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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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.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 3: Integrated Amplifiers)

The first two articles in this series covered the basics of tw0-channel stereo: a low-cost turntable, modest amplifier (built into the powered speakers), and the first steps toward a better system: the choice of loudspeakers that require a separate amplifier. For now, we’ll stay in the budget category, but this is the article where we’ll make a turn into the future of this series: equipment that offers a far more realistic, compelling, rich and entertaining presentation of recorded music. We’ll spend more money, and we’ll look at options for saving, or at least, investing with intelligence for the best long-term results.

A quick lesson before we get into specifics. You may recall that a receiver is a box that contains an AM/FM tuner, an amplifier called a phono stage that adds power to the tiny signal emanating from the phono cartridge on your turntable, a pre-amplifier to provide a similar function for the tuner and your CD player (or MP3 player, etc.), and a power amplifier (usually just called an amplifier) to provide enough energy to the loudspeakers. Each of these is available as a separate box, or component in audio lingo. The quality of each of these components affects the quality of the sound you hear through the loudspeakers. The quality of the cables that connect these devices matters, too–and you can spend tens, hundreds or thousands of dollars on these cables (again, a topic for a later article in the series).

Continuing for a moment with lingo: when purchasing amplifiers in the hundreds-of-dollars range, it’s  wise to consider an integrated amplifier. This device contains a pre-amplifier and a power amplifier, and often, a phono stage, too. Let’s start there, and consider completely separate components later on. Set aside $350 to $500 and you’ll be able to buy your first integrated amplifier–it won’t be a world beater but it will provide clearly delineated instruments and vocals, a bit cleaner bass and mid-range than you’d experience with a less costly setup, highs that don’t cause discomfort, and some presence or realism. You’ll be attaching this integrated amplifier to a pair of loudspeakers that cost about the same amount of money, and to a turntable and phono cartridge assembly that also costs a few hundred dollars. In total, your new stereo system will cost about $1,000. And we’ll step it up: if you purchase the right equipment, a greater investment should increase your listening pleasure. (Of course, it is possible to spend serious money and end up with lousy results. I’ll try to help you steer clear of this messy situation.)

rsz_205_smu_cambridge_3

The Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 is a popular entry-level component for those interested in high-end audio. Be sure to read the review in The Absolute Sound (see link in text).

Crutchfield is one of several internet retailers who stock integrated amplifiers in this price range. Often, the discussion turns to the number of watts–in essence the power of the amplifier to drive loudspeakers. It may be tempting to focus on a 40 watt amp instead of a 25 watt amp. If you are driving large loudspeakers, extra power may be a consideration, but the difference between 40 and even 100 watts may be inconsequential because every loudspeaker and every room behaves differently. One good choice in this price range is NAD’s 40-watt model, a product from a respected low-cost manufacturer of long standing. Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 also comes from a well-regarded maker (reviewed by top audio magazine The Absolute Sound here). Go up to the $500-600 range and the quality of the sound will increase, along with the number of available inputs (mostly not useful in today’s two-channel world), along with the the range of available features (most of which, you will never use). In this higher range, I would again look at NAD’s current offering (each manufacturer offers a product in this price level, but the model numbers and some features vary from one year to the next). This level also introduces components from Pro-Ject, a popular high-end maker with some lower cost products in their line: here, the MaiA for $500 with a convenient USB input (more and more popular among integrated amps). Find the NAD units in the extremely helpful, twice-annual Recommended Components edition published by Stereophile magazine.

In a larger room, you may want an integrated amp with more power or more refined electronics (resulting in more refined sound reproduction)–Cambridge, Pro-Ject, NAD, Marantz, and Yamaha are good manufacturers for those who wish to invest $1,000 or more. And now, we’re beginning to enter a more exotic realm, the world of high-end audio.

Why would you spend $2,000, or $4,000, or more on an integrated amplifier? There’s a simple answer. If you select the right integrated amplifier for your room, listening habits, and style of enjoyment, the music will simply sound better. At first, you may not buy into this way of thinking. You might even listen to one or two high end systems and proclaim that you do not hear a difference. While that may be true for you in a certain time and place, you will begin to discover differences as you take the time to quietly listen and compare one system to another. Why bother? Because we all spend a lot of our lives listening to music, and the experience can be extraordinary. Imagine enjoying an extraordinary experience every time you listen to music at home. That’s why you begin to invest in better audio equipment–and, inevitably, more recorded music, more LPs, and if you like, more CDs, too.

nait5si_1

The Naim NAIT 5si is an excellent choice for those who want to establish themselves in a high-end audio environment without spending a great deal of money. It comes with 60 watts per channel–sufficient for most mid-sized rooms and most listening levels–connections for a single pair of loudspeakers, a CD player, and your choice of other A/V equipment. There is no phono stage in this component–you will need to buy that component as a stand-alone. (See subsequent article about the phono portion of your new two-channel stereo system.)

In this category, one solid candidate for your long-term stereo system would be the Naim NAIT 5si, an update of a popular integrated amplifier first released in the early 1980s. The new model, released in 2015 for about $1,895, is typical of higher quality gear. And here, we dive into some tech talk. The quality of the transformer and the power supply matter a lot, and they are among numerous electrical and electronic parts that demonstrate the benefits of modern design and modern materials (capacitors, for example). In real terms, this means the newer product offers much improved sound: an open presentation that allows each instrument to be distinctly heard with nuance, even when the volume is turned down. The attack and decay of a snare drum sounds more realistic, more energetic, more captivating. The details become clear–listeners find themselves describing albums that they’ve heard a thousand times and are only now hearing the details. With speakers properly positioned, the Naim NAIT 5si and its kin generate a wonderfully wide and deep soundstage–close your eyes and you’ll imagine the musicians individually positioned, not only from side to side but also, remarkably (and magically) from back to front, and also from top to bottom. Some of this may seem like complete nonsense, but I have experienced the phenomenon time and again, and I have invited many other people, particularly the doubters, to engage in a similar experience. The Naim NAIT 5si has been well-reviewed, and it’s comforting to read a few positive reviews before you buy.

For about $400 less, you can make yourself happy with the Peachtree Audio nova150, pictured below. The earlier version of this product was nicely reviewed by one of my favorite (plain language!) reviewers at Stereophile magazine who goes by the pen name, Sam Tellig. Acknowledging that this is review of a somewhat different product, Tellig is wonderfully helpful in describing the characteristics of what remains a $1,500 integrated amplifier–one of the best you can buy in this price range. Just be sure to compare specs with the current model before you buy. And to keep you busy (and well-informed), here are some reviews of the newly designed 150.

peachtree

USEFUL ADDITION (November 30, 2016): The distinguished audiophile magazine, The Absolute Sound, just published its 2017 Buyer’s Guide to Integrated Amplifiers. If you’re considering the possibilities of a quality integrated amp, the guide is a superb reference.

Why buy an integrated amplifier when you could buy a separate power amplifier and pre-amplifier? That’s the next question we’ll tackle in this series.

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