Vinyl

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

Photo by Ivan Boban from Pexels

Listening to a luxury turntable can be a sublime musical experience. However, actually buying an ultimate record-playback setup can be daunting, especially if you don’t know who to turn to for advice. There are so many choices for turntables, tonearms, phono cartridges, and electronics . . . where to begin?

The short answer: Rely on an expert.

 

The obvious first place to look is a good specialist audio/video retailer, custom installation firm, or systems integration company. You want companies that sell and install high-end turntables and are knowledgeable about these things. (Luxury turntables require expert setup.)

 

Do a search, and you’ll find that some dealers focus on home audio and video, while other companies lean toward home automation, business, and corporate services, and may not even have turntables on their line card. Traditional “stereo stores” (boy, does that sound dated, but do a Google search and they’ll come up) will likely be your best bet, but don’t rule out others without checking. Stirling Trayle of the consulting company Audio Systems Optimized notes, “The consumer/dealer relationship is vital. Find a good dealer and stick with them.”

 

See if the potential dealer carries reputable brands. Ones you can expect to find at a dealer who’s on top of his game

include Brinkmann, Clearaudio, Linn, McIntosh, SME, Tech DAS, and VPI.

 

Even if you don’t know a platter from a pizza you should be prepared with as much knowledge as possible. As the old Syms clothing store commercials used to say, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”

 

Good articles about buying turntables can be found online at Engadget, CNET and Make Use Of. Although these tend to focus on lower- and mid-priced models rather than ne plus ultra gear, they’re good reading. For articles about and reviews of ultimate-performance gear, check out some of the websites listed in the “Sites & Sound” sidebar below.

And if you feel up to some old-school book-length reading, I highly recommend two volumes, both written in a clear, non-intimidating style. The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, contains a wealth of information on turntables (and every other type of audio component). It’s available from Amazon, HiFiBooks.com, and other outlets. The Friendly Audio Guide by veteran A/V writer Mark Fleischmann is exactly that, filled with useful material about turntables and everything audio. You can buy it from Amazon, Quiet River Press, and elsewhere.

 

As for online and Facebook forums and discussion groups, you’ll need to keep things in perspective. Audiophiles tend to be opinionated, with adherents and detractors for analog vs. digital, tubes vs. solid-state, and every conceivable audio-related topic, with no consensus on what’s “best.” That said, reading posts, some from honest-to-goodness audio-industry experts who are friendly and generous with advice, can be extremely informative.

 

However . . . there’s also an epidemic of misinformation online. Without getting 

into the sociological “why,” it’s well-known that social media sites are filled with people posting uninformed and rude comments. Sadly, audio forums and discussion groups aren’t immune. Beware of self-styled “experts” who are anything but, not to mention the flat-out trolls. If the poster is inflammatory, dogmatic, condescending, seems to have an agenda, or all of the above, those are the typical tells of someone to ignore.

Once you feel like you’ve identified some potential places to buy your dream turntable setup, go and take a listen. Buying a high-performance, luxury turntable-based audio system is not unlike buying a sports car—and can cost as much, all told. So you’ll want to be as comfortable with your audio dealer as you are with your car dealer.

 

Check out a variety of turntables. This is important: Ask the dealer to take you through the process of actually playing a record—putting it on the platter, cueing up the tonearm/cartridge, and so on. Playing a record without damaging the disc or the turntable takes a little practice. And you’ll want some instruction in how to maintain your gear over time. Bring some good-sounding records you’re familiar with so you’ll have a consistent point of reference as you check out different models (see “A Newbie’s List of Reference Discs”).

 

 A great turntable setup should sound astoundingly lifelike, detailed and dynamic with an almost tangible presence to vocals and instruments. It should absolutely, completely, utterly blow you away.

 

Oh, and one more suggestion . . .

 

If you can, attend an audio show! If you’ve never been to one, you’ll be dazzled by the variety of turntables and audio gear to listen to. They’re a wonderful opportunity to meet the designers and manufacturers first-hand, along with hundreds of enthusiasts. They’re also tremendous fun! With more and more audio shows happening around the country—like AXPONA (Chicago), Rocky Mountain Audio Fest 

Getting Into Vinyl? Find Yourself an Expert

A NEWBIE’S LIST OF REFERENCE DISCS

If you already have some albums you’re well familiar with, bring those along when you go to audition a turntable. But if you’re looking for a place to start, you can’t go wrong with these classic choices:

 

Miles Davis, Kind of Blue (Mobile Fidelity re-issue)

The Eagles, Hotel California

Diana Krall, All for You

Pink Floyd, The Dark Side of the Moon

Shelby Lynne, Just a Little Lovin’ 

Cecile McLorin, WomanChild

(Denver), Capital Audiofest (Rockville, MD), the Florida Audio Expo (Tampa), the California Audio Show (Oakland), The Home Entertainment Show (Long Beach, CA), and the New York Audio Show (Manhattan)—not to mention international shows, you can find one just about anywhere.

 

There’s no one “right” way to buy a vinyl playback setup. While the opinions of an expert will be invaluable, ultimately, you should buy what makes you (and your fellow listeners) happy.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

A Brief Introduction to Tube Electronics

The history of tube audio components parallels that of vinyl records over the past 40 years, so in my mind it’s sort of appropriate that tubes and vinyl often go together among audiophiles.

 

By the early 1970s, tube gear was becoming obsolete, supplanted by smaller, more efficient wonder-of-the-Space Age transistors and solid-state audio components. But many audiophiles and music lovers found the sound of early solid-state harsh, spatially flat, even awful. Yet while tubes flickered out of mainstream consumer electronics, they enjoyed a high-end audio revival in the 1970s, still going strong. Today a wealth of tube gear exists, most of it in the high-end luxury realm.

With the advent of the digital Compact Disc in 1982, records were written off—literally, among the mainstream audio press—as a dying format. After all, CDs offered “Perfect Sound Forever.” But critical listeners rejected the sound of early digital, like that of solid-state gear, as harsh, flat and sometimes awful. Some CDs and CD players certainly were. Many audiophiles clung to the analog sound of vinyl, and still do.

 

Thanks to some very talented designers, engineers, and manufacturers, digital audio has improved dramatically. High-resolution audio formats and better D/A (digital to analog) converters are just two examples. In fact, a large contingent of audio professionals will tell you “Game over. Tube components and record players are hopelessly outmoded.”

 

Not so fast.

 

The fact—not wishful audiophile longing, but fact—is that vacuum-tube components have a major presence in high-

end audio, as do turntables, and it’s common knowledge that vinyl is enjoying a major renaissance. Many people who prefer tubes also like to listen to vinyl.

 

Why? Is it because tubes and vinyl really do sound better? Or is it nostalgia—the desire to transport, via one’s music system, back to a simpler, more fondly remembered time as heard through the aural equivalent of rose-colored glasses? Maybe it’s the fun factor of basking in the glow of those tubes (they look really cool in the dark!), watching the record spinning, and holding the record jacket in your hands as you admire the artwork and read the liner notes.

 

(An aside—I listen to everything from old mono LPs to hi-res streaming audio. I’ve heard superb digital and solid-state, and those formats have practical and engineering advantages. That said, there will always be a special place in my heart for tubes and vinyl.)

 

Good tube gear can sound incredibly good, with superb tonal richness, body, detail, and spaciousness. If you equate measurements with fidelity, some tube gear in fact measures very well. On the other hand, detractors will say that “tube warmth” is just an inaccurate coloration or harmonic distortion. (Some people like to run digital audio through tubes to “warm up” the sound, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

 

There are practical considerations. Tubes generate heat and use more electricity. Tube audio components tend to skew expensive—vacuum tubes cost a lot more than transistors and integrated circuits, they use other expensive parts, and building them is labor-intensive. Tube gear can weigh a lot.

 

Tube amps come in many varieties. There are under-10-watt single-ended-triode Class A designs like the Audio Nirvana 300B ($1,650) and behemoths like the VTL Siegfried Series II Reference monoblock ($75,000/pair). Careful speaker 

matching will be necessary, especially with lower-powered amps. (There are also hybrid audio components that incorporate both tubes and solid-state, to combine the advantages of both.)

 

Tube electronics require commitment—the tubes eventually need to be changed, though they can last many years, and some tube amps need periodic user attention. Solid-state gear is set-and-forget by comparison. If you’re thinking of going tube, talk to your dealer, read reviews, and do your homework.

 

To bring turntables, which I discussed in my previous article, into the discussion: Although vinyl has its drawbacks (bass limitations, inner-groove distortion, etc.), a high-end record-playback system can sound wonderful. And there are those who insist analog does sound better than digital, especially through tubes. Complementary colorations or better fidelity? The debate rages.

 

Arguments—er, debates—on sound quality aside, there’s definitely a funky cool nostalgic vibe to tube components and turntables. They look retro and give you classic analog sound. Vintage pieces from Marantz, McIntosh, Quad, Western Electric, Garrard, Thorens and others are from a bygone era—and prized by many audiophiles. (And are also going up in value.)

 

A friend of mine wanted a tube/vinyl setup specifically to listen old-school style to

music as it sounded back in the day as he looks out onto a lakeside sunset and cues up an album on the stereo. You’re just not going to get that vibe scrolling through a computer playlist.

 

In that sense, tubes and turntables very much go together. As far as I’m concerned, it’s fun just to be around them. Playing an old record on a tube/vinyl system gives a strong connection with the past. It’s like listening through a time machine. (Try it. You’ll feel it.) Listening to contemporary albums also sounds great.

 

Writers give a lot of blah blah blah lip service to the experience—but really, that’s what listening to music is all about. It should be fun, involving, emotional. Tube audio gear, turntables, and records offer an intriguing path toward getting you there. Maybe it’s a path you’d like to take.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

With the resurgence of all things vinyl, there’s arguably never been a better time to add a high-end turntable to a luxury home entertainment setup.

 

A what?

 

Audiophiles like me take this for granted, but most people don’t even realize luxury turntables even exist. But what exactly makes a turntable luxury? Well, if it’s defined not just by price but by the ability to deliver a compelling musical experience, the best record-playback systems sound remarkably realistic, blurring the line between “reproduced sound” and the feeling the musicians are right in front of you.

A fine turntable can also be strikingly beautiful, whether a minimalist design like the classic Linn Sondek LP-12 or the clockwork-tech visuals of the VPI Avenger Reference.

 

If you think of audiophiles as a bunch of tweak-crazy perfectionists—assuming you’ve ever bothered to think of audiophiles at all—well, in some cases, you’d be right. (Certainly in my case!) But don’t let the thought that a turntable isn’t a simple plug-and-play purchase scare you away from buying and enjoying one of these gorgeous pieces of machinery.

But there’s one thing I need to emphasize before we proceed: Any high-end turntable will require setup.

 

If you don’t know, or don’t want to know, the tricks of the trade, you can enlist the help of a dealer, systems integrator, or turntable setup specialist (yes, there are people like that). Their advice (and that of expert reviewers) on what turntable to buy 

will also be invaluable. While setup is exacting, it’s not a black art, so if you want to learn how to do it yourself, I would recommend Michael Fremer’s turntable setup DVD.

 

Better turntables start at around a few hundred dollars for a complete turntable/arm/cartridge setup, and spending from $500 to around $2,000 will bring immense musical satisfaction. But if you’re striving for the sonic ultimate, manufacturers like 

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the five-platter, 780-pound TechDAS Air Force Zero turntable

the above and SME, Brinkmann, Spiral Groove, Rega, and Technics offer models from four and five figures all the way up to the mighty $440,000, 780-plus-pound TechDAS Air Force Zero, which features five interlocking platters floating on a cushion of air, and a host of exotic proprietary materials, including a motor that’s no longer made.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the Koestu Goldline Black
phono cartridge

Should you decide to invest in such a dazzling device, you’ll need to add a tonearm and cartridge. While there are plenty of excellent complete turntable setups on the market, for many high-end record-playback rigs, the turntable, tonearm, and cartridge must be chosen separately. (One truly luxury exception is the $17,500 SME Synergy, which includes a Nagra phono stage and Ortofon Windfeld cartridge.) 

 

There are ultra-refined tonearms from some of the manufacturers mentioned above, plus Swedish Analog Technologies (their $48,000 CF1-09 is a mind blower), Acoustic Signature, Graham Engineering and more, and dozens of superb phono cartridges from Grado, Ortofon, Koetsu, Audio-Technica, van den Hul, Kiseki, Lyra, Soundsmith, and many others. The miniaturized works of these diamond-tipped marvels are made to the standards of fine watches.

To go to another level of audiophile geekdom—and raise another topic you might want to hand off to an expert—you’ll also need a phono stage, which amplifies and equalizes the weak signals coming from the turntable to a level the rest of the audio system can handle. (In the days when turntables were everywhere, phono inputs were common on receivers and preamps—today, not so much.) While budget and some under-$1,000 turntables have a built-in phono stage, ultimate-performance phono rigs and outboard phono stages like the Audio Research Reference Phono 3 ($15,000) or the CH Precision P1 ($31,000) go together like Ferraris and Brembo brakes.

 

(For an overview of what’s available check Stereophile’s”Recommended Components” or The Absolute Sound’s“Editors’ Choice” listings.)

 

Why is the best turntable gear expensive? Consider: A record groove is around 40 to 80 micrometers wide. A human hair is 17 to 181 µm wide! When dealing with that kind of micro-level physics, things like stylus shape and cartridge and tonearm alignment become exacting concerns in accurately translating the minute wiggles of the stylus through the groove into electrical signals heard as music. On the macro level, the motor must spin the platter at an unwavering speed (or it’ll be heard as pitch variation) while adding no noise of its own, and the turntable should be immune from outside vibrations.

A Quick Guide to Luxury Turntables

the MAG-LEV Audio ML1 turntable features a levitating record platter

It all adds up to a delicate balancing act—literally—and the engineering involved could fill more than one book. There are a myriad of approaches to things like materials, cartridge designs (the most common are moving coil and moving magnet), tonearm geometries, motors, and noise isolation. (The MAG-LEV Audio ML1 turntable uses magnetic levitation for platter

isolation!) Materials like titanium platters, high-precision bearings, and handmade phono cartridges don’t come cheap, especially when manufactured in small quantities. But when a manufacturer takes a cost-no-object approach, it provides the freedom to reach for the sonic ultimate.

 

So, what’s best for you? I asked Michael Trei, who is a reviewer for Sound & Vision and a turntable setup expert, what his well-to-do clients want most—looks? sound? bragging rights? “Reliability is the most important thing,” he said. ”My customers don’t want to deal with turntables going out of adjustment.”

 

He added that “arm handling is important.” There aren’t any high-end turntables with automatic operation (let alone remote control!), so you have to manually play your records, and take care in doing so. Because of that, you need to be comfortable with the “feel” of the arm. (Some SME models make it physically impossible to accidentally drop the tonearm onto the record.)

 

For the klutzes among us, Trei recommends using a moving-magnet cartridge, since the stylus on most can be easily replaced if damaged. If you have toddlers or others who might cause damage, keep the turntable—or them—out of reach! “I wish someone would make a locking turntable dustcover,” Trei mused.

 

On the other hand, as mentioned before, some audiophiles enjoy “tweaking” their setups. Some turntables are very stable; others require regular attention.

Is it all worth it? Consider me an enabler. A high-end turntable setup will convey music with astounding realism, resolution of musical detail, and a soundspace that can extend beyond the boundaries of your entertainment room or place you right in the audience.

 

If you’ve never heard a high-end turntable at this level of performance, it will be a revelation.

 

If that’s not luxury for the soul, I don’t know what is.

Frank Doris

Frank Doris is the chief cook & bottle washer for Frank Doris/Public Relations and works with a
number of audio & music industry clients. He’s a professional guitarist and a vinyl enthusiast with
multiple turntables and thousands of records.