Analog Corner #53

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

I know I keep repeating these LP/CD comparisons done by youngsters, but they're so much fun. Here's another.

My friend's son is in a band, and they'd cut some tunes that they wanted to hear back on my system. They brought the CD-R over, and, of course, they'd never heard their music sound so good—actually, the recording was quite accomplished. One of the kids looked around dumbfounded at my records and turntables and said, "Why would you have all of these?"

I told him they sounded better. "What do you like?" I asked.

"How about Green Day's Insomniac?" he replied.

I happened to have that on LP and CD, but had never done a comparison, so I didn't know what the result would be. I do know that all of the care is lavished on the CD version of such a release. The LP, anonymously mastered and pressed in small quantities of, say, a few thousand, is essentially a throwaway [and is often mastered from DAT or even the CD—Ed.].

Well, we did the comparison using "Armatage Shanks," the opening track. Much to my relief, it wasn't even close. We played the LP first, and of course they'd never heard Green Day sound that good. "Listen to that kick drum!" the LP doubter exclaimed.

Then we listened to the CD. No contest. The sound was flat and compressed, with the kick drum sounding particularly flaccid and indistinct. Turning up the volume didn't help. The doubter shook his head and said, "I hear what you're saying, but I don't understand why it is."

What CD player was it? What's the difference? Any $100 portable will "blow away" the finest analog rig, as David Ranata recently wrote in Sound & Vision.

The Mikrokosmos Labelography: Baseball Cards for Record Collectors
A Canadian fellow named Peter Fülöp recently issued the first edition of The Mikrokosmos Labelography, a smartly produced loose-leaf–bound set containing 144 full-color, 2.5"-square reproductions of classical record labels from British Decca, EMI (HMV, English Columbia, Odeon, Angel), Eterna, Melodiya, Mercury, and RCA Victor.

Each record company has a glossy tabbed locator page listing the series and variant label abbreviations. Turn that page and your eyes feast on 12 meticulously reproduced label miniatures inserted into a 12-pocket transparent Mylar sheet. Each label is identified by series and code.

For instance, let's say you hit a garage sale and find a British Decca black-label pressing of Chabrier's España (SXL-2020), as I did a few years ago. Is it an original? You turn to the Decca page, and there are 12 SXL-series labels. The first has "Decca" unboxed with the ffss logo above in a silver-rimmed circle. Later pressings have "Decca" in a silver box, with no ffss logo. But the second label also has "Decca" unboxed, as does the third. What distinguishes them is that, along the left top perimeter of the label, the first has the words "ORIGINAL RECORDING BY," and the second has "MADE IN ENGLAND." The third label is flat, the first two are grooved, and so on. French, South African, and Dutch versions are also included. British Rolling Stones collectors will find this set useful: the label color of the popular series was blue, but the other graphic changes follow the same progression as the classical.

Eventually, Fülöp hopes to include "examples of labels from all the important companies which have issued microgroove classical records. These label examples span the entire LP era, from the first monaural discs issued in 1949, to the digital and digitally remastered LPs appearing in the early 1980s."

Between its covers of hard black plastic, the almost LP-sized book contains the first series of 144 labels plus accompanying information, and is available from Fülöp for the more than reasonable price of $50.

The second release, containing 96 label variants from Westminster, DGG, US Columbia, and additional Decca, HMV/EMI, and Mercury labels, has recently been issued. Fülöp plans on releasing two 96-label supplements annually at $28 each, including 12-pocket Mylar sheets, data inserts, and tabs. Additional binders will be supplied when the original is full.

The project's only shortcoming is the absence of an approximate chronology to let you know—by date and/or catalog number—when each change in label graphics was made. For instance, I bought a British Decca pressing of the Stones' Let It Bleed as soon as it came out, in 1968. It was the first British Stones album I'd bought that had the "Decca in the box" label, and that didn't have the circular ffss logo. I'd always assumed that the label change occurred with the release of Let It Bleed, but last year, 30 years after it was first issued, I came upon an unboxed-''Decca" pressing of the album. I'd always thought my pressing was a first; it was a second.

Aside from that minor quibble, this is a really wonderful addition to any record collector's reference library. Someone needs to do the same with jazz and rock!

Mikey still likes it, but...
I've been reviewing audio gear for 13 years now, and never, never has the discrepancy between what I heard and what was measured been so great as it was with the KR Enterprise VT8000 MK monoblocks (Stereophile, November 1999). I didn't see the amps' disappointing measurements until the final review was faxed to me for fact-checking. I almost went into toxic shock. I am much more used to having John Atkinson or Tom Norton confirm what I heard; eg, the Audio Physic Virgo review, my first for Stereophile (September 1995, p.121).

Have I, in one review, destroyed my credibility with you? I hope not, though I almost destroyed my credibility with me when I read those measurements. How could something that sounds so good, that seems to have so much power in reserve, measure so poorly? Chip Stern took a healthy swing at an answer in last month's "Letters" (p.13), in his response to a similar gap between what he heard from the Mesa Tigris in the August issue and what TJN measured.

I was extremely disappointed and surprised to read the discrepancy between the KR's claimed power (75W) and measured power (40W and lower, depending on load impedance and distortion). While the Amati Homage is 92dB-sensitive, it does not present the easiest load to an amplifier. The Virgo is less sensitive, and also does not present an easy load. Yet the KR amplifier had no trouble, or so it seemed, driving either speaker to +100dB levels without audible clipping—granting that, as Chip pointed out in his reply, tubes approach clipping gradually and generate more euphonic even-order harmonic distortion.

Everything measured surprised me, especially the high-frequency rolloff into an 8 ohm load (–2.75dB at 20kHz). The amplifier's high source impedance, hence its wide response variation into the magazine's standard simulated speaker load, was also a shocker, as were the curvaceous squarewave response and high distortion measurements. There was nothing good in those measurements. Then came the news of instability and ultrasonic oscillations. Say what? Those are not acceptable "performance" characteristics under any circumstances.

But I needed to get the amplifiers back to hear once more in light of the measurements. Was I fooling myself? Were the many listeners who'd spent time in my room fooling themselves as well?

As it turned out, I was finishing up this issue's review of the Musical Fidelity Nu-Vista 300 power amplifier, for which is claimed 300W into 8 ohms, 600W into 4 ohms, and 1000W into 2 ohms! The literature claims 80 amps peak! How about putting that powerhouse up against the underpowered, unstable, high-distortion, rolled-off, round-squarewave–reproducing "tone control" of the KR VT8000s?

That's what I did. My new room is not gigantic, but it's not tiny either: 19' long by 14' wide, with an 8' ceiling. I drove the Amatis to 100dB SPLs and higher with both amps, using raucous, bass-heavy source material like the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?" and "Rocks Off," along with mellower fare like Nat King Cole's "When I Fall in Love" and Roxy Music's "Avalon," played at lower SPLs.

As I observed last time, the KRs had no trouble with the raucous, bass-heavy stuff—nor, obviously, did the Musical Fidelity. With "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'?" positively shaking the house, I could detect no clipping or strain. In fact, I sensed plenty of power in reserve, though I had no desire to crank up the KRs further to find out. It was more than loud enough. Nor did transient response seem particularly softened or lacking in "edge." The amps rocked fine, and the bass was deep and well controlled. On "Avalon," the bass extension and definition seemed fine, while the percussion was sharp and well focused.

Did the same tunes sound the same through the Musical Fidelity amp? No. Nor would I have expected them to. Without showing you my reviewing hand, let's just say the MF, which is also a hybrid design but in the other direction—tube (Nuvistor) input stage, solid-state output—offered a somewhat leaner, more sharply focused, "faster" picture. Looking at the KR's abysmal measurements, I don't hear what I see—at all. [Which is why we don't allow the magazine's reviewers to see the measurements until after they have submitted their texts. See this issue's "As We See It" for further discussion, as well as "Manufacturers' Comments" for the KR response to the review.—Ed.]

In the KR review, I wrote that the VT8000s were free of "...grain, glare, etchiness, edge, 'ripeness,' compression, midbass 'lumpiness,' etc." I still find them free of almost all that, but they do sound somewhat on the "ripe" side—meaning harmonically rich and inviting, as in real music, though perhaps the "reality" is the effect of additive distortions.

I've just listened, through both amps, to a fabulous test pressing of Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section (Analogue Productions APJ 010). There were differences in overall character, not "wrongness" or "rightness." If the satisfying musical performance I heard through the KRs was the sonic result of the awful errors that showed up in the KR's measurements, I'm at a loss to reconcile the two. But Randall Smith, Mesa Engineering's designer and president, did an outstanding job of trying to do the same in his response to Chip's review and TJN's measurements (August 1999, "Manufacturers' Comments," p.137). I hope Riccardo Kron takes the same thoughtful tack in his response to my review and TJN's measurements.

What's playing
Finding out what's available on new vinyl is a big problem. Some of you probably knew that Tom Petty's Echo was available on LP when you read my recent column listing the CD "In Heavy Rotation." Sorry, but I didn't know there was vinyl until it slapped me in the face in a Chicago record store. The review in this magazine (and in most music mags) simply said "CD." Same with the review of Tom Waits' highly recommended Mule Variations, the double-LP version of which says "recorded, mixed, and mastered in analog" right on the jacket.

The press release accompanying the promo CD says it's available on LP, which music editor Robert Baird neglected to mention in his review. Why, I don't know. Ironically, the picture of Waits accompanying the review shows some LPs on his night table. Clearly the artist is into it. Why not let his fans know?

The Red Hot Chili Peppers' excellent Californication is also available on a 2-LP set, and, like Petty's album, it was produced by the Phil Spector of the '80s and '90s, Rick Rubin. Perhaps it's Rubin who insists on the 180gm vinyl issues. Perhaps we'll have a chance to ask him.

Meanwhile, a few months ago I offered this column as a clearinghouse for new vinyl information, but the response so far has been underwhelming. I did get an e-mail from Rick Flynn at Quality Vinyl (qvinyl@aol.com) announcing some new LPs that will soon be available from him and, I'm sure, other mail-order vinyl vendors like Acoustic Sounds and Audiophile International. The following should be released by the time you read this:

From EMI/Capitol, limited-edition, 180gm, RTI-pressed LPs (RTI also presses LPs for Analogue Productions, Classic Records, etc.) of:
Grand Funk Railroad, We're An American Band
Heart, Dreamboat Annie
Steve Miller Band, Fly Like An Eagle
Pink Floyd, Dark Side of the Moon
Rolling Stones, Exile on Main Street (2 LPs)
Rolling Stones, Some Girls
Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers

From DIW in Japan, Japanese-pressed 180gm LPs:
Miles Davis Quintet, Cookin'
Miles Davis Quintet, Relaxin'
Kenny Dorham, Quiet Kenny
Bill Evans Trio, Portrait in Jazz
Bill Evans Trio, Sunday at the Village Vanguard
Barbara Lea, Barbara Lea
Jackie McLean, McLean's Scene
Art Pepper, Meets The Rhythm Section
Sonny Rollins, Saxophone Colossus
George Wallington, Jazz for the Carriage Trade

Some of these titles, like the Davis and Rollins, have been issued domestically on superb-sounding 180gm vinyl, certified all-analog. Are any of these (including the Capitols) cut from analog master tapes? We don't know. I doubt the Capitols are, though Dark Side may be, even though Pink Floyd and Dark Side engineer Alan Parsons love the digitally remastered version (feh!).

Speaking of all-analog releases, I recently received the new 180gm 2-LP 45rpm edition of Eric Bibb and Needed Time's Spirit & The Blues, from Swedish audiophile label Opus 3 (www.opus3records.com). Originally issued on CD back in 1994, it went on to become one of the label's best sellers, according to Opus 3's Jan-Eric Persson, who engineered, produced, and mastered the set, all in analog.

Simply recorded using an AKG C-24 vacuum-tube stereo mike and a Neumann U-89 for acoustic bass, it puts you in the room with Mr. Bibb, his guitar, and assorted accompanists in a moving, pleasantly understated set of sacred folk/blues tunes. Rather than shove his religious faith in your face, Bibb presents it in a way that will uplift even a confirmed atheist. An utterly natural recording of a fine performance raises this set above ordinary "audiophile" fare. 

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