Analog Corner #3

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

"Why, there are more trees in the United States today then when the Pilgrims landed!" Rush Limbaugh proclaimed on his radio show a while back, launching an attack on the "environmental wackos" trying to scale back the clear-cutting of the last stands of virgin old-growth forest in the United States.

Limbaugh wasn't lying. There are more trees in the United States today than when the Pilgrims landed— if you count the tall, skinny timber growing crop-like on commercially managed tree farms: all the same species, all in a row (Footnote 1).

But tree farms aren't forests, and Limbaugh's statistical abuse should be obvious to all but terminal dittoheads. Perhaps there are legitimate arguments for cutting down every last one of those magnificent old trees and for destroying what nature took millions of years to create. Perhaps quick cash in pocket and an ugly scar make more sense than creating an enduring tourist attraction that could generate revenue for hundreds of years. But Limbaugh didn't make the case.

Audio/video exteriors
What does all this have to do with audio? And, more specifically, analog? Well I just finished reading the Electronic Industries Association's CES press kit and the organization's yearly report, The US Consumer Electronics Industry In Review ‘95 Edition (Footnote 2) ,and I was amazed by what I found— and, more importantly, what I didn't find.

How many times have you heard the word "laserdisc" uttered over the past few months? How many times have you seen it written about in the mainstream press, in the audiophile and videophile presses? I'll bet plenty. It seems to be the only source that gets written about, and it's certainly the only one taken seriously in the videophile press.

Yet, do you know what the "household penetration" of laserdisc players in the United States was as of January 1995, according to the EIA? Ten percent? Twenty percent? Five percent? Try about 1%. One percent penetration; 50% or more of the ink spilled on video sources in the major video magazines.

"Oh, but with the increasing popularity of Home Theater, that number will be changing soon," I hear you saying. You're right. According to the EIA, dollar volume factory sales of laserdisc players went down from $123 million in 1993 to $122 million in 1994—that in the midst of the Home Theater buying frenzy.

By comparison, dollar volume sales of VCRs in 1994 were almost $3 billion! Yet the industry caters to every whim of the tiny laserdisc market segment. Caters? It just about kisses its collective rear end.

Oh, and of all that gelt dropped on VCRs in the age of Home Theater, what percentage of video recorders sold do you suppose were stereo Hi-Fi—necessary to set up a five-channel Dolby Pro Logic or AC-3 or DTS system? Sixty percent? Fifty percent? Forty percent? Try just 29%. Less than 1/3 of all VCRs sold last year had FM stereo soundtracks—up a piddling 3% from the year before.

The analog shoe drops
Okay, you're waiting for the analog shoe to drop in this discussion. Well, keep waiting. Nary a statistic on turntable sales is to be found in the EIA report—not numbers sold, not dollar volume, not market penetration. LP playback isn't even a category.

We know turntable sales are up, both in the high-end and in the mid-fi marketplaces. We know LP sales are way up and that interest in analog is growing, but such information isn't here. You'll be happy to know, though, that market penetration of caller-ID units is at about 5%, and that the ever-critical multiline phone has stuck its nose into more than 10% of American homes.

I don't like picking a fight with the EIA. It's a very powerful organization, and I like the people there, many of whom I have worked with in planning and running seminars at Consumer Electronics Shows. But what is and is not in this report is infuriating.

Home CD-player penetration stats are in—what do you think? Eighty percent of American households? Seventy percent? Sixty percent? Try about 43%. What do you think the market penetration of turntables would be if they bothered to ask? I'll let you answer that one.

Mentions of MiniDisc and DCC—the two biggest bonehead music-carrier flops in the history of audio since the Elcaset—pop up all over this report like jack-in-the-box clowns. There are probably more references to MiniDisc and DCC—and their bright futures—than there were units sold (Footnote 3).

Most disappointing is that the audio section of the report was written by Thiel's Kathy Gornik, who describes the "...jump from the first scratchy analog phonograph recordings to near-perfect digital recordings on compact discs." Gag me with a crossover network.

Worse, Gornik spills the ink on DCC and MiniDisc three times in her report—as if once wasn't one time too many. "In little more than 30 years," she writes, "the audio components market has evolved from a small hobbyist segment dominated by vacuum tube and do-it-yourself kits to a nearly $1.7 billion microprocessor-based industry that includes CD players, analog tape decks, digital audio recorders, receivers, separate tuners and power amplifiers, loudspeakers, and analog turntables."

At least she acknowledges the lowly turntable's existence—but catch the placement: not with the other source components but last, after the amps and speakers. An afterthought? And two paragraphs later comes "Compact disc players have replaced analog turntables..." Is that so?

You wouldn't know from this report that there are more manufacturers of tube electronics in the United States today than there were in the 1950s—or that, since the inception of solid-state electronics, interest in tube gear among audiophiles seems to be at an all-time high.

I have to write "seems" because the EIA hasn't published any statistics on the subject. In fact, all "high-end" audio gear is lumped into one category: "separate components." That includes amps, preamps, tuners, turntables, loudspeakers, etc. Hardly a helpful statistic for members of our manufacturing community trying to catch a trend. In fact, a totally meaningless non-statistic.

Yet in the video section of the report, you'll find not just television-sales statistics but a complete breakdown: sales of color televisions (by size), black-and-white televisions, color and black-and-white LCD (liquid crystal display) televisions, projection-television sales, sales of stereo televisions, videocassette players, videocassette recorders, and TV/VCR combos.

Understand the importance of this publication: it is a reference work that will be used by journalists throughout the country (and probably the world) over the next 12 months. It marginalizes high-quality audio, making it appear even smaller and less significant than it already is in the marketplace.

Let's put on a specialty show!
To coincide with this past June's Specialty Audio & Home Theater CES in Chicago, the EIA conducted more specialized research the month before. Hopefully next year's "In Review" book will do a better job of highlighting trends in "high-end" audio by opening up the "separate audio components" category into something meaningful.

Meanwhile, among the press releases in the EIA's June Show packet were two you'll find interesting: one, a survey of high-end audio dealers, found that 55% predicted an increase in sales of CD transports, and 26% predicted an increase in sales of turntables. Wait. Didn't I just read that turntables had been replaced by CD players?

A survey of 1200 households done by the EIA/CEG (Consumer Electronics Group) found that, when asked what specialty audio product they intended to purchase in the coming months, the largest number said power amplifiers. That was followed by audio CD players, then turntables.

I've saved the best statistic and the best EIA spin for last: part of the survey involved asking baby boomers 36–55 years old what their primary music sources were when they were 18 and what they are now. When the boomers were 18, 43% said radio was the primary source, 27% said records, and 26% said tapes.

Now let me quote the next paragraph, for it's too delicious to not serve up whole: "Today, the most popular medium has moved from records to compact discs and cassettes, but the most frequent form of listening is still from the radio. Records, however, have moved from second to last. Among all respondents, 89% listen to the radio, 72% to compact discs, 70% to tapes and only 23% to records."

HELLO?????? What's the news here? That records have moved to last place? No. The news is that 23% still listen to records!!!!! Twenty-three percent. Let me repeat that: 23% of respondents still listen to records!!!!!! I'm surprised the EIA didn't follow that with, "But they'll soon be switching to MiniDisc." So, have "CD players replaced turntables’’? No. Too bad none of this information appears in the current EIA reference book.

The 23% solution
So people are still playing records—probably more people than are playing laserdiscs. Can that 23% find record-cleaning accessories at Tower Records or the other big chains? Rarely. Does Allsop still make its excellent and cheap Orbitrac record-cleaning system? Apparently not. Can that 23% still find records at the stores? For the most part, no.

With 23% still playing records, why can't they find them anymore—even when they're still being pressed? Because there's no demand? No. Because the industry wants to kill records? Despite the constant denials, the answer is clearly yes.

The industry would rather sell CDs because they're smaller, much more profitable, less fragile, and less likely to be returned as defective. But, it's still pressing vinyl because it knows the demand exists—it knows there's money to be made. The dissonance caused by the competing goals of making money and killing records has lead to a bizarre situation: the industry presses records to service the demand, but it doesn't want to encourage its expansion.

How else to explain advertisements for new releases that list catalog numbers for CD and cassette but not LP—even when there is one? Even the publicists at the major labels are kept in the dark about the availability of vinyl.

Consumers who want a vinyl issue of a new release have to first track down its availability, then find a source. It's like buying drugs: they're plentiful and available if you know where to look. No, I take that back: it's easier to score illegal drugs than new records. Aside from a piss-poor selection at my local Tower, if I want to buy vinyl I have to drive to Hoboken or order it by mail and pay an extra three bucks for shipping.

What do you think would happen if, as an experiment, my local Tower—which is in an area populated, I guarantee, by many affluent audiophiles—opened a serious record section? One that stocked all available new vinyl in one place: classical, pop, jazz, rock, dance? Imagine a wall of Living Stereo RCAs, Deccas, EMIs, Mobile Fidelitys, DCCs, References, Analogue Productions, the new Impulse GRP vinyl, the Blue Note Connoisseur series, the Mosaic box sets, the new rock vinyl from Classic, MCA, Warner Bros., Sony, Atlantic, and indie labels like Sub Pop and the others.

It would fill a wall—like the old days. It would make a statement: it's still here, it's cool, come and get it. And what if that Tower took the gold CDs from MoFi, MCA, Sony, Digital Compact Classics, and the others and put them on the same wall with an explanation of what all this high quality was about? And what if (gasp!) that Tower's ads dared mention the full selection of vinyl?

What do you think would happen? I'll tell you what I think. The store would become a mecca for vinyl-lovers—affluent and otherwise—for miles around. And while they were there, they'd pick up some CDs of music unavailable on vinyl. And the curious would be attracted to the wall. Some might pick up a record or two and get into it.

And finally, average consumers would understand why there were two versions of Tommy in the Who section and why one cost three times as much as the other, and maybe they'd then be willing to spend the difference on the gold version.

And what if that Tower put a well-stocked LP-accessory section next to the wall, with rice-paper sleeves, stylus-pressure and -alignment gauges, and LAST products and other vinyl cleaners? I think Tower would make a great deal of money.

What are the odds that Tower president Russ Solomon, who professes to be a vinyl-lover, would go for such an experiment? Not good, I imagine. Nor are the odds good that the folks running HMV or the Virgin Superstores or the other "record store" chains would give it a serious shot. With all of them so busy trying to figure out ways to distinguish their stores from the other guy's, how would any of them find the time?

Analog at the CES Specialty Audio & Home Theater Show
Having just dissed the EIA and Kathy Gornik, I'd be remiss if I didn't say that, without Kathy's hard work and prodding, there wouldn't have been a Summer CES—nor would there have been one if making a profit on the Chicago Show was part of the EIA's agenda. The EIA took a hit, but it scored one at the same time. [See the full report elsewhere in this issue.—Ed.]

I didn't expect to find much new at the CES Specialty Audio & Home Theater show, coming as it did less than two months after Stereophile's, but there were a few interesting new electronics products for record-lovers.

At the entry level, Parasound introduced the P/PH Phono Preamp ($119.95), which uses Analog Devices op-amps and audiophile-grade capacitors.

At more than 10 times the price ($1490), VAC introduced its Model 21.1 six-tube phono amplifier, which offers high gain (65dB), low noise, class-A triode circuitry, and front-panel adjustment of load impedance, capacitance, and gain.

Conrad-Johnson also introduced new tube phono amplification with its Premier Fifteen phono equalization preamplifier ($3995). It's a zero-feedback design that uses a differential amplifier as a low-noise input gain stage, a passive RIAA network, another gain stage, and finally a direct-coupled cathode-follower output. It offers adjustable gain of 40dB, 46dB, and 52dB and can be used with cartridges varying in output from 0.2mV to 5mV.

C-J also introduced a new solid-state phono section at a less lofty price: the EF-1 phono equalization preamplifier offers the same gain capabilities as the Premier Fifteen but at a more affordable $1795.

AudioPrism demoed a prototype all-tube phono section, the Mantissa, which uses 6DJ8 and 12AU7 tubes and offers 60dB of gain. "Target price" is $3700.

N.E.W. announced a new DC-powered, six-tube phono preamp, the DCLP 5 ($2298), which will be shipping in the fall. The last DC-powered phono section I auditioned was the Marcoff PPA-1. Anyone out there remember that THUMP! battery-powered headamp?

FM Acoustics was at the Show with its model 122 phono preamplifier ($5000), which is an unbalanced version of the 222.

Turntable brands on display: Kuzma, VPI, Roksan, Basis, Townshend, NAD (parts sourced from Rega), Wilson-Benesch, Denon, and Rega Planar. Conspicuous by its absence was SOTA, which is located in the Chicago area. Also missing were Immedia, Forsell, Rockport, Linn, Well Tempered, Rotel, and Oracle.

Arms on display included the new VPI unipivot, the Graham 1.5t, the AudioQuest and Rega series, Wilson-Benesch, Townshend Audio, and Naim. Missing were Souther, ET, Linn, Morch, SME, Wheaton Triplanar, and Airtangent.

The only new cartridge I heard about was from AudioQuest—a replacement for its highly regarded AQ 7000nsx. The new model, the 7000 Fe5—like the unit it replaces—was designed in conjunction with Scan-Tech. A full review coming up.

Quote of the year
Writing show reports is like announcing ball scores on television: you try to come up with new ways of stringing lists together, and it never escapes the mundane. So rather than leaving you this month on a yawn, let me quote Joe Gastwirt, president of Ocean View Digital Mastering in Los Angeles.

Since Gastwirt's name has appeared on many, many fine-sounding CD issues and reissues (the recent Hendrix MCA releases, for example), his name should be familiar to all of you. In an article on HDCD that appeared in the business section of the New York Times on June 26th, 1995, Gastwirt is quoted: "With HDCD, for the first time, I've heard an advantage to using digital audio."

Need I say more about the last ten years? Take your turntable for a spin and have a good trip! That's what I'm about to do.

Footnote 1: While I deplore the clear-cutting of old-growth timber, I find it heartening to witness the return of trees in New England as land is made available from abandoned farms. But if people need wood, MF—and need it they do when you consider that this magazine is printed on a major wood product—then tree farming is the only sensible way this environmentalist wacko sees that it can be provided. —JA

Footote 2: Single copies of The US Consumer Electronics Industry In Review ‘95 Edition, printed on recycled paper with soy-based inks, are available free of charge. Please send a $1.70-stamped, self-addressed, 6” by 9” envelope to the Electronic Industries Association, 2500 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, VA 22201-3834. —JA

Footnote 3: A clue to the success, or lack thereof, of MD and DCC is the appearance of the hardware at sell-’em-cheap-to-clear-the-warehouse prices in discount stores and mail-order catalogs. And I, for one, shan't mourn their disappearance. —JA

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