Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
LXVII: 2008: Year of Settling In
(December 2008)

When I was still in my early twenties, all of my buddies and I decided to get together in one place for the first time in years. Most of us had already graduated from college, moved out of our parents' homes, and were embarking on our careers. Those nights of getting stoned and heading out to the midnight movies or sneaking into a topless bar had simply passed by, so we decided to get together and have a pot luck dinner at my friend Mike's house. By choosing such a pedestrian activity, we were telling ourselves that we had finally grown up, and those nachos and casseroles served as an elegy to our wild years.

One of my friends, Dan, opted out of the festivities. He was the first of our group to get married, and he had chosen an older woman who already had two kids from a previous marriage. When we called him to find out why he had flaked, he simply replied, "Sorry, guys...I'm just settled in for the night." We all reacted harshly to our friend's surrender to domestication and considered his plight to be a borderline tragedy. Settling in for the night? What did that mean, anyway? We'll never "settle in," we told ourselves, because we still rock!

After a few years, I finally understood what my friend Dan meant. You get married and have a kid or two, you have a job that drains all of your energy, and then your buddies call you up after dinner and want you to party and carouse. You look at your kids doing their homework, you look at your wife who looks at least as tired as you feel, and your favorite TV show is coming on in half an hour. What do you do? You opt out.

I've been feeling "settled in" with the world of vinyl as well. Over the last 11 years, I've been waving my vinyl flag, and for the most part everyone seems to be getting it now. When I mention my preference for LP's over CDs to strangers these days, I get more knowing grins than quizzical expressions. The domination of the CD format in the music industry no longer seems to be an interesting subject to anyone these days.

I'm about to hammer the final nail into that format's coffin (at least in my world) by getting a music server and burning all of my CD's to a hard drive. My laptop will become my digital player. I haven’t decided on the particular set-up yet. I can either get an all-in-one server from the likes of McIntosh or Sooloos, or I can get an iPod, a dock, a DAC and a wireless transmitter. I've already made the deal to exchange all of my CD's for most of this equipment, so this conversion to 21st century music technology will be fairly painless. I'm actually pretty excited about this transition, much more excited than when CD's tried to replace LP's back in the '80’s. It makes sense to me. If done right, it will sound pretty good as well.

This brings me to the Tenth Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. This year's winners reflect that fact that vinyl is becoming more and more mainstream, and that there's less and less to bitch about this time around. An unfortunate by-product of this stability, however, is the relative lack of exciting new products since manufacturers are settling in for the night as well, and collecting those checks.

Best New Release in the LP Format

As I mentioned last time, LPs have become so mainstream that I can run down to my local supermarket and pick them up. This flood of new product on retailers' shelves does bring up an important caveat--are these really quality pressings? When I visit Fred Meyer or Safeway and see a sealed copy of Abbey Road for $19.99, it's a safe bet that it isn't a so-called "target pressing." Chances are it's a reissue of a reissue of a reissue, or--even worse--it's cut from a digital master. As you know, that defeats the entire purpose of listening to vinyl in the first place. It's getting harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff these days and I find myself avoiding new product more frequently.

That said, there have been some gems released this year. I thought the Lost Highways’ pressing of Lucinda Williams' Little Honey sounded pretty sweet, and much less strident than Live at the Fillmore. The MFSL pressing of Madeleine Peyroux's Half the Perfect World, however, sounded even better to my ears. Lucinda's music always connects with me more emotionally, so let's call it a tie.

Best New Reissue in the LP Format

I'd like to pick the amazing new Tonefloat colored vinyl pressing of Anja Garbarek's 2001 Smiling and Waving, which I've been using all year to evaluate audio equipment. It sounds expansive, sexy, and fragile all at once. However, if I mention one more LP from a woman singer, you're going to think I'm one of those audiophile weenies who claim that reproduction of the female voice is the only way accurately to judge sound quality, and that Eva Cassidy and Jennifer Warnes have replaced the 1812 Overture as a reviewing tool. Bleh.

Yet, I'm picking the Blue Note reissues because everyone is talking about them, and they sound fantastic to boot. Acoustic Sounds is remastering the Blue Note catalog through their Analogue Productions label (some of my favorite LP pressings of all time, such as my copy of Sonny Rollins' Way Out West, are from AP), and they have taken the somewhat controversial approach of sticking to stereo recordings and disregarding some of the mono classics from that label. The result, however, is an extraordinary mix of titles such as Coltrane's Blue Train, Kenny Burrell's Midnight Blue, Ike Quebec's Soul Samba, Dexter Gordon's Go and one of my personal favorites, Cannonball Adderley's Somethin' Else, which contains an absolutely hypnotic version of "Autumn Leaves" (my father, which visiting recently, suggested that he liked the Roger Williams’ version more, which I took in stride).

The prices of these reissues are not for the faint of heart. At $50 a pop, you may not be able to grab all of the titles planned over the next few months. However, if you do make the investment, you'll find that many of these will quickly become your favorite recordings.

Cartridge of the Year

This one was a no-brainer. I tried a variety of relatively inexpensive cartridges this year because I was looking for a back-up for my Koetsu. It's re-tipping time again, and I realized that an $880 replacement stylus has turned my reference cartridge into the proverbial Ferrari in the garage--something that's meant to be enjoyed only on the weekends. With my reviewing schedule, needles can be worn in a fairly short time, so I needed a "daily driver." I had a choice between the Dynavector 17D3, the Lyra Argo-i and the Zu Audio DL-103. The Dynavector was one of the most neutral cartridges I've ever heard, the Lyra presented almost unlimited amounts of detail, and the Zu was warm, friendly, and inviting.

I wound up picking the Zu, and for a very good reason. I mentioned "relatively inexpensive," and the Dynavector retailed for $900 and the Lyra for $1500. I found that the Zu was every bit as "livable" as the other two, but for a lower price. How much lower? Try $399. The Zu is simply a reworking of the venerable Denon DL-103, which is still has a huge following even after several decades. The guys at Zu replaced the body of the Denon with a solid piece of milled aluminum and then performed a few minor tweaks. The result is a winner, pure and simple. The guys at Zu could have charged a $1000 for this...and they would have gotten it. By the way, more refined versions with closer parts matching and tolerances are available for up to $699. I might have to buy one of each.

Phono Stage of the Year

This was another easy decision. This year, I would up reviewing seven or eight $1000 phono preamps as part of a survey to see how much performance could be had at this price point. I reviewed several phono preamps from the likes of PS Audio, Sutherland, Dynavector, TTVJ-Millett, and a couple of others, and almost every one offered a surprising level of performance. There wasn't a dog in the group. Yet, one stood head-and-shoulders above the others--the Lehmann Black Cube SE. Based on the classic Black Cube preamp that revolutionized this product category more than a decade ago, the SE adds a hefty and sleek separate power supply to the rather homely main unit, resulting in an absolutely velvety, dynamic presentation. I had to listen to the Rega Ios ($3000) and Naim Superline ($3300) before I found something I preferred over the Lehmann. So I bought the review sample.

Turntable of the Year

This category is unusually difficult this year because most of the new 'tables I heard this year were of the megabucks variety. With today's economy, I feel even more reluctant to give this award to an expensive turntable than usual. Nothing this year pleased and surprised me as much as last year's winner, the Rega P3-24. If I could, I'd give it the award two years in a row simply because I'm finding new and wonderful ways to improve the sound (the Zu cartridge, for example, is a great match for the P3-24 as long as you buy a heavier counterweight to go with it).

So instead of handing the award to specific turntable model, I'm going to award it to two manufacturers who are still finding new and unique ways to extract superior performance from the vinyl medium. Bergmann Audio, a new company from Denmark, has implemented an air-bearing design in an exciting way. Air-bearing designs use air to float mechanical parts and decouple them from the environment; they have been used on linear-tracking tonearms for some time. Bergmann, however, takes this a step further by implementing an air-bearing design on the platter. That's right; the platter is actually levitated and centered through the use of air.

The new Master Disk turntable from EAR-Yoshino in England uses another force of nature--magnetism--to power their drive system in a similar way. Neither of these technologies is affordable, but they do show that designers are still working hard to make analog technology even better. These designers have not settled in for the night.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's another rainy day in the Pacific Northwest. I'm going to light a fire, grab a blanket, and listen to some records. If any of my friends call me to go out tonight, you'll know my answer.

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