Doc in the four years I've been gone. First of all, most unfortunately, his wife passed on. She was a quiet, kind woman, with beautiful strawberry-blonde hair and a reassuring smile. She thought the world of Doc, and supported everything he believed in. Secondly, after losing Mrs. Cameron, Doc decided to retire. A prominent allergist with a sterling reputation, the community he served will miss his expertise and his sincerity.

Finally--and I'm not sure how positively I should react to this, lest I sound insensitive--but Doc took the insurance money he received after his wife's passing, and he blew it all on one incredible audio spread. "I already had everything else," he explained to me. "This is the one thing I always wanted to do, but I was afraid of what my wife would think." He went on to tell me that his wife loved music (she was an accomplished pianist), but she never really saw the need to improve on their system because they both received such joy from the music they loved. "But I always wanted more pizzazz," he told me in a low, yet playful tone.

Well, if he was lacking pizzazz in the listening room, he has it now in spades. What do you buy if you're a sixty-something retiree who has unlimited resources? An Audio Note Ongaku.

A what?

The Ongaku, up until a few years ago, was a bit of an enigma for American audiophiles. A $89,200 Japanese integrated amp rated at just 26 watts per channel? Who would buy such a thing? Anyone who can, that's who. "It's a work of art," Doc said to me at least two or three times during the visit. And indeed it is. The Ongaku contains 21 pounds of pure silver wiring hand- drawn through diamond dies by the owner/founder of Audio Note himself, a certain Mr. Hondo. A single-ended vacuum-tube design (which means it's based on circuits designed back in the 1920's and they're all the rage right now for their exquisite sound despite their low power ratings), the Ongaku represents pretty much the best the world has to offer at this point in time.

So what kind of speakers do you match to an exquisite monster such as this? Well, the dealer he patronized recommended the AvantGarde Acoustics Trio. This is a horn loudspeaker, like the legendary Klipschorns of yore, which means it is very efficient and can take those 26 watts of power and turn them into thundering, unbridled floods of music. This is one of the most wild, striking looking speakers I have ever seen; imagine three enormous tuba horns of differing sizes, painted a beautiful Porsche-quality metallic blue, and attached to a curved wire frame. I have a feeling that Mrs. Cameron would not have approved of these behemoths taking over her living room. And the price? Thirty-five large.

So what does the Doc spins his records on these days? No, he didn't keep that old AR 'table, although that would be a cute way to end this story. No, he bought something quite serious... not as serious as that $53,000 Rockport Sirius III I've told you about previously but something pretty adept at making music: a Wilson-Benesch. The WB is a beautiful, refined looking piece of equipment, not quite as outlandish as the rest of Doc's system. But what makes this 'table special is that a large quantity of it, including the matching tonearm and cartridge, is constructed from carbon-fiber, a relatively new material that is something like four times the strength of steel at 1/23 of the weight. It is simply the best stuff we as a civilization have come up with in terms of vibration reduction, unless you consider some of the expensive air flotation devices out there. Although the Wilson-Benesch is the least expensive part of Doc's system, at something just short of $10K, it is my favorite, the one I'd most want to own.

And how does it sound? Well, I only had a couple of hours to spend with Doc, but it was the shortest two hours of my life. It was like being in a dream. We listened to some classical, which I loved, and then to some swing (Doc's fave) and I even enjoyed that, even though it's not my particular cup of Darjeeling. That's the funny thing about music. When it sounds this great, you find yourself listening to things you wouldn't normally listen to, like Slim Whitman and the Bay City Rollers and even Rick Astley... Naw, I'm sorry, even I have to draw the line there. (You'll note, of course, that I resisted any references to Yanni or Tesh or Michael Bolton here so do I get extra credit?)

The point is, when you have the right stuff, music really is a transcendent experience, and that is what this column is all about, helping people to realize that there is still a lot of magic in LPs, and it can really make life worth living, as it has for Doc.

So yes, I know. Some of you are wondering 'what did Doc buy for a CD player with all of that money?' Nothing.

"It still doesn't tickle my fancy," he replied when I asked him.