Analog Corner #54

(Originally published in Stereophile, January, 2000)

It took a trip to the Hi-Fi News and Record Review Hi-Fi Show at the Novotel London West this past September to remind me that hi-fi is, above all else, a hobby. We're music lovers (hopefully!), but what separates us from the rest of the music-loving pack is our passion for the visceral pleasure of sound---something that has never translated to the average consumer, and probably never will. And that's fine; most are happy to hear just the bare outlines of the music. As Joni Mitchell sang, "Some get the gravy and some get the gristle."

Which is not to say there couldn't be a larger fan base for high-quality audio, if the industry would only indulge itself in an image makeover and some good PR---perhaps a celebrity-driven ad campaign. "Got hi-fi?"

While some industry veterans, like Krell's Dan D'Agostino, have talked about the "death of high-end audio," what's really dying is the "mine's bigger than yours" mentality. Face it: Hi-fi is no longer the status symbol it was a decade ago. Those folks have moved on to home theater, where theirs can be five point one times bigger. Were they ever really music lovers? Are they really cinema buffs? Nah. They've just traded in Jazz at the Pawnshop for the car chase in Ronin.

The "if it's new it must be better" technodweeb crowd is cozying up to MP3, which, when done right, in case you don't know (and I'm raising my irony finger really high here), really is "indistinguishable" from CD, which is "indistinguishable" from master tapes. "Perfection" was reached in 1984, and now all that's left to do is put it in a smaller, more convenient package.

Which leaves the hard core: those truly interested in exploring both good music and a truly "musical" listening experience, wherever that leads to---even if it means tubes and turntables.

That's why you rarely hear "audiophile" musical drivel at hi-fi shows anymore, and it's why the "audiophile" labels are serving up good music---like Chesky's recent Paquito D'Rivera disc, Tropicana Nights---and why there are so many new, small faces trying to translate their sonic idealism and passion into a way to make a (semi) living.

Certainly there was a healthy dose of those folks at the Novotel, along with the "big" players. The "hi-fi as hobby" notion really jumps out at you in a small country in a small hotel, in which typically small, European-sized rooms are occupied by mostly small manufacturers of small audio gear designed for the small listening rooms of Europeans who seem to take a larger interest in music reproduction than do Americans.

This show has been called the "Ramada" or "Heathrow" show, after its prior venues. So why was it moved to London proper? The official explanation was "better location," but various exhibitors---mostly those unhappy with the small rooms---said it was simply a case of the Ramada not wanting the Hi-Fi Show anymore. Even the hotels are jumping the hi-fi ship.

Whatever the reason, while the location of the Novotel London West was more convenient, the individual exhibit rooms were smaller, and all of them were on one densely packed floor. This made the show seem much smaller than last year's, but I was assured that it actually was larger. [The official figures, mentioned by Paul Messenger in December's "Industry Update," revealed that public attendance was up a little from 1998, but not quite as high as Stereophile's last few High-End HI-FI Shows.---Ed.] On the mezzanine level, a floor below the lobby, B&W's large, opulent exhibition befitted a company of its stature, the centerpiece of which was a big-screen home-theater setup few Brits could afford or, in their small flats, even accommodate. But, after all, this was a hi-fi show---Absolute Sounds Ltd., which imports mostly American big-ticket goods like Krell, Wilson Audio, Audio Research, MartinLogan, and Transparent Audio---had transformed their large space into an Egyptian-style desert oasis complete with swaying (plastic) palm trees. Home theater was the centerpiece there too, with a Vidikron DLP projector and a megawatt sound system that included an enormous cratelike Krell subwoofer packaged to look as if it could be shipped merely by slapping a label on it.

The lobby-level exhibitors in the more spacious convention center rooms included many British names familiar to Americans, among them Acoustic Energy (highlighting its "all-natural" approach to speaker-building materials with a spectacularly large photo display of a naked young woman with impossibly perky breasts), Arcam, Celestion, and Roksan. The second-floor exhibition area featured more well-known British badges: Chord, KEF, Linn, Meridian, Naim, ProAc, Quad, and REL. Given the size of the country, the diversity and seeming vitality of the British hi-fi industry is truly impressive. Conspicuously absent this year was TAG McLaren, which made a big, splashy debut at last year's show, complete with racing cars, scantily clad babes, and, of course, reconfigured Audiolab gear, along with a new, B&O-like "lifestyle" line.

Established names and dreamers alike held court on the crowded third floor, with names like ATC Loudspeakers, E.A.R., Harbeth, Musical Fidelity, Tannoy, and TDL sharing the floor with unfamiliar (to me, anyway) names like Fuss Speaker Systems, Living Voice, South Coast Speakers, and others.

Unlike the High-End HI-FI Show---which spread exhibitors out over a number of hotel floors, mostly in corner suites---this show packed them into every room, as in a bazaar. The crowded hallways added to the sense of excitement and community, while sounds from adjoining rooms did not seem to interfere with each other. But then, the British are a more polite and considerate people. In the same setting, I don't think American exhibitors would be so accommodating of each other.

The Analog Scene
I was trolling for analog---of course. Even without a long line I pulled up plenty of big fish, beginning with the finished version of Kuzma's massive---and, I think, beautiful---Stabi XL turntable, on display in the Audiofreaks room. (Audiofreaks imports to the UK Kuzma 'tables, Triplaner tonearms, Avalon speakers, and Cardas, Conrad-Johnson, Finite Elemente, Muse, and Shun Mook.)

The Stabi XL includes an ultra-precision measuring device with digital readout from Japanese manufacturer Mitutoyo that allows for absolutely precise and repeatable VTA adjustments. Note the lever on the side of the arm pillar; this secondary, independent VTA adjustment raises and lowers the arm pillar by an amount equal to the difference between a "standard''-weight LP and a 180gm disc. Pretty cool. Retail cost in America should be around [gulp!] $15,000.

Last year I wrote about the AVID Acutus turntable ($14000–$16000), which is currently not imported domestically. This year AVID was showing the Volvere, a new, less expensive, but equally attractive 'table priced between $11200 and $11500, depending on finish. Like the more expensive Acutus, the Volvere is a belt-drive design with a sprung cast subchassis, and features similar clamping and tungsten/carbide/sapphire bearing arrangements. Money is saved with a smaller motor, a 5kg platter in place of the Acutus' 10kg spinner, and an onboard, two-speed power supply instead of an outboard one. Unlike the more expensive 'table, the Volvere features interchangeable armboards.

AVID also showed the Isoschelf (that's how they spell it), an intriguing and attractive equipment rack that includes three sprung, isolated shelves whose heights are infinitely adjustable, along with fixed top and bottom shelves. The design uses a damper system comprising springs and rubber $O-rings, similar to the system used in the turntables. Hopefully this line will find its way to our shores.

I wandered into the Loth-X room and discovered a line of gleaming, clear-acrylic turntables designed in Singapore by Jagdeep Singh, who was on hand to run me through his impressive-looking progeny: the Aida, the Carmen, and the entry-level Othello.

These appear to be not just bearing housings screwed into slabs of acrylic, but carefully thought-out nonsprung designs. The basic building block is clear-cast acrylic---which Singh claims is self-damping and has no resonance problems when carefully used---but the implementation is quite sophisticated.

The top-of-the-line Aida has eight mechanical filtering stages between tonearm and plinth, and 10 filter stages between them and the platter surface using mechanical, viscous oil coupling and a double-platter design in which the upper, playing platter is connected to the lower, drive platter by vibration-absorbing dampers. Drive is via a Swiss 24V DC motor that uses precious-metal brushes and sintered bronze bearings. Speed regulation is electronic and adjustable. The feet are adjustable cones with a steel/nylon pad and rubber-damped mounts. The spindle bearing features a bearing shaft of polished, case-hardened stainless steel, a bearing of diamond-polished bronze alloy, a carbide thrust pad, and a hardened steel ball---shafts and bearings are manufactured as matched sets. The armboard, too, is stainless steel. Because the 'table uses a special, highly viscous oil that both damps and lubricates, designer Singh recommends leaving the platter spinning at all times. This intriguing-looking design costs $11,695 with the very cool Dynavector DV507 tonearm, $7195 without.

Left column top to bottom: Kuzma Stabi XL, AVID's Acutus, Loth-X Aida with Dynavector arm. Right column top to bottom: An "apple" product that will not concern Steven Jobs, another Silvernote creation, the DNM turntable and Domo stand combo, aka the "snack table."

The two lesser if equally intriguing designs are far less expensive: $3595 for the Carmen, about $1395 for the Othello. These prices include Loth-X arms that look like the AudioQuest PT-6 or variations thereof. The American importer is O.S. Services of Toluca Lake, California. Go to www.lothxusa.com to see the line of 'tables and extremely sensitive (up to 104dB claimed) loudspeakers, as well as an $18,000 battery-powered, tube-driven preamp.

From the sublime to the analog theater of the absurd
While walking the halls, I was often stopped and pointed toward the Silvernote room by various individuals, all of whom gave me strange looks complete with raised eyebrows and rolling eyeballs. I finally made it there and was not disappointed---at least in terms of sheer entertainment. There I met a gentleman showing a line of unique turntables and a series of gene-spliced tonearms, all of which were highly modified versions of familiar designs.

One had started life as a Rega RB250. The bearing assembly was intact, but the armtube had been replaced with a long, gleaming aluminum shaft with integral headshell. Another was a modified SME 3009---also with a long, straight armtube transplant but with a discrete headshell attached, and a pair of side-by-side counterweights. There was even a version of the Well Tempered Arm with the same long shaft, and a clunky linear-tracking design featuring large inline wheels that kept falling off the tracks.

The tall, double-flanged aluminum platters look something like train wheels and gave the impression of having been originally manufactured for some other purpose. I held that idea in check until my eye was caught by the display's centerpiece, the turntable's outboard "motor mount." Could it be...?

Yes! The guy had taken an apple corer/slicer, removed the blades, turned it upside down, and stuck in a motor. I called him over.

"Hey! That's a goddamned apple corer you're using for a motor mount!"

The next day, I went back for another look. The corer was gone.

Do you have any idea how expensive it was to rent a room at this show and mount a display? And what a royal pain it must have been to carry all of those heavy, Corian-plinthed Silvernote 'tables up to the room? And here was this guy with his wacky assemblage of Gyro Gearloose turntable/tonearm mods (there was even one that, for some reason, used the chassis of a Thorens TD 124, but not the guts), none of which were being used to actually play music. I asked him what he hoped to accomplish with his exhibit.

"To find an American distributor."

But to distribute what, I never did quite figure out---the display was such a confusing pastiche of analog body parts. His price sheet listed four turntables costing from $14,995 up to $19,995---about $30,000! Prices didn't include arms.

Later, in another room, someone handed me a sheet entitled "Discover Good Sound," which extolled the virtues of the IO-J cartridge---first introduced in Denmark in 1981, launched in the UK in 1992, and "...this year 1998...presents you FRESH SOUND with much musical information...'' I forgave them the year problem, but while perusing the blow-up diagram of the cartridge I read this: " 'IO' is derived from planet Jupiter."

Having just left the Twilight Zone a few minutes before, can you blame me for thinking that these folks were actually claiming the cartridge came from Jupiter? What they were trying to say, of course, is that the name comes from Jupiter---it's one of the planet's moons.

It turns out (or so I was told) that the IO-J is an old Audionote design that looks remarkably similar to the later Goldring Excel VX, which I reviewed in the March 1998 "Analog Corner" (Vol.21 No.3). The $995 Excel VX is really an outstanding MC cartridge, and one you should consider if you're thinking of spending up to $1500.

Later that day I ran into Goldring's importer, Music Hall's Roy Hall, who told me that Goldring does not plan to build any more Excel XVs when the current supply is gone. Because of the number of parts it would have to commit to buying, Goldring is afraid it would get stuck with too many unsold cartridges. Roy asked if I'd be willing to speak with Goldring and "encourage" them to keep the cartridge in production. I was happy to---I think the Excel XV sounds outstanding, and it's a great value for the money.

Snack on this!
How about a turntable/snack-table combo? That's what the DNM turntable/Domo stand combo looks like. There are two DNM turntables: the Reson and the Rota. At least I think that's what the company's called and what its products are named---their brochure is the single most confusing one I've encountered in some time. I've gone over it again and again, and I'm not sure if the company's name is DNM or Reson. One sheet says "DNM Reson vinyl replay," but the front of the catalog lists "DNM Rota" and plain "Reson" as the two turntables (footnote 1). Elsewhere it talks about how DNM questioned current turntable thinking.

Whatever. The 'tables were developed by Karlev Audio AG in Switzerland and, I assume, built there as well. There are two of them, the Rota and the Reson; three tonearms, the Mita, the Reta (a Rega derivative), and the Yota (no, it's not THX-certified); and five cartridges: the Mica, Reca, Aciore, Etile, and the Lexe. When you buy a DNM or Reson or whatever it's called, you order a complete system---the company sets it up so it's ready to play when you get it home. That's a good idea!

These compact designs are intriguing, and, at least from the brochure, appear to include some innovative ideas. The motor is a specially made low-vibration design, and its mount is an interesting combination of bushings designed to provide enough stiffness to prevent speed changes due to movement, and enough compliance to isolate it from the plinth.

A show report like this is not the proper venue to discuss the inner workings of any complex turntable, especially one not yet imported (to the best of my knowledge) to the US. But both the Reson RS1 and, especially, the more expensive Rota feature a host of unique and innovative ideas. UK prices for complete systems range from $1695 for the Reson/Mita/Mica combo to $14500 for the Rota/Yota/Lexe combo---complete with Domo wall stand. I joked about the snack-table look, but this kind of "plug'n'play" system---it does appear that a great deal of care goes into the setup---could really help increase analog's popularity in the US, especially given how few dealers are willing to, or know how to, set up an analog front-end.

Also spotted on home turf: Nottingham Analogue's full line; Simon Yorke, the thoughtful man himself, and his S9 and S7 turntables; van den Hul the man and his cartridges, and Peter Suchy and his Clearaudio turntables and cartridges.

Missing in action: Rega, which never does shows, and, somewhat surprisingly, SME.

But, all things considered, a good showing for analog!

New and exciting
A prototype DVD recorder from Pioneer; the absolutely gorgeous-looking Chord DSC 1500E D/A converter, fitted with Analog Devices 24-bit 96kHz converters and with an optional 192kHz, 384kHz, and SACD/DSD plug-in module. (That's the way it's gotta go, folks.) Technics' DVD-Audio demonstration was singularly unimpressive.

Also of interest: ProAc's new line of sloping Futures loudspeakers---a departure from previous designs---and The Tube, an absolutely gorgeous, limited-edition tubed preamp, fully balanced and remote controlled, from Einstein Audio Elektronik. It also features point-to-point signal-path wiring.

Ray Kimber was on hand in the Evett and Shaw room to demonstrate his Diaural crossover for me. He used two pairs of E&S Pesaro speakers: one with the standard crossover, one with Diaural. Using Patricia Barber's "Ode to Billy Joe," the standard speaker (played first) sounded cloudy and off-timed; Barber's finger-snaps were waterlogged, and her voice was unusually diffuse. The Diaural improvement was overwhelming, but it made me think that the standard crossover had simply not been well implemented to begin with. Nonetheless, this was an impressive demo.

And finally, Mikey got to visit Beano's record store in Croydon. Ken Kessler is right: Beano's is a "must visit" for any analog rock fan visiting the UK.



Footnote 1: In a follow-up e-mail, I was told that DNM Design is the design company run by Denis Morecroft. All the amps and preamps and the DNM turntable have been designed by DNM. Reson is the brand name of a Swiss company called Karlev Audio, which manufactures DNM products under license in Switzerland. They also produce Reson-branded products such as the cartridges. Virtual Reality is the UK distributor of both DNM and Reson and also owns Crimson Products.
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
PAR's picture

Whatever happened to those small brands like Sivernote or Loth-X since? Looking at old reports such as this or thumbing through old audio yearbooks just demonstrates the plethora of brands that tried and failed. The attrition rate in this area is almost as bad as in the restaurant business.

Of course the Hi-Fi News Show itself ceased to be shortly afterwards only to be revived a few years ago. However it has now moved to a location out at Runnymead near Windsor which is impossible to get to by public transport. Still, keeps it exclusive.

Saddest of all was the demise of Beanos which closed around 2017 due to lack of custom. The owner tried re-purpose it as a craft market but that lasted only a handful of months. What a pity that they didn't manage to hang on for another couple of years and reap the benefit of the vinyl revival in full flow.

PAR's picture

Sorry.

Neward Thelman's picture

Hobbies:

whittling
stamp collecting
doll collecting
bird watching
Pokemon
lace making
crossword puzzles
sewing
etc.

The pursuit of music by any means necessary is NOT a hobby.

But - probably for those like M. Fremer - music really is nothing more than a ------- hobby. No different than Pokemon.

Hobby on.

isaacrivera's picture

hob·by
ˈhäbē
noun
1. an activity done regularly in one's leisure time for pleasure.
"her hobbies are reading and gardening"

It being a hobby does not mean it is unimportant, but rather, it is not pursued for practical purposes like financial gain. It is purely optional, one does it for the love of it. This is in my view, a bigger praise, to pursue something when there is no logical argument for it other than how it contributes, in intangible ways, to ones sense of well-being.

Clearly for you "hobby" has negative connotations not supported by the dictionary, but those are semantics, if it's not professional, and done during leisure time, how would you describe it?

Also, you are implying that the activities you mention are somehow lesser in quality to music-listening. If they provide the hobbyist with much needed pleasure and well-being, who are we to judge? To each their own. Importance is on the mind of the beholder and not an intrinsic quality of things or activities.

Neward Thelman's picture

>>you are implying that the activities you mention are somehow lesser in quality to music-listening<<

Yep.

Sure enough. Absolutely totally totally totally totally. Yep. Yep. Yep. Yep.

And - not "somehow". EMPHATICALLY. Whittling? Rock collecting? Yep - those would be the opposite of music [and yes, I urinate on any relativistic view of the world - sue me].

>>not pursued for practical purposes like financial gain<<

Nope. Wrong. WRONG. Here's something someone who knew a thing or two about music said about it:

"Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy".
--- Ludwig van Beethoven

Zat sound like some wimp-ass hobby you're talking about? Some pleasant, mundane little time-filling/time-wasting activity that you shoehorn into your life to waste the days/weeks/years until you die? Until you die?

That'd be a goodly description of your activities that you call hobbies.

Music - and audio as an adjunct - is implicitly something more than that. Something greater - "a higher revelation". Indeed – an INFINATELY higher revelation.

Matter-o-fac, for some it's like touching God.

Zat sound like some effing "hobby"? Not for me.

BUT - for folks like you and M. Fremer here - here's the sad sad sad tragic horrible doomed part. Ready? Here we go:

For you people - and I do mean YOU people - music and audio really actually truly nothing more than ---- hobbies. It's nothing more, nothing higher, nothing better than whittling, gardening, stamp collecting, rock collecting, or whatever. Trivial.

Why? Hwhy? Cause - and here's the tragic part - cause YOU AREN'T CAPABLE OF EXPERIENCING music on any deeper, more profound level than that of a stinking hobby.

In fact - if I have to even offer a syllable of explanation as I have had to do here - than you're already part of the musically untalented/low music IQ/musically mentally challenged sheeple.

If I have to 'splain it - then you don't get it.

Even worse:
If I have to 'splain it - then you can't get it.

And - tragically for you - you'll never get it. For the rest of your misbegotten lives - music will only ever be a ---- hobby for you.

It's like trying to explain astrophysics to a cat. Just not going to happen.

Same thing with you and music. YOU LACK THE CAPACITY to truly experience music.

That's OK. Hobby on.

Michael Fremer's picture
You are not! But a drunk you must be.
Neward Thelman's picture

No I'm not.

Not drunk, either.

But - I am hobbying. My hobby is tracking down and destroying those who try to tag music as a "hobby".

It's a hobby quest.

You know - the same as what music is to you people.

Michael Fremer's picture
INFINATELY
Neward Thelman's picture

Typo.

Going too fast - no editing. But, thanks. Spelling counts - as our president needs to learn.

isaacrivera's picture

Your self indulgent condescending babble makes no sense. To "urinate on any relativistic view of the world" you would have to first prove that the view you are putting forth is not relative. Since all you provide is your opinion, no more or less than anybody else's, and, by definition a relative view, you are basically urinating on your own open mouth.

You lack any logic-thought capacity, command of English semantics, any sensibility or manners. I very much doubt you can actually even begin to understand what I am writing, much less get close to an aesthetic experience of music--or any art form, hobby or craft for that matter. Pity.

I have an extensive Classical LP collection. Beethoven is, of course, a favorite, as is Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, Shostakovich, Boulez, Part... Though none of them surpassed J. S. Bach, in my very relative view. Beethoven, like all great artists, was completely immersed in his art, so he wrote about it in no-ambiguous terms. That does not preclude that humans are capable of deriving intense experiences from a infinite variety of activities. The experience comes from your brain, not from the circumstance of the world. Pretty much all neuroscience research of the last 2 decades proves so. Sorry, you are wrong.

Keep reading Beethoven's letters, you will eventually get to:

"I wish you music to help with the burdens of life ,and to help you release your happiness to others."

Eventually you will understand.

Neward Thelman's picture

>>Your self indulgent condescending babble makes no sense<<

Funny - neither does Descartes. You have read it over several times.

>>prove that the view you are putting forth is not relative<<

Wrong. Various social observers and educators have put forth the theory that literacy dropped off with the introduction of television, and then fell even more precipitously with the spread of the internet. Your comment adds proof to that theory. The literature [that means books and articles [both in scholarly journals and before the general public] on the ascendance of relativism in society is extensive - you don't seem to be aware of any of it. Without going on at length, it entails the adoption of the view that there are no absolutes in life - neither in morality nor in any other aspect of human behavior. It sprang from the academic left of the early 1960s. Curiously, it's suffused thru American society so thoroughly that even the most right wing adherents expose some piece of it.

>>basically urinating on your own<<

No - but I would be pissing into yours.

>>much less get close to an aesthetic experience of music--or any art form<<

Duh. Uhhh. Uhhhhhh. Izzat why you think music's a hobby?

>>I have an extensive Classical LP collection<<

Another hobby.

>>Pretty much all neuroscience research of the last 2 decades proves so. Sorry, you are wrong.<<

'Bout what? Zakly. What?

>>Keep reading Beethoven's letters...Eventually you will understand"

What? That it's all just a hobby?

Think I'll start collecting rocks. No different than music or audio - and a whole lot cheaper.

Neward Thelman's picture

newthel1@yahoo.com

if you wish to receive my reply to your philatelist views.

Michael Fremer's picture
Neward's hobby according to his sign up is "breathing". That Is obviously wrong. His real hobby is masturbating in public.
Neward Thelman's picture

No matter the piece of equipment under "review", their reaction is always the same: the same masturbatory, wildly ecstatic response, with the same tiresome litany of mostly rock recordings [always different - wouldn't want to control for even that one variable] that always "make" the reviewer so "engaged" that he/she/it can literally smell the musician's fetid breath and feel the musician's spittle spray across his/her/its face.

Every month - always the same. Any piece of gear - same predictable ecstatic reaction.

THAT - that's what I can Onanism in extremis [look it up].

Neward Thelman's picture

I fart a lot. Benjamin Franklin wrote a lengthy treatise on the topic, titled "Fart Proudly".

I do that.

It's a hobby - no different than music or audio - and just as good.

Farting - audio - music - same thing. It's awl good.

Rock on.

PeteHardis's picture

Build that wall. Lock up Hillary!

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