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 5: Amplifier)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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