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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A Quality Camera You Won’t Leave at Home (4 of 4)

Continuing the series about small, high-powered digital cameras, our discussion finishes up with video. And this is the part that confuses me most. These cameras shoot very pretty pictures–high-definition, widescreen, beautiful image quality. But none of these cameras allows the user to control or monitor the audio associated with that video.

Audio Rant

Let me rant on that first, and then, we’ll talk pictures. Each of these cameras can record audio with a built-in microphone, usually a stereo microphone. What’s missing: an audio meter so you can see whether the audio being recorded is too loud or too soft, a jack for an external microphone, and a jack for an external earbud or headphone to monitor the audio as it is being recorded. In comparison with the photo and video imaging in these cameras, these audio capabilities are very simple. But they are largely absent.

This Olympus device adds a microphone via the camera's flash shoe. It costs $60 at B&H, the source of this photo.

Olympus offers an $89 microphone and cable (SEMA-1) that slides into the hot shoe of the PEN cameras, and it works nicely, but the cable is short, and because it’s connected directly above the lens, the cable finds its way into the shot whenever the camera is turned or manipulated. So what we have is a high-quality digital audio recorder that’s useful only to record “wild sound”–the ambient sound on location. To record sound that’s comparable in quality to the video side, you must record audio separately, on a standalone digital recorder, and then match the audio and the video, on separate tracks, in your editing software. That’s possible, if you have time and patience, and a good set of editing skills. (This will be the topic of an article in the near future.)

End of rant.

Very Good Video

On the picture side, the cameras are very, very good good. Even the $499 Olympus E-PM1 can record up to 29 minutes of  magnificent 1080 60i HD video by just pressing a button. The newest Olympus E-M5, scheduled for April, takes a leap forward by recording H.264 .mov files, making capture and editing easier, and mostly eliminates the dreaded “jello effect” in which vertical lines wobble during a pan of even moderate speed–an improvement over current PEN cameras.

This rather ugly picture is part of a rather clear video explanation of the jello effect.

This is not to minimize the astonishing video image quality available from these cameras–perhaps more astonishing because motion video is not the primary purpose or function of these cameras. Certainly, we’re seeing professional videographers use their DSLRS, with special grips, to record television programs–digital photography has really changed the way we think about video production. And, if you place a mirrorless camera on a tripod, you can achieve stunning results. Even hand-held, with image stabilization, automatic exposure, and automatic focus, the Olympus and Panasonic cameras can do great things.

The same is true, with varying degrees with success on the focus side, and in contrasty situations, for competitors. Of course, you can use just about DSLR to shoot terrific still pictures and still video. And, in most cases, you’ll be able to do so with an earplug, an external microphone, and much more control over the video as it is being recorded. But those cameras are bigger and heavier than their mirrorless counterparts.

Summing Up

If you want to own a full-featured digital camera that takes great pictures and offers every conceivable feature, buy yourself a DSLR. You can buy a very good one, perhaps the Canon EOS Rebel T3i with an inexpensive 18-135mm lens, with an 18 MP APS-C sensor for just over $1,000.

For me, this is a camera that’s fun to use, fun to own, and likely to leave home only sometimes. It’s just too big and too heavy for me to carry along with me. Certainly, I would bring it special events or when I feel like spending an afternoon taking pictures.

I would be more likely to carry something like the new Canon G1X ($799), which offers a 14 MP sensor that’s slightly larger than the one used by micro four thirds cameras, but smaller than the typical APS-C standard. It’s a wonderful small camera, a bit heavier and bulkier than it appears to be, with an optical viewfinder (old school: you simply look through it, like a telescope) with plenty of manual control. The lens deflates my enthusiasm: it’s a zoom, 28-112 mm with not much of a large aperture: f/2.8-5.8. If this camera was offered with a normal prime lens and a maximum aperture of, say, f/2.0, I’d be all over it. Still, this is a camera I want to know more about.

Essentially, I want the equivalent of a good DSLR, but I am not willing to carry around anything that’s bulky, large or heavy. This is why mirrorless cameras intrigue me. So far, I believe the Olympus E-P3 offers the best combination of solid construction, good design, superior image quality, and, most important of all, very good prime (non-zoom) lenses at reasonable prices (and, zoom lenses, too). I love the fact that these cameras (like their DSLR siblings) shoot high quality video as a kind of bonus. And as much as I have come to enjoy the EP-3, I am very intrigued by the new-ish Panasonic GX1, and even more intrigued by the E-M5, the first new Olympus for 2012.

For a complete rundown on all mirrorless cameras, circa December, 2011, click here.

And, BTW, here’s a really clear review of the E-P3.

—–

Here are the links to the rest of The Quality Camera That Goes Everywhere:

Part 1: Lens

Part 2:  Sensor

Part 3: Body

“Absolutely, extraordinarily bad”

That’s how innerfidelity.com editor-in-chief Tyll Hertsens described the sound quality of  Beats by Dr. Dre headphones on the front page of this morning’s NY Times Business section (link below).

Yeah, they’re very heavy on the bass. And they’re best for music where bass drives the musical experience. And sometimes, if you listen loud, there’s distortion. On the other hand, Beats are fashion statement, and people wear them not only to listen, but to be seen listening.

Headphones as pictured (from the company website): $349. That’s a lot of money for a pair of headphones. Industry observers are impressed by the team of Dr. Dre and Monster Cable because they’ve opened a new market where price sensitivity matters less than lifestyle choices.

By comparison, a pair of AKG K240 Professional Studio Headphones cost $199.

If you have a pair of Beats, or manage to try a pair in a store, share your impressions.

http://beatsbydre.com/Default.aspx

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/20/business/beats-headphones-expand-dr-dres-business-world.html?partner=yahoofinance

http://www.innerfidelity.com/

Fellini on the bed

The room is almost completely dark. There is a single light source on this night of the October power outtage. It is Fellini’s 8 1/2 on an iPad screen. The images are sharp, contrasty, perfectly photographed in wonderful black-and-white. And, it sounds pretty good, too.

I love my iPad, but the sound is just awful. A dozen manufacturers now sell portable Bluetooth speakers. Some of these speakers are reasonably priced and sound good, too–but most are either over $100 or not worth the cost because they lack clarity, bass, punch, whatever. Forget about the Bluetooth part–it doesn’t work properly, it’s a technology that is far inferior to something much simpler: a $10 cable with one end that plugs into the speakers and the other end into the iPad. That combination is reliable enough to watch Fellini’s 8 1/2 with no interruption, and no Rice Krispies crinkling that is common among Bluetooth devices of all sorts, my little phone earpiece among them.

I’d love to tell you that I have secret source for the best sound at the best price. In fact, I found my speaker by making a friend of a salesperson at a local Best Buy store. As some of the salespeople are wont to do–provided there is no manager nearby–my guy opened several packages and allowed me to listen to several devices.

My favorite–still a favorite several months later, in fact–was the Logitech Wireless USB Speaker, which I use as neither a wireless device nor a USB device.  It costs about $70, and comes with a carrying case. I leave it in my car’s trunk so that anywhere I go, it’s available. I’ve used it to entertain a group of people watching video from a computer screen (the computer’s speakers were crappy), and another group of people attempting to watch a projected image during an office presentation (the projector’s speakers were inadequate). During the summer, when I write on my porch on warm days, the speaker provides the background music. And on a dark and stormy night, it provides a clear, crisp, well-articulated soundtrack with a reasonable amount of bass.

I was less enthusiastic about the more expensive Jawbone Jambox, which costs twice as much and tends toward the boomy approach to bass. When I was shopping earlier this summer, there were few choices. Now, there are more. But I think I’ve found a good one, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

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