Analog Corner #1

(Originally published in Stereophile, July 12th, 1995)

It was big. It was ugly. It looked unfinished. It resembled some kind of industrial mistake, which is pretty much what it was: a prototype CD player rolled out by Sony at the 1982 AES Convention in Los Angeles. The inventors didn't care what it looked like, they just wanted you to hear it. Why, I don't know; it sounded awful.

I'd just spent a week's worth of tweak time optimizing my turntable using a Japanese pressing of Roxy Music's Avalon, squeezing every last cymbal rivet of musical detail from my Dynavector Ruby/Lustre GST-1 combo, and they're trying to pass off this flaccid noodle as Avalon? Oh, headless chickens!

Even if you consider the 16-bit, 44.1kHz digital format inherently more "accurate" than analog recording and playback, the professional recording industry's headlong acceptance of a first-stab digital system must today be considered a major mistake.

The brilliant recording engineer Robert Fine saw low-sampling-rate digital coming, and he warned fellow AES members to step aside and let it pass. Wait for 100kHz sampling before you get on board, he implored fellow AES members. Many weren't worthy of holding Robert Fine's mike cord, but they didn't listen. Instead, they locked themselves aboard a mathematician's juggernaut. Nyquist's numbers may add up, but not to what I call serious listening enjoyment.

We're stuck with these bare-bones numbers. No one except the die-hard apologists is happy with them. Everyone else is working to get around them. The format's become a digital straitjacket. It always was a digital straitjacket.

"This sounds terrible! Weirdly compressed. Missing stuff," I remember telling my friend Dan Schwartz (he played bass on Sheryl Crow's album) at that 1982 AES demo. My complaint wasn't with the mediocre sound system or the quality of the transfer. It was with something that identified the sound as "digital" then and now.

Based on the sinking feeling I felt in my stomach listening to that prototype back in ;'82, my conclusion was actually upbeat: "This'll never catch on!" Of course, back in 1978, after visiting Apple headquarters before they went public, I was heard to say, "Personal computers? No one's gonna want a computer in their home!" That's 0 for 2 in the digital domain. So before you bet on Digital Video Disc, keep this in mind: I think it's going to be the next big thing—and I think I like it.

Was it CD's low resolution that bothered me then? Or does "digital" have a character—regardless of the sampling rate? Will video, no matter how fine it's eventually resolved, ever really mimic film? Perhaps with the new DVD-based, high-resolution, digital-audio format that someone in the High End had better come up with, and on which everyone had better agree, the "character" question will be answered.

The cassette of Avalon that Schwartz and I listened to while driving to that AES meeting in the "rolling walkman" (my Saab Sonnett) sounded better than that prototype CD player. I figured the industry would say: "Nice try. Good idea. Come back in a few years when computing power is cheaper and more sophisticated. No point in rushing into things."

Fat chance. Soon came the slobbering endorsements from hi-fi–challenged music critics and audio-industry shills. It had never happened before, but here it was: a new technology born perfect!

Some pros actually thought they heard the promised perfection; but they were simply guilty of precisely what vinyl-lovers are accused of: wanting to believe. Storing music as a bunch of numbers on tape and retrieving them with a laser beam was such a cool thing, and the rap was so convincing. It promised so much. And, to top it all off, it made recording and playback easier and more convenient.

And there were the usual business "deals." I remember one prominent and influential recording-studio president endorsing with the frenzied enthusiasm of a used-car salesman a particular brand of first-generation digital recorders in a Billboard magazine piece. Odd, I thought at the time. Sounds more like an advertisement. A few months later he's named distributor for the product in all of Southern California! So that's how its done.

A personal crusade
Fueled by the dissonance between what I heard at that AES convention and elsewhere, and by what I was reading about CD sound in newspapers and magazines, I began what ended up being a 10-year hate affair. I went on a personal crusade, which I guess I'm still on.

When Philips handed out life-sized cardboard CDs at an early-;'80s CES (there weren't enough real ones in the world to use as promotional items), I painted a barred red circle on one and pinned it to my sports jacket. In 1983, I wrote an anti-CD guest editorial in a Los Angeles music magazine. I dissed columnist Hans Fantel in a letter to the New York Times. My car sported a custom bumper sticker reading "Compact Discs Sound Terrible." And I wasn't even making a living in this industry back then—I was an outraged hobbyist.

And a loser. The ;'80s began with Reagan and ended with no more records—not my idea of a dream decade. At least when my audiophile children ask me what I did during the digital wars, I can tell them I didn't cave in. If I ever have children.

True, over the past three years we've heard dramatic improvements in digital sound, as designers of both professional and studio gear squeeze the last bits of performance from an antique system. Antique? The system is essentially a computer. Show me a computer designed in the ;'70s that's not considered an antique.

Then, just as CDs begin to sound good enough to actually enjoy, we have the current analog renaissance. Instead of shutting down, record presses are spitting out high-quality vinyl biscuits 24 hours a day. Part of a generation of young people programmed for CD is demanding vinyl.

New vinyl sales are still small, but according to the RIAA, they're up 80% by volume over 1994—a statistic that doesn't include the audiophile vinyl marketplace. More good new records are available today than were available five years ago. They're being released faster than lovers of the old technology can afford to buy them.

Don't sell short this vinyl renaissance. According to one of my sources, Blue Note's recent 12-title "Connoisseur Series;';'—the jazz label's best-selling reissue set—sold better on 180gm vinyl than on 20-bit CDs. In fact, the vinyl sold out.

Jac Holzman—founder of Elektra and Nonesuch Records, Charter AES member, and Chief Technologist of the Warner Music Group—is including a provocative essay entitled "The Case for Audiophile Vinyl" with each new LP issued by his current label, Discovery Records, which has just reentered the vinyl marketplace.

With digital so improved, why the sudden bump in analog? One reason is dissatisfaction with digital—despite the gains—on the part of some engineers, producers, and artists. In addition, analog is much improved, to the point that most of the negatives that digital enthusiasts like to fixate on are no longer problems.

What you're left with, then, is a high-performance system with effectively infinite resolution vs a system with seriously limited resolution—despite the other specs. Analog is becoming a preferred format for recording jazz both with audiophile labels such as AudioQuest and major labels such as Atlantic. At Atlantic, producer Yves Beauvais seems to be singlehandedly restoring the label to premier status, and he's doing it by recording artists such as Cyrus Chestnut and Wessell Anderson live to two-track analog. Check out the sound on Chestnut's Revelation (8215-2, CD) or Anderson's warmdaddy in the garden of swing (82657-2). Or Leon Parker's Epicure debut, Above & Below, or any of Josh Redman's multitrack analog Warner Bros. albums.

Digital's "numbers" may be better, but if we drew up a set of specs to represent a human being, I bet the Abe Lincoln robot at Disneyland would score higher than the screen image of Raymond Massey. But which would you rather watch reciting The Emancipation Proclamation?

The performance gap
Despite innovations in the digital domain, the performance gap between state-of-the-art analog and digital remains. Records still sound more like real music to my ears.

Yes, I can now sit down and actually enjoy listening to a CD. Couldn't do that five years ago. But I still find myself losing focus after five or ten minutes. I change CDs, I pick up a magazine, or I visit my local Home Theater. For some reason, I'm able to listen endlessly to records—and I do. This is an oft-heard phenomenon.

Last Christmas I got into this D/A debate with some Gen X engineers (structural, chemical, electrical) at a tree-trimming party at my next-door neighbor's house. When the snickering started, I said: "Okay, usually I'm nowhere near home when I get to this part of the argument, but this time I'm right next door. So, you're all coming downstairs, and I'm going to give you as unbiased a demonstration as I can. You tell me what you hear."

I began with Mobile Fidelity's 200gm vinyl and gold-CD versions of John Hiatt's Bring the Family. I matched levels with an spl meter. I lit green candles. I was fair. First the CD of "Lipstick Sunset." These guys had never sat in front of a good audio system, so when they heard spatially organized, phase-correct, timbrally accurate music emanating from three-dimensional space—and what sounded like nothing coming from the speakers—they flipped.

"You're telling me that record is gonna sound as good as the CD?" one said. "I'm not saying anything," I replied as I lowered the stylus. It was over after a few bars. Even though the two versions are basically indistinguishable tonally, all immediately grasped the essential difference. "The record is so...! Everything's so...." Lots of hand gestures, few words, much excitement.

There was no comparison—it wasn't even close. It was and is a totally different listening experience, and a new one for these guys. The printed page vs the computer screen. For them it was a revelation. This is what always happens when I do these comparisons for non-audiophiles.

A software paradise?
In the early days of digital, proselytizers would always try to hook you with some new release or reissue:

"The Jim Nabors catalog has been digitally remastered on CD, and it's never sounded better. So what are you waiting for?"

Or "The Beatles are on CD. Now what's your excuse for not owning a player?" (That one was easy. The Beatles on CD sound terrible compared to original British pressings.)

Sixteen-bit digital's learning curve was about 10 years. Much of what was transferred during that first decade needs to be done over—or maybe we should wait for a second HDCD encoder to be built so it can be passed around from studio to studio like some music-enhancing, electronic hash-pipe. Maybe the second go-round should wait for the high-resolution digital format that DVD will make possible.

Nonetheless, today we live in a software paradise. Thanks to word-length converters like Apogee's UV-22, which has found favor at both Bernie Grundman's and Bob Ludwig's mastering facilities, and bit-reduction techniques like Sony's Super Bit Mapping process, we're finally getting some great-sounding CDs. Still, to my ears, CDs sourced from analog sound more convincing than the DDD variety.

Have you heard The Sound of Everest sampler? Or Ryko's Au20 gold transfer of Richard and Linda Thompson's Shoot Out the Lights? Sony/Legacy's Lonely and Blue from the great Roy? Or Mobile Fidelity's Gain Stage gold CDs? Or the incredibly liquid-sounding DCC Compact Classics gold discs mastered by Steve Hoffman? I hope you have. They sound great.

But have you heard Classic Records' Living Stereo or Verve LP reissues? Compare the Shaded Dog CDs with the new LPs. No contest. You haven't lived a full audiophile life until you've heard The Royal Ballet Gala Performances or Ella Fitzgerald's Clap Hands, Here Comes Charlie! on vinyl.

Have you heard Joe Harley's AudioQuest productions on LP—as he would wish you to hear them? Have you heard Acoustic Sounds' vinyl pressing of Sonny Rollins' Way Out West or Bill Evans' Waltz for Debby? Or the black circle of Jimmy Rogers' Bluebird?

Or Nirvana's Unplugged in New York? Have you ever heard an original "six-eye" pressing of Miles's Kind of Blue or In Person at the Blackhawk? The LP of MoFi's Muddy Waters' Folk Singer? Or Chesky's Daphnis et Chloe recorded in stereo in 1955?

Have you heard Mosaic's recent four-LP set of The Complete 1959 CBS Charles Mingus Sessions? Or an orange-label Impulse of John Coltrane's A Love Supreme? Have you blasted a British pressing of The Clash's London Calling? Or sat down and really listened to a clean original copy of Joni Mitchell's Blue? Or a green-label Warner-7 Arts of Van Morrison's Astral Weeks? Ever hear a Bill Porter recording from RCA's Nashville Studio "B" in its original analog state? Or Roy Orbison singing "Crying" on Monument vinyl?

Have you ever gone to a garage sale and picked up a dozen pristine classic-rock albums for $6? Ever heard a 50 copy of Steely Dan's Gaucho (mastered by Bob Ludwig) and compared it to the CD? Have you shopped at a good used-record store and picked up a handful of classical LPs for a $1.98 apiece—great performances—or maybe picked up pieces you're curious about but would like to hear before you plunk down 15 bucks for a CD version?

If you've done any or all of these things, or if you've ever listened to vinyl on a properly set-up turntable, you know why vinyl will not die, why an infinite-resolution system, despite its problems, beats a limited-resolution format most every time. You know that all the tired talk of record fragility, wear, noise, distortion, and the rest is like dumping on fresh food because it spoils more easily than does frozen.

I'll play you 30-year-old hemp-encrusted British Beatles albums that have been lapped by everything from a Sonotone 8TA to a Shure V-15 to a Koetsu to a Clavis DC. Then I'll give you a taste of the CD versions and let you tell me about the joys of digital remastering—and about record wear and vinyl noise.

Have you ever compared with some old vinyl the Led Zep CDs everyone's raving about? No contest. And if you can't tolerate an occasional pop or click, I guess you don't attend live concerts—there's always someone sucking mucous up their nose or coughing or passing wind in your vicinity. Does that stop you from enjoying the music?

Not owning a turntable today is foolish—as foolish as the analog diehards who refuse to buy CD players. Both domains have enough great stuff today to keep you spinning happily.

The idea of spending big bucks on electronics, speakers, and cables and not being able to play Classic's Coleman Hawkins' Live at the Village Gate or a plain old Warner pressing of Neil Young's Everybody Knows this is Nowhere is nowhere. Bob Ludwig's recent 20-bit transfers of the Stones catalog are better than I ever expected to hear from digital. But are they as good as the original vinyls, which you can pick up for a couple bucks each? In the subtle ways that make recorded sound seem real? That connect sound to the groin area? That rock'n'roll? Not really.

The analog future
I suspect some Stereophile readers skip reviews of pickup arms, turntables, and cartridges. Not interested. Old technology. Can't find records at the mall. My goal is to convince every Stereophile reader to buy a turntable and get into vinyl—to appreciate pure analog properly presented. Today, enough new software is available that you can listen to vinyl for weeks without playing the same thing.

At the risk of rehashing the obvious for some readers, in this column I will go back to user-friendly basics while reviewing real-world turntables, cartridges, arms, and phono sections. I'll also cover the stuff most of us can only dream about. I love reading about Vipers and Porsche Carrera 4s, though I doubt I'll ever own either. I'm married. I look at Playboy.

I lived with and reviewed a Rockport Capella turntable last year. It costs as much as a new car ($20k), and it's worth every cent—though I could never afford one. Watching it leave was painful. But I'd be just as happy to listen on a Rega Planar 3, a VPI 19 Jr., or, if I really had to, an old Dual 1218 plattenwechsler.

jdmcderm's picture

Bravo Michael for sharing the archive with us.  After mentally calibrating myself to 1995, which is starting to feel like a while ago now, I relished reading about how all of this all began.  You really are unique in the audio and recording industries in that while there are people who "do" analog for a living and there are those that are passionate about it, you have always been the sometimes lone, always consistent voice calling out from the wilderness, beckoning us to give vinyl a chance.  I'll admit now that I skipped your column in Sterephile for years as I built my CD collection and left all of my records at a girlfriend's apartment in about 1990 because well, "I'll never listen to records again."  Argh.

I remember once posting a comment on about an article you had written about vinyl vs. CD that I took particular offense to.  The essence of my brilliant critique was that you old (sorry) audio guys romanticize the distortions you hear from vinyl and tubes and that you are so used to these distortions that you can't appreciate what digital (and solid state) have to offer.  Now mind you, I did go to a public university, but I worked at a high end store in high school and college that displayed (but did not demo) turntables.

Fast forward to a couple of years ago.  While you and I could have spirited (but respectful) political debates, I lap up everything you write and had recently heard an original Columbia six eye on a Clearaudio Statement played against the 50th anniversary Columbia CD reissue, and I was hooked.  I started with a 1980's vintage suspended table and, well, let's just say I've gotten to know the staff at VPI very well as I've climbed that ladder.  I have over 800 records and living in Southern California, I have to hold myself back from spending too much time and disposable income in the treasure trove of great record stores here.

So thank you for doing what you do and please accept my apologies for my ill-considered comment those many years ago.  You brought this skeptic to the well and when I took a drink, it all became clear.  I continue to buy CD's and stream music and upgrade my digital equipment, but when it really matters, it's gotta be vinyl, baby.

John Macca's picture

Always Mike, keep going, 95>>>>22, go pal, you´re the best!