The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXVIII: 2010: Year of Rediscovery
I have to let you in on a little secret. About a year ago, I lost interest in audio for a while. It may have had something to do with turning my audiophile hobby into a paying job for the better part of the last three years. It may have had something to do with selling a good part of my audio system to start a new computer business here in Texas and having to settle for a more modest rig. It may have had something to do with the fact that not a lot happened in the world of vinyl and LP's earlier this year.
Like any other year, I still received tons of email's asking for advice about getting back into vinyl, or matching cartridges to turntables or whether or not I'd listened to the latest analog rig that was receiving buzz in the audio press. My answers were perfunctory at best. I was out of the loop, and it felt really strange.
Then something happened. I started a blog. Before I knew it, people started reading my blog. I discovered something interesting--the more I blogged, the bigger my audience became. I was hooked. Before I knew it, people in the audio world started reading it and all of the sudden I was in the loop again. I started making friends with some truly wonderful and enthusiastic people in the industry such as Colleen Cardas of Cardas Audio, Bob Clarke of Profundo, Dave Clark of Positive Feedback magazine and Peter Trenner and Andreas Friedl of Trenner & Friedl. I got to know genuinely knowledgeable, honest and dedicated audio dealers such as Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio/Gallery in San Diego, Peter Selesnick of Venice Audio in LA and Brian Di Frank of Whetstone Audio right here in Austin.
And, as promised, I started rebuilding my system "to its former glory," a phrase I kept using over and over. Suddenly, I was just as excited about audio as I was when I was a teenager in the '70's with a Kenwood receiver, a Dual turntable, a Shure cartridge and a pair of AR speakers. I rewired my system from end to end with Cardas cables (the best in the world, in my humble opinion) and I splurged on Trenner & Friedl ART Monitors, a pair of very high-performance bookshelf speakers. Suddenly, music sounded wonderful again. I created a new dedicated listening room out of a spare bedroom in my house--a true "man cave"--and I started getting into audio all over again.
That's when I came to the conclusion that in the world of audio, the journey is just as important--if not more so--than the final destination. As budding audiophiles, we all dream of owning that perfect system one day, and spending the rest of our life completely satisfied with amazing music that was reproduced perfectly. But I got to that point in 2008 and 2009. I had anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000 of audio gear in my living room, depending on what I was reviewing at the time. I had access to some of the greatest equipment in the world. But I missed the thrill of the hunt. I missed upgrade fever. I missed planning out my next purchase and brown-bagging it for a month so I could make it happen. To all of you people who are just now getting into audio, YOU are the ones having the real fun. It's not that rich guy on the hill with the Wilson speakers and the Halcro amplifiers and $125,000 Continuum Caliburn turntable. It's YOU. Enjoy the journey.
That brings me to the 12th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. Unlike last year, I actually have a lot of choose from!
Best New Release in the Vinyl Format
I'm not the biggest John Mellencamp fan in the world (that title would go to my older brother Greg), but I'm really impressed with his new album No Better Than This. Listen to this recipe for success: the whole album is recorded live using an old Ampex reel-to-reel from the '50s and a single vintage microphone. It's produced by T-Bone Burnett, who has been on fire the last few years. The recordings took place at Sun Studio in Memphis, the First African Baptist in Savannah and the San Antonio hotel room where Robert Johnson first recorded his songs in 1936.
The album is fun, loose and probably the best thing Mr. Cougar has ever done.
Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format
I'm sitting on a really big scoop right now, but dammit they're not ready to make the announcement yet. I have a copy of it, it sounds amazing and it would get the award in a heartbeat. But I've been sworn to secrecy. As one editor used to insert in almost every article I wrote for him, "Stay tuned!"
Until then, I'll give the nod to Mobile Fidelity for their continued remastering of my favorite band. This year, it's Pixies' Bossanova. When they released Surfer Rosa/C'mon Pilgrim a few years ago, I actually thought I liked it better than Doolittle. Then MFSL released Doolittle and it regained the top spot on my all-time favorite list. Listening to Bossanova, it instantly transports me back to 1990, a very turbulent yet exciting time in my life. Thank you, Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs (a special mention must be made for MFSL's remastering of Foghat's Fool for the City- that one takes me back to junior high and it's much more fun that I thought it would be!).
Cartridge of the Year
This one is easy, and it conforms to my old criteria of hardware being both affordable and conducive to getting new people into the analog habit. While interviewing Brian Di Frank at Whetstone Audio earlier this year, I discovered that he was slapping an Ortofon 2M cartridge onto nearly every Rega P1 and P2 he sold. That's because the Ortofon 2M Red ($99) and the 2M Blue ($199) are no-brainers when it comes to budget cartridges. I reviewed the 2M Blue for TONEAudio magazine a few years ago and it was the first cart that made my Technics SL-1200 listenable. On Regas, however, they really sing. I don't know of any cartridges that come close to the Red and the Blue for the price.
Turntable of the Year
Rega has a new entry-level turntable out, the RP1, which improves upon the somewhat flawed P1 and almost matches the P2 in overall performance. That's why Rega decided to discontinue both the P1 and the P2 upon the RP1's introduction (at just $449). The Clearaudio Concept is getting a lot of buzz in the audio world for offering fantastic performance for a modest ($1400) price--and it even comes with the excellent Verify tonearm. Both of these turntables are on my radar, and once I've auditioned them, they may be future candidates for this award. Still, you might want to check them out for yourself right now.
That leaves the two turntables that made a huge impression on me this year. The first is the Funk Firm Vector, which is made by Arthur Khoubesserian (formerly of Pink Triangle fame). It's funky looking, and it's good enough to knock Rega off the top of the value-for-dollar mountain. The new FXR II tonearm, which is based on a Rega bearing, is challenging the best tonearms in the world at a relatively modest price. I was floored by an earlier version of this 'table and I hope to hear this latest combination over the next few weeks.
That leaves the Well-Tempered Amadeus as my Turntable of the Year. It's the one that uses a golf ball suspended in silicone fluid for its tonearm assembly. You can read more about it in my interview with Peter Selesnick, but I've heard this 'table on several occasions and it sounds big and clear and open--all for a relatively modest price. And like the Funk Firm, it looks fun and crazy and reminds me that audio isn't just populated with grumpy old dudes with deep pockets.
Analog Moment of the Year
Through the magic of Facebook, I was able to introduce Joey Santiago, Pixies guitarist, to Colleen Cardas of Cardas Audio. It turns out that Joey is an audiophile and vinyl lover. He wound up buying a very fine Cardas cartridge for his turntable. Now Colleen wants to see the Pixies the next time that they play.
I do what I can to make the world a better place!
Contact the Vinyl Anachronist at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also see Marc Philip's blog
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