The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXII: 2007: Year of Grumpiness
All is well in the Land of Vinyl. It seems like more and more people are returning to the format every month. Recently, one of the leading retailers of new vinyl told me that sales were up 40% over last year. Countless audio companies, such as McIntosh and Creek, are set to introduce their first turntables ever. Others, such as Thorens, seem to be expanding their product lines almost exponentially. So, why am I so grumpy?
It just seems like there's more in-fighting in the world of analog than ever before. The Technics SL-1200 Army seemed to calm down a bit after I actually bought one and started to play around with it. (I have to admit that with the right cartridge, such as my $2500 Koetsu Rosewood, the 1200 actually sounds pretty good.) However, new fires have started here and there, and I'm all set to let the place burn to the ground, especially after hearing such superior digital products as the Sooloos music server and the Naim CD555 CD player.
For instance, I just got in a heated argument with a fellow who uses a set of digital calipers to measure the thickness of every record in his collection so that he can properly set the vertical tracking angle. He makes up a chart for each LP, and places it in the record sleeve. He claims that even a ten-thousandth of a millimeter can make a difference. What turntable does he use? You guessed it, a Technics SL1200, mated with an inexpensive Shure cartridge. When I suggested that he could get the same results by merely buying a better turntable, the gloves came off, and again I was the analog asshole.
Another gentleman sent me a series of e-mails asking about Rega turntables. He was one of those guys who lived in the middle of nowhere, and couldn't hear one for himself. After a few weeks, he saved up enough gas money to drive 150 miles to the nearest Rega dealer, and didn't like what he heard. Fair enough, I thought, since it's all subjective. Many audiophiles don't care for the Rega sound but he had the nerve to tell the dealer that I recommended that he buy used Regas on e-Bay or Audiogon instead, something I would never do in a million years. Just go back into the PSF archives to see my position on supporting local audio dealers. When I heard about this, I thought, "Why do I bother with these people?"
More than once I've traded 25 or 30 e-mails with an individual, trying to help them make the right buying decision when it comes to all things analog, only to have them completely disregard my advice and buy something else. More than once, they've come back to me saying that they weren't happy with their buying decision, and want me to help them some more. Now don't get me wrong. No one is obliged to take my advice. However, my time is worth something, which is why I'm seriously contemplating charging for my services. Yes, I know it makes me sound like the asshole once again - but most audio reviewers won't even return e-mails asking for help. I do.
So my point is: more people are trying to get into vinyl than ever before. Remember, these are pretty much the same people who abandoned vinyl twenty years ago. They aren't the same patient, thoughtful, and open-minded individuals as you and me, the Analog Faithful. It might take a while to get used to them.
So now that I've got that off my chest, I can stop being grumpy and start handing out the awards for the Ninth Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. As I approach the tenth anniversary of this column, I must once again thank Jason Gross, founder of PSF, for allowing me to rant and rave and put up with my "reactionary scree" (as one critic of mine has called this column) for so many years. The analog world is very different than it was in 1998. It's gone mainstream... and I'm thrilled... up to a point.
Best New Release in the LP format
It's been kind of an off-year for new vinyl releases again, especially since the word has gotten out that most new pop and rock LP releases are cut from digital masters, which defeats the purpose. I've had a few people e-mail me to ask how to know the difference. The answer, unfortunately, is with your ears, since the record labels aren't required to be that forthcoming about the sources used to press the LP's.
One exception would be the Warner Brothers' release of the White Stripes' new LP, Icky Thump. Mastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray at RTI (see below for more information), the pressing was cut directly from 1" tape. The result is a clear, beautiful and raw recording (much like the Stripes themselves), and is easily the best new vinyl release of the year.
Best New Reissue in the LP format
I'm very tempted to give this award to the Warner Brothers LP reissues that have been remastered by Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray at RTI. After all, I know both of these gentlemen, and I was present at RTI for the remastering of James Taylor's Sweet Baby James. The sound quality on these remasters is exquisite, and the price on each release is a reasonable $25. (Has anyone else noticed that most so-called audiophile LP releases have quietly gone from $30 to $40 apiece?)
So far it's been a lot of ZZ Top and Yes and Rickie Lee Jones and the aforementioned Mr. Taylor, which really isn't my thing. I've seen a list of future releases on this project, however, and there's reason for excitement. Fleetwood Mac's Rumours is right around the corner, and yes, I'll admit right here that I love this fuckin' album, and I'll buy the new version in a heartbeat. So maybe we'll give this truly ambitious project the nod next year.
So this year, I'll have to give the award to Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab's reissue of the Pixies' first album, Surfer Rosa. I get down on my knees every day and pray that MFSL will do the entire catalog. Doolittle is perhaps my favorite album of all time, but after hearing the wide, open and dynamic sound of Surfer Rosa, I may need to reconsider. Lots of hardcore Pixies fans choose Surfer Rosa as the best Pixies album. Now I agree...until the reissue of Doolittle comes out. Please, Jesus, make it so.
Analog Hero of the Year
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of meeting Frank Schroder, the designer and builder of the magnificent Schroder tone arms, which are among the very best in the world. Mr. Schroder, who lives in Berlin, was visiting Audio Village, an audio dealership in Lake Oswego, Oregon. I was invited to cover the event for another publication. I must say that in one 90-minute conversation, I learned more about analog design and execution than I have in the last decade hanging out on online audio forums.
This brings me back to the crusade I've been on over the last year, to get people off their computers when it comes to finding out about analog, and to get them out into the real world, listening and talking and learning with those who have real experience in the field. You can't learn about audio from anonymous Internet pseudo-experts. You have to go on the journey, and figure things out for yourself. You will never find the right cartridge for your turntable by asking for advice online. You have to make mistakes, and screw up once in a while, and then learn and try again. All of the genuinely knowledgeable audio experts have done this. Mr.Schroder has done this, which is why, after almost 30 years in the business, he makes some of the best-sounding tone arms in the world. There are no short cuts when it comes to the learning curve in audio. And I thank Frank Schroder for reminding me of this.
Cartridge of the Year
I'm tempted to name the $15,000 Koetsu Coral cartridge as Cartridge of the Year, simply because it is by far the best-sounding cartridge I've ever heard. There's even a mono version of the Coral available. That's right. $15,000 for a cartridge to play mono records only. Crazy, huh?
In my efforts in recommending great analog sound that is within the reach of the common man, I pick the Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge. Part of a brand new line of affordable cartridges that include the Red, Bronze and Black 2Ms, the Blue is a $200 high-output moving magnet cartridge that made my Technics SL1200 actually quite listenable, much more so than the Ortofon OM-10 that came with the 'table. While I have also put three very expensive cartridges on my 1200 and have achieved worthwhile results, it's very unrealistic to expect you to do the same. For $200, the 2M Blue sounds full and lifelike, liberating the 1200 from its dark, dank, dungeon-like sonic signature.
Turntable of the Year
There's a new sheriff in town, and its name is the Rega P3-24.
That's right; the venerable P3 has been updated once again. It still looks pretty much the same as before, with only subtle changes to the plinth (the base), and the arm (it's now called a Rega RB-301, and looks a little more solid and complex). Even in their literature, Rega is somewhat reticent about the changes, making the P3-24 sound like it's just been tweaked a little here and there. To me, the sonic improvements are anything but small.
I've spent some time listening to a P3-24 that's been fitted with the top-of-the-line Rega Apheta MC cartridge, which is $1695. This P3 also came with the optional TT-PSU electronic power supply, which until now was only available on Rega's more expensive turntables. The plastic subplatter was replaced with a beautifully-machined aluminum subplatter from Groove Tracer, a company that modifies Regas. So I was basically listening to a $3100 Rega P3.
Yet, this P3 is easily competitive with other $3000 turntables. In its stock form, the P3-24 is still under $1000, and still sounds fantastic. This is by far the best P3 ever, and it remains, in my opinion, the best turntable in its price class. If you e-mail me asking about the best affordable turntable, I'll simply say "P3-24."
Also - I'll charge you.
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