Patricia Barber made me write the original draft of this article. It was supposed to be about something else, but she grabbed me, shook me, made me feel all warm inside, and the die was cast.
I was listening to her Modern Cool recording on vinyl—at the time, my first foray into LPs in more than a year I’m ashamed to admit—when she took hold of me so dramatically. Her voice was there: it was liquid, it was present, it was real. For the year previous to scratching out that first draft, I had been lulled into complacence with the convenience of CDs, and my current rig, the fantastic Rega Saturn CD player, does create a way-better-than-average sound from those shiny aluminum discs. But when I dropped the needle into that groove, I knew within seconds I had been lying to myself. The sound was so much better I could hardly believe it. Her band shot out of the speakers like a rocket, with an immediacy and a dynamic presence the digital domain just cannot allow. I spent the rest of the evening pulling LP after LP off the shelf to revisit old favorites, particularly titles still unavailable, believe it or not, on CD.
“Jazz fans are people who still enjoy LPs because they know the music is more faithfully reproduced on vinyl,” concurs Peter Braverman, a sometimes audio critic and former partner in Red Trumpet, a now defunct online source for analog playback equipment and LPs. He continues, “And to my ears, LPs sound more like what I remember live music sounding like. Plus, there is a feeling of looking back at the past, connecting with the past through the LP and its packaging, some kind of monkeybone link between jazz and the LP.”
Roy Gandy, designer of Britain’s prestigious Rega turntables AND CD players, characterizes the psychographic of the LP lover as follows, “There are always those who care about searching out the best in any field whether it’s food, music or reading. And there are those happy with the mass market choices. The first group finds it interesting to search out things that give them more pleasure and these people stumble once again across the turntable and say ‘Wow! what’s going on here?’”
“Even one of our cheapest turntables, let’s say the RP1 [$445], if matched with adequate ancillary equipment—the cartridge, amplifier and speakers—can produce a more satisfying musical experience than even the best, most expensive CD player. I think most people would prefer the sound of the RP1 turntable,” Gandy proclaims.
And though the sound of LPs may be better than CD, most folks are not going to make the switch back to turntables and vinyl. But nonetheless, sales of each, according to all the sources we spoke with for this article, continue to grow, albeit slowly, year by year. Even the selection of LP titles continues to swell. “Vinyl, in general is doing very well,” says Braverman, “There continues to be more and more new releases, in fact, there is more good vinyl available now, and a greater diversity and better pricing, than anytime in the last 25 years.” So somebody out there seems to be faithful to the cult of the LP.
Terry Currier of Portland, Oregon’s Music Millennium, one of the country’s most renowned brick and mortar sources for new and used vinyl agrees. “Vinyl is stronger today than ten years ago. There seems to be a resurgence in popularity in the last few years. We stock everything we can get our hands on and jazz, especially, sells amazingly well, both new and used. Especially the classics. Give me Coltrane and Miles all day long and it will sail out the door,” he sums up.
“Some of the majors have become looser in regards to licensing for vinyl reissues,” says Rick Wojcik, owner of Dusty Groove and online and brick and mortar LP and CD outlet. “In the last ten years,” he continues, “there’s been tremendous growth in the number of vinyl reissue companies which helps us maintain a constant flow of vinyl.”
Wojcik’s Dusty Groove (located in Chicago and now featuring a storefront outlet) is just one of many that have sprung up to service the growing demand for LPs. “We started our website in 1995 just selling used vinyl. Then we added reissues coming out of Europe and Japan. We just love the music and want to make it available in any way we can and often the vinyl reissue is often cheaper than the CD. One title we used to sell every time we got a used copy was Melvin Jackson’s Funky Skull and we’d get $100 to $200 for an original. Now it’s been reissued and we’ve sold well over 500 copies in just two years. Our sales volume of the LP reissue of Dorothy Ashby’s classic Afro Harpin’ led to its reissue on CD,” Wojcik boasts. “We’re frustrated music shoppers ourselves and that’s what drives our business.”
So, with all this vinyl flying off the shelves, there have to be turntables out there to play it on. But exactly what is a turntable and how does it work.
Mechanical engineer Gandy, whose turntable and tonearm designs have won countless awards and positive reviews over the last 35 years explains in simple, yet still confusing English what makes your record make music:
“What exists on an LP is a series of analog vibrations—an analogous form of the music that was in the air that was cut into a piece of vinyl. The vinyl on its own has no musical ability and in order to turn those squiggles that are on that piece of vinyl into a vibration which can then be turned into music by the turntable, amp and speakers, it has to be rotated. In order to rotate it you must have an energy input to the platter, and if that energy input were perfect, you’d probably get close to the best musical result you could from that LP.
“But since nothing is perfect, particularly in engineering, which itself is a science of tolerances and making compromises to make things work, we have to get the energy into the platter as best we can. So the initial energy input will be some sort of electrical supply which will go into the motor, and the motor will convert the electrical energy into mechanical rotational energy, which will be transferred into the turntable platter, which itself is constantly trying to slow down due to constant problems like imperfections in its bearings, its lubricating fluids and wind resistance, things like that that try to impede the rotation. We engineers take all these parameters of trying to feed energy into the turntable platter, then trying to take these minute vibrations off the record and make the turntable do its job.”
Gandy continues describing the complex chain of events, “The arm is an intrinsic part of the turntable package, it holds the cartridge, which in turn is a transducer which turns one form of energy into another. It transforms energy due to movement in the squiggles of the groove into electrical energy which is fed into the amplifier and then the speakers. But the arm has a tough job. It has to hold the cartridge in the correct position and not add any vibrations of its own and hold it firmly and rigidly so the cartridge itself can pick up all the vibrations on the rotating record. It’s all part of one system which is layered with mechanical problems which try to make the system not work so smoothly and these are the problems we engineers need to overcome to make a good turntable work.
“The biggest problem is that nothing is perfect. There is no such thing as an arm that won’t vibrate itself, that won’t have its on resonances. When the arm moves across the record, which it must do because the groove is an inward-leading spiral, when it moves, its bearings will have some friction which will put a load on the stylus which will then give a slightly less than perfect transcription of the vibration in the record. If the bearings themselves move, which most do, if the arm then moves with them, then it won’t be picking up all the vibration that is in the groove. It’s the lack of perfection in this chain that we must design against. We are trying our best to counter these imperfections which all interact in a very complex series as you can see.”
“But even with all the faults analog playback has,” Gandy says, “I think the compromises that are made in order to make digital technology work are bigger compromises and are less perfect than the compromises made in vinyl transcription technology. Listening to a vinyl record isn’t like listening to a live sound, but it’s a wonderful clue, a wonderful image, and sometimes you can make your brain think it’s quite close to the real thing. Like I said, it’s not perfect, but I think the state of lack-of-perfection with vinyl replay was, is and possibly always will be, a slightly greater stage of compromised perfection than digital replay.”
What he means is, CDs don’t sound as good as LPs.
And Gandy’s sales with his various Rega tables follows the trends cited above. “We are making more models now than we’ve ever made before and our P9 [$4995] sold twice what our original projections were, but when we first started thirty five years ago, no one would have dreamed of a turntable at that price.”
So, besides Rega, what other brands of turntables are worth considering?
Among others, Braverman is hot on the Music Hall MM5.1 ($875) at the entry level. “It offers extraordinary sound for the money and even includes the cartridge.” he says. “And believe it or not,” Braverman continues, “we [referring to his former position at Red Trumpet] sold a large number of SME Model 30/2s at forty thousand bucks. But the table we are had trouble keeping in stock was the VPI Scout for about $1800 which comes with a nice tone arm. We are sold a lot of those to people who wanted to move up from a basic table or an older table they’ve had for ten or fifteen years,” he says.
A turntable I had the pleasure of visiting with for a few weeks is the Wilson-Benesch Full Circle Turntable ($5750) which comes complete with tonearm and cartridge. It’s a Star Trek-looking table with many of the components fabricated from carbon fiber, a hallmark of Wilson-Benesch’s research into composite materials for use in audio components. The table is a snap to set up and never needs tweaking as so many turntables do (including my previous table, the good old Linn LP12, a fussbudget if there ever was one). The sound of this table is right on, full, without sounding bloated, and is rhythmically “correct.” Classic Records’ standard vinyl reissue of Holly Cole’s wonderful masterpiece Temptation never sounded silkier, never sounded more seductive. I just kept listening to it over and over one evening, I just couldn’t get enough. (This fantastically mastered and pressed LP is worth searching out.) I’d call this turntable a “must listen” in this price range.
A caveat: chances are pretty good that the system you are running these days is not equipped to simply plug in any of these turntables. Most receivers have dropped the once ubiquitous phono inputs and your can’t just plug the phono outputs into an auxiliary input because the electrical signal from the phono is a very, very low level. As a result, you’ll need to invest in an outboard phono stage, a preamplifier that boosts the signal from the cartridge to useable levels for your receiver to process. The reason I returned to my turntable in the first place was to audition a new phono stage called the Lehmann Black Cube SE ($1049). This minute little box performs its job miraculously well. It allows all the detail and subtleties of each and every record to come through. Bass is tight and not flabby, actually the bass is amazingly tight and punchy. Vocals are warm and present, with no hints of chestiness or other coloration. I had absolutely no problem picking out the altos, tenors and baritones in a massed horn section (some equipment can smear these voices making them impossible to discern one horn from another), or the ping of a deftly sticked ride cymbal. It was free of grain or any other noise or distortion, opening up an absolutely clean window on any musical performance I chose to view it with.
My trusty German ECM pressings of Keith Jarrett’s Still Live opened up as never before, revealing every nuance of the Standards Trio’s fantastic playing and maybe just a bit too much of the audience. With this baby, you’ll hear coughs and shuffles you’d never noticed before from even very familiar live recordings. This unit is sweet without being syrupy which, as Martha used to say, is a good thing.
There are plenty of other great phono stages around. We’ll be investigating more of those in the near future.
I asked Rega’s Gandy if he thought there would ever be a digital format that would equal the musicality of analog. “I have no doubt a better digital transcription format could be possible,” he says, “because the current format is so lacking. But the aims of the mass marketers do not involve sonic excellence. They have different goals and the market for excellence is too small. I think that mass market audio will only get worse. Their aim is reaching the largest number of people at the lowest possible price with as many compromises as they can get away with and still have the product work. Their aim is just not the same,” Gandy concludes in his distinctive British drawl, “as those of a few of us lunatics who just want a slight improvement listening to music.” Indeed.