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.

 

 

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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.

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