Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LX: Listen for Yourself
(August 2007)

If you've been following my columns over the last few months, you may have seen a certain theme emerging. No, it's not that I hate the Technics SL1200. Let's go to the videotape, Bob:

"In other words, I give my opinion, based upon the fact that I've heard many different turntables over the years, and I know what most of them sound like to me. Some are better than others, in my opinion. What I try to tell them, however, is that it's important for them to listen for themselves before they type their credit card number in some online ordering form."

Like I said, I've touched on this many times over the years, but it's getting to the point where maybe I'm not stressing this enough. If anything, I've received even more requests for blanket recommendations on all things analog over the last few weeks. This, of course, is understandable if you're a vinyl newbie, and you're looking to get into this crazy hobby for the first time, or maybe even just the first time in many years. You don't want to spend a lot of money. You don't want to be fiddling around with cartridge alignment, anti-skating or tracking force. You just want a little taste of what vinyl can do, with as little fuss as possible.

You, my friend, are safe. You can e-mail me any time for help. You can even come over, listen to my rig, sleep on my couch, and marry my sister.

Let me give you the more common scenario, however. I get a lot of e-mails from people who have ostensibly been at this for years. They have decent analog rigs, a fairly healthy collection of LP's, and they want to upgrade. They want more of the analog magic. I don't have to do any cajoling or coercing, because they get it. They know, to paraphrase Stereophile editor John Atkinson, that analog is the real hi-resolution format of the twenty-first century.

Usually, their e-mail starts off by telling me all about their current rig. Then they ask me what I think about it, and what upgrade would yield the biggest improvement. So far, so good - but then they tell me that they've been doing a lot of Internet research, reading my columns, hanging out on audio forums, visiting the audio web sites. And they have a pretty good idea of what they want, based upon what they have read: not heard, but read. By this time, they usually have it narrowed down to two or three choices. And they want me to pick which one of these three choices would sound the best.

Needless to say, this is a very flawed methodology. First of all, nine times out of ten, I'm really not that nuts about the final choices, and I try to offer additional recommendations, which more often than not further confuses this poor soul. More importantly, however, and you may have already picked up on this through my use of italics, there's a point where making a final decision involves listening for yourself, and making a decision based upon what you hear. For instance, when you're trying to decide between three $1500 turntables, it quickly becomes a matter of your personal preferences, since a $1500 turntable wouldn't last very long in the marketplace if it didn't have at least some virtues that appeal to a certain segment of the music-loving world. You need to listen for yourself to find out what set of virtues get your juices flowing.

I get two types of arguments when I recommend that people listen for themselves before spending hundreds or even thousands of their hard-earned dollars on stereo gear. First, I get the poor guy who lives in Hades, Wyoming, where there isn't a high-end stereo store that sells turntables for 600 miles. It's kind of difficult to criticize this individual, although I have callously suggested a road trip more than once. I've been fortunate to spend the majority of my life living in areas where I can listen to high-end gear in a well-designed showroom if I so desire - but once or twice in my life I've been stranded. And I know what it's like to have to rely upon the kindness of strangers when it comes to making a semi-informed buying decision. So when I get an e-mail from Chuck W. in Prairie Dog, South Dakota, asking about the sonic differences between a Rega P5 and a VPI Scout, I try to oblige.

The other type of argument, however, does not arouse my sympathy. Once in a while, I get the guy who doesn't trust audio salesmen, and doesn't trust the sound he hears in showrooms, because "it always sounds different when you get it home" (perhaps this is why my favorite audio dealer, Gene Rubin, auditions equipment in his actual living room!). This is the guy who orders stuff online, tries it at home, sends it back, orders something different, tries it at home, sends it back - until he finds something that he likes. This is the guy for whom "restocking fees" were invented. Now, maybe it's the fact that I spent eighteen years in retail management, and I learned to despise people who buy and return merchandise as a hobby, but I just think this is wrong on a cosmic level. It wastes the dealer's time, and it costs this person money. What's even more annoying is that the individuals who engage in this activity are the same ones who complain about dealer mark-ups and huge profit margins. There's a special place in hell for these people.

So, evidently the solution for these people is to go online and read about analog gear until they have a good idea about how certain things sound, which reminds me of the old quote: "writing about music is like dancing about architecture." It all comes down to the fact that our brains are wired differently, our ears are shaped differently, and the rooms where our stereos are located affect the sound differently. Just because I love or hate the way something sounds doesn't mean that you will respond the same way (which explains the Bose Lifestyle System as well as the Technics SL-1200). So why in the world would you trust a stranger to tell you how to spend all that money?

It doesn't help that there is so much advice on the Internet that is just plain bad. Recently, I've read things that made me want to chuck my laptop in the Columbia River (that obligatory and gratuitous reference confirms that yes, I just moved from L.A. to Portland). For instance, a poster on an audio forum told the group that he was considering a Rega turntable until he heard about their reliability problems. Excuse me? Rega's reputation is exactly the opposite. Their products are extraordinarily reliable, and have been so for decades. It's some of Rega's direct competitors that are having issues - but because one guy said the wrong thing on the Internet, potentially dozens or more will refrain from buying Rega due to non-existent issues.

So what's the solution? Again, it comes down to listening for MU. Yes, I know that there aren't any J.A. Michell or Koetsu dealers in Possum Scratch, Arkansas. However, you still have to try to make an effort. Take a drive to the nearest big city and visit an audio dealership. Find out if there are any other audiophiles in your area, and rudely invite yourself over to their homes. See if there are any audiophile societies or clubs in your state. Even better, go to an audio show, such as the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest in Denver, or Stereophile's Home Entertainment Show (which is in a different city every year), and hear tons and tons of equipment for yourself... Or you're invited to come on over to my house. I do have an awfully comfy couch.

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