Analog Corner #18

Allsop's Orbitrac 2

(Originally published in Stereophile, January 12th, 1997)

Before beginning my regularly scheduled column, let me respond to Charles Hansen's letter (November 1996, p.16), which JA kindly headlined "Fremer Was Wrong." [Hey, it did follow a letter headline "Fremer Was Right.''—Ed.] Hansen writes "...unless they've changed it since I purchased mine, the virtually unusable for moving-coil cartridges. The main beam is made of a ferrous material—the powerful magnets in a moving-coil cartridge will clamp the gauge to the cartridge, flattening the cantilever in the process." (my italics)

I've been reviewing moving-coil cartridge after moving-coil cartridge in Stereophile and using my trusty Shure gauge to set tracking force on all of them. As I haven't noticed any flattened cantilevers, it appears Shure has changed the gauge's beam from a ferrous material to aluminum. Hansen could have picked up the phone and called Shure or, God forbid, me—then he wouldn't have confused and/or panicked readers. Get the Shure for $15 and rest aSHUREd you'll come within 0.1 gram of the true VTF compared to the dead-on accurate $649 Wind electronic unit you'll read about a few paragraphs down.

As for his comments regarding azimuth adjustment, well, yes, it would be wonderful if Audio-Technica would once again manufacture their cartridge analyzer, and it would be wonderful if everyone could afford one should they make them available again. I will push for that. And it would also be nifty if everyone had the Ortofon test record with modulations only on one groove wall. But this, Mr. Hansen, is the real world, and those are not options for most people.

Yes, the out-of-phase/summed method gives you equal output in both channels, which does not necessarily optimize azimuth—ie, where each channel's generator is at right angles to its respective groove wall. But having used this method to set azimuth on dozens of cartridges over the past few years, I've found it to be at least a good starting point from which to adjust by ear, and in many cases—especially on the finer cartridges—to be the precise point where the sound is optimized.

So perhaps I should have made it clear that setting azimuth by the out-of-phase method, like setting it by eye, is not always precise. But my experience has been that it most often is precise—or so close that I'm satisfied, and I'm pretty picky. At least this pretty much assures that you can leave your balance control set in the middle!

It's back!
Here's some good news: Allsop's Orbitrac record-cleaning device, which we've been tirelessly lobbying for on your behalf, is officially back in production, though initially in limited quantities, as the company susses out our tweaky corner of the marketplace. The all new Orbitrac 2 is available from enlightened retailers, or directly from Allsop—(800) 426-4303—for $24.99, chump change by audiophile standards.

I write this without actually having seen or used the product, but an Allsop spokesperson assures me that by the time you read this it will be available, as will the all-important replacement pads. I'll give you the hands-on lowdown next time. The Orbitrac 2 is an entirely new product, custom-engineered for today's post-modern vinyl enthusiast, I am told. And I believe.

While the original Orbitrac was round, the 2 is a rectangular affair 7" long and 2" wide. It comes with two felt-bottomed cartridges (actually boiled cotton, to provide a totally lint-free cleaning surface), two 1 oz bottles of cleaning fluid, a storage case, a nap-lifting brush, and a mat upon which you do the actual cleaning. You don't want to be subjecting your platter bearing to any downward pressure.

Like the original Orbitrac, the 2 is designed to rotate around a post inserted into the record hole. And like the original, the 2 is made right here in Amurrica, in Bellingham, Washington. My conversation with an Allsop representative made it clear to me that the company is committed to offering a serious product, carefully thought out and meticulously manufactured. Allsop's cleaning fluid uses a highly purified alcohol base—along with other chemically pure ingredients the company wouldn't divulge to me.

If you're tuning in late and don't understand what the Orbitrac fuss is all about—especially with vacuum-operated cleaning machines available at reasonable prices—the last thing you want to do is press your vacuum machine's lips onto a dirty record. Instead, you first use the Orbitrac to loosen and remove surface dirt, thus pre-cleaning the record before vacuuming. Otherwise you'll contaminate your vacuum machine's pads the first time you use it, and your records each every time you use it thereafter. Makes sense, no (Footnote 1)?

Guess who's playing?
While Allsop cautiously dips its corporate toes into the gnarly world of analog, Sounding Board, the official NARM (The National Association of Recording Merchandisers) newsletter, reported in its October 1996 issue that its survey of 1500 male and female consumers of "a varied demographic profile" indicated that "More than one out of every two music consumers (55%) currently owns a turntable. Ownership is strongest among those 35 and up (72%). Forty-five percent who own a turntable still use it!" (Their exclamation point.)

Forty-five percent. Hear that, suckas! Yeah, go into Cower Records, or Voygin or Ballbuster, and look for vinyl. Look for the Orbitrac 2 or rice-paper sleeves, or any of the other analog accoutrements these 45% could use and would buy. You probably won't find them. Why? Do I have to spell it out? (If any of you record-store execs are reading this, don't believe me—call NARM. They'll tell ya.)

Meanwhile, do you want to know what's "killing the high end''? According to a recent issue of Audio Adventure, it's vinyl! Yes, the editor says, it's vinyl. Go figger.

Now some bad news
So if the Orbitrac 2 is the good news, what's the bad? Well, call me prescient. No sooner did I smell a rat in the vinyl pipeline and report it to you two columns ago, than rumors started wafting my way that Mobile Fidelity may go out of the vinyl business. A call to President Herb Belkin confirmed that MoFi will either: 1) continue releasing vinyl, pressed in-house (least likely option as of the date I write this); 2) continue releasing vinyl but cease pressing operations, opting for an outside manufacturer like RTI, which will press the "Anadisc 200" 200-gram records on its own presses using MoFi's dies (somewhat more likely, but still unlikely); or 3) get out of vinyl altogether (a real possibility), while continuing with its excellent-sounding gold CD releases.

Why? Simple. As I suspected in my last column, MoFi and other reissue labels have released so much swell vinyl so quickly, consumers simply can't afford to buy all of it—even if they'd like to. The vinyl constituency is growing, but not fast enough.

Compounding the problem, as the numbers go down, record companies are demanding larger and larger guarantees before they'll license titles. So it's getting more difficult for MoFi and the other labels to get the music you'd like to hear reissued on vinyl. As William Bendix used to say, "What a revoltin' development!"

Herb Belkin, Joe Bermudez, and the rest of the crew at Mobile Fidelity are genuinely distressed by the prospect of shutting down their private pressing plant. When the company went back into vinyl, Belkin told me over dinner that he'd be happy if the company could break even on the project. While that seemed like a distinct possibility at first, over time the number of records sold per title has gotten smaller even as the total volume increases.

Folks, if MoFi gets out of vinyl, it would be a damn shame. Their mastering and pressing quality is superb. Some of the releases have been brilliant—even indispensable: Folk Singer, Bring the Family, Showdown, Exodus, Murmur, Nevermind, Cold Snap, The Fantasy Film World of Bernard Herrmann, The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys, Body and Soul, Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster, and many others.

Regardless of what MoFi finally decides to do, this would be a good time to check their catalog and pick up some gems while you can. You can help encourage them to continue issuing vinyl pressed in or out of house, and help yourself to some great-sounding music. Some of those records are genuine analog treasures, and they won't be around forever. So vote with your pocketbook and call the company to tell them what you think. We'll report on MoFi's final decision as soon as we get it.

This is also a good time to list some of the titles you've sent in that you'd like to see reissued on vinyl by whomever. The table gives a partial list, in alphabetical order; your names have been omitted to protect the not-so-innocent.

An interesting if occasionally bland and frequently predictable cross-section of musical tastes, don't you think? A great deal of variety, but a clear-cut preference for acoustic music, and a complete absence of synth/"progressive" rock, "traditional" jazz, "alternative" rock, etc. Also, no classical music, which I find somewhat surprising. Perhaps it's because classical music lovers tend to be older and thus are somewhat slower to respond (that'll get 'em!).

Some of these titles have already been issued on audiophile vinyl but are expensive and hard to find. Some, like the Allman Bros., have been mixed and reconstructed to digital and thus don't, in my opinion, qualify as good candidates for vinyl reissue. Others, like the Miles Davis titles, have been reissued on audiophile vinyl, or will be in the near future. Mosaic's superb Miles Davis/Gil Evans: The Complete Columbia Studio Recordings (MQ 11-164) includes Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Miles Ahead—three of Davis's most important and exquisite albums—as well as the less than stellar Quiet Nights, plus alternate takes, unreleased material, and rehearsals. While Miles Ahead was, of necessity, generated from a digital stereo master (the first time the original album has been issued in stereo, for reasons best discussed elsewhere), the rest is pure analog.

So, okay, $165 ain't cheap for what are essentially three superb-sounding, 180-gram, RTI-pressed LP reissues (way better than original "6 eyes," in my opinion), one dispensable but occasionally fascinating album, plus outtakes and the rest. But look at it this way: Had the three "must have" titles been issued by one of the "audiophile" labels, that'd be $90 right there.

For the cost of two and a half more "audiophile" label reissues you get a brilliantly executed boxed set complete with scholarly annotations, fascinating history, great photos, and a learning experience you can't put a dollar figure on. This set is what separates the audiophile boys from the music-loving men. Sit down and listen straight through, read the accompanying book, and in the end your knowledge of and appreciation for Miles Davis, Gil Evans, jazz in general, music producing, record reissuing, and humanity as a whole will grow far in excess of a measly 165 bucks!

Another cool tool
For the analog fanatic who has everything, or thinks he/she has, Axiss Distribution—the folks who bring you Air Tight and Accuphase—are now importing the "Arm Load Meter," a handcrafted, absolutely stellar, swell, most cool electronic stylus-pressure gauge manufactured by Winds in Japan.

There are two models of this 31/2"-square brushed-aluminum beauty: One measures in tenths of a gram, the other in hundredths. I auditioned the former, and it is deadly accurate (I used brass weights to check) and oh-so-easy to use. It's even equipped with a built-in spirit bubble to make sure your measuring surface is level, which is critical. You turn the unit on, set the balance wheel so that the easy-to-read LCD screen reads 0.00gm, and you're ready to go. The balance platform is refreshingly large and accurate anywhere on its smooth surface.

Price? Well, there's the rub: The ALM-1 (the 1/10-gram model) costs $649, the ALM-01 (1/100-gram) $739. Guess which sells better? You got it: According to Arturo Manzano, Axiss's VP of Sales and Marketing, the more expensive model is the one. I guess if you can afford $649 for a stylus-pressure gauge, you can afford $739. If you can afford either, get one (Footnote 2).

The Winds ALM-1 Arm Load Meter

Testing 1, 2, 3...
The British magazine Hi-Fi News & Record Review has issued a neat test LP, imaginatively titled Test Record (HFN 001). The inner gatefold annotation and accompanying diagrams explain, among other things, the differences between "tracing" and "tracking," the relationships between effective arm mass, cartridge mass, and compliance and system resonances, and describe what skating is and why it occurs. Though dryly written and occasionally difficult to follow, read it over enough times and you'll know more about the subject than some reviewers.

As for the record itself, be forewarned! Each band contains a locked groove—you have to get up and move the arm to start the next one. Not for lazy people, but then there are CDs for them. The record contains the usual channel identification, voice phase check, and pink-noise balance tests. It also has more useful bands, including three bias-setting (anti-skating) tones of increasing intensity. Each of the three bands is a 300Hz tone laterally cut (L+R) at +12, +14, and +18dB.

If you hear buzzing from the right channel, you need to decrease anti-skating. If you hear buzzing from the left channel, you need to increase it. The instructions are less than clear on this: "If there is any hint of instability (distorted or buzzing sound) on one channel or the other, then adjust the bias compensation accordingly."

"Accordingly''? What the heck does that mean to the novice using the disc for the first time? Nada, of course. Would it have been so hard to tell users that right-channel buzzing means too much anti-skating, and left too little? No. But anyone who's ever tried to set up a computer is more than familiar with this kind of inexplicable factual omission.

Side two gives you three more bands of 300Hz tones (+15dB)—at the beginning, middle, and end of the disc—so you can test the consistency of your arm/cartridge's performance across the great divide. There are three other very useful diagnostic bands. One contains a low-frequency, laterally recorded (L+R) sweep from 25Hz down to 5Hz with voice identification, overlaid with a 1kHz pilot tone. This allows you to both see and hear the resonance point of your arm/cartridge (every arm/cartridge has one, of course). When it occurs, hopefully somewhere between 8 and 15Hz, the pilot tone will go from steady to "warble" and your arm will begin to shake like Katherine Hepburn.

A second, similar low-frequency sweep from 16 to 6Hz, but cut L–R, tests your arm/cartridge's vertical behavior. If your resonant frequency is above 15Hz (bringing it close to music's frequency range), or if it's below 8Hz (bringing it close to where record warp and other imperfections can excite it), the instructions advise you to "try adjusting the damping of the arm."

What would be so difficult about telling users what the effects of more or less damping would be instead of just advising them to "adjust" the damping? Oh, those Brits!

There's also a band for adjusting azimuth (the cantilever's perpendicularity to the grooves); it consists of a 300Hz, +6dB (L–R), or out-of-phase, tone. If the azimuth is correct, when you switch your preamp to mono the signals should cancel out, leaving you with minimal or no sound. If you don't have a mono switch, you can still use the band by $wY-connecting your arm leads and plugging the single output into one phono channel ($Bmute your preamp first!).

Despite my few complaints, this is a very useful disc. Available in the US from Acoustic Sounds (see below) for $25, and perhaps from other vinyl vendors. Get it and you can really optimize your arm/cartridge's performance, once you've got the overhang and VTA properly set.

Camarillo, part two
Two columns ago I recounted the unlikely story of how Don MacInnis saved the presses at RTI. Here's an even more unlikely tale: how Acoustic Sounds' Chad Kassem, now partnered with MacInnis in AcousTech Mastering on-site at RTI, came to be one of the world's leading dealers of used audiophile vinyl, a reissuer of new audiophile vinyl and gold CDs, and the head of an award-winning record label.

I sat down with Kassem during my visit to RTI in Camarillo last summer and let the tape roll. As is so often the case, the record wheeler-dealer got the bug when a friend "sat me down between two speakers and told me to 'shut up'." Kassem had gotten his friend into audio years earlier and then had lost the jones. This experience rekindled his enthusiasm. (How his friend got the talkative Kassem to keep his mouth still is a mystery Stephen King couldn't solve.)

Years earlier, Kassem had bought a few half-speed–mastered Nautilus and Mobile Fidelity records, mostly because he was looking for the music. He was never "blown away by them," he told me, because even though the record jackets said "listen to the difference," he really didn't hear much on his nonaudiophile rig. "I thought it was gonna come out of the speakers and slap me upside the head and say, 'Hey, look how much more awesome!' I didn't think much about them after that because I didn't hear the difference," he told me in his James Carville–like Louisiana drawl.

But after his friend sat him down a few years later, Kassem clearly heard the difference. At about that time he noted that some half-speed records were beginning to appreciate in value. While the local record store in Salina, Kansas (where he'd subsequently moved) was selling MoFis and Nautiluses for $16, stores elsewhere were advertising certain titles for $40 and more.

Sensing a growing market, Kassem started buying duplicates of titles he already had. This was just around the time CDs were introduced. "The best way to build a collection is to buy, sell, and trade," Kassem said. And that he did—all for his own personal use.

Attention K-Mart Shoppers!
One day Kassem went to a K-Mart and found Mobile Fidelity drilled cutouts for $2.99. "$2.99?" he thought. "K-Mart bought it for less, and wherever they came from, there's gotta be more! They had Rickie Lee Jones, everything!" he remembered, "all the good ones, even Aqualung!"

Kassem started asking where the records came from, beginning with the checkout girl and working his way up. "Come here on Saturday at noon—that's when the guy fills up the bins," someone told him. Sure enough, on Saturday the guy showed up with records. "Hey, man, where'd you get the records?" At first the guy didn't want to divulge his source, but eventually he did: it was a big wholesaler. Kassem called and eventually got through to the head cheese, who told him he didn't have any more but that perhaps the guy he got them from did.

So Kassem called the next guy up in the vinyl food chain and asked him about the MoFi cutouts. "Okay, we'll send you out a list," the voice on the other end of the phone told Kassem. "I got the list," Kassem remembered, his eyes almost misting over. "There were 110 MoFis between 50¢ and $4!"

This was 1986. "They had Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis Presley, Gerry Rafferty, Gordon Lightfoot, Steve Miller, Aqualung, Ry Cooder, Tony Bennett and Bill Evans, Some Girls—they had 110 of them," he recounted.

Kassem photocopied the list, putting at the top, "Pick any 10 for $100, postage included," and ran an ad in the back of Audio magazine soliciting readers to send for his 10-for-$100 Mobile Fidelity catalog. While Kassem bought multiples of some titles in advance, most of what he bought was only after customers responded to the ad.

"Ten for $100—that's like nine bucks apiece delivered to your doorstep, and you could get Rickie Lee Jones, Elvis, you know?" Did it do well? "It kicked ass," Kassem told me. Did the distributor really have a big enough supply to feed the demand? "They had shitloads."

Turns out the distributor was in Saint Louis and had bought over a million dollars' worth of records from MoFi. The growing popularity of the CD had probably given the company the willies. Ironically, the infusion of cash is probably what kept MoFi in business and allowed it to get into gold CDs.

"Some people are too scared to dump their inventory," Kassem continued. "I think it was genius of [Herb Belkin] to make a decision."

Back to Kassem's story: The MoFi 10-for-$100 offer was a huge success, netting him capital and a great mailing list. He'd been working as a cook at five bucks an hour, reinvesting his money in records. "People could remember coming over to my apartment, and all I had was a box of records the size of a milk crate. And then it was double that, and double that, and pretty soon it filled the whole apartment."

Kassem started buying the in-print titles directly from MoFi and selling them mail-order. So while he was getting into the mail-order vinyl business, "a ton of people were getting out. I was going totally against the grain. CDs were coming out and people who loved LPs were worried and were paying anything for them. And there were other people dumping them for nothing! So I could buy them at the lowest prices and sell them at the highest prices!"

Isn't that nuts? "I wasn't born and weaned on Beethoven, man. I was Clifton Chenier, you know?" As for how Kassem learned about the audiophile lust for RCA Living Stereo and Mercury Living Presence LPs, and how he began reissuing collectible classical, jazz, and pop titles on his own Analogue Productions label—read our next installment.

Footnote 1: For a copy of the most anal-retentive and effective record-cleaning article you've ever read, complete with the best way to use the Orbitrac in conjunction with a vacuum machine, send $5 to The Tracking Angle, P.O. Box 6449, San Jose, CA 95150-6449. You'll be glad you did—and you'll get a back issue of my mag. This has been a paid political announcement.

Footnote 2: Axiss Distribution, Inc., 17800 South Main Street, Suite 109, Gardena, CA 90248. Tel: (310) 329-0187. Fax: (310) 329-0189.


Kirby's picture

I'm really enjoying reading these old articles again. I got a kick about reading how Mofi was getting out of the vinyl business while I was listening to my new copy of Stevie Wonder's "Talking Book" on their lable. It's also great to see how many of the Vinyl wish list have been released (even on Mofi) since this was written. Now I have to go and play my new 45 rpm Dylan "Bring it all Back Home" what a horrible way to spend a evening!