One of Mikey's best sounds at CES: the Hales Transcendence 5 speakers powered by Balanced Audio Technology amplification. All photos by John Atkinson
Call it a convention, call it a trade exhibition, call it CES, call it "Bernie''no matter how you laser-slice it, it's a show. And for a show to succeed, it needs an audience. For an audience to show up, it needs stars, it needs a good book, and it needs some decent tunes or compelling drama.
Funny thing about Consumer Electronics Showsconsumers aren't allowed to attend. That's what's great about Stereophile's annual HI-FI Show. The place is packed with real peopleexcited, paying customerseager 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.
I figure two categories of nonanalog-owning audiophiles are reading this column (footnote 1)younger ones who've never heard good or any pure analog; and older audiophiles who may have been pushed out by the bad advice regularly spewing from the pages of "mainstream" stereo magazines in the days just before CD.
Their prescription for playback perfection? Track lightly on a PLL direct-drive turntable (and since all turntables sound the same, any one will do). I swallowed a large dose of that myself during the early ‘70s, marginalizing my listening enjoyment and ruining many of my favorite records in the process.
The last thing I did before sitting down to write this column was run an $1895 Lyra Clavis D.C. phono cartridge on a $650 Rega Planar 3 turntable. I played a British Polydor pressing of Roxy Music's song "Avalon," then played it again on the $9000 TNT Mk.3/Immedia RPM combo using a $3800 Transfiguration Temper cartridge. That's $2545 vs about $13,000.
Were there differences? Of course. Were they big differences? Not nearly as immense as I thought they'd be. When I started my comparison of four reasonably priced arm/'table combos a few weeks ago, the last thing I thought I'd be doing during the process was playing with expensive cartridges. I was figuratively wrong and literally correct.
"The killer cycles, the killer Hertz, / the passage of my life is measured out in shirts," as Brian Eno once sang. In 1997 I measure out the vitality of the analog revival by how long it takes my Dick to fill with new vinyl. It doesn't take more than a few weeks, and a Dick holds about 75 records. Dick, by the way, is a sturdy, inexpensive, attractively finished, LP-sized, wooden slatted crate sold at Ikea, the Swedish home furnishing giant. As at Linn, everything at Ikea has a weird, consonant-heavy name.
Sell my record collection? You'd have to hit me upside the head with a blunt instrument. That's pretty much what happened to Thomas Margellar Jr., whose collection went on the auction block recently.
The former Motor City DJ, known professionally as Tom Knight, had amassed a 50,000-piece collection of LPs, CDs, 45s, and assorted music-biz ephemera, all stored in his climate-controlled basement. One day two years ago he got into a fight with his wife. Unfortunately for the 47-year-old collector, his brother-in-law was on hand to intercede on his sister's behalf.
Margellar/Knight ended up dead with a crowbar to the head, and his wife and brother-in-law ended up in the klink. The collection ended up at NYC's William Doyle Galleries.
I've always wondered how long it would take before someone in the auction/collectible business got hip to record collecting. How many obits have you read of famous art collectors, stamp collectors, and book collectors? Plenty. How many of record collectors? None. Except for the fact that books have been around longer, there's not much difference between book collecting and record collecting. Yet until now, record collectors have gotten no respect.
Analogue Productions' new vinyl releases are welcomebut how many audiophiles will buy them?
I've never called "The Psychic Hotline," though I am a certified Dionne Warwick fan. Don't get me wrong: I believe in psychic phenomena. It's just that I'm psychic enough without having to pay some phoney a buck a minute to feed me truisms that sound "just like me!" Of course they do. They sound just like you, too. Amazing.
No, I believe in these strange invisible connections. They're as real as the air we breathewe just can't see them. We can't usually see the air, either, but we keep breathing it. For instance, the couple who won the Stereophile/WNYC HI-FI '96 contestsee September '96, p.57could have come from anyplace in the gigantic New York metropolitan area, but ended up living a few blocks from my house. That was meant to be.
Our intrepid reporter had no idea why 650,000 records were in a warehouse in York, or who owned them, but he took the bait nevertheless. Photos by Michael Fremer.
I heard this story from a manufacturer whose car broke down somewhere in a rundown Queens neighborhood one afternoon: He went into a bodega to make a phone call and struck up a conversation with the owner. Their talk led to audio, then to a trip to the basement of the former record store, where thousands of Living Stereos and other audiophile treasures had been sitting for decades, gathering dust and value. The manufacturer would visit each week and walk out with a few hundred unplayed gems, for which he'd pay a few bucks each.
True story? Audiophile wet dream? Who knows? Who cares? We love this stuff. So when I got a call from Rick Flynn (proprietor of Quality Vinyl, a mail-order, audiophile-oriented record dealer) about 650,000 recordsevery one of them stone-cold mintlocked in a warehouse in York, Pennsylvania since 1973, and would I like to have a look...I bit.
Every so often, when I get down (and I don't mean as in "get funky''), I wonder whether I'll run out of analog things to write about. After all, we're only a year from 2000, and this needle-in-the-groove invention is already more than 100 years old. What's left to say?
Or so I think when I get blue. But it doesn't last long, not with so many inspired correspondents writing and so many manufacturers creating new productseven though, as we all know, vinyl is dead.
I'm always surprised when I read a letter saying that this column helped convince a reader to invest in a good turntable and start enjoying analog. I shouldn't be, but I am. And I'm also amazed by how many such letters I see published, or receive via fax from the home office in Santa Fe, or by e-mail on CompuServe (Footnote 1). Ditto when I run into people at record and hi-fi stores who tell me the same thing.
I even meet newly converted analog devotees at the Toshiba-sponsored Home Theater seminars I've been participating in over the past year and a half. Although my name isn't used to promote these events, inevitably one or two Stereophile and/or Stereophile Guide to Home Theater readers are in attendance, and after the three-hour presentation (it is comprehensive) they come up and tell me how much they appreciate the fact that I've pushed them over the top and into the groove. That's about as good as it gets for a writer/advocate. It's clear proof that the old and new technologies can happily coexist.
"Installing a cartridge is like cooking in a wokyou want to have all of the ingredients in front of you and well organized before you heat up the oil." Photo by Jan van der Crabben (Wikimedia Commons)
Here's a great garage-sale find: a series of 7" 331/3rpm records sent by a drug company to doctors during the late '50s. Knowing that many doctors back then were classical-music aficionados, the company would put a licensed excerpt from labels like Vanguard and Westminster on one side, and on the other a medical lecture extolling the virtues of the drug it was pushing. My favorite: John Philip Sousa's "The Thunderer" paired with "The Treatment of Some Gastro-Intestinal Disturbances."
Flash! The record biz's savior has been announced, and you're reading it here first. According to some statistics, the prerecorded music industry saw sales drop a precipitous 30% last year (Footnote 1). Why? Well, there are many reasons why CD and cassette sales dropped and why vinyl was the only format to show an increase, but the industry, noting the trends, has decided what needs to be done to increase sales this year.
And the winning solution? "Bring back the cassette!" I kid you not. A group within the record industry has decided that emphasizing expensive CDs and downplaying inexpensive cassettes have driven away a large portion of the market who cannot afford CDs. So a newly formed organization called the Audio Cassette Coalition has been formed to "revitalize" the cassette market.
Have you noticed how the pace of things "going digital" has increased? There's no escaping it, and television's next. It'll take about 10 years, but then, like abandoned canals, the empty two-lane cement of Route 66, and overgrown railroad rights of way, the analog broadcast pathways will be discarded, handed back to the government for reuse in what will no doubt be a far less glamorous endeavorgarage-door opener or pocket-pager frequencies, perhaps.
Route 66 has made a tailfin'n'Elvisbased nostalgic comeback. So have steam trains, taking railroad buffs on daylong excursions over commuter rails. Last year I took one myselfand I enjoyed every soot-sprayed, purgatory-hot, steam-stinking, smoke-belching minute of it. (I hung out in one of the two open cars: standing room only, no glass in the windows.)
But analog television? Is anyone going to miss it? I doubt itwhich is how most people felt about records with the introduction of the compact disc. Remember? People dumped their vinyl like carcinogens, and most haven't looked back with regret. Clearly, from our perspective, that's their loss.
If you've seen Capitol's latest "limited edition" Beatles vinyl reissues, and you're wondering, don't bother! It doesn't say "digitally remastered" on the jackets, so I bought The Beatles (the "White Album'') to hear what gives. Slicing open the shrink wrap and opening the gatefold revealed a small box that read: "This album has been Direct Metal Mastered from a digitally re-mastered original tape to give the best possible sound quality."
Best possible sound quality? What planet are these people living on? Yer anus? DMM and digital: two guarantees of worst possible sound from vinyl. But you can't blame DMM for this sonic disaster, because although it says DMM, it ain't. Capitol has reproduced the artwork from the British vinyl reissues which probably were DMM. The American LPs were mastered by "Wally" (Traugott) at Capitol, and Capitol didn't have a DMM lathe last time I checked, which wasn't that long ago.
I compared my original British pressing of The Beatles (played a zillion times since 1968) with the new reissue, and if you want to hear music cut off at the kneeshard, grainy, two-dimensional, antiseptic, and generally annoying as hellknock yourself out and buy these "limited edition" LPs. What's more, my 28-year-old pressings were quieter. Virgin vinyl? How about "nympho" vinyl? At least I only paid $18 for that two-LP privilege.
Audio legend Saul Marantz's obituary appeared in the New York Times the other day, respectfully written by Stereophile Guide to Home Theater's Lawrence B. Johnson. Once the initial shock had worn off, I remembered something I'd meant to pass on to you: I collect musician obituaries and insert them into the appropriate LP jackets without folding. Try that with your stupid jewel-boxed CDs!
For instance, last Saturday I came upon Richard Berry's obit. Berry, of course, wrote "Louie, Louie" back in 1956. As is so often the case, he ended up getting screwed out of his publishing rights to the song. After his version of the song sold about 130,000 copiesa good number back thenhe sold the publishing, but not the radio and television performance rights, to Flip Records' Max Feirtag for $750 so he'd have enough gelt to get married. Ah, yes! My people knew how to discover and record black people, but paying them fairly was another story! (Don't bother writing to tell me I'm a self-loathing Jew. I know itjust as I know I suffer from Short Man's Syndrome.)
This quintessential American question is the hub of our capitalist society, and one that figures in two subjects that have recently been clogging my e-mail in-box. The first has to do with the Record Club of America's half-million-plus unplayed LPs, which I wrote about last fall ("Analog Corner," September 1997).
RCOA's much-delayed catalog (due out last October but not appearing until this May) has created quite a stir with many recipients, some of whom are outraged by what they see as absurdly high prices for many of the discs. You should hear them! Along with Dan Burton, they should have their mouths washed out with soap! I'll spare you those.
Most of the others are more bemused than angry. Like this guy: "Stop it, stop it. You've got to be kidding. I wonder if Mr. Fremer helped them price the classical issues, and probably [Fi's] Wayne Garcia priced the Jazz."