Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part XCV: 2013--Year of the Digital Comeback
(October 2013)

I haven't been the best Vinyl Anachronist I could be this year. An overwhelming majority of new music I've purchased over the course of the last twelve months has been of the little silver disc variety, not the big black disc variety.

I blame it on exhibiting at a multitude of trade shows this year--Vegas, New York, Chicago, Denver, Dallas, Newport Beach and soon San Diego--and we had a few shipping glitches which soured me on transporting turntables, setting them up from scratch and hoping for the best. I actually had a turntable go down for a day, a victim of mysterious feedback that resolved itself through PFM--pure fucking magic. I got to the point where I declared that it was less risky to bring a top-notch CD player to a show than a turntable. That, of course, meant that I needed to purchase some top-notch CDs as well since my LP collection has far more priceless gems in it than my CD collection.

What I discovered over the course of 2013 was that amazing sound, the type that truly wows show attendees, could be extracted from those aforementioned silver discs--even redbook CD's. Thanks to three sources of digital music--Blu-ray audio discs from 2L Recordings of Norway, hi-rez redbook CD's from Final Impression Music (FIM) of Singapore and CD/SACD reissues from Analogue Productions of Salina, Kansas--I came to the rather guarded and uneasy conclusion that if CD's sounded this good back in the mid-80s, I would have ditched my LPs and my turntable just like everyone else did. As you might imagine, that's not easy for me to say.

I've reviewed at least a dozen Blu-ray audio releases from 2L this year, and after finally getting a decent digital-to-analog converter to pair with my $66 Samsung Blu-ray player I can say that this new digital format offers extremely smooth and inviting sound that offers an almost unlimited amount of detail--all without sounding bright or fatiguing in the least. The FIM CD's, which use advanced digital technologies such as surround sound SACD, XRCD and K2 HD, are the warmest, most analog-like digital recordings I've ever heard. The hybrid CD/SACD's I've purchased from Chad Kassem at Analogue Productions are simply the product of one man's excellent taste in music and his dedication to producing recordings that are alive, vibrant and exceptionally realistic.

In other words, I've given up my mantra of the last decade-and-a-half that analog always trounces digital. We all know that the lines have been getting blurrier and blurrier between the analog and digital formats over the last few years, but digital recordings like the Jacques Loussier Trio's The Best of Play Bach from FIM, Hugh Masakela's Hope from AP and just about everything from 2L are among the very finest recordings I own.

Then again, maybe I just need to buy a new cartridge for my turntable or something. New purchases always seem to tip the scales, don't they?

That brings us, once again, to the Vinyl Anachronist Awards for Analog Excellence--the 15th edition. Despite my growing love for the alternative, I'm still fairly enthusiastic about what's been going on in the world of LPs and turntables over the last few months. The world of analog isn't slowing down for anyone--LP sales continue to increase (one recent European study shows that sales were the greatest since 2003), and the younger generations keep buying new turntables (or raiding their parents' attics for those old Duals, Garrards and Thorens!).

Best New Release in the Vinyl Format

Two of my favorite albums of the year, Neko Case's The Worse Things Get and Janelle Monae's The Electric Lady both came out on vinyl, but I opted for the redbook CD version of each because I couldn't hear sonic differences--which usually indicates that both formats were sourced from the same (probably digital) masters.

Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, however, was recorded in analog, which is remarkable for an album of electronic dance music. To say the sound quality of the album is spectacular is an understatement--you will wow your friends, lower your sperm count and piss off your neighbors when you play this music loudly. At the same time, it's rich and grandiose and lush and also has a human touch to it--thanks to a number of real live musicians, including the occasional drummer. It's Daft Punk for the win.

Best New Reissue in the Vinyl Format

I thought the Analogue Productions reissue of Hugh Masakela's 2004 live album Hope, both on LP and SACD, was a shoo-in for the winner of this category. The sound quality is so dynamic, exciting and realistic--it's probably the best-sounding live recording I own. Unfortunately, it came out in 2008. I know that I chose a 2009 release in this category last year, but I'm not going to make such backtracking a habit.

The other big vinyl reissue story of the year was yet another version of Cat Steven's Tea for the Tillerman, but this one was remastered by Analogue Productions using the original master tapes so it's supposed to be the best yet. I already have this album on Mobile Fidelity UHQR, so do I need another version, even if it's from AP?

That leaves the 20th anniversary box set of Nirvana's In Utero, which includes three 45rpm LPs that actually sound quite magnificent. As we learned from MFSL's version of Nevermind many years ago, Nirvana did make music for audiophiles. It was just really loud music. Most albums that rock this hard are usually over-compressed in the studio, but Steve Albini really cared about the overall sound quality of these recordings. I'm not the biggest fan of box sets, but this one is worth it.

Cartridge of the Year

My current favorite cartridge company, Transfiguration, just came out with a new flagship model named the Proteus. I would name that Cartridge of the Year if it wasn't for the fact that it costs $6000, and the last time I gave a super-pricy cartridge the award I received a lot of angry emails. So let's just call the Proteus the cartridge I'd buy if I won the lottery.

I do feel compelled to choose the entire Soundsmith line of cartridges for the award for several reasons. First, a rumor made the rounds on the audio discussion forums that Peter Ledermann, founder of Soundsmith, was retiring. I talked to Peter at the Rocky Mountain Audio Fest and he was alarmed. "I'm busier than ever!" he exclaimed. "Why would I retire?" So I promised Peter that I would help deny the rumors and spread the word that Soundsmith is going to be around for many more years.

Second, while I do have some experience with Peter's $7000 Hyperion cartridge, the one with the cactus needle cantilever, I only recently discovered just how amazing his more affordable cartridges are. I've just listened to his $479 Otello cartridge on a VPI Traveler turntable and was very impressed with the level of performance this combination offered. Combined with his world class strain gauge cartridges, the crazy and wonderful Hyperion and his very affordable entry level SMMC line, Peter deserves all of the success he's received over the last few years. Thank God he's not retiring--what a hole that would leave in the industry.

Phono Stage of the Year

Two very intriguing and very affordable phono stages caught my eye over the last year. The Lounge Audio Phonograph Preamp Mk.II is a very basic phono stage that comes in a very attractive wooden box and costs only $200. The Lounge has become THE affordable phono stage for people just getting into vinyl for the first time--so much so that even Amazon is sold out. It's such an easy recommendation for novices--just buy the Lounge if you can find one and forget about it.

Okay, so the Lounge is perfect for the popular entry-level turntables from Music Hall, Pro-Ject and Rega. But what if you have a more ambitious rig and you're looking for something in the also popular $1000-$1500 range? Consider the Hungarian-made Heed Audio Quasar phono preamp, which at $1200 is so good that I honestly think you need to spend about three grand before you can better it. I shared an exhibit room at RMAF with my friend Bob Clarke of Profundo, the US distributor for Heed, and he hooked the Quasar up to an analog front end that was probably around $20K. The Quasar not only lived up to the task, it performed so well that I'm not sure where sonic improvements could have been made. So the Quasar is my choice for Phono Stage of the Year.

Turntable of the Year

Several months ago, I assumed that I'd be choosing the Orbit turntable from U-Turn Audio as the turntable of the year. You've probably heard of the Orbit--it was an affordable turntable project funded by a Kickstarter campaign, and it received a lot of press. The Orbit was a very basic design that eschewed unnecessary features such as USB ports and inboard DACs and concentrated solely on sound quality--all for $150 including arm and cartridge. As the Orbit got closer to production, the price jumped to $179 for a basic version, and $279 for a "plus" version. So far U-Turn has only been able to deliver a handful of Orbits to patient customers--but their website promises that all orders placed before October 15 will be delivered by the end of the year. Perhaps I'll be able to hear one by this time next year.

Instead, I'm going to choose two turntables that have been around since the late 90's but haven't quite gotten the attention they deserve. I interviewed Kirk and Donna Bodinet of SOTA turntables earlier this year, and I'm thrilled that they continue to make the Comet ($1400 with S303 tonearm) and the Moonbeam ($750 with S100 tonearm) right here in the USA. You can refer back to my interview for more details, but suffice it to say that because you get more for your money with the Comet and the Moonbeam because you're not paying for customs fees and distributor margins. Buy a Moonbeam with the excellent Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, and you have an outstanding analog rig for less than $1000.

The coming year will certainly be exciting. I'll be diving head first into computer audio again, especially since I represent a few brands that will be debuting digital-to-analog converters. In other words, I'll have to give myself another crash course in FLAC and WAV music files, DSD and perhaps even running trade shows by playing music from iPads and other Mac devices.

In addition, the coming year will see my 100th Vinyl Anachronist column on Perfect Sound Forever--and we have something special planned. Have a great 2014!

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