vinyl Tag

How to Listen: The Firebird

How to Listen: The Firebird

Stravinsky: The Firebird

Mercury Living Presence (original LP & Qobuz 16-bit/44.1 kHz)

 

We haven’t yet done a classical LP in our “How to Listen” series, which many would consider an egregious omission—and I would agree. Aside from the considerable musical merits of classical, there’s arguably no better form of music to demonstrate what a good audio system can do—and perhaps no better disc than this 1959 recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It’s legendary, long-revered by audiophiles and classical aficionados for its sensational sound and thrilling performance. Simply put, The Firebird is a class in itself on what to listen for in an orchestra—and in a great stereo system.

 

Among Golden Age classical record labels, Mercury “Living Presence” and RCA “Living Stereo” LPs are the most acclaimed, with Decca right beside them. (Other labels like London, Everest, and Angel aren’t to be slighted, but among audiophiles and 

collectors, Mercury and RCA are the two most mentioned and re-issued.) Mercurys tend to be more dynamic and brighter, RCAs warmer and more lush-sounding.

 

The Firebird is a 1910 ballet (it’ll have its 110th anniversary on June 25!) about the journey of hero Prince Ivan and his encounters with the evil Koschei the Immortal, the mythical and captivating Firebird, and 13 captive princesses. As you might imagine, this is rich material for musical portrayal, and Stravinsky’s score is magnificently evocative—you really don’t have to know a word of the story to “get” the work’s emotional range. The music is energetic, colorful, impassioned, with a tremendous range of dynamics, moods, and tonal colors. Composer Sergei Rachmaninoff summarized The Firebird’s greatness: “Great God! What a work of genius this is! This is true Russia!”

 

The recording was engineered by C. Robert Fine and produced by Wilma Cozart Fine, two of the greatest figures in classical recording. The disc was recorded in half-inch three-track tape using three Telefunken 201 microphones. It was then mixed down to stereo. This simple, straightforward method of miking an orchestra yields remarkably natural sound, with the orchestra spread over a wide and deep soundstage, instruments accurately placed, and the natural ambience of London’s Watford Town Hall to be clearly heard—if your system is up to the task. The multi-miked recording techniques that later came into vogue gave engineers the ability to create instrumental balances after the fact and “fix it in the mix,” but also destroyed the phase relationships and hall ambience that make purist, simply-miked recordings sound so convincingly real.

 

And what a sound those mics and that tape captured. In particular, the dynamics are fantastic. Starting with quietly-bowed basses, the first few minutes sneak up on you. Set your volume control low, because this recording begins with a barely audible string passage, and then explosive 

orchestral bursts happen, beginning with the appearance of the Firebird in the musical story about five minutes in. If you’re wondering about the low-frequency capability of your system, the first time the timpani come pounding in, you’ll know just how deep and articulate your speakers are—or aren’t.

 

One of the many other striking things about this recording is its clarity. Instruments are reproduced with astonishing transparency and detail. The tonal colors and characters of each instrument are remarkably distinct and, on a good system, 

easy to hear. In fact, the ability to hear and differentiate between all the instruments is crucial to the full appreciation of Stravinsky’s often densely—and brilliantly-orchestrated score.

 

You shouldn’t just hear masses of woodwinds and strings—you should clearly be able to pick out the sweetness of the oboes as opposed to the timbre of the clarinets, the distinction between the violins, violas, and cellos, and other nuances. Percussive sounds are rendered with exceptional transient realism, with the pluck of a harp or the striking of a mallet instrument almost thrilling in their clarity. A real system test? In some spots the strings are playing some very fast, quiet bowed passages. They’re almost imperceptible at times—but they’re there. On a lesser system they’ll sound like one continuous bowed note—or won’t be heard at all.

 

The reproduction of the hall sound is also superb. When a solo trumpet plays or a timpani strikes, you can easily hear the echo of the acoustic space, and if you have the appropriate speakers, you’ll get a sense of the size of the hall and its physical presence. There’s a vast spaciousness, width and depth. For me, the combination of orchestral and hall sound is perfect. It’s simply beautiful to listen to.

 

If there’s one quibble to the overall sonic splendor, it’s that during very loud passages, the sound can get more than a little bright. The upper range is never harsh or grainy, but this recording, and other Mercurys, certainly can’t be accused of erring on the side of mellowness. If your system is on the edge of brightness, this recording may push it over that edge. On the other hand, the bass is rich and authoritative and the midrange is spot on—not too lean, not

The Firebird on Qobuz:
Streaming a Vinyl Icon

 

The original Mercury Living Presence LP of The Firebird (catalog no. SR90226) has long been considered one of the greatest orchestral recordings of all time. It’s had a “Best of the Bunch” highest ranking on The Absolute Sound’s Super LP List for a very long time (a fact I’d forgotten about until doing this review). So . . . how did this iconic recording sound on a digital stream—a format that’s anathema to vinyl-sniffing purists? (Don’t get me wrong—I’m a vinyl aficionado myself.)

 

Well, I listened on Qobuz in 44.1k/16-bit on an extremely high-quality system and was impressed. It sounded smooth with good detail and not very “digital.” The wide dynamic range and tonal balance were there. It didn’t quite have the same richness or spatiality, and I think you need a good copy of the LP to get the “magic.” (There have been a few reissues of varying quality over the decades.) On the other hand, nothing can diminish the transcendent performance.

 

However, Qobuz gives the release date of this Decca Music Group reissue as 1991—jeez, can it really have been 30 years ago?—so this is crying out for a true hi-res 192/24 remastering.

—F.D.

too thick, just right. Instruments like violins and those oboes have a sweetness and expressiveness—the sound just gets out of the way.

 

You can truly hear Dorati’s hand—literally—in conducting the LSO, every nuance of control and relaxed grace easily heard. You feel as much as hear the ebb and flow. The performance of the orchestra is masterful. The musicianship is transcendent.

 

There’s not much more I can say other than to conclude with this: In writing the review, I listened to The Firebird multiple times. First to reacquaint myself and take notes. Then, having trouble tearing myself away, to simply bask in the utterly beautiful sound and performance.

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.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In Part I, I walked you through an obscure boxed set from the legendary Les Paul and the likely definitive Beatles boxed set. Here, we’ll look at innovative sets from a couple of rock legends and an elusive collectible from possibly the greatest song stylist of the 20th century.

Neil Young Archives Vol. 1

This set (shown above) is fascinating, and if you are a Neil Young fan, it’s essential. Inside this oddly sized, semi-cumbersome-to-open treasure chest you’ll get seemingly endless riches. Documenting his earliest recordings up through the period around his big breakthrough smash-hit album Harvest, you get a deep dive into Neil’s world, from classic album tracks 

to live concerts, demos, and unreleased recordings.

 

Everything on the Blu-ray edition is presented in high-resolution audio, so the sound is terrific and there are fun onscreen visuals that you have to be something of an audio geek-o-phile with a sense of humor to appreciate. Click here to watch Neil’s trailer for the set, with many glimpses of what to expect, including high-res video footage of records and reel-to-reel decks playing back the music on screen.

 

There is a lot of deep detail, and the set was designed at the time to connect to the internet, where you could hear even more tracks that didn’t make it into the box. In 2010, this boxed set won the Grammy Award for Best Art 

Direction on a Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package! It’s a neat thing. And while it’s not cheap, it is not astronomical to pick up these days on Discogs, ranging in price from $120 to $240.

 

Oh, and you may be wondering what happened to Vol. 2? It has been continued and expanded on the internet and as a series of ongoing vinyl releases. So there hasn’t been another physical boxed set like this one, and there probably won’t be, which makes Volume 1 all the more intriguing and desirable to own.

Pete Townshend’s
Lifehouse Chronicles

After the success of The Who’s Tommy, main songwriter Pete Townshend prepared another rock musical called Lifehouse. The storyline was ahead of its time, and the elaborate concept was ultimately whittled down into The Who’s landmark 1971 smash Who’s Next. Townshend soon crafted another brilliant rock opera called Quadrophenia, yet he never gave up on Lifehouse, and by 1999 he got to present it as a musical radio play on the BBC.

 

This wonderful six-CD boxed set dedicated entirely to Lifehouse was only sold on Townshend’s website and The Who’s 2000 tour. It includes not only that 1999 BBC radio play but four

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 3

discs of Townshend’s original demos and his continued experiments over the years (including songs that ended up on later Who albums!).

 

The packaging is gorgeous, presented in a sleek grey corrugated cardboard design with the Lifehouse logo and design etched into the cover. Inside, each CD gets its own rainbow-colored sleeve, and there is an informative full-color booklet. Ultimately, it’s all about the music, and there are some amazing works here. This set wasn’t cheap to begin with, and sells online (at Discogs) upwards of $270. There is one on Amazon going for much more. Whatever price you pay, if you are a fan of the music and the man, it’s worth it.

 

 

The Astaire Story
Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 2

In 1953, jazz impresario and record-label owner/producer Norman Granz pushed forward on a wondrous journey, pairing by-then-legendary dancer/actor/personality Fred Astaire with jazz-legend-in-the-making Oscar Peterson. Issued in a super-deluxe boxed-set package, the album featured Astaire singing—and sometimes tap dancing!—with Oscar and his band.

 

If the individual albums are difficult to find in any condition, the deluxe version is near impossible to track down (at least reasonably priced). It was a limited edition of exactly 1,384 copies (it says so in the set!), each signed by Astaire and the artist David Stone Martin. I have never seen a copy in person, but from the photos online, it seems to use cloth-

bound, padded-style packaging with looseleaf-styled binding to house liner notes, the discs, and some wonderful drawings by Martin.

 

And consider this: Along the way someone told me there was an even more deluxe edition that was sold back in the day bound in a leather-clad folio! I don’t know if this real or mythology, but I am keeping a watchful eye out for one to materialize somewhere along the way!

 

I have been aware of this set for several years—there is even a nice CD reissue, which I have reviewedbut I have only found three of the four LPs out in the wilds of record collecting (stores, thrift shops, flea markets, etc.). I just saw one copy of the deluxe set on eBay going for $720 with the rare blue-vinyl pressing.  But . . . I remain intrigued as I’ve never seen the rumored leather-bound version.

 

The quest continues . . .

 

 

This is the kind of treasure hunting I love and keeps me excited about collecting music!

 

There are many more deluxe-edition sets to explore.  Stay tuned for my next article in this series.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

In the world of collectible music, the venerable boxed set has proven to be a highly prized and desired artifact of home entertainment. The ultimate statement for many an artist, these sets are a chance to present their music in a definitive light.

 

Boxed sets are often limited editions that can accrue in value. Exploring the packaging can be an enjoyable experience complementary to the music inside. Many sets include memorabilia, such as hard-cover coffeetable books chock full of pictures and artist details. Some sets have bonuses like buttons, marbles, board games, and other fun merchandise the artists have created for their fans.

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Vol. 1

They seem to be more popular than ever, too—over the past 10 years, not a Record Store Day or Black Friday goes by without a special edition making some headlines, from The Beatles and Pink Floyd to Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. Heck, there is even a website dedicated to new boxed-set releases. And there seem to be more and more sets released every year.

 

But you might be surprised to learn that the boxed-set concept isn’t new. I’ve seen special-edition sets dating back to the early days of recorded music, especially with the advent of multi-disc album sets on 78 RPM records in the 1940s, and have encountered vintage multi-disc deluxe editions for Glenn Miller and Bing Crosby with cloth-covered padded covers and such.

Just last year, Craft Recordings (a deluxe imprint from Concord Music, which owns a multitude of labels including Fantasy Records and Prestige Records) put out lovely (and expensive) sets celebrating Miles Davis and John Coltrane that mimic the 1950s design aesthetic. (Click here for my review of the Coltrane set.) They sell for $200 or more new!

 

I’ll show you some of my faves, including one in Part 2 that I have yet to get my hands on!

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1
Les Paul, The New Sound

I only learned of this set of 78 RPM discs last year when I discovered a nearly mint-condition copy at a flea market. For those of you not in the know, I am a very deep fan of Les Paul, dating back to the 7th grade or so when I discovered one of his 

albums at a garage sale. His solo in “Bye Bye Blues just knocked me out. And thus began a quest that continued into college in the form of a Jazz History term paper that ultimately led to my freelance-writing side career!

 

I’ve written about Les in the past and even been to his house once. (He was nice enough to autograph the issue of DISCoveries, shown at right, containing my interview with him.) I’m a deep collector, so finding this set I never knew existed was remarkable. That it was in pristine condition was miraculous given the fragility of shellac 78s. I knew some of these songs came out as individual 78s in 1948 and on a 10-inch LP in 1950. But this boxed set of 78s is something I’ve not seen or read about anywhere. No one has posted a copy on the record collectors’ site Discogs. (I will probably post my pix there for posterity someday.) I did find one at this site, but it doesn’t seem to be for sale.

 

What is the value of a set like this? To me, it’s invaluable. To a record store, it’s 

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

probably not worth a lot, but I don’t care. I’m not selling it! The discs include the first experiments Les released in his creation of multitrack recording, using his groundbreaking sound-on-sound technique recording direct to disc at 78 RPM! In essence, everything most of us love about high fidelity pre-recorded music today has its roots in these recordings by Les Paul.

 

 

The Beatles in Mono

This gorgeous limited-edition boxed set was a significant and different animal than the similarly presented stereo Beatles boxed set. All the recordings were made direct from the original mono master tapes in an all-analog mastering process similar to how the records were made in the 1960s. The packaging and labels are period-accurate, which is fantastic for most of us 

who have never been able to get our hands on the rare original UK editions. Even if you could find them, chances are they wouldn’t sound as good since they were probably played to death on primitive equipment.

 

Why is this so much better than the stereo? It turns out that the earlier boxed set was mastered from 44.1 kHz, 24-bit digital files (a few steps above CD

Boxed Sets: The Ultimate Music Collectible, Pt. 1

quality). Probably embarrassed, the label pulled out all the stops for the (in some ways more important) mono box. It is a gorgeous and fantastic-sounding collection.

 

The set wasn’t cheap when it came out (at about $400 or so) and is now selling for a minimum of more than twice that, and upwards of three times the price on eBay!  A limited edition, it’s doubtful they will ever produce another set quite like this one again, so that makes this collection of all the Beatle records up through The White Album extra special.

 

You can read my three-part review of the set by clicking here, and here, and here. If you’re in a Beatles mode, the Sgt. Pepper boxed set is pretty wonderful too, albeit a different focus (more about Blu-ray Discs and such but still great). Click here, here, and here to read my three-part review of that set!

 

In Part 2, I’ll walk you through some extraordinary boxed sets devoted to works by Neil Young, Pete Townshend, and Fred Astaire.

Mark Smotroff

Mark Smotroff breathes music 24/7. His collection includes some 10,000 LPs, thousands of
CDs & downloads, and many hundreds of Blu-ray and DVD Audio discs. Professionally, Mark has
provided Marketing Communications services to the likes of DTS, Sony, Sega, Sharp, and AT&T.
He is also a musician, songwriter & producer, and has written about music professionally for
publications including Mix, Sound+Vision, and AudiophileReview. When does he sleep?

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.

The High Cost of High Expectations

The High Cost of High Expectations

photo by Tom Pumford

The other day I had the opportunity to work on a job using a camera system I had only heard stories about—that is to say, I had never personally used it for my paid professional work. Needless to say I was more than a little excited, struggling to contain my inner fanboy, as I began the shoot. After about an hour behind the lens, something became increasingly clear, something I wasn’t expecting . . . I hated the camera. Oh, I loathed it. It threw me for a complete loop, for how could I, after all these years of yearning, not only be disappointed by this machine but actually be upset by it?

 

I’ve seen the same happen to AV enthusiasts time and time again. The reason often has to do with many of our opinions being formed by the opinions of others rather than being based on firsthand knowledge. It took me all of an hour to realize I would never recommend this product to another despite it winning countless Best Of awards and being the IT product to have in a given year. More shocking still was that when I quietly shared my displeasure with a few of my colleagues, they instantly rushed to the defense of . . . the product! As if my personal opinions (that is what we’re talking about here) were invalid, and it was me who had the problem—not the product!

 

When we self-identify with a hobby, product, or group, we take offense when that something is called out or criticized. For if there is something wrong with our choice in whatever, that must mean there is something wrong with us . . . right? Better to attack what threatens us rather than reason with it, even if this means not being able to reason with our very selves. It is this latter point that I find especially prevalent among AV enthusiasts—especially older diehards (or dare I say, blowhards).

 

I have on numerous occasions been in the presence of individuals who have five- and six-figure AV systems that others heap praise upon for their drool-worthiness, and yet know that these same individuals spend nearly zero time enjoying their setups. I know that if many had to do it all over again, they would likely never have purchased much of the gear they currently own, opting for something less intrusive and cumbersome. They stick with it because of this notion of clout.

 

I’ve watched people listen intently to something they clearly do not like and still buy it anyway because it must be them—the customer—who is missing something. That with time they will see the light so to speak. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we feel we are incapable of trusting our own judgement when it comes to AV equipment? Is the draw of an award, or the seemingly endless string of others who “believe,” that strong of a pull that we’re willing to lie to ourselves? Or is it because we build up so many products into “legend” that the mere idea they may be “mortal” is too much for us to take?

 

I don’t pretend to know the exact answers.Suffice to say that the phenomenon is very real and only growing stronger, as more and more people in this world are choosing to live vicariously through the actions and ideas of others. Don’t believe me? I recently produced a video entitled “Vinyl Sucks” for YouTube, and within three days it garnered over 100,000 views and over 

1,500 negative comments—mostly directed at me on a personal level for my opinion. The funny thing about this being, I don’t think vinyl sucks, and in the video I say as much. I even explain that despite its shortcomings, it has great value to me and others. But I opened with a critical—albeit humorous—jab, and as a result I was roasted for it.

Why is there a right way and a wrong way to enjoy your favorite music and movies? If there is, who decides? Have you lied to yourself about equipment you’ve purchased in the past, or maybe even currently own?

Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a photographer and videographer by trade, working on commercial
and branding projects all over the US. He has served as a managing editor and
freelance journalist in the AV space for nearly 20 years, writing technical articles,
product reviews, and guest speaking on behalf of several notable brands at functions
around the world.

Three Essential Vinyl Demos

I’ve been a vinylphile since I was a child, when 78 RPM records like Debbie Reynolds’ “Abba Dabba Honeymoon” and Spike Jones’ “Hawaiian War Chant” captivated my young ears on my grandmother’s Victrola.

 

Here are three of my favorite demo discs for audio system and component evaluation and listening pleasure. In fact, I’d say you could tell everything you need to know about what your system is doing or where it’s falling short with these three records.

 

 

Bill Berry and His Ellington All Stars, For Duke

M&K Realtime RT-101

 

This LP attained audiophile-pantheon status shortly after it came out in 1978, and for good reason. It remains one of the most astonishingly well-recorded vinyl LPs ever. Unlike many “audiophile” discs with exceptional sonics and forgettable music, the playing is wonderful, with a jazz combo having a ball playing Ellington’s greatest hits, including “Take the A Train,” “Satin Doll,” and “Mood Indigo.”

 

For Duke was recorded direct-to-disc—the performance was cut live directly to the master disc, a process that eliminates the sonic degradation and generation loss that comes with recording to analog tape and then cutting the disc from tape.

 

It shows. In particular, the dynamics are remarkable. A couple of minutes into “Take the A Train,” Berry takes a cornet solo that is literally startling—when he comes in, it’s all you can do not to flinch in surprise (as I did the first time I heard it). The drums are powerfully lifelike, as are all the instruments—Ray Brown’s bass is jaw dropping in its richness and presence. The recording is astoundingly pure and detailed. The tonal balance is near perfect.

 

We’ve all heard the cliché “It sounds like the musicians are in the room” to describe the sound of a good recording, but in this case, it really does sound like that. This record is hard to find and usually expensive, but hey, that’s part of the agony and the ecstasy of record collecting.

Fritz Reiner, The Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Scheherazade

Analogue Productions LSC-2446 re-issue of RCA “Living Stereo” original

 

While For Duke is renowned for its up-front perspective, Scheherazade puts the listener in an entirely different acoustic environment, with its realistic rendering of an orchestra in the concert hall. Recorded in 1960 by producer Richard Mohr and engineer Lewis Layton and brilliantly performed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra conducted by maestro Fritz Reiner, this Analogue Productions re-issue is nothing less than sensational.

vinyl demos

The tonal palette of the orchestra is beautifully conveyed, with sumptuous lows, a natural midrange, and the sweet, airy upper midrange and highs that let you know you’re hearing analog at its best. On a good system, you can clearly hear the character of the hall. The quiet parts are exquisite (Sidney Hart’s violin playing could not be more nuanced and expressive) and the fortes are thrilling.  My feeble words don’t begin to do this masterpiece justice.

 

For decades, the legendary original RCA Living Stereo recording was nearly impossible to find, with various vinyl re-issues ranging from mediocre to very good. No longer—this 2013 Analogue Productions re-issue is magnificent. In fact, while I don’t have an original pressing on hand for comparison (though I’ve heard it many times), no less an authority than Analog Planet’s Michael Fremer thinks this re-issue actually betters the storied original. I won’t argue.

New Order, “Blue Monday”

Factory Records Factus 10 (1983 US 12-inch single)

 

But want to know if your system can rock? All you need do is listen to the first Oberheim DMX drum-machine beats of New Order’s “Blue Monday,” the best-selling 12-inch single of all time (according to Wikipedia), and one of the most groundbreaking, genre-defining, walloping bowl-you-over dance-music singles ever. But don’t turn it up too loud or you might blow out your woofers.

 

“Blue Monday” is insanely powerful and dynamic, irresistibly catchy and moving. Back in the day, this would propel people to the dance floor with its mesmerizing mix of synth and Peter Hook’s unmistakable electric bass, its layered synthesizer washes and melodies, its pull-no-punches electronic drums, and Bernard Sumner’s dryly-delivered vocals. On a good audio system, it sounds massive.

 

My copy is an original 1983 US version with the die-cut cover (designed to resemble a floppy disc!) and silver inner sleeve, though not one of the first UK pressings with the “FAC 73” catalog number. There are literally more than 50 1983 vinyl US, UK, and international issues listed on Discogs (and there were also 1998 and 1995 remixes and numerous CD and digital versions), so I certainly can’t vouch for the sound quality of every one of them! But since the record sold so well, you shouldn’t have to do a Where’s Waldo to find a copy like mine. Put it on the turntable and stand back!

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.

The Lost Art of Album Listening

album listening

I have a confession to make: I can no longer listen to an entire album in one sitting. I can binge-watch an entire season of Game of Thrones over a weekend, but I can’t devote 60 to 75 minutes of real concentration to absorb the latest creation from a favored musical artist. I get maybe six or seven songs in, then I just tune out. The music may still be playing, but my brain ain’t listening.

 

I would not call myself an audiophile, but I’m definitely a music junkie. For me, music is an indispensable part of each and every day—when I’m driving in the car, working at my desk, going for my daily walk, or making dinner. Music is always playing. The thing is, that music is always in the form of a playlist. I almost never listen to complete albums anymore, even my most treasured faves.

 

I’ve always been a playlist kind of gal, dating back to the days when playlists were called mix tapes. Oh, could I make a mean mix tape. The hours spent picking a theme, agonizing over song selection, and then arranging the songs just right to ensure that minimal time was left at the end of each side of the tape. Give me a mix tape that cut off part of a song, and I would think less of you as a human being. But there was a balance between my love of mix tapes and my love of albums. How do you think I found all the songs to mix?

 

Mix tapes evolved into CD mixes, which evolved into iTunes playlists, which evolved into Pandora artist-inspired radio stations, which evolved into curated playlists from Apple, Amazon, or Tidal. The ease of playlist listening, combined with the ability to buy just one song off any album, has simply removed “the album experience” from my repertoire . . . apparently to the point that I can’t even do it when I want to.

album listening

This became painfully obvious when I recently picked up U2’s latest album, Songs of Experience. We’re talking about my all-time favorite band here, and I was determined to sit down and really absorb the album from start to finish. Didn’t happen. Got distracted. The snarky response is that perhaps the album just isn’t good enough to merit my full attention, but how can I even make a fair assessment without one serious listen? Believe it or not, Achtung Baby didn’t jump out at me at first, and now it’s my favorite U2 album, start to finish.

 

It seems there is no “start to finish” anymore. I wonder, if I forced myself to use nothing but a CD player—to ban iTunes and all streaming music services—for six months, could my love of album listening be revived? Or are the days of sitting in front of the record player, reading liner notes, and learning lyrics far behind me? I could say I don’t have time for such indulgences, but the hard truth is that I don’t make time for it. I don’t give music the attention it deserves anymore.

 

As for liner notes, who can even read the text in CD packaging these days? Maybe that’s the real reason for vinyl’s resurgence—it’s not the sound quality, it’s the larger print.

    —Adrienne Maxwell

Adrienne Maxwell has been writing about the home theater industry for longer than she’s
willing to admit. She is currently the 
AV editor at WirecutterAdrienne lives in Colorado,
where  she spends far too much time looking at the Rockies and not nearly enough time
being in them.

Record Care 101

If you keep your vinyl and stylus clean, you’ll be able to enjoy your records for many, many playings.

 

Keep the dust, dirt, oil, and sweat from your fingerprints, along with other contaminants, away from the record surface. Always handle records by the edgesnever grab them by the surface! Whenever I see somebody do that in a TV show or movie, I cringe.  (Guess the producers didn’t do their homework.)

 

After you put records back in their sleeves, put the sleeve into the album cover with the sleeve’s opening facing up, not with it facing to the right, aligned with the opening of the cover. I realize it’s easier to pull the record out if you don’t have to remove the sleeve from the cover, but doing it right will protect your LPs from dust and other schmutz. And storing records “sleeve up” keeps them from accidentally falling out.

 

Store your albums vertically, never laying one on top of another, which makes them susceptible to warping. And never pile bare records on top of each other. They’ll scratch and go from mint to mauled in no time.

 

Keep records away from extreme heat and humidity. I can’t tell you how many moldy records I’ve found in basements. Never store them in direct sunlight.

how to clean records

Before you play a record, clean it off with a record brush. This will remove dust that can cause ticks, pops, and record and stylus wear. (You can brush the record while it’s spinning on the turntable.)

 

Clean your stylus. The dust and contaminants that can accumulate there can cause distortion and even damage the stylus. But don’t use your fingertip! Use a brush specifically designed for stylus cleaning, and use a back-to-front motion to avoid damaging the stylus assembly.

 

If you like to buy used records, and if your budget allows, get a record-cleaning machine. They can be miraculous in transforming dirty click-and-pop-laden LPs into noise-free specimens. If money is tight, buy a record-cleaning kit. You can clean records by hand using various methods, including dishwashing liquid and soft clothsyou have to be careful but it can be done.

 

This post just scratches the surface. (Sorrybad analogy!) Other aspects of record care include replacing worn paper inner sleeves with high-quality sleeves, using anti-static guns and cloths, and investing in electronic stylus cleaners and even ultrasonic record cleaners. More to come!

—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.

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