The Vinyl Anachronist
by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXII: 2011: Year of Taking Care of Business
As I announced earlier in the year, I went over to the dark side of the audio industry and I'm now the U.S. Distributor for two lines of Italian hi-fi (Unison Research and Opera Loudspeakers). I joked on my blog that the Vinyl Anachronist had to consider retiring because it's just not kosher to review equipment while you're selling it. It's a double-edged sword--if I tell you that a certain piece of equipment does not compare to the stuff I sell, I'm a bit of a scumbag. If I rave about a certain piece of equipment, I risk the wrath of my Italian business partners as they wonder why I'm promoting someone else.
There's an easy solution. As long as I have this particular job as a distributor, I will not review equipment. Instead I've decided to concentrate on the music, most notably LP's. That's pretty hard to do since everyone keeps sending me CD's to review, but I have to admit that I've grown fonder of the little silver discs since computer audio seems to pounding nails into their tiny little coffins. I've been checking out a number of hi-rez CD's in the last few months, and the sound quality is so good that I don't have the heart to proclaim that CD's are finally dead. So when you see me reviewing CD's on my blog, know that deep in my heart I'm still being faithful to my beloved LP's and I'm just trying to give a break to the new underdog format.
On the other hand, I've been reviewing hi-rez FLAC files from sources such as HDTracks for the website Stereolist, and I have to admit that FLAC files sound at least as good as my best CD's. It all depends on the quality of your DAC (digital-to-analog converter). DACs, along with turntables, have clearly become the hottest hi-fi component on the market. I won't be including a DAC of the Year award in my annual wrap-up any time soon, but these little black boxes are really making it easier for audiophiles to hear first-class sound from their downloaded music files.
That's where the anachronist in me comes out however. Computer audio is very, very complex. There are certainly simple and elegant solutions that almost anyone can employ in their main music systems. At the same time, there are so many solutions available, and there is almost no consensus on which method yields the best results. When I see everyone in the audio industry arguing about the best way to rip a file, and which type of file sounds the best (I think it's definitely FLAC, but boy are those large files to store on your hard drive), I just want to pull out some LP's and listen to music the old-fashioned way. If you think aligning a cartridge is difficult, wander into a needle drop discussion on a computer audio discussion forum sometime and listen to some of these Rube Goldberg-esque solutions.
That brings me to the 13th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. The categories remain the same, but I don't know for how long. The audio scene is changing dramatically week to week, and it's more troubling than ever to stick with analog as your primary source of musical enjoyment!
Best New Release in the Vinyl Format
I wasn't that thrilled with new vinyl releases this year. Bon Iver's Bon Iver was particularly disappointing due to excessive surface noise and inner groove distortion. It seems like these new LP releases aren't being produced with the same care as the reissues.
That said, I'll give the nod this year to Wilco's The Whole Love. Like their last album, Wilco (the Album), a full CD is included with the LP. The packaging is great--you get a bonus track, a poster and even a nylon carrying bag from the record label. It's spread out over two 180-gram LP's which are relatively noise-free (not perfect, but good). Since you get both the CD and the LP, you can do A/B comparisons all day long and reinforce the idea that analog is still superior. I saw one review that claimed the CD sounded better, but I think they're on drugs. The LP rocks, and this is Wilco's best album since Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.
Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format
This was a huge year for reissues. Mobile Fidelity Sound Labs had so many releases this year that there's no way I can keep up. Into the Labyrinth from Dead Can Dance was amazing, as was The English Beat's Special Beat Service. It seemed like MFSL released every Elvis Costello album ever. The real gem, one I haven't been able to get yet, is supposedly the Acoustic Sounds remastering of Dusty Springfield's Live In Memphis. I've heard that it's a religious experience.
But I'll have to go with Light in the Attic's reissue of Jim Sullivan's 1969 album UFO. If you know the story of Jim Sullivan (he disappeared in the New Mexico desert in 1975 at either the hands of New Mexico state troopers or aliens), you'll know the extraordinary story of how LITA tried to find the original master tapes and wound up investigating Sullivan's mysterious fate. The sound quality isn't great--they didn't find the original masters--but the packaging for the LP is superb. Best of all, it only cost me $18 at Whetstone Audio here in Austin!
Cartridge of the Year
Other than the $550 Unison Research UN1 I am currently using on my brand new Unison Research Giro turntable (both are disqualified for the aforementioned reasons), there are simply no affordable cartridges that really knocked my socks off in 2011. Most of the truly outstanding cartridges I encountered this year were quite expensive, and I know that my goal in this column is to turn new people on turntables and vinyl. You simply can't do that with $25,000 turntables and $10,000 cartridges.
But if I want to be honest and award truly outstanding products, I have to realize that a) the state of the art in analog design is moving ahead much faster than the budget sector and b) there are a few people who read this column and might appreciate the mention of higher quality products. In addition, the overall prices of cartridges have been jacked up over the last couple of years (due to both the weakened U.S. dollar and some companies who are taking advantage of the growing vinyl market), and I can think of numerous cartridges that cost fifty to one hundred percent more in 2011 than they did just five years ago. So I will forge ahead.
The $1195 Shelter 501 II and the $1900 Transfiguration Axia, both from Japan, offer exceptional performance at their respective price points. I've heard these two cartridges several times in the last year, and I can honestly say that if you're looking for a cartridge for under $2000, you should look at the Shelter first and spend the rest of your budget on LP's. If you're considering a cartridge in the $3000 to $4000 range, you should consider the Axia for the same reasons. These are relaxed, composed and utterly musical cartridges that will make you happy for the rest of your life.
But I'm going to out on a limb and tell you about what is possibly the best cartridge I've heard. The Soundsmith Hyperion uses a cactus needle for a cantilever. Cactus needles were used as styli back in the old days on 78's, and they butchered many a record groove. As a cantilever, they offer superior vibration control and strength. Or, as Soundsmith proprietor Peter Ledermann told me at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, "We've been making phonograph needles for 80 years, and God has been making them for millions of years!" The Hyperion offers almost seamless perfection from top to bottom, and for some reason it reduces surface noise better than any other cartridge I've heard--including Koetsus. The Hyperion is $7000. But it represents revolutionary thinking that will probably trickle down into lest costly designs. It is the Cartridge of the Year, and perhaps the decade.
Turntable of the Year
Rega released the new version of the Planar 3 turntable, the RP3, and it's the best 3 ever. I haven't spent very much time with it (although I've seen about a hundred of them so far), so it's a natural candidate for Turntable of the Year. But I don't want to award yet another Rega with this award. So I'm going to choose one of last year's runner-ups, the Funk Firm Vector, as the winner.
The reason is simple. I visited Dan Muzquiz of Blackbird Audio Gallery in San Diego earlier in the year, and I wanted to hear the Vector, the matching Funk Firm FXR-II tonearm and the Transfiguration Axia cartridge at length. Dan, ever the musical maven, pulled out a rare copy of The Temptations' extended version of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." It wouldn't be my first choice for a demo, but after listening to twelve minutes of perfection, it is now. The Vector is hard to find in the US (Dan is the only dealer in the U.S. as I write this), but it's worth seeking out for audition. I've also heard the Vector's big brother, the Saffire, at length and it's even better.
So that's it for this year. Who knows what next year will bring--DAC of the Year, USB/SPDIF Interface of the Year, FLAC File of the Year, but I will try to remain true to what is still the best-sounding format of the 21st century--the vinyl LP.
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