Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LXXXIX: Year of CVD (Complete Vinyl Domination)
(December 2012)

"You're just a vinyl bigot."

I'm feeling a little brazen and ballsy this year about vinyl and LP's, even more so than usual. Now that I'm in the high-end audio industry, I'm seeing Complete Vinyl Dominance at all the trade shows. Over the last couple of years, the general trend has been toward computer audio, with most system demonstrations revolving around a playlist delivered via laptop or tablet. Over the last few trade shows, however, I'm seeing a different attitude emerge: If you aren't playing vinyl, you're not a player.

I just returned from the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest (RMAF) in Denver, and we featured not one but two vinyl playback rigs in our room. I actually enjoyed the look on attendees' faces when they came into our room with a flash drive full of Diana Krall and were sent packing. Okay, I'm overstating it a bit--I would never dream of being rude to these people. But when you wander into my room, look around and say "Oh, you're playing records" and then walk out, well, I don't mind returning some of that tough love. You need a turntable, now more than ever, so put that goofy little laminate-and-copper-foil thingamabob back in your pocket. Surrender to Complete Vinyl Domination, or get out.

Yes, I'm a vinyl bigot, and my viewpoint is utterly biased and colored. I'm sure some computer audio geek is reporting the exact opposite about RMAF, that computer audio ruled the day and turntables are finally--thank God--on their way out. I'm sure at least one of them has written a blog article titled "Complete Computer Audio Domination." I suppose if I wanted to be completely objective, the Light Harmonic Da Vinci digital-to-analog converter (which costs $33,000 and looks like Darth Vader's helmet) was the big hit of the show, especially the display version with the clear Plexiglas case. Game-changing products like the Da Vinci make digital formats sound better than ever, which is the reason why I'm reviewing nearly as many Blu-ray audio discs as LP's these days. It's all good these days, but you know where my heart is.

That brings us to the 14th Annual Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence. I had an unusually busy year listening to a lot of LP's, CD's, Blu-ray Audio discs, FLAC files, WAV files, MP3 files, SACD's and even audio cassettes--so there are a lot of potential nominees. And yes, that's right--I mentioned cassettes. For some reason, cassettes are making a comeback, and as a result Nakamichi decks are now fetching big bucks on eBay. And you thought people who still listened to LP's were strange.

Best New Release in the Vinyl Format

My three favorite new releases of the year--Jack White's Blunderbuss, Patti Smith's Banga and Fiona Apple's The Idler Wheel--were all purchased on opulent 180 gram vinyl pressings, so it makes sense that I'd pick one of these. None of these pressings are particularly earth-shattering when it comes to ultimate sound quality, however, and I have to lean toward an LP that not only sounds amazing, but redefines analog recording.

Over the last few months I've been receiving plenty of titles from 2L Recordings in Norway (which you can read about in my column Formats du Jour). While 2L founder, producer and recording engineer Morten Lindberg has given me an outstanding tutorial on the sonic merits of Blu-ray audio, it is his "hi-rez vinyl" releases that renew my hope that digital and analog formats can coexist peacefully. I know own three of his "DXD 352.8kHz/24bit Direct Metal Master 180 gram audiophile grade vinyl" recordings--Souvenir Part 1, Souvenir Part 2 and Quiet Winter Night--and I can't say enough about the overall sound quality, the clean and quiet pressings, the outstanding performances, the novel arrangements of the musicians and microphones and even the recording venues, which are primarily Norwegian churches. So I award all three with the award.

I'll also give a brief plug to the Blu-ray audio disc versions of these titles and the incredible value they offer. For instance, the two Souvenir recordings are available on a single Blu-ray at a significantly lower price. One of the Blu-ray titles, Thomas T. A. Tellefsen's Complete Piano Works, fits over three hours of music on a single disc. Yes, they're trying to trick you into loving Blu-ray.

Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format

For this award I'm tempted to cheat and name the Analogue Productions reissue of Sam Cooke's Night Beat as the Reissue of the Year. Chad Kassem of AP and Acoustic Sounds recommended this to me personally, saying it would "change my life." It's quickly become one of my favorite LP's of all time. The sound quality of this classic 1963 album is extraordinary--even in contemporary terms. It simply trounces any other reissue I've heard this year. Too bad it came out in 2009.

So I have to pick something from 2012. The 25th Anniversary Reissue of Paul Simon's Graceland would certainly fit the bill. We played it extensively at the California Audio Show in August and it certainly sounded far better than my tinny, compressed CD version that was purchased back in 1986. Mobile Fidelity had plenty of stellar releases this year such as R.E.M.'s Document and a numbered, limited edition of Weezer's blue album. But nothing's gonna come close to the Sam Cooke.

Sorry, it's a mandate of the soul. Night Beat it is.

Cartridge of the Year

I've been searching for an affordable replacement cartridge for my back-up Rega P3-24 since the Zu Audio DL-103 I've used for the last four years needs a serious re-tip. I'd get the re-tip except that I know the Zu is not the ideal match for the Rega tonearm--it's far too heavy and I need to jerry-rig the counterweight to get it right. The DL-103 is sooooo good that I want it to be a perfect match, but it isn't. I have it narrowed down to the Dynavector 10X5, a longtime recommendation of mine for Rega P3's, and the Soundsmith Otello. I'm a huge fan of Peter Ledermann's cartridges, and the idea fact that you can have some of that Ledermann magic in a $299 cartridge is intriguing. One of these two cartridges might win this award next year.

This year I have to betray the penny-pinchers for the second year in a row (I chose the $7000 Soundsmith Hyperion last year) and pick the Transfiguration Phoenix as Cartridge of the Year. I was lucky enough to use this magnificent and newly-redesigned cartridge on my Unison Research Giro turntable at RMAF, which meant I was also lucky enough to break it in over a few weeks. Together with the PureAudio Vinyl phono preamplifier from New Zealand, this was one of the absolute best analog rigs I've ever used.

I used Koetsu cartridges for many years, and I was convinced I was a "Koetsu Man" and that nothing else could win my heart. Transfigurations are also premium-priced handmade cartridges from Japan, but they are far more neutral and dynamic than the Koetsus I owned. Bass and treble extension with the Phoenix is smooth and nearly infinite, and the musical textures are complex and organized and not nearly as colored. The Phoenix could sound romantic and lush when it needed to, but it offered deeper insight into every recording I heard. Suffice it to say that I'm now a Transfiguration Man. The Phoenix, at $4250, isn't quite a practical option for me, but I will miss it dearly and keep my fingers crossed for its return.

Turntable of the Year

I'll cut to the chase--it's the Rega RP8. I heard this new Rega at its U.S. debut at Whetstone Audio here in Austin, and I think it's a stunning new direction for one of my favorite analog companies. It looks nothing like the Regas of yore; the outer plinth, which provides support for the dust cover, is removable and reveals an inner "skeletal" ‘table that is extremely rigid, lightweight and attractive. The inside of the plinth is made from a high-density foam material that is barely heavier than Styrofoam. While the design is lightweight, the sound is not. The RP8 sounded clear, forward, powerful and musical.

In fact, the RP8 is supposed to be a replacement for the P7, but Rega has also eliminated the flagship P9--one of the greatest ‘tables of all time--from its lineup (an RP10 will appear in its stead next year). When asked if the $2995 RP8 actually sounds better than the $5000 P9, UK Rega rep Paul Darwin said "I won't say it kicks the P9 into the weeds, but I would urge all P9 owners to compare the two." In other words, the RP8 kicks the P9 into the weeds. The RP10 probably walks over to the weeds, finds the P9 and stomps its head in all Ryan Gosling-style.

Needless to say, I really want the RP8.

Analog Hero of the Year

In 2011, I interviewed Terry Combs of Sound Mind Audio in Dallas for this column. Terry, who had a wonderful dedicated 78rpm playback system that really opened my eyes to the sonic possibilities of old lacquers, was the type of dealer who would dance around the room as he played music for you. He loved his job, he loved music and he loved hi-fi. I found out from Bob Clarke, a fellow audio distributor who introduced me to Terry, that he passed away in late October.

I'll leave you with one of my favorite Terry Combs quotes, one I have previously said here and elsewhere: "If your system doesn't make you cry, it ain't worth that much money." It was good to know you, Terry.

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