The Other Sam (The Record Man)

For many years, the very best place on planet earth to shop for LPs (or, if you prefer, records), was Yonge Street in Toronto, Canada. As it happens, Yonge (pronounced “Young”) is one of the world’s longest streets, but that’s not why I visited as often as possible. There were two very large record stores on Yonge Street around Gould and Dundas Streets — A&A Records, and my multi-floor, multi-building favorite, the flagship store for what became a 140-store chain, Sam the Record Man. The stores are long gone. And that’s why I was so surprised to see an advertisement on the mobile phone provided by my hotel in Hong Kong–an advertisement that encouraged me to visit–who else?–Sam the Record Man in Hong Kong. My curiosity got the better of me, so I devoted an afternoon abroad to unravel the mystery.

I found Sam’s place in the Causeway Bay neighborhood, a few blocks from the very large and modern Times Square mall (which, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with NYC’s Times Square). But this version of Sam’s was not a giant record store at all. It wasn’t even a storefront. It was located on the fifth floor of a nondescript old office building, and Sam is not Sam at all. His name is James Tang. And he is a very smart guy who cares a lot about recorded music. That’s why he opened what may be the world’s first record museum.

And no, I didn’t understand what that means, either. Briefly, here’s the theory. Just as the original version of, say, Leonardo DaVinci’s Mona Lisa, or Vincent Van Gogh’s The Starry Night are available for public inspection at museums, so too should be the original versions of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or Carlos Kleiber’s recordings of Beethoven’s Symphonies 5 and 7 with the Vienna Philharmonic (which many critics include on their top ten list of all time best). But these master tapes are not available to the general public–decades after they were created, they are locked away in the vaults of large corporations. Sam/James believes that’s the wrong thing to do. But that’s the just the beginning.

After some tea and conversation, he asked me if I’d like to listen to some music. I never say no to that type of offer. So we begin to listen to “Strawberry Fields Forever” and it sounds just wonderful. Better than any recording of the song I have ever heard, and not by a small margin. He explains that I am listening to a studio master tape. Voices are alive, instruments sound instinctively right, the mix holds each sound in its own distinctive space. In short, I feel as though I am in the studio with The Beatles.

He then asks me to listen to another rendition of the same recording. This time, I’m listening to a very clean vinyl copy, but it doesn’t sound nearly as good as the first recording. We go through various renditions, one on reel-to-reel tape, another on cassette tape, and more. We keep returning to the master tape, and there is no question that these renditions sound very different from one another. Then, we try some classical music, some jazz, and other pieces. The effect is more and less pronounced, but the pattern is clear, and I am absolutely certain that the differences are profound. But why?

He offers what I believe to be a very good explanation. First, he explains why the tape recordings sound better than the records or CDs. James shows me the first of several charts.

From the start, James explains that the ratings are completely subjective, but the more I listen, the more I respect both his ability to appreciate sound quality and his ability to place a reasonable numerical rating to describe the experience. Pegging the master at 100 percent, the reel-to-reel version sounded excellent, but the master sounded better. I experienced something similar when listening to the ultra-high-end systems, powered by the best professional reel-to-reel recorders with second generation master tapes (the original are in a private vault) at VPI, maker of superior turntables. And, despite my misgivings, I had to agree that cassette tapes really did sound a lot better than the CDs (he rates them at 50-55% vs. 30%; I cannot rate my experiences with this level of precision, but the difference was profound).

Where does vinyl fit into the matrix? Yeah, there’s a problem with vinyl. You see, vinyl is not struck from a master tape. Instead, the master tape goes through several steps before a consumer LP becomes available.

The process begins with the master tape, but the metal stamper used to make the vinyl record is already second generation (“grandson” to the master tape), and the first pressing of the consumer record is the third generation, or great grandson. To James’s ears, you’re hearing less than half of the sound, and sound quality, that you would hear on the master tape. And that’s with a first pressing, under ideal conditions, listening to product from a record label that took the time and spent the money to get things right. Of course, most record companies don’t, or did not, lavish so much attention, which is why even the best used vinyl recordings from the golden age (say, 1960s and early 1970s before the oil crisis) don’t score much more than a 40 percent.

How about newer vinyl? You know, 180 gram special pressings worth $30 or $40 or more? To James’s thinking–and I keep hearing this from others I respect–you are better off buying a used version of the original record. Or, much better, tracking down a collectible first pressing from one of the labels that did lavish the necessary attention (say, Japan Toshiba’s Red Vinyl line from 1958-1974), and you may be very pleased with what you hear (on a very good two-channel stereo system).

James does sell the very highest quality collectibles in his shop, and for some people, that’s just plain heaven. For the rest of us, James initially sounds like he has taken an interesting theory a bit too far, but then, you listen. First you listen to the music, then you listen to James, then you listen to the music again and begin to realize that what he says makes a whole lot of sense. And then you realize that two or three hours of your time in Hong Kong isn’t nearly enough because he is so hospitable, so passionate, and so much the believer that you become one, too.

I have not stopped wondering whether, somehow, it would be possible to listen to the master tapes of the recordings I love. Sure, I’m happy with my growing collection of vinyl (typically used, typically in very good shape, typically $4 or so per disc, typically pressed in the UK or Germany under the good to very conditions), but James insists that there is more enjoyment on those master tapes, and I am fairly certain that he’s right.

The question, which is, for him, a quest, is how to gain the opportunity to listen to those master tapes. He is one man fighting the good fight, but he’s not doing to do it alone.

If you visit Hong Kong, do contact James Tang and ask for a tour of his museum and a demonstration of what I heard. I believe you, too, will become a believer.

There is lots and lots and lots more on his website.

 

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A 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.

 

 

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!

Vinyl for sale

 

As LPs continue to gain popularity, here’s a list of stores that sell used LPs. Fair prices (mostly, around $5, some as low as $1-2, as high as $7-8). Very good to excellent condition (free from noisy scratches, sometimes, a nice sheen). Jacket with significant rips, marks or other degradation. Check your local yellow pages–most urban areas support at least one good used record store. Please comment additions or corrections, and I will update the list from time to time.

Some favorites and recommendations I have not yet visited. Some of these stores stock only vinyl, and some mix it up with CDs:

Princeton Record Exchange – Princeton, NJ

The Bop Shop – Rochester, NY

Record Archive – Rochester, NY

Siren Records – Doylestown, PA (near Philadelphia)

Jerry’s Records Pittsburgh, PA

Stereo Jack’s – Cambridge, MA

Bull Moose Records – Portsmouth, NH

The Sound Garden – Baltimore, MD

Encore Recordings – Ann Arbor, MI

Grimey’s New and Preloved Music – Nashville, TN

Waterloo Records – Austin, TX

Dave’s Records – Chicago, IL

Twist & Shout – Denver, CO

Music Millennium – Portland, OR

Amoeba Music – Berkeley, CA, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles (I haven’t been there in a few years– are the prices still reasonable?)

Jive Time Records – Seattle, WA

One good web source for new vinyl:

Soundstage Direct

Extremely Long Player

1980s: I’m buying lots of LPs.

1990s: I’m buying lots of CDs.

2000s: I’m downloading lots of music files.

2010s: I’m buying lots of LPs.

What’s going on? As record companies contemplate the end of CD production, LPs are gaining popularity. TIME magazine caught the trend early, but failed to mention activity in vast used LP stores (separate blog post, in the works).

For newcomers, or those whose memory was fogged by digital d-rays, here’s what you need to know…

You need a turntable, a tone arm, a cartridge, a stylus, some cables, a phono per-amp, an amplifier, more cables, and loudspeakers. Back in the day, all of this stuff was combined in a “record player.”

Here in 2011-12, it’s more complicated–and that’s without the USB connection to your computer.

One popular, convenient choice is Audio-Technica’s PL-120, available for about $300. It includes everything you need except the amp and speakers. And, you can connect it to your computer to create digital versions of your LPs.

Rega's RP1 Turntable, an audiophile choice.

If you’re willing to invest more money for better sound, the audiophile choice is Rega’s RP-1, which includes a superior tone arm, a better drive system (to spin the platter) and other features that contribute to a cleaner, more focused presentation. The cartridge (which typically includes the stylus) is an accessory–each cartridge design possesses unique sonic characteristics–is a separate purchase. Rega’s RP1 accessory kit costs an additional $200, and includes Rega’s Bias 2 cartridge and several useful accessories.

Audio-Technica's all-in-one, lower-priced USB turntable.

Better would be another favorite cartridge, Audio-Technica’s ML-440. With turntable, tone arm and cartridge in place, you need a phono preamp. At about $150, one good choice is Music Hall’s PA 1.2. I leave the choice of amplifier and loudspeakers to you–the old system stored in your basement or found in a good used stereo shop will be just fine. Audiogon.com is an online store specializing in audiophile equipment, but a local dealer may provide both friendly advice and a place to listen before you buy.

How about a used turntable? Maybe from a reliable high-end dealer, but not from some random eBay source. Used cartridge? I wouldn’t do that. Instead, I would opt for the all-in-one Audio-Technica PL-120. But first, learn from:

Jerry Raskin’s Needle Doctor, which sells all sorts of cool stuff, not just needles!

Audio Advisor

Music Direct

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