November 2007

Let’s Get Physical: Why Analog Always Trumps Digital

Music is a physical experience, the result of a column of air rushing through a reed, a larynx or a hammer, a stick striking a string or a membrane. So it only seems logical that a storage medium that preserves a physical analog of that physical phenomenon would be the most faithful, most accurate reproduction of the original musical performance. The old-fashioned vinyl record is such a music storage medium, and to many—yours truly included—vinyl is still the best-sounding vehicle for music out there. Digital, for all its wonderful attributes, will never offer more than a sampled representation of music, and thus it’s next to impossible for it to convey all the nuances available on those supposedly outmoded LPs.

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Pro-Ject RM-5 Turntable
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Marantz TT-15S1 Turntable
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Nottingham Ace Space Turntable with Ace Space Tonearm
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Shelter 301 Mk II Phono Cartridge

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Peter Lederman, chief engineer of the Soundsmith Corporation, manufacturer of fine phono cartridges, analyzes the digital dilemma this way: “It is the events lost between each sample, and the multiple errors that are introduced by attempting to both digitally capture, decode and filter your way back to the original analog sound that makes CDs inferior in critical respects when compared with analog. It has been said that once you take filet mignon and grind it up into hamburger, you can never find a chef that will make it taste like filet again.”

Touting vinyl’s superior sonics, he continues: “With all its flaws, the continuous energy with continuous resolution in time are what make analog recordings superior. It’s kind of amazing that human hearing can hear the difference, but it easily can, because in part, this is how the human system of hearing is designed to operate. Real time is what it is accustomed to.”

The rapid-fire air compressions that make up the musical sound wave are, through some electromagnetic wizardry, stored in the groove as bumps and wiggles which are, in turn, in a reversing of the process, picked up at home by our phonograph needles (which can detect variations in the vinyl as small as 0.1 microns—to compare, a human hair is 75 microns across!) and then, again through some electromagnetic wizardry, converted back into analogous air compressions we hear as music while we sit back sipping our single malt. It’s now generally accepted that CDs cause listener fatigue, are flat-sounding, and are just not as lifelike or musical as good vinyl.

Research indicates that 84 percent of JazzTimes subscribers still own turntables, but where does one turn to see what’s new in this surging analog resurrection? If your gear shopping is primarily in big-box stores you are most likely out of luck—the good stuff is to be found in boutique audio stores. However, if you can’t find an acceptable selection of tables and cartridges in your neck of the woods, the Internet is a growing source for high-performance gear, especially on the analog front. I have always had good luck with Music Direct (musicdirect.com) and its very knowledgeable staff. Other reliable dealers of hardware, and sometimes software, include Elusive Disc (elusivedisc.com), Todd the Vinyl Junkie (toddthevinyljunkie.com) and Jerry Raskin’s Needle Doctor (needledoctor.com), though nothing beats the in-person audition and service a local dealer can provide.

Pro-Ject is a respected manufacturer of analog gear based in the Czech Republic and offers everything from $299 entry-level tables to multi-kilobuck turntables, all of which routinely receive high praise in the audiophile press. The Pro-Ject RM-5 ($649) is a solidly built unit with an ingeniously isolated motor assembly that greatly reduces noise induced by the interaction of the motor with the platter and stylus. The American importer of Pro-Ject, Sumiko (sumikoaudio.net), outfitted the table with its fantastic Sumiko Blue Point 2 phono cartridge ($299), the previous version of which I used for many years with great satisfaction: It is a tremendous value for the money. The RM-5, though not sporting the heft nor the features of more expensive tables, is a very respectable performer in its own right, and offers something that normally only comes with much costlier tables, a screw-down record clamp that guarantees the record will lay flat on the platter (in analog, flatter is better). Listening to this rig was more than pleasurable, and even at this price point, bested all but the most meticulously engineered CDs. There is just something inherently organic about analog playback at any level that makes listening more involving, and this Pro-Ject table did not disappoint in this very important aspect. For the money, this is an outstanding performer, and a great way to catch the vinyl bug on a budget.

Up the chain a tad is the Marantz TT15S1 ($1,699/us.marantz.com), which is actually built by the iconic German analog giant Clearaudio and includes the $800 Clearaudio Virtuoso phono cartridge in the package, a steal in anyone’s book. The table itself is well damped and features a hefty motor isolated from the actual turntable assembly to reduce that ubiquitous noise and vibration. Clearly well-made, the translucent white table is not only handsome, it sounds great, too, obviously due in part to the extremely fine cartridge Marantz has generously included. The resolution of this combination is exemplary, meaning lots of detail comes out of those groves. The high-quality motor ensures that the only wow you get with the Marantz is your own expression of satisfaction when the music cranks up.

I listened to some wonderful music performed by the Great Jazz Trio—Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Tony Williams—on a Japanese East Wind pressing of Milestones and was enthralled by the interplay of these first-rank players. The sound of Hank’s piano was solid and woody, if you can say such a thing about a piano sound—with CDs, oft-times I’ll swear a piano that I know is acoustic can sound like a cheap electric. Marantz has a real winner in this package and if you can budget for the TT15, it will return the investment night-in and night-out for years of fun, insightful listening.

Last year I raved about the Nottingham Analogue Space Ship turntable (aslgroup.com) and its remarkable way with my treasured vinyl. Well, I liked it so much I decided to purchase its big brother, or one of them, the Ace Space table with Ace Space tonearm ($3,599). This equally impressive jewel from designer Tom Fletcher includes an improved motor mount, an improved bearing—the ultra-precision metal thingy upon which the platter actually rests and spins—as well as other improvements which, together, noticeably improve performance, even over that of the Space Ship, which was already drop-dead gorgeous. Those deep black, velvety backgrounds produced by this table’s very quiet nature set off the music even more dramatically than with the previous Nottingham.

For purposes of this review, I used the Shelter 301 and 501 phono cartridges (axissaudio.com), both of which added to the improved sonics, in my opinion, but more on those later.

The sound was nothing short of spellbinding. When the Nottingham was fired up in my audio room, I found it nearly impossible to leave the listening chair—the music was so captivating, so charming (I am, after all, a savage beast), so hypnotic that I also found myself, when not listening, fighting the urge to return to the music room. The Nottingham/Shelter combination has become a drug and I don’t ever want to give it up, I just keep wanting more and more, larger and larger doses. This duo has inspired me to go on a vinyl-buying jag that is going to make my credit card company very, very happy.

Along the way I found some fascinating 10-inch reissues, done in the early ’70s, I understand, of classic mid-’50s Miles Davis sessions on Prestige, complete with their original jackets. The covers are cool, but more importantly the sound is surprisingly good. The overall energy of the session somehow comes forth powerfully and forcefully through the Nottingham/Shelter package. Of course the tone and timbre of Miles’ trumpet is clear as a bell, pun intended; even the air rushing from the horn is often audible, adding a new level of excitement and realism to the music.

Nottingham’s Fletcher says he designs with music in mind and I have to say he’s made a believer out of me! My enthusiasm for the music has been reinvigorated. The Nottingham Ace Space turntable is unconditionally recommended.

OK, so the table is one part of the chain; the other important part is the phono cartridge, and the selection on the market today is nothing short of spectacular.

But what does the cartridge do and how does it work? Well, Peter Lederman, who has improved and marketed the Strain Gauge cartridge, a totally different type of cartridge technology than the typical unit most of us know, has the answer.

“There are essentially two types of cartridges: velocity-sensitive and amplitude or ‘displacement’ sensitive,” say Lederman. “The various magnetic cartridges are velocity sensitive types, but all do the same thing. They are tiny, miniature electrical generators. They generate an electrical signal that represents the shift in position of each groove wall. They do this by moving a mass that is either a magnet, a coil, an armature or an iron element. Move one or the other, and you generate a voltage. The drawback is that since they need to move some type of mass, they are sluggish, and resist movement or delay when they are told to move, or tend to keep moving when the groove wall tells them to reverse direction or stop.”

He then briefly describes how his Strain Gauge (soundsmith.com) cartridges work: “Displacement-type cartridges, such as the Strain Gauge, have the potential to reduce this moving mass, thus allowing the stylus to stay in better contact with the groove walls. Strain Gauges are usually used for extremely accurate positional scientific measurements and in a phono cartridge they work by using the motion of the stylus attached to a cantilever to compress or expand a tiny silicon element which changes resistance according to this movement. It has extremely low-moving mass which makes it much easier to control or damp out unwanted movements and resonances.”

However, most of us will be faced with the choice between a more traditional moving magnet and a moving coil cartridge, the former being typically less expensive than the latter, but not always. The important thing in shopping is to make sure the electronics you use will match your cartridge type, as many phono preamps are not equipped to handle modern low-output moving coil cartridges. This is a good reason to consult a dealer, whether in person or online, to make sure the amp or preamp you are using will accommodate your cartridge of choice. If not, there are dozens of outboard phono preamps available, including Pro-Ject’s nifty and affordable PhonoBox Mk II ($119), which handles moving magnet and moving coil cartridges, but one can spend as much money on these as he or she desires. The Supratek Chenin preamp ($2,900; supratek.biz) I’ve been using has a marvelous phono section, one of the best I’ve heard personally, but is optimized for moving coil cartridges, which designer Mick Maloney feels sound far better than magnets.

As mentioned above, I’ve been living with the Shelter 301 ($750) and the Shelter 501 MkII ($850) for the past few months and have been totally delighted with both. Each is smooth, free of distortion, excellent at tracking even badly warped discs, well balanced tonally and possessing none of the dryness or extreme bloating some cartridges exhibit. They just make music, and do so with a finesse and realism I’ve never heard in my home system—truly top-notch. Which to buy? The 501 might offer slightly better resolution, but the two are quite similar, so save the hundred bucks, get the 301, and spend the balance on vinyl; either way, you’re a winner. Others to consider include the entire Sumiko line, as well as cartridges from Benz, Grado, Dynavector and Lyra.

Unfortunately and wrongly, many shy away from analog fearing there won’t be any records to play. Well, that just isn’t true. And while not all new recordings are released on vinyl, much of the really good stuff is, and there is truly no shortage of the classics—my recent buying binge is proof of that. Via eBay and other online sources such as MusicStack.com and SoundStageDirect.com, I picked up an astonishing assortment of sealed, new pressings and many good, clean used discs, all of which contain great-sounding music.

To keep it even more interesting, new reissues are coming out every week. Musical Fidelity, a subsidiary of Music Direct, has some great Coleman Hawkins, Patricia Barber and Madeleine Peyroux, and many other smaller companies keep pumping out more on a regular basis.

For example, Cisco Music has a great reissue series which now includes a classic June Christy LP, Something Cool, greatly reminiscent of ’50s Ella, and the amazing rock-jazz album by Steely Dan, Aja. Don’t be fooled, this disc is really a jazz record with some rock guys doing the singing. Featuring Wayne Shorter, Joe Sample, Larry Carlton, Bernard Purdie and Plas Johnson, among others, how can it be anything but? In any case, it’s a legendary LP—they just don’t make ’em like this anymore—and Cisco’s new edition takes the sonics, which were great to begin with, to even greater heights. All the instruments are better defined, more accurately reproduced in tone and pitch, but also in their three-dimensional presence between the speakers. Shorter’s solo on the title tune soars palpably high like never before, while the drums on every track are sharper, deeper and punchier than on early pressings. For sheer fun, this is the LP to buy this fall.

As nice as they are, the RVG editions of the Blue Note catalog are about to be blown out of the water. A couple of long-time record industry jazz experts—a producer and a prodigious collector—have teamed up to release several dozen classic Blue Note sessions in definitive two-disc 180-gram 45 rpm LP limited editions via their new company, Music Matters, Ltd. (musicmattersjazz.com). “We’ve found some real gems combing through the catalog,” says producer Joe Harley. So don’t expect the expected, but look for many overlooked titles in this series. Each gatefold package will contain two LPs—they need double the vinyl real estate at 45 rpm—and will be lavishly and generously decorated with dramatic Francis Wolff photos from the sessions, many acquired with the assistance of producer Michael Cuscuna of Mosaic Records.

“No one’s ever heard these records like this before,” swears Harley. “We’ve brought in Steve Hoffman and Kevin Gray to do the mastering and we are working with the original stereo mixes. By the way, these are the masters that were used to mix down one generation to make the mono versions, so the lauded and collectable Blue Note monos were actually made from a copy of the original tape, something no one else was aware of until we got these boxes out of the vaults.”

Knowing that all the figures involved in this project are incapable of performing at less than 1,000 percent, these Blue Notes, with first-batch titles by Art Blakey, Lou Donaldson and Horace Parlan arriving at retailers as you read this, should provide new insight into the way this music was originally intended to be heard. It’s as though the Holy Grail of jazz has finally been presented in high-definition Technicolor. Examples I’ve heard live up to the hype: the sound is jaw-droppingly dynamic, alive and holographic, with none of the high-frequency tilt many have complained about in regards to the RVG remastered CDs, but rather, a satisfying balance from top to bottom, and an unbelievable soundstage, such that I could swear the musicians were playing several feet past the limits of the two speakers themselves. These allow you to actually hear into the music, as well as be enveloped by it.

If you’ve never delved into analog or if you abandoned it when digital came on the scene, it’s not too late to make the leap now. Your ears, not to mention your musical heart and soul, will be forever grateful.

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