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 9: Phono Stage [Pre-Amp])

Let’s start simply. You own, or may soon own, a turntable. The turntable is comprised of a spinning platter, a tone arm, and at the end of the tone arm, a phono cartridge with a tiny stylus. The stylus makes contact with the grooves on the record, and if you listen carefully, you will hear music–the sound of the stylus, or needle, running through the various bumps and valleys in those grooves. Now, the trick is to amplify those sounds, retaining both clarity and character, without introducing anomalies.

If you think back to the stereo systems of the 1970s, you could simply plug an RCA stereo cable from the back of the turntable to the back of the stereo receiver, and choose the “turntable” option on the front. The concept has not changed. The receiver contained a phono pre-amplifier to bring the turntable’s incoming signal up to a certain level, which was then amplified to a level that could be heard on a pair of loudspeakers (or headphones).

Today, this setup is still available, but we’ve become more sophisticated. Nowadays, you can buy the tonearm as one device, the phono cartridge as another, high-priced cables to assure the best quality sound running from the tone arm to the phono stage, and then, a separate pre-amplifier, amplifier, high quality loudspeaker cables, and the speakers. In this article, we’re focused on the phono stage, or phono pre-amp (the terms are used interchangeably).

One more thing before we discuss equipment. (This paragraph gets a bit technical.) There are several types of phono cartridges, and your choice of cartridge will affect your choice of phono stage–and vice-versa. The two key terms are Moving Magnet–often abbreviated as MM–and Moving Coil (MC). The difference between them is not simply explained nor easily understood. Most inexpensive cartridges are MM, but there are excellent MM cartridges available. MC cartridges are usually purchased by those with better audio systems, but a good MC cartridge can be purchased for a few hundred dollars. All of this will be discussed in a future article.

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Inside the Sutherland Insight phono stage, easy adjustments for Gain and Loading. Once you decide upon a specific cartridge, just move the four little red caps one time, and forget about them.

For now, you should know that every cartridge offers its own electrical characteristics.For purposes of selecting an appropriate phono stage for your needs, you’ll be concerned with “gain” and “load.” Gain is easy to understand–it’s the amount of amplification required from the phono stage for that particular cartridge. Gain is expressed in decibels, a familiar term. Load is more complicated, involving some understanding of impedance, capacitance, etc. No worries. Let’s move on.

I’m now spending so much of my listening time with LPs, I was becoming more aware of how good my CDs sounded, and I was wondering why my LPs didn’t sound as good. No real complaints–the current setup has served me well for twenty years. Still, I suspected there was room for improvement in the “analog front end” of my stereo system could be improved. But where to start?

I like my turntable–and apparently, so do the people who service it from time to time. I consulted my various advisors, and everyone felt I could stick with the Rotel RB900 for a long time. Nobody felt turntable replacement was the place to start.

How about if I swapped out my Shure V15vx–a classic, well-regarded MM cartridge that cost a few hundred dollars new. How old was it? How many records had I played? Did I treat it with care and love? Was the stylus dirty? Could the whole thing sound better if I just spent more on a new cartridge? Which one? I started reading reviews online–but the reviews led me to believe that the phono stage mattered more than I realized.

So here’s the challenge. You can’t listen to a phono stage in isolation. You need to listen to a phono stage connected to a turntable with a particular cartridge on the one hand, and a pre-amplifier, amplifier, various cables and loudspeakers on the other. To some extent, you can ask your local dealer to swap out the phono stage and leave everything else as-is, and try to discern the differences. Fortunately, I found a dealer who was as curious about the difference as I was, so I started there. Before we started the tests, we tried our best to match the sound of my existing stereo system in his showroom–and did that fairly quickly. And we started to listen. Remember: my starting point is a $200, 20-year old phono stage.

I know what I want to hear. I want a single cello to sound like it has heart and soul. I want a violin section to sound like individual instruments, not a like a mass of high sounds. I want a clarinet to sound like a clarinet. I want to hear the difference between brass instruments in a jazz ensemble, and I want the drummer to tap every so gently and to hit it hard and make me smile. All subjective. All in my head. All pretty easy to hear–or not.

Phono stage pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs, even colors.

Phono pre-amplifiers come in many shapes, sizes, designs–even colors. I prefer a more traditional look.

The tests didn’t take very long, in part because I had carefully read just about available review on the internet. It was more of a checklist exercise, with confirming glances shared between us–nope, this wasn’t it, nah that wasn’t the one either. I had high hopes for the Lehmann Audio Black Cube Original ($629), and the Creek OBH 15 MKII MM/MC Phono Preamplifier ($595), but neither sounded substantially better than my current setup. I had read good things about Vincent’s PHO 700 Phono MM/MC w/Outboard Power Supply (now on sale for $499), but I felt my existing setup offered greater fidelity, despite the Vincent’s impressive clarity (these terms are very, very squishy but I knew what I heard). In my research, I found 85 different phono stage boxes at Music Direct, and I was intrigued by those in the $700-800 class–perhaps this price point was a better choice for me. I explored the Jolida JD9 II Standard Tube Phono Preamp ($699), and the Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ ($75o) but again, I didn’t find the significant jump I was hoping to hear. Confused and frustrated, I wondered whether I ought to shift my focus back to the phono cartridge purchase, but I wanted to do this exploration in a systematic way. I’ve always been a big fan of Balanced Audio Technology, but their products are designed for far more discriminating listeners. I tried their least expensive phono stage, the VK-P6 ($3,499)–and smiled.

I was right–the phono stage was the right move! I just needed to accept the idea that a mysterious box–a phono stage–was worthy of a larger investment. I continued to explore–the internet is amazing for this sort of thing but you must be patient and give yourself time to absorb and compare–and I came upon a company called Sutherland. Like B.A.T., Sutherland seemed to be very serious about engineering. The company’s website showed a whole line of phono stages that were remarkably well-reviewed. The most reasonably priced model, the Insight, cost $1,399. Along with its $10,000 big brother, the Insight was included in the useful list of Stereophile Recommended Components for 2016 with a $$$ notation which means, roughly, performs beyond the price expectation.

goldmarkkarlKarl Goldmark was a contemporary of Brahms, and he wrote a lovely piece called the Rustic Wedding Symphony. Four bucks bought a fine recording by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. I like to use this as a test because it begins with a slow-and-steady sequence by the double basses and cellos, really low and distinct. The bass section is followed by a more animated sequence with violins and violas–a distinctly different sound. Enter the winds: bassoon, clarinet. Everything is clearly in its own section. And then comes the allegro with lots of instrument sounds: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trombone, plus the violin and viola. Lots of variety in a relatively short time. Lots of opportunity for total enjoyment of the music and assessment of the rendition of individual and grouped instruments. (And, there is a free score available from the New York Philharmonic! With the conductor’s markings!!)

insighthero-1024x438Not wanting to make my phono stage exploration a career, I was hoping to hear what I wanted to hear. First up listening with the Insight: the low sequence. The double basses and cellos were strong, rich with quiet power, full of resonance and mystery, very natural. But the instruments were less clearly delineated than I hoped. The animated violins and violas can sound a bit screechy, but they were controlled here, again not quite as distinct from one another as I dreamed they’d be, but certainly satisfying — and the bit of screech faded with the first twenty or thirty hours of use (equipment needs to be broken-in). I loved how the soundstage was cast–the low strings were far over to my right, and the violins and violas were definitely in their own section to the left of the conductor, and for the violas, back a bit. Next, the winds–warm and lovely. And here comes everything! Would the variety of woodwinds, horns, strings all jumble into one conglomeration, or retain their individual identities? On my old (inexpensive) phono stage, they made for pleasant listening, but they were not clearly defined. Here, they were. Again, not perfect, but far more than acceptable, and filled with promise–I was beginning to imagine what an upgraded phono cartridge could deliver (in fact, I have upgraded the cartridge–that’s the topic of the next article in this series–matched it carefully by listening to good advice, and I’m now even more satisfied with the discrimination between instruments, the clarity and richness in some of the higher and low ranges–more on this coming up). The more I listened, the more I smiled. So: I was listening to records and hearing, and feeling, so much more than I had before. What a thrill! Seriously, I kept listening, trying one record after another as if I had discovered something magical.

After a month of listening, I am a kid in a candy store. Or, more accurately, a record store. When I have some free time, I drive out to a record store–yes, they’re still around but you may have to do some web searching before you go shopping–and I buy a bunch of LPs. Used LPs–high quality, often classical, some rock, some international, some this, some that–mostly costing less than $4. I get home, I wash each record (new obsession, more about that in a future article), and I just listen. I close my eyes and listen to the subtlety of a Smetana string quartet for 27 uninterrupted minutes. It’s the strangest thing–I am listening to the same stereo system that I have listened to for two decades, I changed one piece of equipment (okay, two because I have now changed the cartridge, too), and I am mesmerized.

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What’s inside the box? I sure wish I understood what I was seeing, why this design provides excellent sound. Best of intentions–I would love to spend the time learning, but inevitably, I spend my time listening instead. Which is, after all, the whole point.

So what have I learned? A quality phono stage can make the whole analog front end sound a whole lot better. I was not so impressed with most of what I tried, so the choice of a specific box from a specific manufacturer is well worth the time and trouble. My old tendency to buying lower in the product line from a small manufacturer that specializes in much higher-end products within a single category is, once again, a strategy that seems to work. The phono stage is only part of a puzzle–there are definitely places in the musical spectrum that felt inadequate when I listened through my (lesser) Shure cartridge that greatly improved with a better cartridge.

lpsMost of all, I confirmed the importance of patient listening–confirming what I thought I heard by listening to the Goldmark symphony by also listening to jazz by Lee Morgan, vocals by Ricky Lee Jones and Linda Ronstadt, rock and roll jams on the obscure Music from Free Creek (with music by Eric Clapton, Dr. John, Jeff Beck), bringing some old Delaney & Bonnie & Friends recordings back to life. There is a consistency about the listening experience that not only sounds and feels right–amazing how much pure instinct and right brain judgement is involved in confirming my sense that the Insight is the right choice–instinct and behavior. If I notice that I’m just standing next to the turntable, intending to lift the stylus but deciding to listen to just one more song, I know I’m making a good decision.

Well, part of a good decision. Based upon many listening sessions, I’m confident that the Sutherland Insight makes sense, but only with a properly matched phono cartridge. That process is the subject of the next article in this series.

Complete list of articles in the series

Two-Channel Stereo (Part 7: Where to Buy)

The holidays are coming up fast, so I thought I’d take a break from our step-by-step progression toward higher-end audio with a look at places to spend some money for yourself, or for loved ones. Bearing in mind that a quality two-channel stereo is likely to remain popular long after other digital devices have lost their luster, allow me to encourage you to explore the possibility of a new stereo system direct from Santa. Or, if you prefer, from the following web sources:

soundstage-directSoundstage Direct – A wonderful vinyl record store with lots of terrific equipment, including a steady flow of demo and clearance items. Unique because they offer a turntable trade-in plan (as you listen, you may develop a taste for upgrading equipment, now or in the future), and also an equipment upgrade plan. They are serious about good equipment–Soundstage Direct is an authorized and certified VPI Turntable dealer (among the best in the industry–more about VPI in a future article). At Soundstage Direct, the focus is records–high quality, new records. I love the story told by founder Seth Frank: “I went to my wife; we had a 3-month-old baby. I told her I wanted to quit my job and start selling records. I knew she was the woman of my dreams when she said, “Okay, let’s do it.”…We started selling records out of a spare bedroom in our small house. Eventually, we moved it to the garage. Eleven years later, with 18 employees, I get to wake up doing the thing I love. I sell vinyl and audio equipment. That’s all I do… Vinyl has been resurrected and is here to stay. For many of us, it’s a way of life, something we cherish and keep alive together.” Based outside Philadelphia, PA. Since 2004.

audio-advisorAudio Advisor – For decades, I’ve been recommending the knowledgeable people and fair prices at Audio Advisor. The emphasis here is quality audio equipment at just about every price point. Headphones seem to be among their most popular category, and their “Customer Favorite,” nicely reviewed, is the $399 OPPO PM 3 Closed Back Magnetic Planar Headphone— a current fave on many of the audio sites I visit. If that seems like too much to spend, try Grado’s $99 headphone, also very popular–the SR80e. Or any of the 51 other headphones on the site. BTW: The HiFiMan HE1000 Headphones are currently on sale, marked down from $2,999 to “just” $2,399. Call them, ask them why anyone would ever spend that kind of money for a headphone. The person on the other end of the line would probably answer your question clearly, with solid technical knowledge, and a sense of the type of customer who pursues this level of audio quality. Indeed, that’s the best part about Audio Advisor–their website only begins to expose the extraordinary cache of knowledge and experience to be found here. “Over the past 34 years, Wayne Schuurman and his hard-working staff earned the confidence of more than one million satisfied customers in over 200 countries. Our phone lines are staffed by the most knowledgeable and experienced audio sales representatives in the world. They are happy to answer your questions, and they’re experts at recommending low-cost gifts, matching components, or improvements for any hi-fi or home theater system.” Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

A two-page spread from Music Direct's print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

A two-page spread from Music Direct’s print (or PDF) catalog. Or, simply visit the website.

Music Direct – Providing a roughly equal balance between music and equipment, my favorite part about Music Direct is their old-style catalog. It’s so “not overwhelming”–the pages are well-designed and the the information is clearly presented. And it’s a PDF that you can download here (and you can order a paper version–and I just remembered, Audio Advisor has a print catalog, too!). Music Direct is  serious about high-end audio: this year’s best seller was a $3,999 VPI Prime Turntable. Holiday specials include a $79.99 Audio Additives Digital Stylus Force Gauge for $49.99, plus a variety of turntables (I recommend the Rega Planar One for just $299 down from $445). Lots and lots of top brands, including a personal favorite that’s not always easy to find: Balanced Audio Technology, which Music Direct now owns (the company also owns Mobile Fidelity, an early leader in high-quality vinyl pressings). Their News and Blog website feature is an especially good source for new vinyl releases. Based in Chicago, Illinois.

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Needle Doctor – The name comes from a time when finding a stylus for a cartridge was not an easy thing to do. Since 1979, this mail order company has been a leader in phono accessories: their current site features the new Hana MC Phono Cartridges, a buzz item in the industry, along with the Pro-Ject Carbon DC Turntable ($399) with an Ortofon 2M Red Cartridge, a nice combination at a fair price. They do sell other types of equipment–their loudspeaker selection includes Dali and Peachtree among other respected brands (each retailer stocks only a limited range of brands, so you’ll find yourself exploring all of these sites at one time or another). Good closeout section, and some helpful FAQ articles, like this one about buying a turntable.

ed_logo2014Elusive Disc – Based in Anderson, Indiana, this mail order house started in 1989 as a source for hard-to-find vinyl records (hence the company name). Nowadays, they stock a wide range of new vinyl, plus a nice assortment of audio equipment. When I last looked, they were running at 10 percent off sale on Soundsmith phono cartridges, and 30-40% off some Mobile Fidelity (MoFi) discs. I find this site very useful because they maintain TAS Editor’s Choice (The Absolute Sound, a leading trade publication) going back as far as 2005, and similar lists for Stereophile’s Recommended Components. They carry a nice assort of phono-related gear, far less equipment in the categories of amps, pre-amps, and digital gear.

acousticsoundslogo_rawbig2017_250wAcoustic Sounds – At first, Acoustic Sounds appears to be a similar site, focused mostly on records. Look deeper and you’ll find an extraordinary collection of very serious high-end gear. For example, on the integrated amplifier page, we begin with a $12,500 PASS Labs INT-250 Class AB Integrated Amplifier, topped by a $40,000 PASS Labs XA 200.8 200-watt mono XA.8 Put Class A Amplifier (priced for the pair). You don’t have to spend that much, but if you’re in the market for a very high quality pair of bookshelf-style loudspeakers (always placed on specially-made stands, not in bookcases), this is the place to find Harbeth HL-Compact 7 ES-3 speakers in Tiger Ebony cabinets for $3,900/pair, or a wide range of Klipsch loudspeakers (currently quite popular). Also, lots and lots of records. And some of the best available expertise on turntables, cartridges and phono stage equipment in the entire U.S. audio industry. Make good use of their knowledge and experience–and then, become a customer.

Others worth exploring (with an emphasis on two-channel stereo and analog):

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business iN Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

Audio Renaissance, a small high-end audio business in Rochester, NY. The owner is a turntable expert who rebuilds (and sells) used and new turntables.

YOUR LOCAL DEALER – You know: an actual, physical retail store that carries real inventory that you can buy and put into your car on the very same day. In this era of internet everything, it’s easy to forget these guys. Some stores are extraordinary, with bona-fide expert owners who have spent a lifetime selecting equipment, serving the widely divergent needs of individual customers, installing equipment in every conceivable home and other type of setting, and more. Most dealers stock far less than the internet retailers, so you must either find a specific retailer for a specific brand, or (often better), simply trust their experience and good will. Recently, I found two terrific local dealers in Rochester, New York–the result of diligent internet research. If you’re in or near the area, be sure to patronize Audio Renaissance and Forefront Audio. Both Craig Sypnier and Lance Shevchuk, respectively, are the kinds of people who care deeply about their small businesses, about the technology, and most of all, about their customers. Neither operates in a traditional retail location: they’re both in office locations (not five minutes from one another). One useful source for local dealer information is the manufacturer’s websites; that’s how I found out about Soundscape in Baltimore, Sound and Vision outside Columbus, Ohio (and two outside Cleveland), and Goldprint Audio, south of Winston-Salem. Do some web research and you’ll find a dealer not too far away.

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 1)

Somehow, stereophonic sound has survived. The excitement began in the 1930s, but it wasn’t until the late 1950s when consumers could buy their own stereo record albums and their own stereo turntables. By the 1970s, many college students and music lovers owned their own stereo systems: a receiver, a turnable, and a pair of matching loudspeakers. We were quick to point out that a “turntable” was not a “record player”– a turntable contains a spinning platter, a tone arm, a phono cartridge, and within the cartridge, a tiny stylus (replacing what had previously been called a “needle”). A receiver, by the way, serves multiple purposes: it is an AM/FM radio tuner, a phono stage (to amplify the modest signal emanating from the phono cartridge), a pre-amplifier (to amplify the signal coming from the tuner, and later, from the add-on cassette or CD player), and an amplifier (a more powerful set of circuits to energize the loudspeakers). Early audiophiles incorporated a reel-to-reel audio tape recorder, which allowed recording of radio broadcasts and LPs, and live performances–the first time these capabilities were available to non-professionals. Some audiophiles purchased  headphones so they could listen without disturbing others, an old-school courtesy enabled by a technology that was considered somewhat exotic at the time. Nowadays, the tuner is hardly a necessity, the cassette or tape recorder has been bypassed by the digital revolution which eats its young (CDs and DVDs are enjoying their final productive years), but the turntable is in the midst of a resurgence, and headphones have never been more popular.

Here's a wonderful example of a 1970s stereo system (but few people owned two turntables). This image comes from a collector of 1970s stereo equipment (click on the link for more pictures and some stories). You are looking at: a Marantz 2330b receiver, a Thorens TD-165 turntable, a Thorens TD-126 turntable, JBL L96 speakers, and an Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck.

Here’s a wonderful example of a 1970s stereo system (but few people owned two turntables). This image comes from a collector of 1970s stereo equipment (click on the link for more pictures and some stories). You are looking at: a Marantz 2330b receiver, a Thorens TD-165 turntable, a Thorens TD-126 turntable, JBL L96 speakers, and an Akai GX-266D reel to reel tape deck.

By the 1980s, this system might have included an audiocassette deck in place of the reel-to-reel recorder, and a Graphic Equalizer–an elaborate set of tone controls that allowed listeners to emphasize or de-emphasize treble (high tones), mid-range, and bass. Generally, systems like the one above were intended for people who listened to rock music–electric guitars, deep bass, powerful drums. If the room was shaking but nothing was tumbling from the shelves, then the bass was not sufficiently powerful.

Today, two-channel stereo is simpler, more elegant, and sounds a whole lot better than it did in the 1970s. If you’re unearthing a system from somebody’s basement or attic, you might consider an upgrade, but most people will be happier with the sound that a new system can provide.

Basically, you need a pair of loudspeakers, an amplifier, and a turntable with a good new cartridge. And some cables (the quality of the cables affects the quality of the sound; more about that later). Some loudspeakers contain built-in amplifiers, allowing for a very simple setup. Most people do not buy a CD player–unless you’re sitting on a nice collection of discs. And most people don’t need an AM/FM tuner–but some people enjoy listening to a particular FM station. And so, most people do not require a stereo receiver–unless the system is intended to double as the center of a home theater (a role that can be performed, quite adequately, by a two-channel stereo). No need for a remote control either.

So let’s start simple. As this series of articles progresses, there will be ample opportunity to spend a thousand dollars, five thousand, ten thousand, and more. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with a nice, new, modest system for $500. Visits to just two web sites take care of business:

at_lp120_usb_1_sqa2_plus_r-front_lbl3

The first is Audio-Technica, a long-time maker of turntables, phono cartridges, headphones, microphones and other gear. Take a look at the AT-LP120-USB Direct Drive turntable. Buy it directly from the manufacturer for $249 (if you shop around, you won’t find it for much less). This particular turntable is unusual because it contains a small phono pre-amp (see above) so you won’t need an intermediate piece of equipment to plug it into a pair of powered loudspeakers. Which ones? Try the A2 Powered Desktop Speakers from AudioEngine— they also cost $249 direct from the manufacturer. If you want something that sounds better (more detail, more presence, clearer treble and bass, more punchy bass), move up to the A5+, found on the same website. The lower priced model is available in the nifty red color and black or white; the higher priced model is available with a wood veneer, or black or white.

So we’ve begun. And you can start listening to LPs with your new stereo system before the holiday. As we proceed, we’ll listen to a lot of music, spend a lot of money, and concentrate on the many reasons why investments in quality sound reproduction make so many people happy.

As a further inducement–you can buy LPs for just a few dollars. Sure, the ones in Barnes & Noble cost over $20, but that’s high-end, heavy duty vinyl, the latest in a long series of record industry schemes to collect more money from consumers. I ignore most of them. Instead, I seek out the best of dozens of old school record stores because many of them sell LPs, in very good condition, for five dollars or less. Classical albums are especially difficult for the stores to sell, so many of them cost even less. (Collectible rock and jazz albums cost more.) There is much to be said for used LPs from a reliable retailer–and much to be said for giving your used records a bath (being careful not to wet the paper label or to scrub too hard when drying them). As this series progresses, I promise to tell you where to find these stores, and the best online sources, too.

Much more to come. I hope this series turns out to be helpful to you.

Chipping in for Mother’s or Father’s Day

Some ideas, most of them digital:

A turntable. Yes, this may seem a bit retro, but vinyl is in the midst of a wonderful comeback. New records cost more than their CD equivalents, but it’s easy to build a terrific library of good used records by spending about $5 per disc (so you can surprise mom or dad with a whole box filled with favorites!). Assuming you still own some sort of stereo receiver and a pair of good loudspeakers–most likely as part of your home theater setup–you’ll be set. One good starter choice: Audio-Technica’s AT-LP60, which costs less than $75 including cartridge. Online research will turn up rigs costing up to a thousand times as much, but a few hundred dollars will place you on the quality path. To review good choices for several hundred dollars, visit the online store, Audio Advisor.

Apple TV. Before we bought one of these small plastic boxes for my office TV, I wasn’t completely sure what to think. Connect an Ethernet cable to your network, an HDMI cable to your TV, power up, and you can watch Netflix, Hulu Plus, movies and TV shows from iTunes, YouTube, Major League Baseball, HBO GO, and more (for some, a subscription is required). AND you can wirelessly connect your iPhone, iPad or Mac to the screen. For $99, it makes watching TV a lot more interesting.

airstashAirStash. Simple idea: load some movies on a 8GB or 16GB SD card–the ones you use in a camera that are about the size of a postage stamp–then wirelessly connect the small AirStash device to watch movies (or review documents) on your iPad, iPhone, or Android device. It costs about $125. Use it once and you’ll carry it everywhere, as I do.

A good pair of binoculars. If you’re contemplating an outdoor hobby such a birding, Bushnell’s 10×42 NatureView is a good tool to get you started; it costs about $125. In fact, you can buy binoculars specifically designed for safari, sports stadiums, theater, opera (fancy!), sailboating, marine exploration, the list goes on. For more information about binoculars than I have ever seen, visit Best Binoculars Reviews. There are digital binoculars, but optical binoculars remain far more popular than their initial counterparts.

A monopod. Yes, that’s right, the equivalent of a one-legged tripod. Not as steady as a tripod, but not as heavy either, and far more likely to be taken along. Used properly, a monopod can provide enough additional stability to allow your camera or camcorder to shoot with a bit less light, or to with a bit slower shutter speed. The best ones are made by Manfrotto, and Gitzo, and cost about $150-350, but good monopods are available from Slik, Cullman, Oben, Velbon, and other companies. A large selection of monopods and tripods are available from B&H and other online retailers.

Zoom-VideoA ZOOM Q2H2. With cameras and camcorders now built into phones, why buy a small video recorder for $199? Because the sound and the picture quality is outstanding, but the device is small. What do I mean by “outstanding?” Video: 1920×1080, 30p HD. Audio: 24 bit, 96 kHz PCM. Record the results on an SD card.

A Røde VideoMic Pro. Whether you’re using a DSLR or a camcorder to make your own home movies or independent films, this $230 investment will make at least some of your work sound a whole lot better. It mounts directly on the camera’s hot shoe, and its design won’t make your camera (or, most cameras) unbalanced or difficult to carry.

A digital drum kit.. You know you’ve always wanted one! Nowadays, you can buy a decent setup for a few hundred dollars. Yamaha’s Electronic Drum Kit DTX400K costs $500 and includes a 7.5-inch snare, three similar sized toms, a 10-inch hi-hat and other cymbals, and 169 digital voices. You can spend half as much (PylePro’s PED04M), twice as much (Roland’s TD-11K), more. Once again, B&H is a good source, but musicians may prefer Sweetwater.

DrumKit

Enjoy spring, enjoy the holidays!

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