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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The Respect She Deserves

Perhaps it was just a whimsical idea that takes shape on vacation, when the mind is free, the ocean breeze is blowing, and a violin shop appears out of nowhere. Or maybe I really will learn to play the violin. Without any musical experience or proper knowledge, I wandered into the shop and asked a few silly questions about buying a proper violin and learning to play. The shopkeeper, who also fixes violins and other stringed instruments in a workshop above the store, was patient with me, and suggested that I read a book to learn more. He recommended a book. I bought it, read it, and found myself not much smarter than before. I put the thought of a violin aside, then focused on where we might eat dinner that night.

Exhausted from far too much driving, we completed the next day’s drive with a visit to a favorite bookstore. And there, nearly forgotten on a bottom shelf, was hardcover book with an illustration of a violin on the cover. It was not a how-to-play or how-to-buy book, but some sort of story that combined music, science, and biography. It was late, I was toting a basketful of books, and tossed American Luthier onto the pile. (And recalled that a luthier made guitars, but I was not so sure they also made violins. They do.) The subtitle was appealing: “The Art & Science of the Violin”–this was more the book I had in mind. The author is Quincy Whitney, formerly of the Boston Globe. The subject of the book: the extraordinary work of Carleen Hutchins, an extraordinary scientist and craftsperson who did nothing less than reinvent the violin (and, along the way, a family of eight violin-like instruments, including one of the coolest upright string basses the world has ever known).

From the start, it’s clear that Ms. Hutchins is an extraordinary human being. She begins as a most curious child, then a teen who can build all sorts of things, then finds her way first into science as the kind of teacher who keeps a menagerie and a small farm in her classroom, then meets the right person at the right time and begins to play the viola, then decides she’ll build one. (Her whole life is like that.)

Well, the violins we know, the ones that are played by nearly all classical violinists and nearly all contemporary fiddlers, are all based upon designs developed in the 1550s by Andrea Amati. Two generations later, grandson Niccolo Amati continued the family tradition, but lost his kin in the plague. He taught two apprentices whose work continues to define the contemporary design of violins. Both are revered: Guarneri and, of course, Stradivari. When the latter died in 1727, the art, science and craftsmanship associated with Cremona violin-making was nearly lost, but two hundred years later, a new violin-making school was begun, apparently initiated in a fit of nationalism by Benito Mussolini in 1937. Stradivari made over a thousand violins, and half of them survive.

For hundreds of years, the violin has been a standard instrument for classical musicians, and, of course, for chamber groups, chamber orchestras and symphony orchestras. The past is revered, the classic instruments are revered, and the tradition is revered. But Carleen Hutchins asked the obvious question: was it possible to improve upon a design that was five hundred years old? Working initially as a craftsperson–always in her kitchen (her home in Montclair, NJ was always her workshop)–she developed a deep understanding of the science of acoustics and surrounded herself with friends who played in chamber groups. She learned to solve problems by testing (her basement was elaborately soundproofed to allow for extremely careful measurement in the wee hours when traffic and other sounds in her suburban neighborhood were least obtrusive), then by tinkering, making the tiniest adjustments by reshaping the fine contours of the plates, sound post, and other component parts. What began with an improved viola became a family of eight violins, each one sensibly placed within a range that would be familiar as soprano, alto, tenor, contrabass, etc. What began as a personal curiosity found itself on the cover of Scientific American magazine (1962, 1981), and also, the cover of the New Yorker (1989).

A violin is not invented or perfected in a moment. It must be played, enjoyed, improved, adjusted, and sometimes, rebuilt, often over years, decades or centuries. In fact, many high quality violins are antiques that been rebuilt and rebuilt so often that little of their original material remains. Still, this is the way the culture has evolved. And that culture is not especially welcoming to an inventor with a better mousetrap. That’s why so many of Hutchins’ instruments ended up in musical instrument museums, and so few have been heard on stage in performance. Happily, there is the Hutchins Consort, and they perform on Dr. Hutchins’ instruments. You can also watch some video, however limited, including part of a documentary in progress called Second Fiddle.

For the moment, my interest in the art and science of violin is sated. Author Quincy Whitney did a terrific job in telling a complicated story about art, science, music, social trends–I devoured the book in less than 36 hours. Will my path lead to learning the violin? For the moment, I’m curious but undecided, but much smarter than I was on Saturday afternoon before the book found me.

 

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.

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.

The Only Thing Better Than Hairspray…

The rats on the street all dance round my feet
They seem to say, “Tracy, it’s up to you”
So, oh, oh don’t hold me back
‘Cause today all my dreams will come true

Good morning Baltimore!…
There’s the flasher who lives next door
There’s the bum on his bar room stool
They wish me luck on my way to school

A solid opening number for a solid Broadway musical. Oversized girl with a big heart is ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, the mechanical mice at her feet were too small, the flasher traded his dignity for a silly dance, and the bum overplayed his tiny scene.

Hstairspray Live cast

Hstairspray Live cast

The big show–more than 50 cameras–was in some trouble when it began. Then, Corny Collins showed up with a very snappy dance number, well-staged and glittery, and there was good reason for optimism. When Kristen Chenoweth, Harvey Fierstein, and Ariana Grande shared the stage with three lesser-knowns on “Mama, I’m a Big Girl Now,” I started thinking, this is going to be fun! Maddie Baillio–Hairspray Live’s Tracy–was credible singing “I Can Hear the Bells,” but the staging (fake Christmas bells) was not appropriately cheesy–the tone of the design was off by a noticeable degree, as if the creative directors did not quite get the kind of humor that John Waters, Harvey Fierstein and others on the core team intended. Ms. Baillio looked the part, sang reasonably well, and danced well enough, but I found myself longing for the spark in Nikki Blonsky’s eyes, the sense of humor and absurdity in every word she sang in the movie version of this special musical. The subversive lines lift “Hairspray” from just another musical into something vaguely sinister. Still, Ms. Baillio did competent work on “Welcome to the Sixties”–perhaps without some of the sass, but with Harvey Fierstein nearby, I was satisfied.

The “Miss Baltimore Crabs” number has never been a favorite, and although I believe in the magic of Kristen Chenoweth, the number continued to leave me wondering why it wasn’t cut or replaced years ago. The “crabs” joke is funny, and she used her hands to suggest an absurd crab in a reasonably skillful manner, but I sure wish she had more raw material.

Oh–time for a commercial. How about a bunch of commercials? How about every song or two? No better way to enjoy a full live presentation of a musical theater show than to watch as many commercial breaks as possible. How to make that worse? How about some insipid commentary by an overenthusiastic and utterly unnecessary commentator telling us how the performers are getting on a tram, or explaining that the people we’re seeing on the screen are enhancing the home audience experience via tweeting. Ugh. NBC, how about stepping up and doing what you did before. Limited commercial interruption. This is theater, not a football game.

Ah, but Harvey Fierstein! If anybody understands the twisted humor and social activism agenda, it’s the man who so expertly performed Tracy’s mom, Edna. After suffering through John Travolta’s mugging and occasional creative success in the movie version, Mr. Fierstein changed the game for me. I finally understood the role, and he managed to clearly articulate every one of his funny little lines, asides, grimaces, body moves, and other silliness. Given the director’s overeagerness for rapid cutting, and the crew’s tendency to miss lighting and audio cues, and the overall sense that cutaways needed to be fast regardless of what the performer was doing at the time, Mr. Fierstein got every move onto the TV screen. He was uniformly terrific–so good, in fact, that I left the TV screen for a bit to check out the very limited video of him performing Tevye in Broadway’s “Fiddler on the Roof.” Gosh, he’s great. And he wrote a lot of “Hairspray” in its various versions.

I’m not much of a Martin Short fan because he often overdoes it–too much style, even for satire–but he, too, was excellent in this production. Watching Mr. Fierstein and Mr. Short perform “You’re Timeless to Me” was just about the best part of the evening. It was simple: two people on stage, singing and dancing, and sometimes, doing lines. It felt like a Broadway musical–straightforward, relying upon sheer talent and excellent material (not a gigantic cheering crowd). Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are old hands at staging Broadway musicals for television–and I wonder how they felt when they experienced this bit of Broadway magic sandwiched in-between, well, a dozen more commercials, and, perhaps, a longing to bring these productions back to the New York City area where, at least to my eyes, the whole company and crew treated past productions (“The Sound of Music,” “Peter Pan”) with respect and wonder. In L.A., this just felt like another bloated TV show.

But then, there’s Jennifer Hudson belting out “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” and later, “I Know Where I’ve Been,” and there’s the magic again. The dancers are excellent. The sense of social change in the racial integration scenes worked, but it lacked the energy and authenticity that the movie version captured so well. I can’t help but wonder how much time it took to rehearse more than fifty cameras, and how much of that time might have been better used in sharpening the characterizations (many of the “negro” characters were rendered in two dimensions–even the knife scene fell flat) and the staging.

Worst staging goes to the jailhouse scene which was badly designed, badly lit, and badly directed–a trifecta of high school theater style in what should have been a turning point. Many dramatic moments fell flat.

But–oh wait, time for a bunch more commercials and insipid cheering from sideline crowds–okay, we’ll be back in a moment.

(Deep breath).

Give ’em a great closing and they’ll forgive you for anything. The show’s signature song, “You Can’t Stop the Beat” became a gigantic dance party, lots of fun, very messy staging, difficult to hear some of the lines, but heck, it was terrific anyway.

Except: remember Ariana Grande? Brilliant performer. Lovely actress. Great sense of style. Small, though. Small girl in a big show. Often cut out of frame, or suffering from those fast cutaways that the directing team favored. If you get the opportunity to watch this program again, keep an eye on her. She played her role with subtlety and brilliance–and I wish we had been able to see more of her. Unfortunately, her final scene (over curtain calls and credits), singing alongside Jennifer Hudson, was poorly engineered and perhaps poorly selected for her voice. Lots of unused potential here.

In closing, some notes to NBC and to the producers:

1. Cut down the number of cameras and big sets. Nobody cares.

2. Focus on performance, not spectacle.

3. More close-ups! So often, we saw a good dance number that would have been a great dance number if you added closeups. More than 50 cameras–you should have been able to get the close-up job done! (More reaction shots, too–but you need allow lots of rehearsal time to get them right.)

4. The next time you hire Kristen Chenoweth, give her a great song to sing. The next time you hire Ariana Grande, make sure we see her on camera a lot.

5. Move the production back to New York.

6. One commercial break at the beginning, one during intermission, one at the end.

7. No big sideline crowd. No extra host. Completely unnecessary.Put the money into extra rehearsal time.

8. Think twice about doing “Bye Bye Birdie” next year. The teen dancing is fun, but a show built upon the craziness of a new Elvis appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show might not possess the appeal that you imagine.

THANKS for doing this. Sorry for a review that’s not entirely positive, but given the enormity of your enterprise, we all offer congratulations for all that you did so well. And the fact that you’ve done this at all is a kind of a miracle.

Hey Netflix? Time to step up.

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.

img_0904

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.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 4: Pre-Amplifer)

Just to review: an integrated amplifier combines two functions, pre-amplification, and amplification. A pre-amp accepts  incoming signals of varying strength–from the CD player, FM tuner, and phono system–and makes the necessary adjustments on the way to the amplifier. Your volume adjustments are made on the pre-amp, too. In theory, a pre-amp should do little more than equalize the signals, and allow you to switch between the devices. In practice, your choice of pre-amplifier will greatly affect the way your system sounds, so it’s worth experimenting with several models before you make a decision.

A good pre-amplifier will cost over $500. You can spend a bit less, but you won’t get much for your money. You can spend many thousands of dollars on a pre-amplifier, and we will cover more expensive models later in this series of articles. For now, let’s have a look at what $1,000 will buy–and for that exploration, I often turn to a long-time favorite manufacturer in this price range, Rotel.

Specifically, let’s explore the Rotel RC-1570 ($999). And let’s have a look at the front and back panels of this pre-amp because we’ll be referring to the various features in a moment. (FYI, there’s a black and a silver model.)

rc1570_silver_0rc1570_back_0

As with any pre-amplifier, you’ll find a power button, a volume control, an input selector, and, on mid-priced models, a headphone jack. This particular pre-amp offers a whole lot more–a trend that is gaining favor. On the left, there’s a USB connector so you can attach a mobile device (an iPhone, etc.). There are a lot of other inputs, discussed below, and there is a visual display that provides a remarkable range of technical information. These features are uncommon, but all are welcome.

In fact, the back panel is the place to go for a clear understanding of capabilities. Let’s take a closer look.

rotel-pre-amp-diagram

On the left, there are two rows, one for the left and the other for the right channel. First up is the phono input–this pre-amp includes an equalizer for “Moving Magnet” or MM phono cartridges (some pre-amps do, others do not). You can also plug in a CD player, a tuner, and two other devices. All with RCA-type plugs. Then, there’s the output–both via RCA plugs and also via XLR connectors as “Balanced Output” (a different way to connect components that often reduces background noise and adds considerable clarity). There is one Balanced Input pair of jacks, too. There are some additional digital inputs useful for connection to a TV set top box, or a Blu-Ray CD player–in addition to the basic two-channel experience that is the principal purpose of a stereo preamplifier. And there’s more–but now we’re getting way beyond the typical operation of a pre-amplifier. (Perhaps that’s why Rotel refers to this model as a “Control Amplifier”–it does a lot!

It’s easy to get caught up in features, but before we move on, I’ll mention two ideas that aren’t typical of pre-amps, but make this device a pleasure to use. First, the volume control comes with a kind of memory–when you listen to a CD player, for example, it will remember the most recent volume setting, even if you turn the power off. It’s smart enough to recall the most recent setting for each of your devices, so the next time you play a record, it will remember the most recent volume setting for that device, too. Pretty cool! Second, you can attach a USB receiver so that anyone (with a password) can wirelessly connect and play music through your stereo system. Nice!

I am not an engineer, but friends who know audio engineering design are often impressed with the “build quality” of Rotel products. Often (but certainly not always), good design translates into a good listening experience. We can speak of particular transformer designs or the specific qualities of the Wolfson D-to-A converter, but that’s beyond me and most other people. And now is a good time to set expectations: this is not a high-end stereo pre-amplifier, but it is a very good mid-priced pre-amplifier. The difference is explained in a review of this device, and its paired amplifier, by The Absolute Sound, a leading audio journal:

The sonic question for components in this price range is not whether they can produce a fool-you facsimile of the real thing. Unfortunately, barring a technological revolution, they can’t. The more pertinent question, then, is whether they get enough sonic elements right—and whether those strengths are not overly compromised by the inevitable trade-offs—to convey music engagingly. “Engaging” is a word we high-enders use as shorthand for the cumulative effect of a multitude of sonic factors, but I believe that chief among these are the elements that most directly impact musical expressivity. Speci cally, I look for good timing, tonality, and dynamics.

As someone with a similar system in one room of my home, and a bona-fide high end system in another, I can attest to the difference. That said, listening to the RC-1570 is a pleasure, especially when paired with the RB-1552 Mk II Stereo Power Amplifier, and the sister CD player, the RCD-1570 CD Player. Each of these components costs $999–add a good turntable with an equally good cartridge for another $500 (the Rega RP1 with a Rega Bias 2 phono cartridge is on sale for $445 from Audio Advisor). And you’ll need loudspeakers. Total system price: about $5,000, but if you needed to come down a bit, I would probably cheat on the CD player (a $500 unit from Cambridge Audio or NAD would probably be fine.)

Gee, does that sound like a lot of money? We’ve only just begun. For most people, a $999 dedicated preamplifier is a major step forward, the beginning of a serious two-channel stereo system. And yet, $1,000 is considered a modest investment in high quality sound. As this series of articles continues, we’ll get into more costly gear. In fact, the next article, which is about power amplifiers (or, if you prefer, amplifiers) will begin to explain the virtues of a larger investment.

I should mention that Rotel makes an even more versatile pre-amplifier, the RC-1590. The step-up adds a lot of features and technology. See it here.

 

Be sure to explore more than one pre-amplifier. You’ll find different features and a different sound. One of the most popular is the Parasound Halo P7 7.1, which costs $1,699 and comes with a very wide assortment of RCA and XLR inputs and outputs. The phono input accommodates both a Moving Magnet and a Moving Coil cartridge. There are home theater capabilities, too.

If you’re seeking something simple–fewer features, more of a focus on sound–you’ll likely jump up into a somewhat higher price range, and you’ll be encouraged to explore the various advantages of tube vs. solid state pre-amps. Again, a topic for another day.

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