The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXI: The End Is Near
"You know, I'd sell all my records and my turntable for one of these."
Yeah, I said it. I remember it all clearly. I knew it was a turning point in my life. After twenty-five years of digital playback, I finally heard a CD player that sounded as musical as any analog rig I've heard, regardless of price. The amazing part is that it wasn't an SACD player, or a DVD-A player, or any of the so-called high-resolution digital formats. It was an ordinary CD player, and it played ordinary CD's.
Initially, I wrote about my experience with this specific player a couple of months ago in the New Zealand audio e-zine AudioEnz. Back then, I wrote that the Naim CD555 player was exceptional, and by far the best digital playback system I'd heard. I also concluded that while it certainly removed that last bit of digitalness, or whatever keeps me from liking CDs more than LPs, I wasn't about to sell my turntable for one because I trusted the stability and the longevity of LP's more than CD's. I've spent my entire life listening to LPs, and they haven't let me down. The future of the CD, however, seems more precarious.
So, what changed? Well, the magazine I work for, TONEAudio, bought the review sample of the Naim CD555. The publisher, Jeff Dorgay, sold a bunch of hi-fi equipment and one of his BMWs in order to get it. You see, the Naim CD555 retails for $33,000. No, that is not a typo. As I said in AudioEnz, you can buy a new BMW 325i or a Mercedes C240 for the same price as the CD555. In other words, it takes $33,000 to achieve the same level of performance I expect from a high-quality turntable, tonearm, and cartridge. Every man has his price, as they say; I guess $33,000 is mine.
I've spent a lot of time listening to the CD555 since my original comments in AudioEnz. As far as I'm concerned, it is absolutely perfect. Jeff, who has four turntables, has listened to about 10 albums since the CD555 arrived nearly two months ago - and I totally understand why. So yes, if someone came up to me and told me that I could trade my Michell Orbe SE turntable, my SME V tonearm, my Koetsu Rosewood cartridge, my Nitty Gritty record cleaner, and all my LP's for one Naim CD555 CD player, I would do it.
So, what does this mean for the Vinyl Anachronist? Nothing, really. I can't afford a $33,000 CD player. I don't have any BMWs to sell. Therefore, I still have no intention of giving up on my obsession with vinyl and turntables and all the rest of it. However, my experiences with the CD555 tell me that vinyl won't last forever, and this resurgence we're experiencing in the analog world is probably peaking as we speak - and it isn't because of the Naim CD555 per se. If redbook CD hasn't been able to vanquish completely the LP in 25 years, it never will. It's just that products like the CD555 allow me to see the future of music reproduction more clearly. For the first time in many years, the future looks positively bright.
I know what you're thinking. I heard one bitchin' CD player and now I'm ready to jump ship, just like millions of people did twenty years ago, but there's more to it than that. There's another amazing product that has helped to redefine my technological perspective in the last few weeks. It offers a much clearer view of the future than a mere CD player (albeit one that costs as much as two brand-new Honda Civics). It combines excellent sound quality with a user interface that is nothing short of astounding in terms of ease, convenience, and flexibility.
I'm talking, of course, about the amazing Sooloos Music Server. The Sooloos is a music system that can store your entire CD collection onto its hard drive and can allow you quick and easy access to your music via a touch screen monitor. You can also download music onto the Sooloos from the Internet or from your iPod. You can even download music from the Sooloos onto your iPod. In addition, you can add memory to the Sooloos to the point where you can easily store tens of thousands of CD's and files, and you can expand the Sooloos network to every room in your house. It slices, it dices, it juliennes.
It's also incredibly easy to use. The functions of the touch screen are intuitive and straightforward. You can create a customized playlist for hours of music in just a couple of minutes. In fact, you can easily start your own radio station with little more than a Sooloos, a transmitter, and your index finger (oh yes, and an FCC license). Also, when you download a CD or file into the Sooloos, it automatically replicates the album cover art, the track indexes, the liner notes, and even production credits. It sounds good, too, as sonically competent as any premium CD player (it upsamples in 24/192, in case you were wondering).
The Sooloos is priced at $12,000, unfortunately; so, it's the same price as a fairly nice, used BMW. However, if you're stuck on the prices of the Sooloos and the Naim, you may be missing the point. Remember the Sony CDP-101? It was the first CD player to hit the market 25 years ago, and it was possibly the worst-sounding one as well - and it cost $900. I know, because I bought one. Two years later, I bought another CD player, a $300 Mitsubishi, that sounded infinitely better than the Sony. Twenty-five years later, any mass-market $69 CD player sold at Best Buy or Circuit City sounds much better than either one of those players.
In other words, in five or ten years, you will be able to buy products similar to the Naim and the Sooloos for a fraction of the price. In fact, there are music servers available right now that offer a large part of the functionality of the Sooloos for less than half the price (there's one by McIntosh that springs to mind). So, the very idea of a $33,000 CD player or a $12,000 music server shouldn't be met with contempt from the masses, as hyper-expensive products often are. Instead, these items are harbingers of things to come, very good things.
I'm still going to enjoy spinning records. I'm going to enjoy my LP collection for the rest of my life, regardless of what formats appear. Yet, I'm not going to continue to worry about keeping analog alive. I'm not going to worry about future generations embracing the LP and the turntable. (They seem to be doing that on their own, remarkably enough.) Attitudes toward analog playback are very different now from attitudes in 1998 when I started writing this column. Just the other day, a man who reads this column told me, with a slight and knowing grin, that the term "vinyl anachronist" might be a little disingenuous in 2007.
I had to agree.
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