July/August 2001

Turntable Tech

Please tell me you were not one of the thousands of jazz fans across the country who, when faced with the onslaught of those silvery digital discs, succumbed to the demons and sacrificed your vast collection of classic vinyl to the circling vultures. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but I have to tell you: You probably made a big mistake!

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Rega Planar 2 Turntable

Because even with all the advances made in digital technology, most folks involved in high-end audio agree that a good LP on a good turntable still sounds better than the same CD, even when played on players costing up to and over $20,000. So if you held onto those old Riversides and Blue Notes up through the CTIs and ECMs, don’t let them go. You have a treasure on your hands and, with the right equipment, you can put Monk, Hancock, Turrentine and Jarrett smack dab in the middle of your living room.

Says Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, the distributor of U.S.-made Basis turntables and Graham tonearms, “Analog is still the most enjoyable way to listen to recorded music. And now it’s a noncommercial medium with no pressure to succeed—that’s when the creative design juices start to flow. Besides,” he continues, “LPs are just more fun. The rise of small group jazz was more or less concurrent with the rise of the LP and the LP cover art, think Blue Note for example, became a big part of the package.”

Though turntable technology may have taken a slight dip in the ’80s when digital discs began displacing LPs in record stores, it didn’t take long before analog-loving designers accepted the challenge and produced some amazing vinyl playback equipment. From then on, turntables, tonearms and cartridges have only gotten better. And the “software”? Hell, if you lurk in the right used record stores, you can find miles of Miles (and Trane and Clifford and Diz and...) for under five bucks each, and new reissues in all genres of music, pressed on high-quality vinyl, are being released every month.

In just the past few years, turntable and vinyl purveyors all across the country have been experiencing a renaissance in the acceptance of analog as a high-quality source for music. Young and old alike are grabbing new turntables off shelves in surprising quantities.

So what’s the deal? Well, that’s a long story. Or several long stories.

In the early ’70s, when cheap Japanese turntables dominated the market (though Thorens and others were still making halfway decent tables), a man in Scotland had a revolutionary idea that eventually turned the hi-fi industry on its head.

In a sense, what Ivor Tiefenbrun began preaching was “garbage in, garbage out.” Previous thinking placed speakers at the top of the quality chain: “Put most of your money in speakers and it doesn’t matter what the electronics are like,” was the line handed out by sales geeks in those days. (Unfortunately, this is still the line you hear at most mainstream stores.) Tiefenbrun, whose father owned a precision-metal tooling shop, realized that the signal that went into the electronics and speakers had to start out faithful to the groove of the record and that no speaker could make a distorted signal sound right. So he resolved to make an accurate turntable—the result was Linn HiFi’s legendary Sondek LP12.

“I built a turntable for myself,” Tiefenbrun explains. “The conventional wisdom was that the turntable had little influence on the final sound, that the speaker was all important. That’s crap. I showed that the order of hierarchy as it relates to quality sound, follows the signal path. I showed that, by utilizing the best possible turntable, even modest electronics could produce high-quality sound. It took 10 years of one-on-one demonstrations with critics and retailers to prove the point, but now that is the prevailing wisdom in the industry.”

Ivor’s LP12 is not only still being made, the longest lived product in the history of hi-fi, but, he says, “We still have people working in our company to improve turntables, tonearms, cartridges and so forth.”

If the LP is dead, why so much fuss?

“Analog represents the mechanical reproduction of a mechanical phenomenon, which is what sound is,” says Allen Perkins, owner of Immedia and designer of globally acclaimed tables like the Sota Cosmos and the Immedia RPM Revolution. “Digital can never be anything better than a series of samples imitating that mechanical phenomenon. You can’t trick the ear; you can hear that difference,” he insists. “Besides, the CD was never about the sound, it was driven by the marketing department of Sony, who wanted a new format that would contain all of Beethoven’s Fifth on one side and would fit in the available space in the dashboard of a car. Sony knew the sound was a compromise, but they were looking for convenience.

“I think a lot of young kids are buying turntables today in a reactionary move against high-tech, and discovering the improved quality by chance,” Perkins continues, “then their buddies hear how great the sound is and something like a chain reaction occurs. That seems to be driving much of the renewed interest in analog. But there are a lot of older music lovers, especially jazz fans, who want the best quality they can find. So we actually sell more of our $12,000 RPM Revolution model (soon to be replaced by an improved version) than our $3,000 table. And our $2,000 Lyra Helikon cartridge sells better than our $1,000 cartridge.”

Bes Nievera, senior audio consultant at Music Direct, a Web-based source for analog everything, concurs, “We just experienced the best year ever in sales of turntables and accessories, with much of the growth in our more esoteric lines. Of course, we sell more of the reasonably priced plug-and-play units from Rega and Music Hall, for example, but in general, turntables are definitely a much-sought-after item.”

Roy Hall, designer of the Music Hall line, chimes in, “It seems like the euphoria over digital is fading. The new response to analog is gratifying. It must sound better because in demos, I always see people smiling. I think we have two customers: the older record collector who still has a crappy turntable and wants to step up to their ‘last’ table, and the younger kids who think turntables are cool.”

Hall thinks that jazz listeners should not abandon vinyl. “There’s lots of jazz available on LP and your readers will love the quality of the sound. And because they hear more live music, the jazz listener has a much higher internal standard—they know what music is supposed to sound like and digital just can’t deliver the same experience that vinyl on a good turntable can.”

So, what’s out there in today’s analog hardware market?

Nievera has some suggestions: “The Music Hall MMF-5 at $499 is an amazing package that comes complete with a Goldring cartridge. Sumiko’s Pro-Ject 1.2 at $319 is very affordable, easy to set up and very enjoyable. And the Regas are great. The Planar 2 at $495 and the Planar 3 at $675 are great bargains and the 25 at $1,275 is monumental; it’s bloody fantastic!”

I have been listening to a Rega 2 for the last several weeks, impressed by the sound myself, and setting up this baby really is about as easy as plug and play. A couple of minor adjustments to tonearm balance are all that separate you from the joyous sounds contained in your valuable record collection—that is, if you still have it!

My long-term table has been the Linn LP12, which offers a dizzying selection of optional power supplies, tonearms and bases, ranging from around $3,000 for the entry-level package to over $6,000 for the deluxe version with top-of-the-line everything. And actually, even the higher price is reasonable considering you can easily spend twice that—or as much as $73,000—on the competition, and the LP12 is, according to Linn, “still the turntable by which all others are judged.”

Some other interesting options slightly out of the entry-level range include the beautiful tables from Michell Engineering in England, and the excellent VPI, Well Tempered and Basis tables from the U.S.A. All are good choices with options in the under-$2,000 range, but all these companies also offer more expensive units with correspondingly improved performance. The Loth-X Othello is a cool-looking table that also sounds great for around $1,499 including arm.

Don’t forget the cartridge. You can consult with your favorite dealer, or browse the Internet. While you can spend the equivalent of several weeks’ pay, there are good values to be had in the under $500 range. Look at Grado, Sumiko, Shure, Benz-Micro and Audio Technica. Because cartridges have well-defined “personalities,” find a dealer you can trust (yes, you can even find some on the Web) and describe your equipment and your listening preferences; the dealer can help choose a cartridge that best complements your particular circumstances. I have had good success with the Sumiko Blue Point and Blue Point Special and Grado’s Reference Platinum. After choosing, if your dealer is local, let him or her set up your purchase to get optimum performance.

Garth Leerer says it best: “In a freeze-dried lifestyle dominated by microwaves, analog LPs are the BBQs of musical reproduction, slow and so pleasurable. Plus, analog is like jazz; it’s not trying to be mainstream, but continues to focus on creativity. Bill Gates bragged that his digital universe could reproduce the Mona Lisa 60 feet tall—but why would you want that? The analog original is so much simpler, so much more enjoyable.”

In a world dominated by bits and bytes, it is comforting to know that we can still drink our music the old-fashioned way, pure and simple. Now, get out and do some listening.

Sources for Vinyl

Once you get that top-rankin’ new table up and running, even if you have your old records stashed in a closet, you might want to treat yourself to some new sides—and if you are just getting into vinyl, you need some sources for assembling a basic selection.

Says Garth Leerer of Musical Surroundings, distributor of fine analog playback equipment, “There’s lots of good jazz being released and a lot of stuff is still out there for sale, albeit much of it is used. And even the major record companies like Blue Note, Impulse! and Fantasy are getting hip to the vinyl reissue thing.”

The best places to begin the hunt are used record stores or used book stores that also sell used vinyl; most cities have at least one and some are blessed with many, some even specializing in specific genres like jazz. When you start your treasure hunting, remember that unless a disc has been totally trashed it often can be cleaned and be made better than new. Both Nitty Gritty and VPI make excellent LP cleaning machines and are well worth the investment (anywhere from $200 to $1,000) to guarantee clean, quiet record surfaces. So don’t shy away from used product because most of it can be cleaned, played and treasured.

But there are a number of companies out there licensing masters from the majors and releasing some great stuff on very high quality pressings. Mosaic Records might be the best known with their great reissues of Monk, Miles, Ellington, Basie, etc. But you might not know about Classic Records, DCC, Analogue Productions and the several other companies doing their best to keep some of the most timeless, classic recordings in the jazz world available on those 12-inch wonders. “LPs are doing well, in fact sales are increasing,” according to Bes Nievera at Music Direct, one of the largest purveyors of vinyl on the Web. “There are some fantastic companies putting out some wonderful jazz pressed on 180-gram vinyl reissues,” Nievera says.

He sent me a few samples and I bathed in the magically smooth sounds of Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder on Blue Note, Miles Davis and Gil Evans painting the analog Sketches of Spain (reissued by Classic Records) and a delightful surprise produced by Leonard Feather in the mid-’50s and reissued by DCC—Maxine Sullivan’s Tribute to Andy Razaf (lyricist who collaborated with Fats Waller on such standards as “Honeysuckle Rose” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” among others). This is an amazing record—her voice takes a three dimensional shape between the speakers—and the music is so much fun.

But don’t think you can only get older recordings on vinyl. For example, the smart folks at Premonition have released all of Patricia Barber’s work on LP and they can’t keep it coming fast enough. “They sound dramatically different from the CDs,” says Premonition’s Mike Friedman. “They are an incredible improvement with much better bass and a definable presence of the players in the room.” I must agree. Barber’s voice, not a shy thing to begin with, takes control of your living room and everyone in it, and doesn’t let go till you hit the lead-out groove. The CDs are very good; the LPs are exemplary.

Friedman also says these vinyl versions are a response to demand from the audiophile world. Damn, there ought to be enough jazz fans out there to make an adequate noise so maybe we can start seeing more of our favorite artists, old and new, represented on retailers’ shelves by more and more analog LPs. Let’s start shouting—shouting really loud.

Here are some Web sources to pick up some of these little-known gems. Most of these dealers sell vinyl and the turntables to play ’em on and all the accessories you need to get the most out of your older LPs as well as the new ones. Some Web dealers even sell used records promising an even wider selection of music to choose from.

Music Direct—www.amusicdirect.com
Elusive Disc—www.elusivedisc.com
Acoustic Sounds—www.acousticsounds.com
Red Trumpet—www.redtrumpet.com

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