Two-Channel Stereo (Part 10: Phono Cartridge)

It’s an old, silly riddle: how many grooves on a record? Of course, the answer is just one on each side—but that groove is usually about 1,500 feet long, or about 1/3 of a mile. If Wikipedia is correct, the record player’s needle, or, correctly, the stylus, runs that distance at an average speed of about 1 mph (but travels faster on the outside edge of the record, more slowly on the inside). According to GZ Vinyl—the world’s largest producer of vinyl records—the average width of the groove is 0.04 – 0.08 mm, or 40 to 80 microns (micrometers), roughly the width of human hair, or about 1/10 the size of a grain of sand. And if the groove is that wide, the tip of the stylus must be small enough to fit  comfortably inside that groove. A conical stylus (there are several shapes) is about half the width of the groove. The various bumps, ridges and other material inside the groove, the physical manifestation of sound on the record—are smaller still. A particle of dust may be larger than the stylus itself (think in terms of a bulldozer pushing a boulder of equal size), which why serious vinyl listeners are so fastidious about keeping record surfaces clean (even washing them with machines costing over $1,000).

The LP was introduced in 1948, with stereo recordings available about a decade later. Seventy years later, the technology is still in use—and still astonishing. From 1960 until  1987, the LP was the dominant recorded music format. After 25 years of just-hanging-in, the LP is making a comeback, this time hailed as the second-best consumer format (reel-to-reel might be first, but that’s another story). Nowadays, listening to records can involve a very sophisticated technology journey, hence this and several other articles on Digital Insider.

bhcghea5Usually made from a diamond, the stylus is the sensitive tip of a thin pipe called a cantilever, which extends downward, at an angle, from the inch-long box called a phono cartridge, which is, in turn, mounted to the end of the turntable’s tone arm. In the words of Robert Harley, author of The Complete Guide to High-End Audio, “The phono cartridge has the job of converting the modulations in record groove into an electrical signal…The stylus is moved back and forth and up and down by modulations in the record groove.” (Inside the cartridge), magnets and (incredibly small) coils (of wire) work together as an electrical generator to create output voltage…(also known as the) audio signal.” In a moving magnet (“MM”) cartridge design, the magnets move to induce the output and the coils remain stationary; in a moving coil design (“MC”), the magnets remain stationery and the coils move.

Regardless of the type of cartridge, the resulting audio signal is very modest, and requires substantial amplification in order to be heard and enjoyed. I found it difficult to calculate the amount of amplification, but I’m guessing the sound you’re hearing from the loudspeakers is easily a hundred times the volume of the sound you’re hearing if you listen really closely to the stylus making contact with the surface of the LP. (Engineers, please comment and correct.)

riaaBefore we move on to specific types of equipment, consider this: the tiny stylus is likely to pick up not only the sound from the grooves in the record (and the inevitable scratches, clicks and pops), but also the sound of the turntable’s motor, the resonance of the tonearm, and any other sounds in the room, including conversations, dog barks, and other disturbances. For cartridge, tone arm, and turnable manufacturers, playing the design game requires tremendous attention to mitigation and near-elimination of vibration, resonance, and other unwanted sounds. At the same time, a properly-designed cartridge must make the very best of the available (physical) information inside the grooves of every record. Fortunately, every record is made in accordance with very precise manufacturing standards (in the U.S., RIAA standards were established in 1963). Unfortunately, record pressings (the actual physical manufacture of each vinyl record) vary in quality. (I’ll write a separate article about record pressing and how to choose the best records.)

So: we’re now going to shop for a product that we can neither see nor touch, which must be mounted on turntable, which is in turn connected to several types of amplifier (phono stage pre-amplifier, pre-amplifier, power amplifier), and then to a pair of loudspeakers—each connected by a pair of cables that affect the quality of the sound, mounted on tables and stands with varying degrees of sound isolation and vibration, connected to AC power which often introduces its own issues, in listening rooms whose acoustic design and loudspeaker placement greatly affects fidelity. And through this process, we’re hoping to evaluate the microscopic interaction between a tiny diamond stylus tip, a cartridge, and a record whose pressing may or may not be up to snuff. Some audio dealers are patient with listeners who are trying to making the right decision; others have seen too many customers come and go, and then buy online, so these dealer’s lack of patience is a rational response to a nearly-nonsensical marketplace.

product_118025Fortunately, there are a fair number of audiophiles who listen to all sorts of equipment, and share their opinions. Chad Stelly, who works at Acoustic Sounds, is one of the best in the business, but I probably spoke with, or emailed, or read opinions from twenty or thirty knowledgeable people. Generally, they thought my current choice of a Shure V15vx was more than suitable for my Rotel RP900 turntable, a combination that kept me happy for several years. Now that I wanted more, everyone asked whether I would keep a very solid (apparently Rega-built) turntable, or upgrade. Assuming an upgrade, I wanted something that would take me to a new level of enjoyment. Seeking any meaningful consensus, I listened, read, and studied online reviews (well-respected audiophile publications can publish only so many cartridge reviews, so I filled-in with message board comments).

Grado was the first recommendation. In particular, several advisors suggested the Grado Sonata2 ($600), but several reviews pointed up the line to the Reference Master2 ($1,000). These cartridges are made from a particular type of rare Australian wood, presumably adding warmth to the sound, but several dealers told me that Grado cartridges were wonderful in the mid-range, but there would be better options for the more extreme highs and lows. In my informal surveys, Grado was always among the top recommendations—but never the top recommendation because of the potential for hum and noise—but only under particular circumstances (how could I test this in a store—not easily, it turned out, because dealers don’t like to open and swap out cartridges that destroy the original packaging). In the future, I plan to spend serious time experimenting with these and other Grado cartridges and developing my own opinion.

webcarmen-rev-1I learned about Soundsmith, and in particular, the Carmen ($800) and the Boheme ($1,200), but I never found them in any store—though everyone talked about how great Soundsmith might be for my situation. I learned about matching a particular cartridge to a particular phono pre-amp (“Hmmm… the Boheme might sound a little bright with the Sutherland Insight phono stage…”) One person suggested a Hana EL or EH elliptical ($475). Several friends told me they liked Ortofon cartridges—but there are fifty different models. Through too much time spent online and in more conversations, we narrowed the Ortofon search to the Quintet Black S ($999) and Bronze ($839).

Unable to even find most of the cartridges connected to a turntable at a local dealer, I just kept reading online reviews and talking to anybody who seemed knowledgeable. That’s how I found my way to Dynavector. I listen to opera, choral music, classical, jazz, blues, rock and pop, bluegrass—the connection between them seems to be emphasis on voice and acoustic over electric or highly produced recordings. When I began to ask about the Dynavector DV20x20, people started telling me that this was the right cartridge for me, especially if I intended to upgrade the turntable in the future.

s-l300So l started listening. Or, first, I paid a local audio dealer to mount to cartridge properly—this is not an easy thing to do properly—and then I started listening to the DV20x20 on my Rotel RB900 turntable. I started with a favorite orchestral performance that I’ve written about before: Karl Goldmark’s Rustic Symphony conducted by Leonard Bernstein. I like the recording, in part, because it’s well-organized for critical listening: double basses and cellos, then violins and violas, then the winds, and so on. I was impressed by the difference that I could hear when I replaced my 20-year old, $200 phono stage with a significantly better Sutherland Insight phono stage pre-amp. Now, I hoped to hear a substantial improvement by replacing the Shure V15vx phono cartridge with the Dynavector DV20x20. Sure enough, I heard what I hoped to hear—immediately! The low strings were even more clearly defined, distinct from one another, with greater body, more luxurious fluidity, and a greater sense of presence, and, looking for a word here…snap! Moving to the higher strings, they gained a sense of reality, smoothness, and again, presence. The winds can tend to be a bit screechy on this recording, but they were nicely managed by this cartridge. I tried a few chamber recordings, some solo female voices, and found myself completely charmed by Linda Ronstadt’s wonderful voice on Canciones de mi Padre, her 1987 album of Mexican songs that I bought for $3 in wonderful condition from a used record store.

mps_oscar-peterson_vol-1-1When I’m listening to a new piece of equipment—something I don’t do very often, to be honest, because I make my decisions with such care—one subjective test is how often I swap records. If I find myself sitting and listening, often to a whole side of an LP, I know that I’ve found a winner. So now I’m spending hours listening, and rediscovering discs that I know pretty well—and finding new joy because there is more detail, punch, clarity, and sense of being there with so many LPs. I’m very impressed by the Dynavector DV20x20, and I’ll attempt to close out with the reasons why. On classical recordings, I find the overall presence most appealing, closely followed by the punch and sweep of the more exciting passages, and increased refinement of solo violins, female voice, clarinets, oboes, and flutes. On jazz recordings, it’s undoubtedly the crispness of the drum kit—so precise, with just the right sense of attack and decay—though I do love what happens when I listen to Oscar Peterson playing piano, and I know that because I now find it difficult to listen to him as background music. I pay more attention to the music! On rock LPs, it’s the bass and the percussion that gets me, but also the higher tinkering on an electric or pedal steel guitar. When I listen to a singer, I hear nuances that I’m not sure I heard, or paid attention to, before. In short, this tiny component—a phono cartridge half the size of my pinky—is providing a whole lot of enjoyment.

And although I won’t disclose everything in this article, I will say that I’m on the second day of listening to the same Sutherland Insight phono stage, and the same cartridge but now on a much-improved turntable. So far, I’m very happy, but I’ll tell you more after some in-depth listening. With a VPI Prime turntable.

This article is part of a series.

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A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 8: Listening to Beethoven–or Do CDs Sound Better than LPs?)

Or do LPs sound better than CDs? Or, in the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Or is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation?

Just for fun, we decided to listen to several recordings of Beethoven’s Third Symphony (also known as Eroica). Just about every recording was an award winner, or the work of a notable conductor working with one of the world’s most highly regarded orchestras. People who are serious about their two-channel stereo systems often use classical recordings to test their systems because (a) the instruments are acoustic, unadorned by digital special effects, and (b) by and large, classical recordings are made by serious engineers working to the high standards of deeply experienced conductors and label executives.

karajan-beethove-3-dgWe started with one of the past century’s best–Herbert von Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic in 1961-2 for Deutsche Grammophon. I had just picked up a $4 LP, in very good shape, from Bop Shop Records in Rochester, NY. And I was anxious to do some critical listening with a more sophisticated phono stage pre-amplifier, the Sutherland Insight (which will be the topic of an upcoming article). Everything else in my system remained as it has been for nearly twenty years, except a replacement phono cartridge that’s easily five years old, the Shure Vx15. A very good system, but not an extravagant setup. We would be able to hear the recordings clearly. And we planned to test both LPs and CDs from various eras, various labels, to determine which we liked best. Not a scientific survey, but a reasonable way to spend a winter afternoon.

So: Karajan… Energetic, punchy, but the instruments were not clearly delineated from one another. The record looked pretty new, but we heard a lot of clicks and pops. Not much energy in the mid-highs or the mid-lows. A violin section sounded like a single, thick violin. Some strain evident–the playback was not as stable or confident as I hoped it would be. All in all, not we had hoped for.

eroica-bernstein2Next up: Leonard Bernstein from the same. Era. This was my LP, purchased decades ago, kept in it boxed set, played maybe ten times. This was a master work from Columbia Records at the label’s prime. The performance is ambitious, engaging, flowing–but the sound of the horns and the strings was compressed, very limited in highs and lows. We wanted to hear the depths of Beethoven explored by Bernstein in his prime–but the recording let us down.

eroica-toscanini1Before going modern, we decided to go for Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, first on LP and then on CD, recorded in 1949–before stereo recording was available. This was state-of-the-art at the time, but the dynamic range was so limited on these recordings, they did not stand up to modern listening. Historical interest only.

colin-davis-beethoven-symI had high hopes for my treasured 1995 CD set from Colin Davis and the Staastkapelle Dresden. Sure enough the CD really delivered–a full range of highs, lows and everything in-between. Wonderful placement of instruments. Lots of clarity, distinct individual violins and basses, just the right horn sounds. I was excited–but somehow, the listening experience was a few marks less than thrilling. After Karajan and Bernstein, the passion felt a little lacking. A fine performance is not the same as a thrilling performance, and when I’m listening to Beethoven’s Eroica, I want to be thrilled. But the sound was more satisfying here than it was on any of the LPs.

Two more shots. Strangely, it’s the same Dresden orchestra, this time led by Herbert Blomstedt in the 1970s and released by the lesser-known Berlin Classics. Again, very good orchestra, very good conductor. This is digitally remastered, perhaps a strike against. The sound is a little thin, not as robust as the Karajan LP, but the performance is full-bodied and fun, if a little slow. The horns sound like horns, the violins sound like violins, there some separation between instruments, and it’s fun. Some of the highs are not reproducing perfectly, but they’re more than acceptable. And it’s a remastered CD. If there’s any logic to the argument that CDs are better than LPs, or vice-versa, I can’t even remember what I was supposed to think.

beethoven0371Now here’s my last one. It’s a digital remaster from 1963, a CD box that I didn’t even know I owned. It’s the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig led by Franz Konwitschny, a notable if not famous European leader. And it’s very good. The energy is there, the instruments sound like real instruments, and it’s compelling. And it’s a remastered CD. I’m listening now, and overall, it’s just plain better than anything else I’ve heard today.

How is this possible? A world class LP from one of the world’s most revered Beethoven conductors on one of the world’s most meticulous record labels, played on a very good stereo system, ought outdistance everything else in the category. Right?

Let’s give Karajan from 1962 another try. As it happens, I just found a box of all 9 Beethoven symphonies, on DG (Deutsche Grammophon), that I bought in very clean condition for $8. (The box was misfiled; I just spotted it.) I’m getting up to remove Konwitschny from the CD player to play a record–and I’m finding that I really want to listen to that CD. I’m engaged, involved…but I also want to finish and publish this article.

From the start, the Karajan is very good. The orchestra is towering, formidable, lovely and sensitive, propulsive. The musicians are spectacular. When the orchestra gets busy on a thick and aggressive passage, my room is filled with life and extreme energy. But the strings are thinner, the horns are less clearly defined, the highs not quite right, the lows are not offering quite the thrill I just heard on CD.

I want to hear this classic record properly, but I am maxing-out the capabilities of my current stereo system. My sense is that the Karajan, and probably the Bernstein, can and will sound better, perhaps much better, if I swap my lower-priced (though highly-regarded) cartridge for something better, a cartridge that excels in presenting mid-highs and mid-lows now so understated when I audition these LPs. I also hope the horns will be more stable, the strings and complicated passages reproduced without the strain that I can now hear too clearly, and the tympani will hit me in the solar plexus.

Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs.

At the same time, I am more and more confident that my CD player, though 20 years old, sounds quite wonderful, holding its own against my rapidly-improving analog phono setup. I hold the other components in equally high esteem. I am especially pleased with the improvements made possible by the Sutherland Insight, now holding the place long held by an inexpensive but competent phono stage–as a result of the Insight, I can hear all of my LPs with far greater clarity, punch, and fidelity to original instrument sounds.

Back to the original questions:

Do LPs sound better than CDs? – Sometimes LPs sound better than CDs and sometimes CDs sound better than LPs. The answer depends upon the quality of the performance, the quality of the recording, and as we’ll see in future articles, the quality of the manufactured CD or LP (the pressing, etc.)

In the end, is it all about the performance and the recording, not the stereo system? Yes. Almost always. Except when the performance is so special, even a crappy recording does not detract from the pleasure of listening.

Is there no good answer because every record, every CD and every stereo system presents a unique listening situation? Oh, there’s a plenty good answer. A very good performance on a very good LP can be spectacular, and the same is true of a very good CD. The quality of the equipment matters as much as the quality of the recording. And you can GREATLY increase the quality of the LP with surprising ease–by washing it. More on that in an upcoming article.

 

 

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.

raskin

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.

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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Re-Introduction to Two-Channel Stereo (Part 2: Basic Loudspeakers)

So we’ve begun. A brief explanation of older and modern two-channel stereo systems with a quick stop by two web sites, one to buy a pair of low-cost powered loudspeakers and the other to buy a turntable with a built-in phono amplifier to boost the strength of the signal coming out of the tiny phono cartridge. The system is adequate for a small room, and for very casual background music. The music sounds, well, just okay: clear enough, but not very lifelike. Certainly better than the sound you’ll hear from most of what’s available on streaming services, or from your iPhone, but quite low on the scale of what is achievable.

Throughout this series, we’ll seek out incremental steps as we improve various parts of the stereo system, sometimes taking big steps, sometimes modifying just one piece of equipment, sometimes several at a time. We’ll consider the various technologies and options now available–some offer substantial leaps in quality, and others offer more refinement and incremental joy.

For this step, let’s keep the turntable as-is: a $250 investment including the cartridge and some amplification of modest quality. But let’s separate the loudspeakers from their built-in amplification. This opens a wide gamut of opportunities to employ both new and used loudspeakers, each with its own particular personality, or acoustic characteristics. For example, some loudspeakers will offer improved bass but less clarity in the higher treble ranges, or greater detailing, or a more realistic sense of instrument placement in the panoramic sound field made possible by combining the sounds from the stereo system’s left and right channels (a bit of stereophonic magic that can be even more profound in surround sound systems involving five or more loudspeakers–an exploration for another day).

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

A very simple black box: the NHT Super Zero loudspeaker, a long-time favorite.

So, what we want is a pair of good-sounding, reasonably inexpensive loudspeakers offering just enough of each of those key ingredients. If you’re buying new loudspeakers, NHT offers a pair of their very popular Super Zero 2.1 loudspeakers for about $350. The company has been making reasonably priced, good-sounding loudspeakers since the 1990s. What I like about them: they’re clean, free from any obvious or annoying flaws, well-balanced in their bass, mid-section and high ranges and accurate. They are not $3,500 speakers, so don’t expect deep and clear bass, or silky strings, or extraordinary nuance in the vocals, but for most listening purposes, they are very satisfactory, and very enjoyable.

As a rule, loudspeaker manufacturers attempt to organize their product lines by price points. Many offer a “bookshelf” speaker for several hundred dollars to meet basic needs. PSB’s Alpha B1 costs $300 for the pair, and you’ll find a similar pair from Peachtree Audio, their SX60, for $350 to $400, and these compete with Monitor Audio’s Bronze 2, currently marked down from $500 to $378–all of these speakers are/were available from Audio Advisor, a leading web direct marketer, alongside speakers and other audio gear at prices from the hundreds to the thousands of dollars.

Here's an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

Here’s an selection of bookshelf speakers offered by Audio Advisor. In the second row, note the speaker on a speaker stand. And on the top row, note the use of small speakers as part of a home theater setup.

I put “bookshelf” in quotation marks because you should NOT place these small speakers in a bookshelf because they will not very good. Instead–and here’s the first of many lessons learned from audiophiles–allow several feet of open space around the loudspeakers so that nearby surfaces do not reflect the sound. Initially, this may sound like complete nonsense, and admittedly, you may not hear any substantial degradation in a low-priced stereo system, but once you do notice, you’ll be redesigning your listening area until you eliminate the uncomfortable sound. Since loudspeakers cannot be suspended from mid-air, you will want to invest at least $100 in loudspeaker stands for your bookshelf loudspeakers. Or, you will want to invest in tower speakers–larger rectangles that are several feet high and often represent a step-up in sound quality (and price). More on that upgrade in an upcoming article.

One further note: the placement of loudspeakers matters. A lot. An expensive pair of speakers can sound just awful if they are not carefully placed. And an inexpensive pair of speakers can sound surprisingly good if they are in the optimum position within the listening area. To begin, nothing should be closer than a foot from any wall or large piece of furniture, and ideally, two or three feet. Then, imagine an equilateral triangle with you at one point, the left speaker at another, and the right speaker at another. Generally, the front panel of those speakers should face you very directly. (Avoid the temptation to angle the speakers.) Why bother? The stereo effect will be far stronger: instruments and vocalists will suddenly become clear and distinct images–the bassist over there, the piano over there, the singer center stage, etc. It’s an amazing thing–the way even modest loudspeakers can “image” when they are properly placed. And yes, you may need to do some rearranging of furniture for the optimum effect. If your loudspeakers sounded better in the store, placement is probably the secret sauce. Experimentation is part of the process because every room is different and because furniture, carpeting and other stuff affect the traveling sound waves as they move from the loudspeakers to your ears. Despite what others in the household may say, this process is always worth the time and trouble–and is often a good reason to find a room where you can be left alone to listen to your music.

Do you need new speakers? Your money may go further if you purchase a high quality pair of used speakers–but you must choose very carefully.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeaker on eBay for $490. You'll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers--we'll cover that in a future article--but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment--also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

I found this pair of Thiel 2.2 loudspeakers on eBay for $490. You’ll need a better amplification system to make the most of these speakers–we’ll cover that in a future article–but these were considered very good in the 1990s (the larger 3.6 speakers were even better, but they require even more sophisticated equipment–also the topic of a future article). No surprise that these speakers require a local pickup in the SF Bay area where the seller is located.

If $350 is within your budget, you might also consider a pair of used loudspeakers purchased from a very reliable local dealer. It is not unreasonable to search for a pair of twenty year old loudspeakers that may have cost up to $1,000–offering a great deal more quality–but the search may require several months of patient web searches and store visits, and some driving (figure a 100-300 mile radius, even if you live near several large cities). You’ll need to study to find the manufacturers whose products were reliable, high quality, and available in the used marketplace–and, unfortunately, information on the web is neither consistent nor abundant on these topics. If you have a friend who cared about loudspeakers in the 1990s or 2000s, a joint exploration is recommended. And I cannot emphasize the importance of a very reliable, trustworthy dealer quite enough. If you’re willing to take the time, you could certainly explore these and other quality brands: Thiel (for some ears), Magnepan (flat panel speakers employing a unique technology), Dynaudio (extremely accurate), KEF (good all-around), B&W (now marketing as Bowers & Wilkins), Celestial (good all around), and the list goes on (please add your favorites in the comments area below).

If you want to dig deeper, spend some time exploring this historical survey of superior audio equipment. It’s part of a massive website published by the longtime high-end (expensive, fine-sounding) stereo enthusiast magazine, Stereophile.

To some extent, the loudspeakers you find in the U.S. may be similar to those found in the U.K., France, Germany or Japan. Each region of the world has its own loudspeaker makers, and remember: the larger the speaker, the more costly the shipping. In the U.S., you will find a lot of European speakers and a lot of American-made speakers, but the selection is likely to be more local in other countries.

Now that we’ve got the loudspeakers, we’ll need to purchase an amplifier, perhaps an integrated amplifier to start. That’s coming up next.

 

 

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:

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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.

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