The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

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Two-Channel Stereo (Part 11: Turntables)

For more than twenty years, I listened to LPs on what turns out to be a reasonably well-respected turntable. It’s a Rotel RP900, and in 1993, it sold for $500 (about $850 in today’s dollars). Apparently, some or all of the turntable was made by the British company Rega, now among the best-known turntable makers. Through the years, I used several phono cartridges, most recently the Shure V15Vx, a discontinued item I found on Audio Shark for over $500 in today’s dllars. So, for working purposes, I’ll assume my “analog front end” cost about $1,500—including a $200 phono pre-amp.

As I’ve been listening to more and more vinyl, I wondered whether a greater investment would significantly improve the experience of listening to records. As I wondered, I found myself spending $20-30 in record shops specializing in vinyl—not buying the new pristine artisan pressings that seem to cost $25-40, but used copies that cost a tenth as much (so $30 bucks buys 8-10 LPs in surprisingly good condition).

I poked around the web, trying to understand whether I ought to upgrade my phono pre-amp (a.k.a. phono stage), my cartridge, my turntable, or some combination of the three. I found several retail stores willing to help me answer the question, but it was unreasonable for me to ask the small business to spend hours with me as I swapped out various combinations of the three analog components. I started by experimenting with a better phono stage pre-amp, the Sutherland Insight, and I was very pleased with the improvement. Then, I upgraded the phono cartridge to the Dynavector DV-20X2L, and once again, the listening experience was much better than before. Would a replacement turntable take me much further? Or would the step-up offer only incremental improvement—at a high price? (Audiophiles are forever pondering these questions.)

To organize my thinking, and frame the appropriate questions, I rely upon Robert Harley’s book, The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, now in its fifth edition. Chapter 9 explains “Turntables, Tonearms and Cartridges: The LP Playback System” (thank goodness, for it is among very few reference sources that provide a comprehensive overview). For the serious listener, Harley recommends an investment in the “analog front end” of about forty percent of the total investment in a two-channel stereo system. Practical guidance: “A mid-level turntable and arm cost $800 to $1,500,” often including the cartridge. He goes on: “There are roughly three levels of quality and price above $2000. The first is occupied by a wide selection of turntables and arms costing between $3,000 and $6,000. In this range, you can achieve outstanding performance. Plan to spend at least $1,000 for the phono cartridge appropriate for these turntables.”

Without reading his bible too literally, I was now able to understand the jump from the Rotel turntable would require an investment of at least $1,500 and probably $2,000—plus the cost of the cartridge. That’s a lot of money (not for an audiophile, perhaps, but for the rest of us)—or so it seemed until a friend pointed out that my current turntable, still in service, was easily twenty years old. Is it worth spending the equivalent of $100 per year to own a proper turntable that could “achieve outstanding performance?” Perhaps.

Facing “a wide selection of turntables,” how do you choose the right one? I spoke with any expert who would engage in conversation, but I also spent a lot of time reading articles from what I consider to be the better online publications specializing in high-end audio. Here’s a terrific list called Daily Audiophile, a useful starting point from the uniformly excellent Analog Planet blog, more from TONEAudio’s Analogaholic, one of The Absolute Sound’s helpful Buyer’s Guides (BTW: Mr. Harley runs the editorial side of TAS), and perhaps best of all (and sometimes controversial), Stereophile’s descriptions of Recommended Components, soon to be updated with the Spring, 2017 selection.

Armed with too many notes, I entered the fray of online retail sites, previously described in an earlier article. Utter confusion! Some products still current, others being closed out, some demos with and without cartridges. Unfortunately, visiting each manufacturer’s website was not as helpful as I would have hoped. I was intrigued by the Rega RP6 ($1,495) but I couldn’t figure out why it cost half as much as the Rega RP8 ($2,995), or why the physical base of the more expensive model was shaped like a butterfly, not like a rectangle. It was very difficult to find a meaningful comparison between the RP6 and the RP8 on the web—here and there, an amateur YouTube video, only marginally helpful because (of course) I could not actually hear the turntables properly. And even if I could hear the turntables, I was unclear how to listen to the turntable without being largely affected by every other piece of equipment as well as the sonics of the listening room itself.

A snapshot from one of the five Rega Research tour videos on Analog Planet.

One of the voices of sanity in the analog jungle is a writer/editor named Michael Fremer. And he showed up with help—just in the nick of time. Michael visited the Rega factory, and recorded a very detailed video tour (over two hours, presented in five parts), complete with interviews and clear explanations of every part of the turntable manufacturing process. For the first time, I understood how a cartridge is made (at an impossibly tiny scale), why certain strategies are used to design and build the base of each turntable model, why tone arm manufacturer is such an art, the importance of motors and belts, and so on. If you are considering—or dreaming about—a better turntable, this feature-length presentation is well worth your time.

Linn-Sondek’s flagship Klimax LP12 turntable.

Feeling more comfortable with the whole idea of shopping for a turntable, I began to explore more specific options. One dealer was very pleased with turntables from Thorens and Teac, but others were less enthusiastic, and there wasn’t much press attention paid to these two companies. Linn-Sondek, which offers its classic LP12 in a variety of mix-and-match parts, but I didn’t find much energy in the community for current offerings. Everyone seemed to love SME, but prices started around $7,000, more than I could or would spend. Similarly, Music Hall turntables were well-reviewed, but their best turntable was below my threshold, so I moved on. I was intrigued Clearaudio’s Concept and Performance turntables, but never found enough information to seriously consider either one. I was curious about vaguely familiar company called VPI Industries, but there were so many models available online, I just about gave up trying to understand what was available (apparently, the various Classic models—there are several—are still available from online retailers but they are discontinued). Mostly, I had been curious about a model called the Scout, but finding my way through the various Scoutmaster, Scout 1.1, Scout 2 other models required far too much time and effort.

What I really needed to do was listen. I wanted to listen to a series of promising turntables, each connected to same high-quality stereo system, each with the same cartridge, same cabling, same everything—by limiting the variables, perhaps I could make some sort of reasonable decision. That would be best achieved through engagement in the local audiophile community—Saturday listening sessions are not uncommon, but require some research.

Available for about $30 in 180g vinyl (new), or $3 used (source: Discogs).

I was able to sit on a comfortable couch and listen to a good clean recording of “Sometimes in Winter,” an ideal test track on Child Is Father to the Man on the very first album by Blood Sweat and Tears. We started with the newly-redesigned VPI Scout ($2,199), which sounded similar (but better) than my current Rotel turntable. The sound was clear, present, and strong, but the vocals were not front and center, the horns were not as nuanced, and the sense of space could be better. All of this made for a very pleasant listening experience, but I was ready to move up the line to the similar-looking but heftier VPI Prime ($3,999). In just a moment, I heard the difference—the horns were crisp and full, the vocalist had stepped up and was now center stage well-separated from the background, and the overall soundstage was not only larger, but considerably more detailed. Why? Better materials, better components in the turntable, a better motor, a better base—and all of these add up to better sound. At that point, I had, more or less, made my decision, but, of course, I was curious how much more I would hear when I listened to the VPI Prime Signature ($5,999). Of course, the more expensive turntable sounded better—but here, we get into the incremental jumps. The sound was undoubtedly heftier, more substantial, even more clear with improved presence, and an even greater sense of accurately reproduced instrument sounds, especially among the brass instruments. I wanted to remember what I had heard, so I walked away without listening to VPI’s highest quality turntables—the three models of VPI Avenger, or the completely awesome (and very large) VPI Titan.

The VPI Scout, VPI Prime, and VPI Prime Signature. Note the heft of each successful platter and base, the sophistication of the feet, the size of the motors, and in the first two, the thickness of the turntable platter.

Of course, listening in a well-appointed professional listening room is not much like listening at home. I decided to give the VPI Prime a try. We added the Dynavector DV-20X2L that sounded so good on the Rotel turntable, and connected it to the Sutherland Insight pre-amp, also a wonderful friend for the Rotel. And off we go with a DG recording of Emil Gilels performing Brahms’s first piano concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic—with its bombastic opening, now so clearly rendered with absolute distinction between the instruments, and minimal (if any) congestion in the extreme sequences with what sounds like tons of instruments all blasting their hearts out. Shift to the quieter string and wind sequences, and everything is sweet, present, energetic, really wonderful.

But I must be careful. The tonearm (3D printed, by the way, which is very nifty and apparently a great contributor to the quiet of the turntable operation) is balanced on what appears to be (and turns out to be) the polished point of a dart. The adjustments for proper operation require extraordinary care (but they can be learned by the average person, perhaps one less thumb-clumsy than me). The turntable’s aluminum platter weighs twenty pounds, but spins seemingly without any friction at all. The rigidity of the base matters a lot—and there are a lot of theories about both the construction of the base and the necessary weight of the platter—but here, there’s an 11 gauge steel plate holding fast to the MDF base. Overall, the VPI Prime feels very strong and well-made, but the tone arm assembly, with its exposed rear cable and its various knobs and dials, feels as though I’ve entered an unfamiliar technology realm.

And yet, none of that matters. Not when Emil Gilels is playing the piano, and I’m litening to a turntable, a cartridge and a phono stage that were, five months ago, a completely theoretical idea. Now, the sound feels so natural, so effortless, so entirely pleasant, so exhilarating, that I wonder why I waited so long to improve the “analog front end” of an otherwise terrific stereo system.

After a few weeks of listening, I’m back in the record stores, happily rediscovering favorite rock, jazz, Broadway and blues albums from long ago, and grabbing high-quality classical antiques (yes, antiques—$3.99 each) made by Deutsche Grammophon, Melodiya, Angel, Columbia, Philips, Decca, and other labels that will, in time, be lost to a world dominated by Spotify and iTunes. Me, I’ve found something far more satisfying. And fun!

BTW: This article is part of series.

A closer look at the VPI Prime turntable, with a closer look at the tone arm base below.

 

 

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 10: Phono Cartridge)

It’s an old, silly riddle: how many grooves on a record? Of course, the answer is just one on each side—but that groove is usually about 1,500 feet long, or about 1/3 of a mile. If Wikipedia is correct, the record player’s needle, or, correctly, the stylus, runs that distance at an average speed of about 1 mph (but travels faster on the outside edge of the record, more slowly on the inside). According to GZ Vinyl—the world’s largest producer of vinyl records—the average width of the groove is 0.04 – 0.08 mm, or 40 to 80 microns (micrometers), roughly the width of human hair, or about 1/10 the size of a grain of sand. And if the groove is that wide, the tip of the stylus must be small enough to fit  comfortably inside that groove. A conical stylus (there are several shapes) is about half the width of the groove. The various bumps, ridges and other material inside the groove, the physical manifestation of sound on the record—are smaller still. A particle of dust may be larger than the stylus itself (think in terms of a bulldozer pushing a boulder of equal size), which why serious vinyl listeners are so fastidious about keeping record surfaces clean (even washing them with machines costing over $1,000).

The LP was introduced in 1948, with stereo recordings available about a decade later. Seventy years later, the technology is still in use—and still astonishing. From 1960 until  1987, the LP was the dominant recorded music format. After 25 years of just-hanging-in, the LP is making a comeback, this time hailed as the second-best consumer format (reel-to-reel might be first, but that’s another story). Nowadays, listening to records can involve a very sophisticated technology journey, hence this and several other articles on Digital Insider.

bhcghea5Usually made from a diamond, the stylus is the sensitive tip of a thin pipe called a cantilever, which extends downward, at an angle, from the inch-long box called a phono cartridge, which is, in turn, mounted to the end of the turntable’s tone arm. In the words of Robert Harley, author of The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, “The phono cartridge has the job of converting the modulations in record groove into an electrical signal…The stylus is moved back and forth and up and down by modulations in the record groove.” (Inside the cartridge), magnets and (incredibly small) coils (of wire) work together as an electrical generator to create output voltage…(also known as the) audio signal.” In a moving magnet (“MM”) cartridge design, the magnets move to induce the output and the coils remain stationary; in a moving coil design (“MC”), the magnets remain stationery and the coils move.

Regardless of the type of cartridge, the resulting audio signal is very modest, and requires substantial amplification in order to be heard and enjoyed. I found it difficult to calculate the amount of amplification, but I’m guessing the sound you’re hearing from the loudspeakers is easily a hundred times the volume of the sound you’re hearing if you listen really closely to the stylus making contact with the surface of the LP. (Engineers, please comment and correct.)

riaaBefore we move on to specific types of equipment, consider this: the tiny stylus is likely to pick up not only the sound from the grooves in the record (and the inevitable scratches, clicks and pops), but also the sound of the turntable’s motor, the resonance of the tonearm, and any other sounds in the room, including conversations, dog barks, and other disturbances. For cartridge, tone arm, and turnable manufacturers, playing the design game requires tremendous attention to mitigation and near-elimination of vibration, resonance, and other unwanted sounds. At the same time, a properly-designed cartridge must make the very best of the available (physical) information inside the grooves of every record. Fortunately, every record is made in accordance with very precise manufacturing standards (in the U.S., RIAA standards were established in 1963). Unfortunately, record pressings (the actual physical manufacture of each vinyl record) vary in quality. (I’ll write a separate article about record pressing and how to choose the best records.)

So: we’re now going to shop for a product that we can neither see nor touch, which must be mounted on turntable, which is in turn connected to several types of amplifier (phono stage pre-amplifier, pre-amplifier, power amplifier), and then to a pair of loudspeakers—each connected by a pair of cables that affect the quality of the sound, mounted on tables and stands with varying degrees of sound isolation and vibration, connected to AC power which often introduces its own issues, in listening rooms whose acoustic design and loudspeaker placement greatly affects fidelity. And through this process, we’re hoping to evaluate the microscopic interaction between a tiny diamond stylus tip, a cartridge, and a record whose pressing may or may not be up to snuff. Some audio dealers are patient with listeners who are trying to making the right decision; others have seen too many customers come and go, and then buy online, so these dealer’s lack of patience is a rational response to a nearly-nonsensical marketplace.

product_118025Fortunately, there are a fair number of audiophiles who listen to all sorts of equipment, and share their opinions. Chad Stelly, who works at Acoustic Sounds, is one of the best in the business, but I probably spoke with, or emailed, or read opinions from twenty or thirty knowledgeable people. Generally, they thought my current choice of a Shure V15vx was more than suitable for my Rotel RP900 turntable, a combination that kept me happy for several years. Now that I wanted more, everyone asked whether I would keep a very solid (apparently Rega-built) turntable, or upgrade. Assuming an upgrade, I wanted something that would take me to a new level of enjoyment. Seeking any meaningful consensus, I listened, read, and studied online reviews (well-respected audiophile publications can publish only so many cartridge reviews, so I filled-in with message board comments).

Grado was the first recommendation. In particular, several advisors suggested the Grado Sonata2 ($600), but several reviews pointed up the line to the Reference Master2 ($1,000). These cartridges are made from a particular type of rare Australian wood, presumably adding warmth to the sound, but several dealers told me that Grado cartridges were wonderful in the mid-range, but there would be better options for the more extreme highs and lows. In my informal surveys, Grado was always among the top recommendations—but never the top recommendation because of the potential for hum and noise—but only under particular circumstances (how could I test this in a store—not easily, it turned out, because dealers don’t like to open and swap out cartridges that destroy the original packaging). In the future, I plan to spend serious time experimenting with these and other Grado cartridges and developing my own opinion.

webcarmen-rev-1I learned about Soundsmith, and in particular, the Carmen ($800) and the Boheme ($1,200), but I never found them in any store—though everyone talked about how great Soundsmith might be for my situation. I learned about matching a particular cartridge to a particular phono pre-amp (“Hmmm… the Boheme might sound a little bright with the Sutherland Insight phono stage…”) One person suggested a Hana EL or EH elliptical ($475). Several friends told me they liked Ortofon cartridges—but there are fifty different models. Through too much time spent online and in more conversations, we narrowed the Ortofon search to the Quintet Black S ($999) and Bronze ($839).

Unable to even find most of the cartridges connected to a turntable at a local dealer, I just kept reading online reviews and talking to anybody who seemed knowledgeable. That’s how I found my way to Dynavector. I listen to opera, choral music, classical, jazz, blues, rock and pop, bluegrass—the connection between them seems to be emphasis on voice and acoustic over electric or highly produced recordings. When I began to ask about the Dynavector DV20x20, people started telling me that this was the right cartridge for me, especially if I intended to upgrade the turntable in the future.

s-l300So l started listening. Or, first, I paid a local audio dealer to mount to cartridge properly—this is not an easy thing to do properly—and then I started listening to the DV20x20 on my Rotel RB900 turntable. I started with a favorite orchestral performance that I’ve written about before: Karl Goldmark’s Rustic Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I like the recording, in part, because it’s well-organized for critical listening: double basses and cellos, then violins and violas, then the winds, and so on. I was impressed by the difference that I could hear when I replaced my 20-year old, $200 phono stage with a significantly better Sutherland Insight phono stage pre-amp. Now, I hoped to hear a substantial improvement by replacing the Shure V15vx phono cartridge with the Dynavector DV20x20. Sure enough, I heard what I hoped to hear—immediately! The low strings were even more clearly defined, distinct from one another, with greater body, more luxurious fluidity, and a greater sense of presence, and, looking for a word here…snap! Moving to the higher strings, they gained a sense of reality, smoothness, and again, presence. The winds can tend to be a bit screechy on this recording, but they were nicely managed by this cartridge. I tried a few chamber recordings, some solo female voices, and found myself completely charmed by Linda Ronstadt’s wonderful voice on Canciones de mi Padre, her 1987 album of Mexican songs that I bought for $3 in wonderful condition from a used record store.

mps_oscar-peterson_vol-1-1When I’m listening to a new piece of equipment—something I don’t do very often, to be honest, because I make my decisions with such care—one subjective test is how often I swap records. If I find myself sitting and listening, often to a whole side of an LP, I know that I’ve found a winner. So now I’m spending hours listening, and rediscovering discs that I know pretty well—and finding new joy because there is more detail, punch, clarity, and sense of being there with so many LPs. I’m very impressed by the Dynavector DV20x20, and I’ll attempt to close out with the reasons why. On classical recordings, I find the overall presence most appealing, closely followed by the punch and sweep of the more exciting passages, and increased refinement of solo violins, female voice, clarinets, oboes, and flutes. On jazz recordings, it’s undoubtedly the crispness of the drum kit—so precise, with just the right sense of attack and decay—though I do love what happens when I listen to Oscar Peterson playing piano, and I know that because I now find it difficult to listen to him as background music. I pay more attention to the music! On rock LPs, it’s the bass and the percussion that gets me, but also the higher tinkering on an electric or pedal steel guitar. When I listen to a singer, I hear nuances that I’m not sure I heard, or paid attention to, before. In short, this tiny component—a phono cartridge half the size of my pinky—is providing a whole lot of enjoyment.

And although I won’t disclose everything in this article, I will say that I’m on the second day of listening to the same Sutherland Insight phono stage, and the same cartridge but now on a much-improved turntable. So far, I’m very happy, but I’ll tell you more after some in-depth listening. With a VPI Prime turntable.

This article is part of a series.

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 9: Phono Stage [Pre-Amp])

Let’s start simply. You own, or may soon own, a turntable. The turntable is comprised of a spinning platter, a tone arm, and at the end of the tone arm, a phono cartridge with a tiny stylus. The stylus makes contact with the grooves on the record, and if you listen carefully, you will hear music–the sound of the stylus, or needle, running through the various bumps and valleys in those grooves. Now, the trick is to amplify those sounds, retaining both clarity and character, without introducing anomalies.

If you think back to the stereo systems of the 1970s, you could simply plug an RCA stereo cable from the back of the turntable to the back of the stereo receiver, and choose the “turntable” option on the front. The concept has not changed. The receiver contained a phono pre-amplifier to bring the turntable’s incoming signal up to a certain level, which was then amplified to a level that could be heard on a pair of loudspeakers (or headphones).

Today, this setup is still available, but we’ve become more sophisticated. Nowadays, you can buy the tonearm as one device, the phono cartridge as another, high-priced cables to assure the best quality sound running from the tone arm to the phono stage, and then, a separate pre-amplifier, amplifier, high quality loudspeaker cables, and the speakers. In this article, we’re focused on the phono stage, or phono pre-amp (the terms are used interchangeably).

One more thing before we discuss equipment. (This paragraph gets a bit technical.) There are several types of phono cartridges, and your choice of cartridge will affect your choice of phono stage–and vice-versa. The two key terms are Moving Magnet–often abbreviated as MM–and Moving Coil (MC). The difference between them is not simply explained nor easily understood. Most inexpensive cartridges are MM, but there are excellent MM cartridges available. MC cartridges are usually purchased by those with better audio systems, but a good MC cartridge can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. All of this will be discussed in a future article.

insightadj

Inside the Sutherland Insight phono stage, easy adjustments for Gain and Loading. Once you decide upon a specific cartridge, just move the four little red caps one time, and forget about them.

For now, you should know that every cartridge offers its own electrical characteristics.For purposes of selecting an appropriate phono stage for your needs, you’ll be concerned with “gain” and “load.” Gain is easy to understand–it’s the amount of amplification required from the phono stage for that particular cartridge. Gain is expressed in decibels, a familiar term. Load is more complicated, involving some understanding of impedance, capacitance, etc. No worries. Let’s move on.

I’m now spending so much of my listening time with LPs, I was becoming more aware of how good my CDs sounded, and I was wondering why my LPs didn’t sound as good. No real complaints–the current setup has served me well for twenty years. Still, I suspected there was room for improvement in the “analog front end” of my stereo system could be improved. But where to start?

I like my turntable–and apparently, so do the people who service it from time to time. I consulted my various advisors, and everyone felt I could stick with the Rotel RB900 for a long time. Nobody felt turntable replacement was the place to start.

How about if I swapped out my Shure V15vx–a classic, well-regarded MM cartridge that cost a few hundred dollars new. How old was it? How many records had I played? Did I treat it with care and love? Was the stylus dirty? Could the whole thing sound better if I just spent more on a new cartridge? Which one? I started reading reviews online–but the reviews led me to believe that the phono stage mattered more than I realized.

So here’s the challenge. You can’t listen to a phono stage in isolation. You need to listen to a phono stage connected to a turntable with a particular cartridge on the one hand, and a pre-amplifier, amplifier, various cables and loudspeakers on the other. To some extent, you can ask your local dealer to swap out the phono stage and leave everything else as-is, and try to discern the differences. Fortunately, I found a dealer who was as curious about the difference as I was, so I started there. Before we started the tests, we tried our best to match the sound of my existing stereo system in his showroom–and did that fairly quickly. And we started to listen. Remember: my starting point is a $200, 20-year old phono stage.

I know what I want to hear. I want a single cello to sound like it has heart and soul. I want a violin section to sound like individual instruments, not a like a mass of high sounds. I want a clarinet to sound like a clarinet. I want to hear the difference between brass instruments in a jazz ensemble, and I want the drummer to tap every so gently and to hit it hard and make me smile. All subjective. All in my head. All pretty easy to hear–or not.

Phono stage pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs, even colors.

Phono pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs–even colors. I prefer a more traditional look.

The tests didn’t take very long, in part because I had carefully read just about available review on the internet. It was more of a checklist exercise, with confirming glances shared between us–nope, this wasn’t it, nah that wasn’t the one either. I had high hopes for the Lehmann Audio Black Cube Original ($629), and the Creek OBH 15 MKII MM/MC Phono Preamplifier ($595), but neither sounded substantially better than my current setup. I had read good things about Vincent’s PHO 700 Phono MM/MC w/Outboard Power Supply (now on sale for $499), but I felt my existing setup offered greater fidelity, despite the Vincent’s impressive clarity (these terms are very, very squishy but I knew what I heard). In my research, I found 85 different phono stage boxes at Music Direct, and I was intrigued by those in the $700-800 class–perhaps this price point was a better choice for me. I explored the Jolida JD9 II Standard Tube Phono Preamp ($699), and the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ ($75o) but again, I didn’t find the significant jump I was hoping to hear. Confused and frustrated, I wondered whether I ought to shift my focus back to the phono cartridge purchase, but I wanted to do this exploration in a systematic way. I’ve always been a big fan of Balanced Audio Technology, but their products are designed for far more discriminating listeners. I tried their least expensive phono stage, the VK-P6 ($3,499)–and smiled.

I was right–the phono stage was the right move! I just needed to accept the idea that a mysterious box–a phono stage–was worthy of a larger investment. I continued to explore–the internet is amazing for this sort of thing but you must be patient and give yourself time to absorb and compare–and I came upon a company called Sutherland. Like B.A.T., Sutherland seemed to be very serious about engineering. The company’s website showed a whole line of phono stages that were remarkably well-reviewed. The most reasonably priced model, the Insight, cost $1,399. Along with its $10,000 big brother, the Insight was included in the useful list of Stereophile Recommended Components for 2016 with a $$$ notation which means, roughly, performs beyond the price expectation.

goldmarkkarlKarl Goldmark was a contemporary of Brahms, and he wrote a lovely piece called the Rustic Wedding Symphony. Four bucks bought a fine recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I like to use this as a test because it begins with a slow-and-steady sequence by the double basses and cellos, really low and distinct. The bass section is followed by a more animated sequence with violins and violas–a distinctly different sound. Enter the winds: bassoon, clarinet. Everything is clearly in its own section. And then comes the allegro with lots of instrument sounds: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, plus the violin and viola. Lots of variety in a relatively short time. Lots of opportunity for total enjoyment of the music and assessment of the rendition of individual and grouped instruments. (And, there is a free score available from the New York Philharmonic! With the conductor’s markings!!)

insighthero-1024x438Not wanting to make my phono stage exploration a career, I was hoping to hear what I wanted to hear. First up listening with the Insight: the low sequence. The double basses and cellos were strong, rich with quiet power, full of resonance and mystery, very natural. But the instruments were less clearly delineated than I hoped. The animated violins and violas can sound a bit screechy, but they were controlled here, again not quite as distinct from one another as I dreamed they’d be, but certainly satisfying — and the bit of screech faded with the first twenty or thirty hours of use (equipment needs to be broken-in). I loved how the soundstage was cast–the low strings were far over to my right, and the violins and violas were definitely in their own section to the left of the conductor, and for the violas, back a bit. Next, the winds–warm and lovely. And here comes everything! Would the variety of woodwinds, horns, strings all jumble into one conglomeration, or retain their individual identities? On my old (inexpensive) phono stage, they made for pleasant listening, but they were not clearly defined. Here, they were. Again, not perfect, but far more than acceptable, and filled with promise–I was beginning to imagine what an upgraded phono cartridge could deliver (in fact, I have upgraded the cartridge–that’s the topic of the next article in this series–matched it carefully by listening to good advice, and I’m now even more satisfied with the discrimination between instruments, the clarity and richness in some of the higher and low ranges–more on this coming up). The more I listened, the more I smiled. So: I was listening to records and hearing, and feeling, so much more than I had before. What a thrill! Seriously, I kept listening, trying one record after another as if I had discovered something magical.

After a month of listening, I am a kid in a candy store. Or, more accurately, a record store. When I have some free time, I drive out to a record store–yes, they’re still around but you may have to do some web searching before you go shopping–and I buy a bunch of LPs. Used LPs–high quality, often classical, some rock, some international, some this, some that–mostly costing less than $4. I get home, I wash each record (new obsession, more about that in a future article), and I just listen. I close my eyes and listen to the subtlety of a Smetana string quartet for 27 uninterrupted minutes. It’s the strangest thing–I am listening to the same stereo system that I have listened to for two decades, I changed one piece of equipment (okay, two because I have now changed the cartridge, too), and I am mesmerized.

insightinside

What’s inside the box? I sure wish I understood what I was seeing, why this design provides excellent sound. Best of intentions–I would love to spend the time learning, but inevitably, I spend my time listening instead. Which is, after all, the whole point.

So what have I learned? A quality phono stage can make the whole analog front end sound a whole lot better. I was not so impressed with most of what I tried, so the choice of a specific box from a specific manufacturer is well worth the time and trouble. My old tendency to buying lower in the product line from a small manufacturer that specializes in much higher-end products within a single category is, once again, a strategy that seems to work. The phono stage is only part of a puzzle–there are definitely places in the musical spectrum that felt inadequate when I listened through my (lesser) Shure cartridge that greatly improved with a better cartridge.

lpsMost of all, I confirmed the importance of patient listening–confirming what I thought I heard by listening to the Goldmark symphony by also listening to jazz by Lee Morgan, vocals by Ricky Lee Jones and Linda Ronstadt, rock and roll jams on the obscure Music from Free Creek (with music by Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Jeff Beck), bringing some old Delaney & Bonnie & Friends recordings back to life. There is a consistency about the listening experience that not only sounds and feels right–amazing how much pure instinct and right brain judgement is involved in confirming my sense that the Insight is the right choice–instinct and behavior. If I notice that I’m just standing next to the turntable, intending to lift the stylus but deciding to listen to just one more song, I know I’m making a good decision.

Well, part of a good decision. Based upon many listening sessions, I’m confident that the Sutherland Insight makes sense, but only with a properly matched phono cartridge. That process is the subject of the next article in this series.

Complete list of articles in the series

A Clever New Way to Play Records

3c8017d58837b3a633a260de50c535e5_originalYou’re looking at a very clever approach to playing LPs. No turntable required. Just place the LP on a flat surface, and the RokBlock will drive itself along the grooves. Totally busts any expectation about what a record player ought to be. Use it anywhere!

So here’s the deal. This is an active Kickstarter campaign–they have already met their goal. The RokBlock contains amplification and loudspeakers, so this is all you need. Of course, you can use the built-in Bluetooth to send the sound over to any Bluetooth device–a headphone, a better wireless speaker, even your high-end stereo system.

No, this won’t sound anything as good as a proper sound system, but most people don’t want / cannot afford / could care less about being an audio phone. Most people just want to have some fun and listen to some music. Anywhere. And now there’s a way to do that.

If you want one, the best available KickStarter deal costs $79–that’s still 20% off of the expected $99 retail price. But you, like anyone who orders, will have to wait until September 2017 before the box arrives.

There’s a rechargeable battery that lasts about 4 hours. You can play 33 and 45 rpm records (but not 78s rpm).

It’s a cute gimmick, a clever example of creative thinking in action. Without one in my hands, it’s tough to imagine the sound quality. I’m sure it’s no worse than an old record player, and my guess is that this will sound better than those early devices.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 8: Listening to Beethoven–or Do CDs Sound Better than LPs?)

Or do LPs sound better than CDs? Or, in the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Or is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation?

Just for fun, we decided to listen to several recordings of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (also known as Eroica). Just about every recording was an award winner, or the work of a notable conductor working with one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestras. People who are serious about their two-channel stereo systems often use classical recordings to test their systems because (a) the instruments are acoustic, unadorned by digital special effects, and (b) by and large, classical recordings are made by serious engineers working to the high standards of deeply experienced conductors and label executives.

karajan-beethove-3-dgWe started with one of the past century’s best–Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1961-2 for Deutsche Grammophon. I had just picked up a $4 LP, in very good shape, from Bop Shop Records in Rochester, NY. And I was anxious to do some critical listening with a more sophisticated phono stage pre-amplifier, the Sutherland Insight (which will be the topic of an upcoming article). Everything else in my system remained as it has been for nearly twenty years, except a replacement phono cartridge that’s easily five years old, the Shure Vx15. A very good system, but not an extravagant setup. We would be able to hear the recordings clearly. And we planned to test both LPs and CDs from various eras, various labels, to determine which we liked best. Not a scientific survey, but a reasonable way to spend a winter afternoon.

So: Karajan… Energetic, punchy, but the instruments were not clearly delineated from one another. The record looked pretty new, but we heard a lot of clicks and pops. Not much energy in the mid-highs or the mid-lows. A violin section sounded like a single, thick violin. Some strain evident–the playback was not as stable or confident as I hoped it would be. All in all, not we had hoped for.

eroica-bernstein2Next up: Leonard Bernstein from the same. Era. This was my LP, purchased decades ago, kept in it boxed set, played maybe ten times. This was a master work from Columbia Records at the label’s prime. The performance is ambitious, engaging, flowing–but the sound of the horns and the strings was compressed, very limited in highs and lows. We wanted to hear the depths of Beethoven explored by Bernstein in his prime–but the recording let us down.

eroica-toscanini1Before going modern, we decided to go for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, first on LP and then on CD, recorded in 1949–before stereo recording was available. This was state-of-the-art at the time, but the dynamic range was so limited on these recordings, they did not stand up to modern listening. Historical interest only.

colin-davis-beethoven-symI had high hopes for my treasured 1995 CD set from Colin Davis and the Staastkapelle Dresden. Sure enough the CD really delivered–a full range of highs, lows and everything in-between. Wonderful placement of instruments. Lots of clarity, distinct individual violins and basses, just the right horn sounds. I was excited–but somehow, the listening experience was a few marks less than thrilling. After Karajan and Bernstein, the passion felt a little lacking. A fine performance is not the same as a thrilling performance, and when I’m listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, I want to be thrilled. But the sound was more satisfying here than it was on any of the LPs.

Two more shots. Strangely, it’s the same Dresden orchestra, this time led by Herbert Blomstedt in the 1970s and released by the lesser-known Berlin Classics. Again, very good orchestra, very good conductor. This is digitally remastered, perhaps a strike against. The sound is a little thin, not as robust as the Karajan LP, but the performance is full-bodied and fun, if a little slow. The horns sound like horns, the violins sound like violins, there some separation between instruments, and it’s fun. Some of the highs are not reproducing perfectly, but they’re more than acceptable. And it’s a remastered CD. If there’s any logic to the argument that CDs are better than LPs, or vice-versa, I can’t even remember what I was supposed to think.

beethoven0371Now here’s my last one. It’s a digital remaster from 1963, a CD box that I didn’t even know I owned. It’s the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig led by Franz Konwitschny, a notable if not famous European leader. And it’s very good. The energy is there, the instruments sound like real instruments, and it’s compelling. And it’s a remastered CD. I’m listening now, and overall, it’s just plain better than anything else I’ve heard today.

How is this possible? A world class LP from one of the world’s most revered Beethoven conductors on one of the world’s most meticulous record labels, played on a very good stereo system, ought outdistance everything else in the category. Right?

Let’s give Karajan from 1962 another try. As it happens, I just found a box of all 9 Beethoven symphonies, on DG (Deutsche Grammophon), that I bought in very clean condition for $8. (The box was misfiled; I just spotted it.) I’m getting up to remove Konwitschny from the CD player to play a record–and I’m finding that I really want to listen to that CD. I’m engaged, involved…but I also want to finish and publish this article.

From the start, the Karajan is very good. The orchestra is towering, formidable, lovely and sensitive, propulsive. The musicians are spectacular. When the orchestra gets busy on a thick and aggressive passage, my room is filled with life and extreme energy. But the strings are thinner, the horns are less clearly defined, the highs not quite right, the lows are not offering quite the thrill I just heard on CD.

I want to hear this classic record properly, but I am maxing-out the capabilities of my current stereo system. My sense is that the Karajan, and probably the Bernstein, can and will sound better, perhaps much better, if I swap my lower-priced (though highly-regarded) cartridge for something better, a cartridge that excels in presenting mid-highs and mid-lows now so understated when I audition these LPs. I also hope the horns will be more stable, the strings and complicated passages reproduced without the strain that I can now hear too clearly, and the tympani will hit me in the solar plexus.

Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs.

At the same time, I am more and more confident that my CD player, though 20 years old, sounds quite wonderful, holding its own against my rapidly-improving analog phono setup. I hold the other components in equally high esteem. I am especially pleased with the improvements made possible by the Sutherland Insight, now holding the place long held by an inexpensive but competent phono stage–as a result of the Insight, I can hear all of my LPs with far greater clarity, punch, and fidelity to original instrument sounds.

Back to the original questions:

Do LPs sound better than CDs? – Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs. The answer depends upon the quality of the performance, the quality of the recording, and as we’ll see in future articles, the quality of the manufactured CD or LP (the pressing, etc.)

In the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Yes. Almost always. Except when the performance is so special, even a crappy recording does not detract from the pleasure of listening.

Is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation? Oh, there’s a plenty good answer. A very good performance on a very good LP can be spectacular, and the same is true of a very good CD. The quality of the equipment matters as much as the quality of the recording. And you can GREATLY increase the quality of the LP with surprising ease–by washing it. More on that in an upcoming article.

 

 

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 7: Where to Buy)

The holidays are coming up fast, so I thought I’d take a break from our step-by-step progression toward higher-end audio with a look at places to spend some money for yourself, or for loved ones. Bearing in mind that a quality two-channel stereo is likely to remain popular long after other digital devices have lost their luster, allow me to encourage you to explore the possibility of a new stereo system direct from Santa. Or, if you prefer, from the following web sources:

soundstage-directSoundstage Direct – A wonderful vinyl record store with lots of terrific equipment, including a steady flow of demo and clearance items. Unique because they offer a turntable trade-in plan (as you listen, you may develop a taste for upgrading equipment, now or in the future), and also an equipment upgrade plan. They are serious about good equipment–Soundstage Direct is an authorized and certified VPI Turntable dealer (among the best in the industry–more about VPI in a future article). At Soundstage Direct, the focus is records–high quality, new records. I love the story told by founder Seth Frank: “I went to my wife; we had a 3-month-old baby. I told her I wanted to quit my job and start selling records. I knew she was the woman of my dreams when she said, “Okay, let’s do it.”…We started selling records out of a spare bedroom in our small house. Eventually, we moved it to the garage. Eleven years later, with 18 employees, I get to wake up doing the thing I love. I sell vinyl and audio equipment. That’s all I do… Vinyl has been resurrected and is here to stay. For many of us, it’s a way of life, something we cherish and keep alive together.” Based outside Philadelphia, PA. Since 2004.

audio-advisorAudio Advisor – For decades, I’ve been recommending the knowledgeable people and fair prices at Audio Advisor. The emphasis here is quality audio equipment at just about every price point. Headphones seem to be among their most popular category, and their “Customer Favorite,” nicely reviewed, is the $399 OPPO PM 3 Closed Back Magnetic Planar Headphone— a current fave on many of the audio sites I visit. If that seems like too much to spend, try Grado’s $99 headphone, also very popular–the SR80e. Or any of the 51 other headphones on the site. BTW: The HiFiMan HE1000 Headphones are currently on sale, marked down from $2,999 to “just” $2,399. Call them, ask them why anyone would ever spend that kind of money for a headphone. The person on the other end of the line would probably answer your question clearly, with solid technical knowledge, and a sense of the type of customer who pursues this level of audio quality. Indeed, that’s the best part about Audio Advisor–their website only begins to expose the extraordinary cache of knowledge and experience to be found here. “Over the past 34 years, Wayne Schuurman and his hard-working staff earned the confidence of more than one million satisfied customers in over 200 countries. Our phone lines are staffed by the most knowledgeable and experienced audio sales representatives in the world. They are happy to answer your questions, and they’re experts at recommending low-cost gifts, matching components, or improvements for any hi-fi or home theater system.” Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A two-page spread from Music Direct's print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

A two-page spread from Music Direct’s print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

Music Direct – Providing a roughly equal balance between music and equipment, my favorite part about Music Direct is their old-style catalog. It’s so “not overwhelming”–the pages are well-designed and the the information is clearly presented. And it’s a PDF that you can download here (and you can order a paper version–and I just remembered, Audio Advisor has a print catalog, too!). Music Direct is  serious about high-end audio: this year’s best seller was a $3,999 VPI Prime Turntable. Holiday specials include a $79.99 Audio Additives Digital Stylus Force Gauge for $49.99, plus a variety of turntables (I recommend the Rega Planar One for just $299 down from $445). Lots and lots of top brands, including a personal favorite that’s not always easy to find: Balanced Audio Technology, which Music Direct now owns (the company also owns Mobile Fidelity, an early leader in high-quality vinyl pressings). Their News and Blog website feature is an especially good source for new vinyl releases. Based in Chicago, Illinois.

raskin

Needle Doctor – The name comes from a time when finding a stylus for a cartridge was not an easy thing to do. Since 1979, this mail order company has been a leader in phono accessories: their current site features the new Hana MC Phono Cartridges, a buzz item in the industry, along with the Pro-Ject Carbon DC Turntable ($399) with an Ortofon 2M Red Cartridge, a nice combination at a fair price. They do sell other types of equipment–their loudspeaker selection includes Dali and Peachtree among other respected brands (each retailer stocks only a limited range of brands, so you’ll find yourself exploring all of these sites at one time or another). Good closeout section, and some helpful FAQ articles, like this one about buying a turntable.

ed_logo2014Elusive Disc – Based in Anderson, Indiana, this mail order house started in 1989 as a source for hard-to-find vinyl records (hence the company name). Nowadays, they stock a wide range of new vinyl, plus a nice assortment of audio equipment. When I last looked, they were running at 10 percent off sale on Soundsmith phono cartridges, and 30-40% off some Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) discs. I find this site very useful because they maintain TAS Editor’s Choice (The Absolute Sound, a leading trade publication) going back as far as 2005, and similar lists for Stereophile’s Recommended Components. They carry a nice assort of phono-related gear, far less equipment in the categories of amps, pre-amps, and digital gear.

acousticsoundslogo_rawbig2017_250wAcoustic Sounds – At first, Acoustic Sounds appears to be a similar site, focused mostly on records. Look deeper and you’ll find an extraordinary collection of very serious high-end gear. For example, on the integrated amplifier page, we begin with a $12,500 PASS Labs INT-250 Class AB Integrated Amplifier, topped by a $40,000 PASS Labs XA 200.8 200-watt mono XA.8 Put Class A Amplifier (priced for the pair). You don’t have to spend that much, but if you’re in the market for a very high quality pair of bookshelf-style loudspeakers (always placed on specially-made stands, not in bookcases), this is the place to find Harbeth HL-Compact 7 ES-3 speakers in Tiger Ebony cabinets for $3,900/pair, or a wide range of Klipsch loudspeakers (currently quite popular). Also, lots and lots of records. And some of the best available expertise on turntables, cartridges and phono stage equipment in the entire U.S. audio industry. Make good use of their knowledge and experience–and then, become a customer.

Others worth exploring (with an emphasis on two-channel stereo and analog):

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business iN Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business in Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

YOUR LOCAL DEALER – You know: an actual, physical retail store that carries real inventory that you can buy and put into your car on the very same day. In this era of internet everything, it’s easy to forget these guys. Some stores are extraordinary, with bona-fide expert owners who have spent a lifetime selecting equipment, serving the widely divergent needs of individual customers, installing equipment in every conceivable home and other type of setting, and more. Most dealers stock far less than the internet retailers, so you must either find a specific retailer for a specific brand, or (often better), simply trust their experience and good will. Recently, I found two terrific local dealers in Rochester, New York–the result of diligent internet research. If you’re in or near the area, be sure to patronize Audio Renaissance and Forefront Audio. Both Craig Sypnier and Lance Shevchuk, respectively, are the kinds of people who care deeply about their small businesses, about the technology, and most of all, about their customers. Neither operates in a traditional retail location: they’re both in office locations (not five minutes from one another). One useful source for local dealer information is the manufacturer’s websites; that’s how I found out about Soundscape in Baltimore, Sound and Vision outside Columbus, Ohio (and two outside Cleveland), and Goldprint Audio, south of Winston-Salem. Do some web research and you’ll find a dealer not too far away.

Two-Channel Stereo Articles – Published and Coming Soon

This series is quickly becoming popular, and there are more articles in the works. If you’ve been following along, you’ve probably noticed that I’m moving from reasonably inexpensive approaches to two channel stereo on our way up to high-end audio. Prices are higher, but I believe the experience of listening to music is worth the investment.

Articles published so far in the “Reintroduction of Two-Channel Stereo” series:
1 – General Introduction, emphasis on turntables
2 – Basic Loudspeakers
3 – Integrated Amplifiers
4 – Pre-Amplifiers
5 – Amplifiers
6 – Listening Room
7 – Where to Buy
8 – Listening to Beethoven / Do LPs Sound Better than CDs?
9 – Phono Stage / Phono Pre-Amp
10 = Phono Cartridges
11 = Turntables

As I wait for review equipment from several manufacturers, here’s a list of articles to come in the near future:

– Cables – Interconnects and Loudspeaker
– The Importance of Excellent Power
– Racks and Other Vital Accessories
– Clever Inventions That Solve Specific Problems

The process of writing these articles involves a lot of listening. To music. And to experts who have devoted their careers to home audio. Imagine that–people whose primary interest is to make certain that I have a good time when I listen to records. It’s an interesting mix of extreme obsession with technology and a complete surrender to the subjective factors that control every listening experience. My ears and your ears do not hear the same sounds in the same ways, and, of course, every recording is unique. Add that to the sometimes reasonable, sometimes inexplicable result of combining this turntable on that turntable stand with this tone arm, that phono cartridge, this amplifier, that carpeting, these wall treatments–AND YET… And yet there is a kind of listener’s consensus that leads people who listen carefully to certain loudspeakers, certain turntables with certain cartridges, and so on. Should I pay more attention to the music I hear through my own ears, or should I attend to the collective wisdom of those who design, build, market, and loving compare equipment over decades? Of course, I should, we should listen to the music first–but I sure do welcome the guidance that working professionals and serious amateurs in this industry provide.

To everyone involved in this series–thanks for all of the help!

HB

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 6: The Listening Room)

What’s the most important component in your two-channel stereo system? Hands down, it’s the listening room. For casual listeners, this may seem to be a dubious argument, but time after time, I’ve experienced a tremendous difference in sound quality, and personal enjoyment, as a result of paying proper attention to the listening space.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

This diagram comes from a useful article from the well-respected audio component manufacturer, Cambridge Audio. For more, click on the image.

Mostly, this article is about the placement of your loudspeakers, and the ways ways in which the sounds coming out of those loudspeakers interacts with the floor, furniture, walls, ceiling, and with one another. It’s astonishing: even a shift of a quarter-inch can dramatically affect the positions of the instruments on the imaginary soundstage, the reproduction of bass and percussion instruments, and the clarity of the entire sonic presentation. There’s more useful info here.

First up—and not always popular in rooms occupied by more than one person—is the placement of the speakers AWAY FROM ALL OF THE WALLS. For smaller speakers, not less than two feet in every direction, for larger ones, as much as four feet. Your primary listening position should form a precise equilateral triangle with the center of each of the speakers. (Get out the measuring tape or the laser measure. No kidding.) I prefer that each leg of the triangle be about eight feet, but some rooms will allow only about six feet, and others will allow for ten or even twelve feet (not ideal for smaller speakers). The face of each speaker should face forward—not be “tipped-in.” The cables should be of equal length, which means the electronic components should be placed in-between the loudspeakers (preferably in a sturdy rack made for that purpose—more on that in another article). Placing the rack behind the line between the speakers is fine, too.

Which means: “bookshelf” speakers should not placed in a wall unit or a bookcase. Speakers should not be attached to the wall, or placed next to the wall. They should not be placed snugly in the room corners (doubling the problem of placing a speaker against a wall, now you’re dealing with two walls for each speaker).

Unless you’re amazingly fortunate, the sounds coming from those speakers will reflect off the floor, walls, furniture or ceiling. Let’s take those one at a time.

Floor: a bare stone or hard tile floor is the worst because it’s completely reflective (sound waves will be bouncing all over the room, reaching your ears at different times, sacrificing clarity, tonality, presence, and soundstage), but you can correct much of the situation with one or several thick throw rugs (inside and outside the triangle).

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work--but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available--but these panels are among the best.

You may recognize Sonex panels from sound recording studios. A four pack of junior sized (2 foot by 2 foot) panels can be stragically placed on your walls to minimize reflection. They really work–but you may not love the addition to your room decor. Fortunately, many solutions are available–but these panels are among the best.

Walls: if your side walls are parallel, then sound waves will bounce between them (causing somewhat similar problems). This is tricky: you need a combination of reflection, absorption, and diffusion. In other words, you will need to experiment, and you probably ought to ask your local audio retailer to provide some acoustic treatment (many available products to mitigate these problems). Sometimes, bookcases help, and sometimes, pictures on the wall help (but be careful about large glass surfaces because they are very reflective).

Big cushy couches and chairs may be very comfortable, but they absorb sound in a big way, and you will lose bass. This, too, is tricky, and you may need to choose between cushions and fidelity. Furniture without soft surfaces can make life complicated, too. A mix of hard and soft is usually best.

Ceilings: a very low ceiling may be reflective (treatments available), and a very high ceiling could cause some echoes (depends upon height). A room with an angled ceiling is better—and sometimes, challenging. A room with walls that are not parallel—same deal.
Other tips:

If you want more bass, try placing your loudspeakers a bit closer to the back wall.

If you raise or lower your listening position (or the loudspeaker), you may hear a difference in the amount and/or clarity of the high or low ranges. This is because your ear is even in height with the tweeter (highs) or woofer (lows).

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

The Sanus Steel Foundation Mark IV Speaker Stand available from Audio Advisor for about $130-150.

Bookshelf speakers should not be placed on bookshelves–too close to the wall! Instead, they should be placed on speaker stands made for that purpose.

Boomy bass is a problem for everyone in the house, and it can be difficult to control. Often, it’s the result of choosing the wrong combination of loudspeaker and power amplifier for the room setting—one good reason to ask the dealer or other expert to help you to select and setup the equipment. Once the system is in place, this can be a challenging problem to solve.

img_0909Fine adjustments matter a lot. When I was first setting up my reference stereo system, I moved each speaker perhaps 1/8 of an inch toward or away from one another, and I routinely heard meaningful changes in the female vocalist’s timbre, the highs and lows in her voice, and the clarity (in this case, the vocalist was most often opera singer Dawn Upshaw on an album entitled I Wish It So (the song was most often “There Won’t Be Trumpets”), but I found the same indisputable improvement listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Linda Ronstadt, Rhiannon Gibbons, and then, on solo piano by Brad Mehldau and Mitsuko Uchida, and then, on the Derek and the Dominoes’ first album, and so the list goes on. I know that this seems to be an extremely geeky way to listen to music, but believe me, the extreme attention to proper setup has paid off for more than twenty years—I have never moved the speakers again.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 5: Amplifier)

Time to get serious by placing the amplifier, or power amplifier, in its proper context. As the final electronic component in the chain from original recording to loudspeakers, the amplifier’s job is to increase the power of the signal, or simply, to make everything louder. For better or for worse. Better: high quality original recording, high-quality turntable / cartridge / phono stage or CD player, pre-amplifier, and high quality interconnection cables running between these devices. Worse: the inadequacies of the weakest link are amplified, too.

In the previous article, we discussed a $999 Rotel pre-amplifier, the RC-1570. Happily, this component was designed to pair with the same company’s RB-1552 Mk II, also $999. (Each can be used with a component from another company, but they look and sound good together—and they’re available in a choice of silver or black.). The RC-1570 is a 130 watt amplifier—a 200 watt version is available for $600 more as the model RB-1582 Mk II—useful if your loudspeakers require more power.

Here's a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

Here’s a look inside the Rotel RB-1552 MkII with the large transformer common to power amps.

How much power do you need? The answer depends upon several factors. The first is the size of the room—think cubic feet, not square feet. A small room—let’s say 10 feet by 15 feet with an 8 foot ceiling—that’s 1,200 cubic feet would require about 50 watts per channel, more if you’re driving a pair of speakers with a special power-consumptive design (the Magnepan series of flat panel speakers are an example). A good-sized living room (20 x 20 x 10 feet = 4,000 square feet) requires about 100 watts per channel—more if you play your music loud. Bigger room, more power required. However: if your room’s acoustics are “dead”—tapestries on the walls, lots of soft absorbent furniture, thick carpeting, few exposed reflective surface—you may need more power. And if your room is very “live,” you may need less power.

If this seems complicated, trust your ears. Ask your dealer to arrange an in-house test so that you can listen to the prospective amplifier and loudspeakers in your listening room. You will learn a lot about the relationship between the amp and the speakers. (More about listening rooms in the next article.) Be sure to listen to your own records, your own CDs—music whose sound you know from past experience.

Start with the low register: the bass, the drums, the bass section of the orchestra, the lowest vocal sounds. If the amp is suitable to the room and the speakers, the bass will be clearly defined—and thrilling. If you sense some straining, or graininess, then the amp is insufficient for the speakers’ needs (this is why your in-home demo ought to include a test of an amplifier beyond what you believe you need). Now, listen for the soundstage—the placement of the instruments, the sense that you are listening to a full group, ensemble or orchestra. When the music becomes complicated, does the amplifier keep up, or does the soundstage begin to decompose? Start at a lower volume, then gradually increase. If the music sounds very good at a low level, you’ve got a good match between speakers and amplifier. If the music doesn’t sound as good when the volume increases—is the higher register smooth or does it become edgy (and, perhaps, headache-inducing)? Don’t be afraid to go louder than you might listen to under normal circumstances—you want to push the system near its limits (preferably under dealer supervision so you don’t blow out the speakers). Listen to a variety of recordings in order to expose both strengths and weaknesses. And by all means, step up to a better amp in order to understand what you are and are not buying.

For most listeners, most of the time, the Rotel RB-1552 Mk II will be an ideal choice, but it’s considered an entry level amplifier for high-end audio, as is the competitive Parasound A-23 Halo (also $999) for comparison. If you were to increase your investment to about $2,300, and your room, listening preferences and/or loudspeakers require the additional power, you should certainly consider Parasound’s 250-watt A-21 Halo. And, take note, there is a sister pre-amp ($1,095), the well-reviewed Parasound 2-channel P5.

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To learn more about any audio component, download the owner’s manual before you buy. (Click on picture.)

Here, we begin to understand the passions of an audiophile: the resonances of the cello, the timber of the piano, the breath behind the vocals, the feeling of warmth and presence, all of these indescribable factors come together to more than justify the additional investment. It’s tempting to read the engineering background, and to refer to the design of the transformer, or the capacitors, or the overall approach to technology, but for me, none of that matters much. Most equipment in this price class is well-made, and most benefits from sophisticated engineering design, but it’s very difficult for me to understand these technology discussions. And besides, what I hear—and I do spend a lot of time listening, as you should if you’re making this kind of investment—and I’ve learned to trust my ears, my brain’s ability to process the information, and the holistic feeling that each recording seems to offer. I think the Rotel sounds very good, and the Parasound A-23 sounds even better—for all of the reasons described above. They also sound different from one another, but I cannot fairly detail the differences because I listened to these models in different rooms, with different loudspeakers.

img_0903Too theoretical? Maybe. We can shift back to the practical side of technology. These amplifiers—typical of their class—offer both RCA and XLR (“balanced”) inputs. It’s best if your pre-amp and your amplifier are both equipped with balanced connection. In the high-end community, there is no clear consensus in favor of balanced connections, so try both to determine which approach you prefer.

The other big decision: tube vs. solid state design. Certainly, tubes can sound sweeter, but solid state may seem less, well, scary. This is a longer discussion for a future article. My short-form recommendation: a tube pre-amp paired with a solid stage amplifier—but there’s lots more to discuss.

img_0902If you’d like to dig deeper into the world of amplifiers, that’s a good reason to buy The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by long-time Stereophile writer Robert Harley (now in its fifth edition. Some of the information in the book is fairly technical, but most of it is written for the same reason I’m writing these articles—to help select the best listening equipment.

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