Analog Corner #37

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

What's it worth to ya?"

This quintessential American question is the hub of our capitalist society, and one that figures in two subjects that have recently been clogging my e-mail in-box. The first has to do with the Record Club of America's half-million-plus unplayed LPs, which I wrote about last fall ("Analog Corner," September 1997).

RCOA's much-delayed catalog (due out last October but not appearing until this May) has created quite a stir with many recipients, some of whom are outraged by what they see as absurdly high prices for many of the discs. You should hear them! Along with Dan Burton, they should have their mouths washed out with soap! I'll spare you those.

Most of the others are more bemused than angry. Like this guy: "Stop it, stop it. You've got to be kidding. I wonder if Mr. Fremer helped them price the classical issues, and probably [Fi's] Wayne Garcia priced the Jazz."

And this one: "I purchase 100s of records a year, and I couldn't find a single title I would order at the prices they were asking. And these are Record Club pressings—I own a few such pressings; some of them are terrible compared to the originals." (Actually, as I pointed out in my original piece, RCOA did not press its own records, as the later, bigger, record-company-owned clubs did. RCOA bought and sold the same pressings as Sam Goody or Strawberries, though "Licensed by Record Club of America" was sometimes printed on the jacket—perhaps so defective club pressings wouldn't end up at record stores.)

Or this: "Did you get the catalog? Kinda pricey, no?"

What do I think? Well, what's it worth to ya?

What would you pay for an unplayed, certified-new copy of Albert King's I'll Play the Blues for You on Stax? RCOA figures a few of you will go for the $75 asking price. How about Aretha Franklin's Gospel Soul of on Checker for $60? How many other mint, unplayed copies are you going to run into in your lifetime?

Granted, I'm not likely to drop $30 on Art Linkletter's reading of the Bible (or parts thereof) on 20th Century Fox Records (not subtitled "Jesus Says the Darndest Things," by the way), or Tony Orlando and Dawn's Prime Time for $30. But an unplayed copy of Lenny Bruce's bountifully packaged three-LP Live at Carnegie Hall for $100 might tempt me...if I didn't already own it. You? You might think I'm crazy for considering that.

That guys like RCOA's Sig Friedman can try to get $50 for Enoch Light's New Concept: Cole Porter Songs on Command (quad!) and you can tell him to take a flying leap with his list and his prices is what makes Amurrrica great! How much you want to bet someone bites on the $100 price tag for an original unplayed London ffss pressing of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez with Argenta conducting the National Orchestra of Spain? Guaranteed analog!

I found some of the prices way too high, and some low. Apparently Friedman was caught unaware of the giant Bert Kaempfert revival taking place in Germany even as we speak. At $10 and $15 each, Bert fans will probably be snapping them up—once the catalog makes it to Germany.

As of now, according to Friedman, "The Record Club of America catalog was mailed to the domestic customers from Quality Vinyl & CD Outlet as well as the 1200 respondents to your article in the September issue of Stereophile, on May 12, 1998. The list has not been forwarded to our foreign respondents as of this date."

That's who's got the catalog. What are they buying? Friedman: "We received our first responses/orders on Monday, May 18 and they have consistently increased since then. To date, the average order has been approximately $250, with the largest being $1600 [with purchases] centered in the classic rock, classical audiophile (DG, Philips, London, Mercury, etc.), jazz, and folk genres.

"Many of these titles are moving much faster than expected. Ironically, the more expensive LPs in the catalog have been the biggest sellers; ie, Rolling Stones, Sticky Fingers, original w/zipper, $100; and Frank Zappa, Freak Out!, original Verve, at $175.

"Unfortunately, our pricing policy will be doing its 'growing up in public.' Based on that, any feedback that can be passed along would be greatly appreciated and helpful in formulating future pricing policy."

You can order a catalog by writing Quality Vinyl and CD Outlet, 25272 Ripleys Field Drive, South Riding, VA 20152-4441, or by calling them at (703) 327-4809. E-mail is . And tell 'em Mikey sent you. If you want to sound off on pricing, be nice—and write to Friedman at RCOA, P.O. Box 517, Manchester, PA 17345.

And no, I'm not on commission—nor have I bought any records...yet.

Meanwhile, back at the used-record stores...
While in Los Angeles recently doing an analog seminar at Ambrosia Audio and cutting some radio spots for HI-FI '98, I decided I'd better pick the used-record stores clean before you showed up.

I was amazed at what I found. At Record Rover in Venice, I found a mint second British pressing of Abbey Road for $20. Twenty bucks!—close to the cost of the blah-sounding CD! You can tell an original from a second pressing by the inner sleeve: originals came in a black sleeve, seconds in a white one. Glad I kept the black inner sleeve on my original.

Which reminds me: Can you remember where and when you bought certain records in your collection? I wonder whether kids today have the same connection to their CDs, most of which they buy at lookalike chain stores.

I bought that original Abbey Road at New England Music City in Kenmore Square, Boston, in September 1969, a few weeks after I'd moved to town. The manager of the store was Scott Billington, now president of Rounder Records. They had a stack of sealed British imports (in loose-fitting unshrunkwrap; the Brits knew and know that tight wrap warps records) sitting in a cardboard display rack outside in front of the store weeks before the American pressing was issued.

I remember first walking past the display, then having the image sink in half a block later...could it be? I ran back and yes! That's almost 30 years ago, and I can still feel the surge of adrenalin, the smell of the record as I examined it. "I won't have to search for the import, it's right out there in the street!" I remember telling myself. "I'm going to like Boston!"

Thirty years. I remember when I first heard The Beatles sing "It was 20 years ago today...'' and thinking 20 years was ancient history...but then, I was 20 years old.

Over at Rockaway Records in Silver Lake, they were having a half-price sale on vinyl for "preferred customers," which you become by buying a $10 card good for a year. I got an original mono British Reaction Records copy of The Who's A Quick One for $15. I didn't even know it had originally come out on Reaction! I also picked up what looks and sounds like an unplayed Living Stereo Heifetz/Reiner: Tschaikowsky Violin Concerto (LSC-2129), and a super-clean original British Apple pressing of the Beatles' two-LP set 1967–1970 for $12. Insane!

Then I hit Rhino on Westwood Boulevard. Forget the collectible bins—drop to your knees and rifle through the 99-cent boxes. It may be nearly worthless to Rhino, but I found an unplayed, gorgeous-sounding Columbia "six-eye" pressing of Les Paul and Mary Ford's Warm and Wonderful, and a mint British-pressed London Phase Four of Bernard Herrmann's Music from the Great Movie Thrillers—a suite of Hitchcock scores—for 96 cents. Have you heard that record? Speakers Corner reissued it on 180gm vinyl last year, and it's worth $30...or whatever it costs.

I also found a Concierto de Aranjuez with Angel Romero on guitar—a superb-sounding Mercury Living Presence LP (SR 90488) that collectors are willing to shell out big bucks to get. I paid $2.99...and 99 cents for John Renbourn's enchanting The Lady and the Unicorn, and $2.99 for a mint British original of Band on the Run. I walked out with more. Then I hit Record Surplus on Pico...

But I'll spare you the laundry list. The point is, don't think all of the good used records are gone. If you live in LA, how can you not have a turntable?

The Ambrosia Seminar
Even though it was the evening of the final Seinfeld episode, the turnout at Ambrosia was impressive. (Speaking of Lenny Bruce, "yada yada" was not invented by Larry David or anyone else at Seinfeld, but was part of a hilarious Lenny Bruce prison routine—"Yada yada warden!''—from the fifties.)

I had to do two sets to handle the crowd, which alternated between analog upstairs (myself) and home theater downstairs (hosted by Stereophile Guide to Home Theater's Maureen Jenson and Theta's Neil Sinclair). I brought all of the Wally setup gear and a Graham armwand, along with an inexpensive cartridge that I'd planned to use to do an actual setup in front of a live audience—without a net.

But no!!!! I was asked to check and adjust the setup on an expensive Cardas Heart! So, in front of a roomful of audiophiles just waiting for me to slip up, I had to attack the Heart—which was, unfortunately, way off. The overhang was many millimeters overhung, and the anti-skating was more than double what Wally's gauge said it should be.

When I'd finished the setup, we played some of the records I'd bought that afternoon and the system sounded pretty good, though not even some really cool magnetic-levitation suspension feet could prevent needle bounce from the softly sprung floor. Still more doodads The ever-active Wally Malewicz has added a few more accessories to his bag of analog setup devices. First, he's found a professional, industrial-quality, extremely sensitive bubble level. When the bubble is barely touching the black circle in the center, the slope is off level 1mm per 200mm. A perfectly level turntable is a happy turntable. Cost: $15. Wally has also found a nice pair of nonmagnetic tweezers—handy for cartridge-wire connections—for $5. Both are available from Pro Audio Ltd.: (847) 526-1660, fax (847) 526-1669. Wally has had some difficulty keeping up with demand on some of his products, so check for availability before you order.

I've yet to see the ($85) unipivoted Wally Scale VTF gauge, which Wally claims is accurate to 0.05gm, but if it's as accurate as promised, it should set a new, convenient, easy-to-use, and inexpensive standard for tracking-force gauges. It's not as sexy as the Winds electronic gauge, but hopefully it's equally accurate, and it is one tenth the price. Wally did send along a 2gm weight certified to be accurate to 0.0005gm, which will be included with the Wally Scale.

Rega VTA help
Owners of Rega arms—and there are many of you—will be happy to hear that The Analog Shop, Inc., Victor, NY (Tel: (716) 742-2860, Fax: (716) 742-2859) will sell you three precision aluminum spacers (1, 2, and 3mm) for adjusting VTA on your arm for only $19.95. Those and the Wally VTA gauge should make the job easy—assuming your cartridge rides below parallel with no spacers. We've got a set here, and plan on using them with a Rega-based NAD 533 turntable under review, along with the Sumiko Pro-Ject 6.9 and Music Hall MMF-2 'tables. Analog under $1000 deserves coverage.

Also coming up: reviews of the budget NAD MM phono section and the well-under-a-grand German-made Lehmann (formerly Entec) Black Cube MM/MC phono preamp. And we're playing with the Walker Audio electronic motor drive and the VansEvers turntable power-line conditioner.

What's it worth to ya? Part 2:
The wiggly world of cartridge pricing

The second subject that has been clogging the arteries of my e-mail system is the thorny issue of cartridge pricing, marketing, and re-tipping. I'm not here to take sides, but merely to give you some food for thought on the subject.

First of all, the term "re-tipping" is a misnomer. When you return a moving-coil cartridge because your spouse, your cleaning person, your cat, or your child has broken off the cantilever (never you, of course), it does not get "re-tipped" by the original manufacturer—it gets rebuilt and recalibrated, or its innards are totally replaced.

When you buy a cartridge, you should ask how much re-tipping will cost you should it become necessary. Let's say you buy an $1895 cartridge like the Scan-Tech–built Lyra Clavis D.C. If you snap off the cantilever, the company, through its American importer Immedia, will replace the cartridge with a new one for an additional $1395. That would seem to be a pretty stiff penalty to pay for your mistake...but read on.

Re-tipping (replacing) the $3495 Lyra Parnassus D.C.t, if you trash it, will cost you $1850—a somewhat better deal than the Clavis re-tip. Immedia also offers a trade-in policy whereby owners of any Lyra cartridge, working or not, can buy a new Parnassus D.C.t for $2495—a $1000 discount—and that includes owners of Lyra's $1000 Lydian. You can also trade in any brand of $500+ cartridge, working or not, and get $300 off the price of a new Clavis D.C.

I've received complaints from some Clavis D.C. owners who felt it was unfair to be asked to pay more than two-thirds the original purchase price just for a re-tip. Grado's re-tipping prices for its Reference series are exactly two-thirds the purchase price. If you snap the cantilever on a $300 Reference Platinum, a re-tip will cost you $200, and so forth.

Micro-Benz, through its American distributor Musical Surroundings, will accept many old cartridges—including broken ones—in trade toward the purchase of a new Benz. For example: If you own a Sumiko Blue Point Special and you're interested in buying a $750 Benz Glider, they'll give you $150 in trade toward the Glider.

Other trades are priced accordingly, depending on what you're trading and what you're buying. And, of course, if you choose to trade up in the Benz line from, say, a Glider to a wooden-bodied Ruby or Reference, the allowance is even more liberal—I hope you virulent right-wing audiophiles will pardon the expression.

Amazing coincidence: just as I wrote the last sentence, Barry Goldwater's death was announced on the Internet. Now there was a conservative I could love. I met him, worked for him in 1964, and, had 17-year-olds been allowed to vote, would have cast my ballot for him. A true believer in individual rights, Goldwater supported gay rights and a woman's right to choose, and he said Jerry Falwell should receive "a kick in the ass" for trying to impose his religious beliefs on others. Right on, Barry! Hope you enjoy the company of JFK, MLK, and RFK.

Now back to our story. Benz's re-tip policy is as left-wing socialistic as its trade-in plan. Why, it's almost like food stamps! In fact, it creates a giant disincentive to keep your cartridge in "working" order! The re-tip on a $2700 Reference, for example, is a very low $500, and it's $300 to re-tip a $750 Glider. Turnaround time is four to six weeks. Make a mistake and you don't pay through the nose.

Van den Hul has an interesting re-tip policy: regardless of which boron-cantilevered van den Hul you buy, a re-tip costs $500 as long as there's no coil damage and all that needs replacing are the cantilever and stylus tip. If you own a Frog, you get a genuine Frog cantilever and stylus; if you own a Grasshopper, you get a Grasshopper cantilever and stylus. In fact, they're one and the same, only polished to a different degree of fineness. Like Benz, van den Hul does not replace your cartridge, so be prepared for some down time. But remember: If you buy a $3000 van den Hul or a $6000 one, a re-tip will cost you only $500.

What does this all mean? That Scan-Tech and Grado are not concerned with customer satisfaction? Perhaps it looks like that, and perhaps that's what's happening. You'll have to be the judge.

Those companies, and others that do not offer liberal re-tip or trade-in policies, have a different perspective. I'm not here to defend them or take sides, but merely to explain what I take to be their position, which is that you get what you pay for. If a manufacturer of a $1000 cartridge will offer you $200 in trade toward its purchase, that amount is built into the profit margin to begin with. No one is giving anything away for nothing. Companies that don't offer trade-ins would say in that example that you're really buying an $800 cartridge, not a $1000 one; that you're not really getting a break, but falling prey to a nifty deceptive marketing scheme.

Having spoken with Scan-Tech's Japan-based principals, who are clearly on the defensive about their re-tip pricing, I can tell you that their position is that the issues of their build and parts quality and overall technology are more complex than those of other cartridge manufacturers, and that they are operating with a far smaller per-piece profit margin. They told me that, based on parts and labor costs—particularly the cost of the precision machining required to create the unique true "monoblock" cartridge construction of the Clavis D.C. and Parnassus D.C.t—if they were to offer a half-price-or-less re-tip policy, both the Clavis D.C. and Parnassus D.C.t cartridges would have to retail for far more. In the case of those cartridges, a "re-tipped" cartridge is a brand-new one with no down time.

Is there, in fact, something special about the build quality of the Clavis D.C. and Parnassus D.C.t that sets them apart from other cartridges? Actually, yes. Both, unlike any other cartridge currently being manufactured that I know of, feature motors that are integral parts of the bodies instead of being glued or affixed to a separate body. (See my review of the Clavis D.C. in the April 1996 Stereophile for the details of this and other design innovations.) Are such designs more difficult and expensive to build? That would seem to be the case.

But even if you could add up the parts and labor costs of a Clavis or Parnassus, and you found that what Scan-Tech is claiming is true, ultimately it's irrelevant to what you choose to purchase. That decision should be based on sonic performance for dollars spent. The most difficult and time-consuming build process does not necessarily yield the best sound. And if you scrimp and save $1895 for a cartridge like the Clavis D.C., consider this: one mistake and you're out another $1395 to replace it. That's two for $3290. Another cartridge costing $1895, re-tippable for $500, is two for $2395!

Does this mean that a Clavis D.C. is a bad deal? Or that the other brand's $1895 cartridge is really a $1200 cartridge with a "built-in" cushion in case you break it? Or both? If Scan-Tech is to be believed, its $1895 Clavis D.C. (of which they claim to have sold over 2000 worldwide) is really a bargain. They're claiming the profit margin on the Clavis is low relative to what it costs to build, and as long as you don't trash it, you can enjoy it for years, then trade up to the Parnassus and get $1000 credit toward it. In other words, your time with the Clavis (assuming you don't break it) will, in effect, cost you just $895.

Confused? In one paragraph you think you're being ripped off, in the next you're getting a deal—yet none of the facts has changed. Only buying airline tickets is more confounding.

torturegarden's picture

I'm in my late thirties and can remember where I've purchased almost all of my records, and even CDs (the 90s were brutal for vinyl fans). Dates might be a bit sketchy, but not record stores. I even remember joining Columbia House when I was a kid with the promise of 6 LPs for a penny. My dad ended up paying for the P&H and monthly selections I got. He nearly killed me. So many of my records reming me of a time and place (road trip to Toronto in the early 90s, emptying my bank account at Amoeba in '98) that I like to remmeber where and when I got them. 

oregonpapa's picture

This is the  one to have:

I was driving through the San Fernando Valley during the early 70s listening to my car radio. Had it tuned to the local jazz station. The DJ said that he was going to play something special. That was the first time I heard Concierto de Aranjuez and the first time I heard John Willams. I actually got so emotionally involved in the music that I had to pull over and stop my car. And this was over a car radio! I pulled out a pen and paper, wrote down the album title and the artist, then made a beeline for the local record store. Ahh ,,, I found a new copy as the record was a current issue a the time. I've turned many of my audophile/vinyl jukie friends on to this record. I have a reference copy and several back-ups. Yes, the sound is audiophile quality ... but the performance ... the performance!! I now have at leat 20 of John Williams' records. He is Mister Perfection. And here's another mind blower ... and a twofer to boot:


Enjoy .... :>)

ebuzz's picture

Yo Mickey:

What kind of an email addres is this:  "E-mail is"

sgoertemiller's picture

So, if you've treated the cartridge with care and never broken it, when do you need to re-tip? What sonically gives it away that the tip is shot?

DJ Huk's picture

I guess it would depend on if it's the stereo or mono version.