Analog Corner #49

Baby with his big Yorke. (Photograph taken by an embarrassed Sharon Fremer.)

(Originally published in Stereophile, August 12th, 1999)

Funny thing about Consumer Electronics Shows—consumers aren't allowed to attend. That's what's great about Stereophile's annual HI-FI Show. The place is packed with real people—excited, paying customers—eager to see and hear the latest in hi-fi and home-theater gear. At least, that's what one hopes for.

Some in the industry hesitated about showing in Chicago. As far as turnout was concerned, the city and surrounding 'burbs were unknown quantities; the grand but aged Palmer House Hilton, with its boxy rooms and ancient wiring, was potentially tricky; and the strong union presence meant that moving a parcel across the hall could prove lethal to an exhibitor's checkbook.

In the end, these fears proved unfounded at HI-FI '99. Yes, putting on a show in Chicago is costly; yes, the hotel's layout created some logistical nightmares ("walk under the escalator, go through the kitchen, turn right, and there's Sony's home-theater demo''); and yes, Jimmy Hoffa's body was found stuffed in the bass enclosure of a Wilson WAMM; but—and it's a BIG "but''—this Show was probably the best yet.

Attendance Friday and Saturday was incredible. (Sunday was, as usual, slower.) The rooms, halls, seminars, and live-music events were packed, and the people—at least those who told me how much they enjoy this column—were of the highest caliber. Compared to the neurotics on the right coast and the cynical passive-aggressives on the left, the Midwestern crowd was a genuine, normal pleasure. (If I've just insulted you...tell your friends!)

While there were a few bellyachers, most of the exhibitors with whom I spoke felt the Show was well worth the effort. Most felt their message had gotten through—and to large numbers of people, most of whom, if sufficiently motivated, have the resources to act upon it. After the Show, I was told that consumer attendance was up a solid 15% over last year's Los Angeles Show.

Any Analog?
Was I concerned about a paucity of analog news at the Show? You betcha. But I was more than pleasantly surprised to see many new products debuted in Chicago. For instance: while waiting for an interviewer to show up (once again, I was the Show's mouthpiece), I meandered from the press room to the booth area, where I had my first encounter with the "baby" Simon Yorke S-9 tonearm/turntable combo ($5500, www.recordplayer.com), here sitting atop a "passive" Vibraplane ($1600). The 'table is a smaller variation on the basic Yorke theme: a plinthless design in gleaming aluminum (instead of the more expensive stainless steel), with a laminated armboard and a deceptively simple unipivot arm.

Importer Steve Klein (Sounds of Silence) had set up a crowd-pleasing demo using two flutes of pink champagne, and a vibrator of some sort that shook the table. The glass set on the table shivered, spewing bubbly all over the white tablecloth. The liquid in the one atop the Vibraplane remained placid. Point made!

A few rows of booths away I found Musical Surroundings' Garth Leerer with two new products, the first to be marketed under the Musical Surroundings designation. The MSI Phonomena is an American-made solid-state, class-A, dual-mono phono stage featuring adjustable gain (40–60dB in 16 steps) and loading (30–100k ohms in 128 steps). The circuit sports discrete transistors, including "super-matched" low-noise input devices and an outboard power supply. An optional battery power supply is "under development." The introductory price is $600. It looks very well made. When I asked Mr. Leerer who designed the Phonomena, he grinned like the Cheshire cat and hinted that I'd heard of the gentleman. John Curl? Peter Madnick? He answered "no" to both, so you tell me. An updated version of the Lehmann Black Cube had arrived as I was leaving for the Show, so a shoot-out is clearly called for.

Musical Surroundings were demonstrating a rugged-looking record-cleaning machine made by Moth in the UK. The intriguing design features a 16-gauge steel enclosure finished in satin-black textured paint. The cleaner appears to combine aspects of both Nitty Gritty and VPI machines. It has a bidirectional motor like a VPI 17, and a label-sized platter (to avoid the "clean record on dirty mat" problem, the blurb says) with fixed pickup tube similar to Nitty Gritty's. Controls are front-mounted, as is a large drain tap for the 3-liter fluid reservoir, which is completely isolated from the vacuum and electronics. The power cord is removable via an IEC connector. The first reviewer who says that changing power cords makes the unit "sound" better gets an earful of hot wax.

Musical Surroundings also introduced the new Transfiguration Spirit cartridge, designed by Immutable Music's Seiji Yoshioka. Like other Immutable designs, the Spirit is yokeless, using instead a ring magnet. It features silver internal wire from Graham Engineering and puts out a healthy 0.4mV. Retail price is $1500, $1250 with qualifying trade-in, or $1000 with a Musical Surroundings trade-in or when packaged with a Basis/Graham 'table/arm combo. The Spirit will be reviewed soon by yours unruly, along with the new Temper Supreme. Also on hand at the MSI booth: a Basis 1400 with Rega arm, and Record Research stylus- and record-cleaning fluids.

The Nitty Gritty folks were a few tables away demonstrating their line of cleaners. While arranging for a review sample, I was encouraged by NG's Gayle Van Syckle to deposit my business card in a fishbowl. A card picked at random later on during the Show would determine the winner of a Nitty Gritty 2.5 record-cleaning machine. Gayle showed me a new modification to the machines that makes it extremely easy to clean 7" and 10" records as well as LPs. Thursday evening at the EMAP Petersen party, Gayle came up to me and, somewhat embarrassed, announced that I'd won the machine. Knowing I'd be a bit skeptical, she brought along a disinterested party who'd witnessed the drawing. Not that I'm not appreciative, but why can't I have this kind of luck in all those Porsche Boxster drawings I've entered?

Back to the booths. Next to Nitty Gritty on Record-Cleaning Row, I came upon Kevin L. Blair, Ph.D., whose company, Buggtussel, LLC., introduced Vinyl-Zyme Gold and Vinyl-Zyme Gold extra strength—yet more record-cleaning solutions. According to the literature, Vinyl-Zyme is "an aqueous solution of preformed, natural enzymes of plant origin. It contains no alcohol, detergents, or other manmade chemicals, making it nontoxic and environmentally friendly."

The enzymes' job is to "digest" and remove oily contaminants and the "complex organic attachment feet of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi," which frequently grow in the grooves of dirty old records. Sort of like "Drop on Freezone, lift off corns." According to the literature, the usual alcohol- and detergent-based cleaners seldom remove these attachment feet, which end up getting burnished into record surfaces, where they invite more rounds of bacterial and fungal growth.

Blair came equipped with blowups of electron-microscope photos of record grooves that purportedly proved both the efficacy of the solution, and the lack thereof of a "highly regarded, surfactant-based cleaner that 'contains no isopropyl alcohol'." Now, do I have to spell out which product, made by whom, Blair is referring to? No more than the author of a totally fabricated yarn about moi had to spell F-r-e-m-e-r when he wrote recently, in a story about Mobile Fidelity, that a certain "fanatical analog columnist" (I'm paraphrasing) convinced MoFi's Herb Belkin to buy a "white elephant" of an LP pressing plant and go back into the vinyl business.

Hell, I couldn't even get Herb's ear about what records to reissue, which might have saved the enterprise (or so I flatter myself to think). The idea that I convinced him to spend a million or so on a pressing plant is so ludicrous, so unbelievable, that you think someone might have checked some facts before publishing such crapola. But hey, why let facts get in the way of a vendetta?

Anyway, clearly, Vinyl-Zyme Gold is gunning for The Disc Doctor's Miracle Record Cleaner. It so happened that The Disc Doctor himself, aka H. Duane Goldman, was at the Show and none too pleased. But faced with such a challenge, who would be? I love when a person you've never seen looks precisely as you'd expect him to, and Duane's lab coat didn't hurt a bit. But even in an Armani suit, Duane would have fully inhabited the part of The Disc Doctor.

Duane started yabbering to me about why electron-microscope photos of grooves can't begin to "prove" anything about the effectiveness or lack thereof of a record-cleaning solution, but in that crowded ballroom it was all coming at me too fast and too furious—I couldn't absorb it sufficiently to play it back for you here.

Here's the deal: I'll try Vinyl-Zyme and The Disc Doctor's Miracle Record Cleaner on some moldy oldies I've got lying around, and let you know what I find. I'll also speak to Blair and Goldman, and while I'm at it I'll get to the Record Research guys and Toy Shigakawa of Torumat and let them all spill their guts about why their fluid is the best. Just give me a few months. Meanwhile, if you want to try Vinyl-Zyme, it's $7.95 for the 2-oz spray bottle, $14.95 for 8 oz. The extra-strength variant, claimed to have four times the "deep cleansing enzyme activity of regular strength," costs $12.95 and $17.95 for the respective amounts. You can also get a 2-oz concentrate, enough to make four gallons of regular strength or one of extra strength, for $33.49.

Some new vinyl premiered at the Show, and Analogue Productions issued two: Weepin' Willie Robinson's At Last 'n Time, featuring Boston bluesman Mighty Sam McClain (who co-produced with Joe Harley), Jimmy D. Lane, and Susan Tedeschi; and Chicago harp whiz Eomot RaSun's Three Days Walkin'. Lane, Jimmie Lee Robinson, and RaSun put in time at AP's booth, signing copies of their albums and performing up-front and personal for delighted Show attendees. They also joined octagenarian Honey Boy Edwards for the Acoustic Sounds-sponsored blues concert on Saturday night. Chad Kassem of AP and Acoustic Sounds also told me he's got more original releases on the way, including five DVD-Audio/Video discs. One, by Honeyboy Edwards, was playing in the Muse/Immedia/Avalon/Cardas room when I entered. Edwards sat in the first row, watching himself.

Ying Tan's Groove Note Records released a vinyl (and gold CD) oddity from sax great and big-band leader Illinois Jacquet, who's still swingin' at 76. Birthday Party, recorded in Japan in 1972, features Jacquet and the likes of Art Farmer, Jimmy Smith (on piano), Kenny Burrell, Roy Haynes, Gerry Mulligan, and James Moody in an informal (but paid!) post-concert gig.

Classic Records showed up with the gorgeous Bob Dylan Live 1966 deluxe boxed LP set, sure to become a collector's item. Musically it's identical to the Columbia/Legacy CD set, but the box and full-sized booklet make it a must-have for any hard-core Dylan fan. There was a buzz that Classic might use the flawed but decidedly different-sounding 3-track stereo tape recorded by Columbia engineers, but this set is sourced from the same 1/4" mono Nagra tape used for the standard edition. Classic was also selling some of its 45rpm sets, including a deluxe box of Belafonte at Carnegie Hall.

All this analog news, and I had yet to visit any of the rooms—this was all from an hour in the ballroom! As I exited, I ran into Monster Cable's Demian Martin, who introduced me to Jay Victor. Victor is overseeing development of Monster Cable's planned 20th-anniversary Alpha Sigma Genesis Signature cartridges. Two models are coming, both of which will use special high-purity silver-coil wire. The more expensive of the two will feature a solid diamond cantilever. "Our cost for the cantilever is about $1200," Victor told me, which tells you the cartridge will probably cost at least $4000. The less expensive model will use a boron cantilever. Both will be housed in exotic, laminated wood bodies. "The prototype I'm listening to kicks ass," Victor boasted. I told him I'd gladly bend over for a review sample. Projected launch date: CES 2000.

As I turned away from the Monsters, I ran into Ray Kimber, who was rushing to deliver (I forget to whom) a new DIN-to-RCA tonearm cable he'd just introduced. He promised a review sample, as did Silver Audio's Max Kreifeldt of his Silver Breeze tonearm cable. They'll face stiff competition from the Cardas Neutral Reference and the Hovland phono cables I've been enjoying with the Graham 2.0. Tonearm-cable and cleaning-fluid shoot-outs! I can't wait!

To the Rooms!
Vinyl playback was all over this Show. There were VPI Aries and TNTs with JMW Memorial arms in many rooms, as well as Basis/Graham combos—including a sleek-looking, top-of-the-line Basis Debut that will soon head here for review. Other familiar 'tables spotted include the Rega Planar 25, Michell Gyrodec SE, Immedia Revolution with upgraded Immedia RPM arm, Oracle Delphi V, and Lloyd Walker's imposing Proscenium Gold Signature.

Music Hall's Roy Hall told me he's sold more than 1100 MMF turntables at $299 each—much to his surprise and delight. That's led him to the MMF 2, an improved version with a nicely veneered plinth and a top-mounted on/off switch. The price will remain the same. Also coming soon from Music Hall will be the MMF 5, featuring a double plinth, upgraded arm, larger bearing, and glass platter. Target price is between $499 and $599, complete with a $200 Goldring cartridge. Hall told me he's anxious to bring the product to market for $499, but foremost on his agenda are quality and performance.

I was gratified to find that, despite my less than favorable assessment of the TD 295 Mk.2 a few months back, Thorens' technical director, Norm Rubin, greeted me cordially. Such post–negative-review encounters are always a bit awkward, but if you're afraid of them, you shouldn't be a reviewer...or a manufacturer.

Norm ran me through the Thorens line, beginning with the handsome $9000 Ambiance, complete with SME arm. Along with brass inserts, the Ambiance uses proprietary resonance-deadening compound (RDC) in its acrylic platter, and on the tonearm headshell, motor pulley, and bearing collar. The two-speed 'table features an outboard drive motor, and many other upgrades to the deluxe implementation of the basic Thorens design.

New at the Show was the Thorens 325 with TP 90 arm ($1180), a replacement for the popular 320. Rubin walked me through the 2001 "Isotrak," which has an RDC-modified platter, base, feet, arm collar, headshell, and bearing collar. This RDC material is a less sophisticated version of what's used on the Ambiance. Price, including "high-end" power supply, is $2600. All of these modifications can be added to the standard 2001, and all but the bearing-collar modification can adorn the 325.

Something you don't often see at a HI-FI Show these days is a fully automatic turntable, but Thorens had a new one: the TD 190, which will play a record at the push of a button. Cost is $570 complete with Ortofon OMB10 cartridge. It will appear in the next Hammacher Schlemmer catalog. I wonder how many they'll sell?

One of the biggest surprises at the Show was in the Sumiko room: a brand-new "budget" turntable from SME. The elegant, compact Model 10, complete with SME 10 arm, will sell for $5995. The arm, a derivative of the V and the 309, features a cast-magnesium armtube, other magnesium parts that were aluminum in the 309, and a removable headshell. The platter and subplatter are machined from aluminum and driven by an electronically controlled brushless, two-speed, three-phase AC synchronous motor in association with a flat belt and crowned pulley. 78rpm enthusiasts can buy the three-speed SME 20 controller.

The Model 10's suspension features three elastomer feet on the subplinth, and a subplatter assembly that sits on three elastomer-suspended columns. There is no metal-to-metal contact anywhere in the system. For those wishing to use other arms, the 'table alone is available for $5500, with mounting brackets for Rega, Graham, etc.—or you can get the 'table with the SME IV.5 for $8000. Would you like to see a shoot-out between the Yorke S-9 and the SME 10? I would.

Obviously, I needn't have worried about a lack of analog news at HI-FI '99. There was plenty!

I'll end with some Show highlights:

At breakfast one morning in the hotel's French Quarter restaurant, I heard some bizarre elevator-music (one dare not use the "M" trademark) version of the ultra-obscure Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks epic, "Surfs Up''—which is not about surfing. I'd love to talk to the cat who chose/orchestrated that convoluted masterpiece for "easy listening." Don't miss the LP (Brother/Reprise RS 6455, or EMI Centenary reissue). Yes, for me that was a highlight. Unfortunately, my spokesperson duties and/or panel obligations prevented me from enjoying any of the live musical events.

Another highlight was the sound emanating from the tiny Soliloquy speakers ($1595/pair with stands), driven by Cary 5Wpc SM2A3 monoblocks. Now that's what premium audio is all about.

Also noteworthy: the $799 NAD L40 CD receiver/PSB Alpha Mini combo. What a great-sounding budget system!

Finally, the cynical low point of the Show: At an MP3 panel I sat on, Dolby Labs' Roger Dressler said that the only reason Sony, WEA, Universal Music, et al had any interest in higher-resolution digital audio was to get the "watermarked" encryption protection the formats offered. 

COMMENTS
MgreenE9876's picture

Mr. Fremer,
I greatly respect your knowledge on hifi, vinyl etc. that being said, i keep getting poor pressings of vinyl, with copious amounts of snap, crackles, & pops. I am earnestly trying to love vinyl, and when it is mastered well, pressed well etc etc, it truly is wonderful! But for me the records are few and far between, i have never heard a perfect vinyl record, in my life! I don t know if I have golden ears, (i seriously doubt it) I know I have some hearing loss, as I am 55 yrs young, and have been tested. I told an owner at a used record store, I have never heard a perfect record, he looked at me perplexed, and said he has heard hundreds, maybe thousands! Am I dead wrong?, or too much of a perfectionist, or is my equipment crap? I have heard, lots of examples of lps sounding better than cd, I get that, with better depth, warmth, naturalness, musicality, dynamics, sound staging etc, but why the noise? I clean my records with disc doc, and or mofi products, spin clean wash and rinse tanks, want to get a vpi cyclone vacuum mach. I am not rich fairly poor in fact, am I out of luck, for listening to vinyl with quiet black backgrounds. I get noise on brand new sealed records, that i clean to remove the mould release compound!? Its frustrating spending $30 and up and getting dreaded surface noise! My equipment is just, entry level, Technics SL-7 turntable, ortofon omp cart, & a rega RP-1 yr old table, elys mk11 cart, music hall, cork mat, would like to upgrade to a vpi scout1.1 or 2 otofon black 2m, is $3500 for table and cart snuff coin to spend, to at least get rid of 90 percent of the noise, and greatly improve the analog sound overall as well. I am really confused, I like dvd-audio, sacd, pure audio blue ray vinyl, even some cd and ipod, and i think I really get the charms of vinyl, ZZ top b/o or g/h sounds heads & shoulders above the cd, chicago IX much better on vinyl. I don t think the artists want snap, crackles and pops! I took some records that were rated NM, M-, some were used some were brand new, cleaned them with a music hall vacuum machine, then ran them thru I think it was an audio desk ultrasonic machine, took them home about ten records every record had at least a couple of flaws. upgrade to vpi scout and cyclone rec clean machine gonna get me close to perfect?

Michael Fremer's picture
Surface noise and pops and clicks can be caused by a variety of things, including bad pressings but since most of these events are impulse related, less expensive turntables accentuate these events whereas better ones tend to suppress the impulses. If you've listened to my radio shows you will hear records, old and new that are pop click and noise free...with only an occasional flaw. A 100% perfect record is not at all rare but it's also true that many records have an occasional pop or tick. I don't think you are a perfectionist nor do I think your equipment is "crap", but perhaps you are expecting perfection when there is none, and certainly a better "front end" would pass fewer of these impulse type events. I think you should listen to a radio show or three for examples of what records sound like that are clean and properly played back. The records I play on the show are a combination of very old and new plus some "in between". Pops and clicks and surface noise are not an issue.
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