Analog Corner #14

Kuzma Stabi Reference turntable with Stogi Reference arm

(Originally published in Stereophile, September 12th, 1996)

"Hey! First you said the hi-fi show was like the auto show, then all you've talked about is vacuum tubes and turntables. I got news for you: when I go to the car show, I don't go there to see old technology and old cars, I go to see what's new!"

I was on Leonard Lopate's WNYC radio show promoting HI-FI '96, and this irate caller was right: I had talked a great deal about tubes and analog. But why not? I figured it would add some color to the story. I figured even the uninterested would find the resurgence of tubes and vinyl fascinating. And if it incited some folks into calling in, isn't that what talk radio is all about?

But this guy was really ticked, and he'd backed me into a corner. "Calm down!" I told him. "There's plenty of new solid-state gear at the Show too, and CD players and processors. By the way, didn't you say you're from Westchester? Well, there's a company in Westchester called Mondial and they make solid-state gear right here in the United States—I've reviewed some—and their Acurus line is basically no more expensive than the mass-market junk you find at chain stores. You ought to come to the Show and hear it!" That shut him up but good.

Next day I ran into Robbii Wesson (the artist who created all those neat The Abso!ute Sound covers back when). "I heard you on Leonard Lopate's show yesterday. Know what I was doing? I was laying out a Mondial ad."

"That's a coincidence," I said.

"It was cool the way you didn't let on," he added.

"Let on to what?" I responded.

"You mean you didn't know?"

"Know what?"

"You didn't know the angry guy you were talking to was Tony Federici [co-owner of Mondial] pulling your chain?????"

I swear I didn't. The vibe was in the air, though.

Another amazing coincidence: WNYC and Stereophile ran a month-long contest promoting HI-FI '96. The winner would get to "shop" at the Show for a $3000 stereo system. My job was to take him/her around and help choose the components. The final question was: Take the year Louis Armstrong died, subtract it from the year Elvis died, and add the number of letters in George Gershwin's last name.

Out of all the entrants from throughout the New York/New Jersey metropolitan area, it turns out the winning couple live in my little town, within walking distance of my house. Amazing. Of course, now the prize has been amended to include me going over their house to help them set up the system.

Consumer retorts
Ever talk back to your television set? Ever have it talk back to you?

A few months before HI-FI '96, Consumer Reports ran a piece which basically said that gold CDs were a waste of money. Now, Consumer Reports is a magazine you take seriously until it does a story on something you know something about. It's not just their "a $400 receiver's good enough" mentality that's messed up.

They once did a story on running shoes in which Nike didn't fare too well. The guy from Nike, interviewed in the New York Times afterward, said what bothered him was not so much that Nike didn't come out on top, but that the story demonstrated how little Consumer Reports knew about running shoes. Even the spokesperson from the company whose shoes scored best agreed.

So I'm always amazed to run into audiophiles who say, "Oh, I ignore what Consumer Reports says about audio, but I take their advice when it comes to refrigerators."

Anyway, when WNBC-TV consumer reporter Asa Aarons dutifully parroted CR's gold-CD story, I got so ticked off I called Aarons's voice-mail "hot line" to issue this challenge: "You show up with a camera crew at HI-FI '96 in a few weeks and I'll prove to you that you can hear the difference between gold CDs and regular ones. I'm not saying it's the gold that makes the difference, but you'd better believe the mastering is done with much greater care, and the packaging is better. It's about time someone rated Consumer Reports!"

Aarons took the bait, and on the Show's first consumer day, he showed up with a film crew and two summer interns who were also neophyte listeners. We were to meet in the "Conrad" room, so that's were I went. There I found a full house—about 70 people—wanting to hear the Wilson X-1s driven by top-of-the-line Conrad-Johnson tube gear.

Naturally, in my own shy, self-effacing way, I took over from Transparent Audio's Doug Blackwell, who was running the regular demo, and did some gold/aluminum disc A/B comparisons, using Mobile Fidelity, DCC, and Analogue Productions CDs vs the major-label releases—just to make sure the differences were clear before Aarons showed up. Not surprisingly, almost everyone in the audience got it right every time. There was even near unanimity on absolute phase with each disc—a test Blackwell insisted upon.

I ended by playing a lacquer of MCA's LP reissue of Who's Next that the label was kind enough to send me for evaluation. "Behind Blue Eyes" got applause—and deservedly so. It was awesome. Then I sat through the regular demo, which was almost all CDs. Though clearly appreciative of the very good sound, the audience sat unmoved.

Halfway through the demo they switched to vinyl, playing a cut off of Classic's superb reissue of Belafonte Sings The Blues (RCA Living Stereo LSP-1972) on the Well Tempered Turntable. At one point on the track a trumpet enters—it nearly snapped off the heads of half the audience. I mean, heads lurched, bodies jumped. You simply never get that kind of visceral reaction from a CD. Why? Must be CD's much wider dynamic range.

I waited, but Aarons and crew never showed up. Why? They were waiting for me in the real Conrad Room, while I was in a room using Conrad-Johnson gear. The room named "Conrad" featured Krell electronics and Wilson WATT Puppies, plus a VPI TNT/JMW Memorial Tonearm combo. There I ran.

While the cameras rolled, and without saying which was which, I played both Vanguard's "midline" version of The Weavers' Reunion at Carnegie Hall and the Analogue Productions gold CD. The differences were clear to all in the room—save for the two virgin listeners, who understandably were totally confused about how to listen and what to listen for.

I made the wine analogy—an experienced oenophile could distinguish a fine wine from a cheap one, but a neophyte probably couldn't—and we moved on to pit Steve Hoffman's DCC gold CD of Badfinger's Straight Up against Capitol's aluminum version. Here everyone, including our neophytes, heard the huge difference between the sweet, airy transfer using a simple chain and tube gear, and the hollow, flat, edgy one produced using digital noise reduction to rid the sound of the slight tape hiss at the very top.

Then the fireworks started: two effete classical-music snobs started in about how the music was rock rubbish generated by electric instruments so what's the difference and yadayadayada. That incited both me and Sound by Singer's Andy Singer, whose room we were using for the demo. Singer didn't mince words as he explained to the two symphony snots that a good recording could reveal the sonic differences between amp stacks and guitar models, even string brands.

Finally I delivered unto Aarons the coup de grace: a real-time A/B between Mobile Fidelity's fine-sounding gold CD of Nirvana's Nevermind and MoFi's own Anadisc 200 200-gram vinyl issue. (For you Boston Audio Society types out there, yes—I did equalize volume.) Even though the CD was somewhat louder most of the time, to the neophyte listeners and everyone else in the room, the record creamed the CD. No contest. Not even close.

The reaction of the neophytes was particularly telling. The CD comparisons elicited a kind of grudging acknowledgement that the gold ones sounded better, but you could tell their basic attitude was "So what? Who cares?" Their shocked reaction to the CD/vinyl comparison was visceral. [For similar tales, see this month's "Letters.''—Ed.]

Aarons's piece ran that night. After neatly getting the audiophile perspective across, it ended with me saying, "If you want to get drunk, drink Ripple. But if you want to have a nice experience, drink a bottle of fine wine." Then Aarons, back at the anchor desk, said, "And now here's a big surprise for you. If you really want to have a nice experience, I hope you didn't throw away your records. [holds up a record] Vinyl is making a big comeback, and if you're willing to sink about $500 into a decent new turntable, you may find the most pleasing sound comes from one of your old records." To which the anchorman responded, "People still think it sounds more realistic and gutsy." Aarons finished with, "They played 'em for us today, and there's actually a lot of detail you don't pick up off the CD."

YES!!! Point made to the masses.

The spin on vinyl
Yes, there were great demos of DVD, Home Theater in a box, surround-sound from two-channel headphones, new inexpensive high-performance gear, digital taken to the outer limits, and all the rest—but to me, the most important thing about HI-FI '96 was that, finally, a generation of audiophiles weaned on the compact disc could get to hear analog done right.

It's official: Analog can be taken off the endangered species list. Analog was not a fringe event at HI-FI '96, it was one of the main events. The Show was filled with turntables. Vinyl was everywhere. I sat with Richard Vandersteen in front of his new flagship Vandersteen Vs listening to Classic's gold 20-bit CD transfer of Music for Bang, Baa-rOOM and Harp. Good as it is, I hardly recognized it digitized. Then they played Classic's vinyl edition. It exploded from the speakers. Everyone shook their heads in amazement. That scenario was repeated all over the Show.

Finally: Put up or shut up time. I'm convinced digital audiophiles came away from the Show hearing what we've been whining about for a decade.

What was new to see and hear? The Show marked the official debut of VPI's Aries turntable, a $2200 black-lacquer-and-stainless-steel beauty featuring a TNT platter/bearing/motor drive system in a more compact (22" by 16") package. As with the TNT, the motor assembly is a stainless-steel stand-alone unit; it weighs 17 lbs.

The Aries is suspensionless. The heavy, 2"-thick MDF plinth, bonded to an 11-gauge steel sheet, sits on four stainless-steel cones. Obviously you don't want to put your Aries on a coffee table! But who would do that?

VPI packages its sleek, fine-sounding JMW Memorial tonearm ($2300, review soon to come), introduced at Winter CES, with the Aries—a mighty attractive combo for $4300.

Basis, another premier American turntable manufacturer, introduced a new, "low''-priced 'table at the Show, the Series 2000 ("under $3000''). It's an ultra-compact (16" by 12") design utilizing parts from the company's larger, more expensive products. The Series 2000 includes a solid acrylic subchassis, four-point silicone fluid-damped suspension, single-piece machined acrylic platter and mat, and the same bearing and outboard motor assembly used in the Basis Ovation.

The Series 2000's integral armboard is pre-cut for both the Graham and SME arms. Graham and Basis products are distributed by Musical Surroundings, so obviously the Graham/Series 2000 combo is aimed at audiophiles considering VPI's Aries/JMW Memorial arm pairing. The unit on display at the Show was clearly an unfinished prototype, but the design looked promising—especially given its space-saving dimensions.

There was some unsettling news at the Show regarding another American veteran of the turntable wars: Jack Shafton, who'd seen SOTA through analog's dark days, has thrown in the towel and sold the company to east coast investors as yet unnamed. The company stayed afloat thanks in great part to the success of SOTA's budget line of 'tables both in and out of the audiophile market. A review of SOTA's top-of-the-line Millennia ($6500) I'd been preparing will remain on the shelf until the transfer is completed and we can be assured that the sample I received will be representative of the new owners' products.

Meanwhile, for those preferring vacuum holddown, SOTA's Nova fitted with an AudioQuest PT8 arm (about $3800) was on display at the Show—a nice combination that won't break some banks.

Some good news: The outstanding, reasonably priced Rega line of UK-manufactured turntables, without a US distributor for a while, now has one: Lauerman Audio Imports of Knoxville, Tennessee will be handling the line, which is currently under review a few feet from where I word-process this.

Clearly the most popular 'table at the Show was the VPI TNT Mk.3, which was all over the place (New York is close to VPI's home town after all). But there were other familiar turntables on display, including the impressive-looking and -sounding Kuzma Stabi Reference with Stogi Reference arm (distributed by Muse Electronics), the Townshend Rock with Townshend-modified Rega arm, the Immedia RPM-2 'table with the sleek new Immedia unipivot arm, the entire Thorens line, and the Roksan Xerxes.X 'table with Artemiz arm. The Roksan system features three different DC power-supply options and two different turntable power supplies, adding up to a mind-spinning set of possibilities.

Also at the Show: the massive and quite impressive-looking Verdier 'table from France, which uses opposing ring magnets to achieve negligible rotational friction, fitted with the graceful Danish Mørch unipivot arm. Both are imported by Hart Huschens of Audio Advancements. Once again the big Forsell Air Force 'table with outboard flywheel was on static display. I think Peter Forsell should have the courage of his convictions and play the thing for people at a Show. Let 'em hear it, Peter; let 'em see it in action.

Speaking of airbearing turntables: there was a new one at the Show, the massive 190-lb Walker turntable designed and built in Audubon, Pennsylvania by Lloyd Walker. The plinth alone, made of crushed marble and lead, weighs in at 100 lbs, while the airbearing platter checks in at a mere 70. As with the Forsell, while the platter's radial load is air-pressurized, the axial load is not. Only the Rockport's platter features a true air bearing, with both the axial and radial loads pressurized.

Walker's arm design is similar to Bruce Thigpen's Eminent Technology arm, with the captured air bearing remaining stationary while the spindle slides through it. Walker's arm is not damped horizontally, which I found troubling. His solution to the great disparity between the large horizontal mass and the smaller vertical one is to make the armtube heavy. The entire arm assembly is massive, operating at a very high 45psi. The air pump that pressurizes both platter and arm is quite small and impressively silent.

Such a high-mass airbearing arm system must be supported by a very stable platform. Walker's 100-lb plinth is springless. The outboard motor can drive the platter with floss, a belt, or 1/4" or 1/8" recording tape. For a handmade, essentially homemade product, construction quality seemed very high, though the price was not compared to other airbearing systems: $7000 complete.

Whether Walker can go from being a one-off guy to becoming a legitimate manufacturer of a reliable product remains to be seen. At least he was willing to play records on his 'table under Show conditions. I summoned up my courage and played the lacquer of Who's Next on the 'table after Walker demonstrated the arm's absolute stability and outstanding mechanical isolation.

The sound—through Komuro 845 single-ended, direct-coupled amps driving a pair of Evett & Shaw Genoa speakers (which surely owe a great deal to Joachim Gerhard's designs for Audio Physic)—was superb; some of the best I heard at the Show. I'm curious to read what other Stereophile writers thought of the presentation.

There was one other new turntable of note at the Show: the Simon Yorke Designs Series 7, distributed in America by Sounds of Silence (importer of the Crown Jewel cartridge and distributor of the Vibraplane active isolation platform). Yorke's Series 5 turntable was designed and manufactured for Cello during the analog '80s. The Series 7 is a sleek, highly refined–looking design that makes use of ultra-precision-machined stainless steel. The turntable bearing shaft is stainless, as is the massive nonmagnetic platter, fitted with an acrylic-over-cork mat. Even the chassis is fabricated from stainless. The outboard AC motor system plays at 331/3, 45, and 78rpm.

Despite its highly styled consumer look, the Series 7 is designed for serious archival work. Platters capable of handling 14", 16", and 20" discs are available, as is a computer-controlled DC drive system for variable pitch control. The matching Series 7 Tonearm is a unipivot available in both 9!~9 and 12" configurations.

Yeah, but how does it sound? We'd love to find out. Cost? $15,000 complete with Vibraplane, which alone is a $5000 item.

A shure thing
Two cartridges premiered at the Show, one being the $2500 Frog low-output moving-coil from van den Hul (now distributed by Stanalog Audio Imports), the other Shure's V15VxMR—an update of the well-regarded V15 Type VMR. Shure got out of the premium cartridge business a few years ago, but with the resurgence of analog they've jumped back in.

While some disc-spinning elitists have thumbed their noses at the moving-magnet V-15s, there are many closeted V-15 users who pay lip service to the exotic low-output moving-coils while preferring the flat response and outstanding tracking ability (at 1 gram) of the V-15. I won't "out" any of them here, but if I was forced to name names, you'd be surprised by some of them.

While I've owned V-15s I, II, III, and IV, I'd switched to moving-coils by the time the V was introduced. The new Shure, introduced at a Show press conference, features superb specifications as well as many technological and mechanical innovations, including a frequency response of 10Hz to 25kHz within 1.5dB, outstanding tracking at 1 gram, 3mV output, and a viscous damping system at the cartridge, where common sense and Max Townshend will tell you it can do the most good. Cost will be $250. We'll review the new model with open ears.

Phono sections & phonograph records
Conrad-Johnson's expensive, all-tubed Premier 15 phono section, which appeared in mockup form at CES, was up and running in the C-J/Wilson/Transparent Audio room. It sounded very warm, yet open and detailed.

Also mighty impressive was Balanced Audio Technology's VK-P10 Phono Stage, a 10-tube true-balanced unit featuring a Flying Passive RIAA;r network. The VK-P10's power supply contains even more energy storage than the VK-5 line stage. Input is via either single-ended RCA or balanced XLR connectors. Output is via XLR jacks. The unit offers up to 55dB gain direct in, or either 67 or 73dB gain through built-in step-up transformers. Resistance and capacitive loading are selectable. A mighty impressive package for $4000.

Still not quite ready for prime time (ie, review or retail distribution) is NEW's DCLP 55—a six-tube, 100% DC-powered phono section offering up to 65dB of gain for $3198.

Audible Illusions announced yet another modification to the Modulus 3A preamplifier: 24-position, custom Swiss-made sealed stepped attenuators featuring gold-plated contacts and ultra-high-tolerance resistors. Being able to "count clicks" makes the dual-mono volume controls far more user-friendly, and, as I've already found, the preamp sounds slightly more open and detailed without giving up any of its attractive midband bloom. A reasonably priced factory retrofit is available.

Ayre Acoustics demoed the finished version of its K-1 solid-state preamplifier with optional high-gain, low-noise, balanced input phono section. If it sounds as good as it looks, it'll be a winner.

At the other end of the scale was a $99 moving-magnet device from Creek for those wanting to explore the wonderful world of analog on the cheap. Importer Roy Hall of Music Hall thinks most audiophiles will opt for Creek's more expensive, better-sounding OBH-8.

But what good is all of this great hardware without records? The Show was filled with new vinyl from Mobile Fidelity, DCC Compact Classics (which reported that vinyl outsold gold CDs 65% to 35% at the Show), Classic Records, Analogue Productions, Chesky, Alto, Speaker's Corner, ARS (the German reissue label now vinylizing the Telefunken catalog), and many, many others. I'm not going to list all of the forthcoming issues and reissues announced by these labels at the Show—it would take up too much space.

On Saturday I chaired "The Vinyl Experience," a seminar featuring analog notables Kai Seemann (Speaker's Corner), Chad Kassem (Acoustic Sounds), Michael Cuscuna (Mosaic, etc.), Mike Hobson (Classic Records), David Chesky (Chesky Records), and Joe Harley (late of AudioQuest, now an independent record producer).

The house was almost full, the discussion lively, and the audience feedback invaluable. Some of the panelists bemoaned the fact that while audiophiles were buying reissues, they balked at new vinyl. Members of the audience shot back that they were willing to drop 30 bucks on a treasured favorite, but not on the great musical unknown. I suggested that analog fans would probably be willing to try new music on 120-gram vinyl if the cost could be brought in line with that of new CDs.

At one point I asked for a show of hands for how many audience members had bought Mosaic's stupendous The Complete Plugged Nickel Sessions of Miles Davis. A good number of hands shot up, but not nearly enough. Folks, this is a limited edition—when it's gone, you'll be sorry!

Quote of the seminar (and probably of the Show): When I asked the panelists if they were doing alright financially despite all their bellyaching, most said "Yes." Chad Kassem put it this way: "Hey, 10 years ago I was flippin' hamburgers." Three years ago, if you'd told me I'd be flippin' all this great new vinyl on my turntable in 1996, I'd have said, "No way."