Analog Corner #30

Lyra Arion moving-coil step-up transformer

(Originally published in Stereophile, January 12th, 1998)

"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.

If you'd told me five years ago that in 1997 I'd have to buy a Dick to hold new records and that I'd be filling and emptying it twice a month or so to make room for more, I'd have said you were crazy. But here it is, almost 1998, and my Dick runneth over. If you live near an Ikea, you should pick up a Dick or two—they're cheap! You have to put Dick together, but you can do it in about 15 minutes; Ikea supplies the wooden dowels and a bag of white glue. I leave off the top front slat to make browsing easier.

I get e-mails and letters from readers all the time asking about record storage. The Dick is a good temporary, portable container, but you can't stack 'em. Ivar, also from Ikea, is the best inexpensive record shelving I know of. The shelves are smoothly finished solid pine and the uprights are available in a variety of heights to fit any ceiling. The adjustable shelves are secured by steel pins that fit into holes in the uprights. For under $100 you can house about 1200 records in style. You can build walls of Ivar shelving, linking two sets of shelves with one upright because each contains two sets of holes. The wood is unfinished but it takes a nice stain.

If you're into luxury housing, nothing beats Per Madsen's RACKIT;r system. These stackable, modular, solid oak units hold about 75 LPs each. Beautifully finished, the RACKIT;r units are real furniture, and can be stacked as high as you can go. They require assembly, but it's quick and easy using the supplied hex bit for a drill or drill/driver. Madsen offers modular units for LPs, CDs, 45s, etc., and an optional dolly footing if you want to roll your own.

The Ikea Dick

The Ikea Ivar

The Ikea Rackit

Vinyl & Analog at the AES
So the records keep popping out of the presses and we could spend a whole column—hell, an entire Stereophile—on all the new vinyl being issued around the world. But I want to tell you about a bizarre incident that occurred a few weeks ago, and I have witnesses: namely, Editor John Atkinson and Equipment Reports Editor Wes Phillips. During last fall's AES in Manhattan, a group of analog renegades called a meeting ("The Analog Reality Check'')—held off-site, of course, since analog and the official AES agenda mix about as well as Louis Farrakhan and the B'Nai Brith—and we all attended.

The panelists were: Michael Spitz of ATR Service Company, which services and restores analog tape decks; Gerd Cyrener of tape manufacturer BASF/EMTEC (if the tape division advertised on TV, their ads would say "We don't make the music, we make it sound better''); recording engineer and producer Ed Cherney (Bonnie Raitt, etc.); the highly esteemed mastering engineer Bob Ludwig, who now owns and runs Gateway Mastering in Portland, Maine; John French of JRF Magnetic Sciences, which rebuilds analog tape heads; Allen Sides, who owns Ocean Way Studios and one of the world's finest collections of tube microphones; Steve Smith, representing the Quantegy company, which owns the Ampex tape-manufacturing facility and which recently bought 3M's analog tape line and associated technologies; and Bruno Hochstrasser of Studer, Switzerland, manufacturer of Sony 48-track digital recorders (just seeing if you're paying attention).

Anyway, with a panel like that, you kind of feel you're among friends, right? And while not every seat was taken, the meeting was reasonably well attended considering that it took place at a time in the AES schedule when the official activity was to be an afternoon at Scores (jes' joshing). What the panelists had to say was both reassuring and just plain validating, as they say in the feel-good industry.

Spitz announced that his company "will be busy well into 1999 at this point...[having] booked a substantial amount of restoration work." BASF/EMTEC's Cyrener said that his company's "sales figures for both analog studio and broadcast tapes have increased. We do not intend to give up producing analog studio tapes as long as there is a demand." That may not sound like much to you, but consider that a few years ago, industry analysts figured analog tape production would pretty much stop by the end of the century.

Ed Cherney chimed in with a most enthusiastic personal endorsement of the analog medium: "I am committed to using analog to record music, although I use every tool possible. For example, I was on tour with the Rolling Stones, and because of the rigors of recording live, I really had no problem with going 48-track digital. It worked just fine. Of course, after four or five hours of sitting in front of music that has been digitized, my ears start going through the holes, and it's time to go home and reset my ears—because I can't hear the music anymore, I can only hear the things that aren't there. But you use whatever tools you have, and ultimately it's the music that's important, it's getting the artist's vision across. But I am committed to using analog tape as much as I can. I mix to it. I like the way it sounds, I like the way it feels. I'll keep buying it if somebody keeps making it....Ultimately, I am looking forward to the day when we are working with exponentially higher sampling rates, and maybe there will be a time when digitization of music will be pleasing to my ear. Currently it's not, so I stay committed to analog."

Yeah, but what does he know? Has he ever been in a recording studio and heard a live mike feed? Does he know what live music sounds like? Is he a recording engineer? Does he know about "head bump''? Why yes, my little online digiholic dweebs!

John French of JRF Magnetic Sciences remarked, "Starting off in the 2" multi-channel area, the 16- and 24-track formats, in 1996 and 1997 we averaged about 225 multi-channel head assemblies coming through our place, mainly for reconditioning and occasionally for head replacement. We found during this period of time that people are more than willing to spend money to put new heads on machines that are 15, 20, and 25 years old. And they do that because they like the sound. We see that with 3M M79s, some of the early Studers, early MCIs. People are willing to spend money to keep this equipment running."

When you think about it, that's really amazing: in a recording studio, digital is sooo much easier, more reliable and predictable, and yet here are all of these people willing to spend all kinds of money to recondition temperamental vintage machines that clearly don't measure as well as the latest digital gear. It's totally irrational. No wonder these nuts retreated to an off-site venue.

A bemused Allen Sides remarked, "Well, let me say first that I think Ed Cherney's career in analog will be safe for some time to come. We operate a total of 12 rooms in Los Angeles, Nashville, and Sherman Oaks. What has really surprised me is that, oh, it has completely done a turnaround. Most of our clients now prefer analog....There's kind of a fallacy here that people prefer analog because of tape compression and head bumps and various characteristics, and to some extent I'm sure that's true. But a lot of our clients like it because clearly it has higher resolution, and clearly it sounds closer to input than most digital machines do. [Italics added for emphasis.] So a lot of our clients like it because it clearly sounds better, not because they want the 'analog sound.' ''

Quantegy's Steve Smith added, "We talk about the kind of work that we do, and the media that's used; I think a good measure of that is [in] Billboard magazine every week. They have a section called "Studio Action," and there's a production-credit chart. It lists the number-one records that week in five chart categories, and 85% of those in the past year have been on analog tape. Only 15% of the number-one records in five chart categories have been digital. So all of you people doing the recording, if you make it on analog, it seems like it goes to number one! Of course, I think everyone in this room would have to agree that the sound quality of analog is obviously superior, because it's infinite sampling. On the future of analog, we also continue to develop and spend large amounts in R&D on analog [tape] product. As you are aware, we purchased 3M's tape line last year....The 3M 996 was a very good tape. We have that technology, and we are using that to improve our 456 and 499 tapes. In the near future, we are even planning to introduce a new analog tape."

Bruno Hochstrasser of Studer: "Up until about two years ago, we were seeing a significant slowdown in analog machines. But the past two years have been tremendous for Studer sales. Specifically with the A827, we have seen significant success in the US, and also other parts of the world, mainly in England. That also prompted us to continue production of these machines, certainly for a number of years. As long as the quantities of the orders continue to be reasonably high, we are still totally committed to making these machines. Of course, we will continue to make machines for the digital domain as well. But for us—and this is a significant point—for us, analog continues to be a very important field of research, not only because of the gentlemen here using analog recorders, but also because you cannot make good digital recorders without understanding analog....And you can exchange tapes on a worldwide basis; it is still accepted everywhere."

Bob Ludwig, who's been around for decades mastering some of the finest-sounding LPs you probably own (you'll find his "RL" in the leadout groove area of Steely Dan's Gaucho, The Band's The Band, Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, etc.)—at Sterling Sound, then Masterdisk, and now at his own facility—spoke about a survey of mastering studios he'd done back in 1989. He found that Nashville "...was almost completely digital, West Coast was almost completely analog, and our studio at that time was about 45% analog. So when this forum was coming up, I took a look at what's coming in today, and I would say that 75 to 80% of the projects that come in now are analog, or are DATs with analog tapes as well. That's a common thing for me now, is to have the analog along with the DAT. In every case, we do listening comparisons, use our ears. In not every case does the analog win. But in probably about 90% of the cases where there is a shoot-out with DAT, the analog does win."

In fact, when Ludwig set up Gateway, he didn't bother setting up his LP cutting lathe, figuring no one would use it. When bands started insisting on vinyl, he sent the work down to Masterdisk. Finally, the amount of work he was farming out became too great to ignore, so up went his lathe. He cut the latest Foo Fighters two-LP set, and R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi-Fi.

I'm sitting there soaking this all in, feeling more validated than a parking-garage ticket, when they solicit questions from the audience. I had one I wanted to ask, both for my own curiosity and to answer a question readers frequently ask me: "Bob, what percentage of the lacquers you cut are from digital sources and what percentage are from analog sources?"

Well! I wish I had a photo of the panelist's faces as I asked the question. You'd think I'd asked the guy from Switzerland how much of my family's gold, stolen during the Holocaust and hidden in Swiss banks, was used Studer's electrical contacts. You'd think I'd asked how many wanted to see my Ikea record crate's namesake. Vinyl! There was almost a collective gasp of disbelief. They were embarrassed for me.

So I added, "Well, you know, Bob, according to the RIAA, sales of new vinyl were up 27% this year over last." More looks of disbelief. Ludwig quipped, "Well, Michael, 27% of zero is zero."

And that was it. Case dismissed. Some of the others changed the subject, saying, "Well, vinyl is not really what we're here to discuss...''

True, the analog recording numbers are much better than the analog playback ones, but you've got to believe the digital crowd sees what's happening with analog as an irrational passing fad—a head bump they can wait out. And what about eight years ago, whenever anyone brought up analog in any context other then "dead''? How were they received? As I was at this meeting.

But the vinyl analog revival continues, and the numbers are still rising. Yet another mastering facility has opened, run by veteran cutting engineer Stan Ricker, profiled in this column in June '97 (p.61). At that time Ricker was handling cutting for AcousTech Mastering, a joint venture between premium plating/pressing plant RTI and Acoustic Sounds.

Now Ricker's opened his own facility in the California high desert. He's using a Neumann VMS 66 lathe equipped with an SX-74 cutterhead that has been "seriously upgraded" with the Sontec Compudisk computer, a Technics direct-drive motor, and, "most important" (according to the press release), console and cutter electronics designed and built by Reference Recordings' Keith O. Johnson. In other words, Ricker bought Reference Recordings' superb-sounding analog rig.

Most important, Ricker can cut from analog because his playback deck (a modified Scully 280) is equipped with a preview head, and he can handle the big 14" reels of 1/4" and 1/2" tape some other facilities cannot. We look forward to hearing some Ricker masterings on the former Reference cutting system.

Lyra Arion moving-coil step-up transformer
Let's say you've got a preamp you really like, but its phono section can handle only moving-magnet or high-output moving-coil cartridges, and you've decided to take the plunge into the tweaky world of low-output, high-resolution moving-coil transducers. What do you do?

Well, you could buy an outboard phono section like the Audio Research PH3, the Plinius M-14, the BAT VK-10, the FM Acoustics 122, the Sutherland PH 2000, etc., and run it into a line-level input on your preamp, thus bypassing the built-in phono section altogether. Or you could use the phono section you already have and bump up the moving-coil cartridge's output with a transformer like the Lyra Arion ($1500).

I've been using the Arion for about two months now while I've been simultaneously reviewing two turntables—one fitted with the low-output (250µV) Lyra Parnassus DC, the other with the high-output (4.5mV), wooden-bodied Grado Reference MM cartridge. I'm also evaluating the new Ayre K-3 preamp, which can handle both MC and MM cartridges. But to change the K-3's gain you need to shut it down, open it up, and plug in some tiny resistors—it's much more convenient for now to use the Arion transformer to bump up the Parnassus' output.

While the Arion, which offers 26dB of gain (measured at 2 ohms/47k ohms input/output impedance), is designed for Lyra cartridges, it's also suitable for other low-internal-impedance (6 ohms or less) cartridges: Koetsus, Ortofons, Benz-Micros, etc. Like everything in audio, transformers have pluses and minuses. Pluses are low, low noise, simplicity, and high purity of sound; minuses include their tendency to resonate, and sound hard and "silvery."

The Arion features a heavy, highly rigid casing machined from a solid block of aluminum, with the transformers damped and mounted in separate internal suspension systems. It features integral gold-plated spikes and is supplied with a set of dimpled, gold-plated discs to protect the finish of your mounting surface. Mine came finished in a neat magenta gloss.

Frequency response is listed as essentially flat from 10Hz to 100kHz, with transformer potting (damping), windings (stress-free 6Ns copper), resistors, and solder designed and selected for transparent, dynamic performance. The unit is small (5.9" by 4.7" by 2.4") and weighs 7 lbs.

The Arion is ultraquiet, obviously, and offers outstanding retrieval of inner detail and a purity of sound unique to transformers. Its flat response gives it a neutral quality—which means that, for the most part, you'll be hearing the temper and texture of the preamp into which it's plugged. Of course, the transformer doesn't feature cartridge loading, so your preamp's 47k-ohm-impedance MM phono section, reflected back through the transformer's turns ratio, is what the cartridge will "see."

While Scan-Tech, maker of the Lyra line, recommends loading its cartridges at 47k ohms, I find that most MC cartridges (but not all, and not under all circumstances) benefit from being loaded down to around 100 ohms. Otherwise there's overshoot and you get ringing. To my ears, an unloaded moving-coil cartridge and a step-up transformer are a recipe for ringing. Compared to the $6800 Sutherland phono section set to 100 ohms into an Ayre line-level input, the Arion into the Ayre 47k ohm phono section did sound slightly thin, slightly bright, and slightly "silvery," though there's no silver involved.

On the other hand, the purity of sound and the ultralow noise floor yield incredible sonic riches and a wealth of inner detailing that more than compensate. The best way to describe it is the difference between a Martin-Logan electrostat and a well-designed moving-coil cone speaker system. Some listeners will no doubt hear "transformer" when they hear the Arion, while others will hear purity and ultrahigh resolution. In any case, if you're happy with your MM-only preamp and would like to gain the benefits of a low-output MC cartridge without losing the use of one of your preamp's line-level inputs, the Arion is an attractive, maintenance-free option.

detroitvinylrob's picture


Do you know the story, how does the Arion fit in/compare to Lyra's Erodion Mikey?  As I recall years back the (bright red) Erodion being Lyra's MC step-up transformer for low-impedance cartridges of 2 -10 ohms. It also had a gain of 26dB and had been designed to step the output of low output, low impedance MC cartridges up to the standard 10 kohms ~ 47 kohms MM phono inputs of preamplifiers and phono stages. The unique case work looks identical (except for colour). And of specific note, the Erodion (still displayed on Lyra's website) was priced between two to three times that of the Arion. I realize this is a 1998 article.

Happy Listening!