Analog Corner #98

Every edition of Primedia's annual Home Entertainment show (formerly known as Stereophile's Hi-Fi Show) takes on a life of its own, even if the venue, the participants, and the products are mostly familiar. It has to do with a confluence of factors—the paying customers, the weather, current events, whatever seems to be the hot industry trend, and just "the ether."

Home Entertainment 2003, held this past June at San Francisco's venerable Westin–St. Francis Hotel, was no exception. The contours of this show's personality were drawn in greater relief for those of us who had attended the previous show at this venue, back in 1997.

So much has changed in those six years, beginning with the ownership of this magazine. Back then, both the show and Stereophile were family affairs with more of the feel of a small, extended family. HE2003 was more "corporate," and sponsored by an entire group of magazines. But the corporate feel would have been present even had Stereophile remained in private hands: the business has changed, and, with home theater and multichannel sound now being larger parts of the audio/video scene, more corporations are involved.

Six years ago, the show was almost exclusively about two-channel digital audio. Analog was at its nadir, or just beginning its remarkable resurgence. DVD was in its infancy, as were Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1-channel surround sound. SACD didn't exist. HDTV was a dream, digital televisions didn't exist, and front projectors were only for ultra-rich customers who were willing to constantly tweak them to get a good picture. Now, what was once a curiosity and a "lifestyle" item for the rich and famous is within the grasp of the rest of us.

The crowds at HE2003 were healthy—more than 15,000 attended over the Show's three days—and if home theater was the bait, high-quality audio was the trap—particularly among the more than 400 journalists from around the world who attended. As the show's official spokesperson, I got to escort many of them around, and while they mostly asked about home theater, I made sure to take them into some of the better two-channel demos—such as the Wilson Audio–VTL and Joseph Audio–Manley rooms, conveniently located next to each other on one of the more accessible lower floors.

While many of the large-screen video displays impressed the journalists, not surprisingly, their first exposure to ultra-high-quality two-channel sound is what had them reeling. Getting some of these mainstream consumer-electronics writers in front of a good, preferably analog-based, two-channel system was a goal of mine at the show. When I succeeded, the amazed looks on their faces, accompanied by the inevitable "I didn't know....Why didn't I know....I had no idea...Oh my God..." were priceless. Weaning them off of trite, annoying gadgets-and-doodads coverage, however, was more difficult. I'm not sure I succeeded with any of them. I tried.

The Old Grind
Press day, Thursday, was insane. I spent most of it escorting journalists and TV crews around the show, but I did run into LP pressing plant RTI's Don MacInnis near the ballroom-based vinyl vendors. I asked him a question that had been nagging me for some time. Cynics have e-mailed me over the past year complaining that they didn't believe that Classic Records' Quiex SV-P vinyl formulation was, as advertised, exclusive. "I've been to pressing plants, I know the vinyl pellets are stored in an enormous container that feeds all of the presses. You mean to tell me Classic has its own container? I don't believe it." So the e-mails went. I asked MacInnis.

Turns out Classic does have a separate vat, and while their pellets' formulation is identical to what's used elsewhere in the plant, they are different. During a visit to RTI, Classic's Mike Hobson noticed someone using a machine called a Pelletron, which RTI uses to treat "regrind" and "flash" for those customers who don't want to spend extra for premium virgin vinyl. Regrind is the vinyl from rejected LPs. After the central label area is punched out, what remains is ground up for re-use. Flash is the excess vinyl automatically trimmed from the outer edge of a just-pressed record.

The problem with raw regrind is that some of it exists in the form of powder. When the regrind is heated to 300$dF in the press, the powder burns and turns into carbon before the bigger particles melt. The carbonized vinyl means surface noise. The Pelletron is used on the regrind to remove the static charge, which allows the powder to be easily separated from the larger pieces of regrind. So treated, MacInnis avers, regrind is as good as virgin vinyl. Inevitably, static causes some vinyl powder to cling to even the finest virgin vinyl stored in the bins. Hobson asked MacInnis to use the Pelletron on some virgin vinyl and press some records using it, and some using untreated virgin vinyl. Hobson listened and decided the treated vinyl was considerably quieter. It costs more to pre-treat the virgin vinyl, and that cost is passed on to the consumer.

Speaking of consumers and vinyl, the buying frenzy I witnessed all four days of HE2003 (one day was for only the press and the industry) was amazing, as were the dizzying choices. There is more new and worthwhile vinyl available today than almost anyone could afford to buy. In quality and quantity, SACD and DVD-Audio combined can't compete.

The New Grind
There wasn't a great deal of new analog gear introduced at the show, but there was some: In the Musical Surroundings room, Garth Leerer showed me two new Clearaudio products. One was a Master Reference turntable decked out in an aluminum-magnesium sandwich over and under the standard acrylic plinth. Experience, not prejudice, has told me that I'm not a big fan of the "sound" of acrylic, so this development might be enticing. If you like acrylic, don't let my tastes interfere with yours. When it comes to platters, especially on pricey 'tables, I prefer heavy metal.

Another intriguing entry from Clearaudio was the new combo of Emotion turntable and Satisfy tonearm ($899), available in September. I love reviewing under-$1000 turntables. They can sound really great, and help put analog in the hands of large numbers of people. (Hear me, Garth?) Scott Frankland's Wavestream Audio introduced a $4000 phono preamp with 64dB of gain, solid-state regulation, and a tube signal path featuring three 12AX7s and one 6DJ8.

In the InnerSound room I made the acquaintance of the company's impressively built, fully balanced, solid-state iPhono preamp (both "in" and "out," plus single-ended operation, $2495). The J-FET–based design, which uses neither transformer nor headamp, is said to be friendly to low-output moving-coil cartridges in either balanced or unbalanced mode. The gain is 37dB unbalanced, 46dB balanced, with 20dB more gain available at the flick of an internally mounted switch. Resistive and capacitive loading are also user-adjustable. Along with a full line of solid-state electronics, Boulder, Colorado–based InnerSound also makes a tube amp and electrostatic loudspeakers.

I ran into my old friend Victor Goldstein, of Fanfare International, who told me I must hear the battery-powered ASR Basis Exclusive phono preamp ($4950), imported from Germany and featuring 400,000;uF of capacitance. Battery power offers very effective AC powerline isolation. It's actually two! two! two phono preamps in one!—it can be used with two turntables, or two cartridges mounted on a two-armed 'table. Each phono section can be independently configured, and both offer balanced and unbalanced inputs and outputs. Audiophiles allergic to op-amps need not apply—the Basis Exclusive uses Analog Devices' AD 843SQ MIL-spec chip, which is a microphone preamp. I have no such allergy. A review sample of the ASR is what I'm listening to as I write this.

Another battery-powered phono preamp made its debut at the show: Acoustic Sound's PhD, designed by Ron Sutherland. Powered by 18 alkaline D-cells said to last for 800 listening hours, the PhD's performance is said to not decrease as the batteries age, due to its high-value storage capacitance. The cost is $3000 ($2750 through September).

I missed Bruce Moore Audio Design's room, so I didn't get a chance to see or hear the company's new tubed phono section. It uses octal-based tubes and features point-to-point wiring and extremely wide bandwidth—a claimed 3Hz–200kHz, !X1dB! The gain is only 44dB, so it's probably not suitable for the lowest-output MC cartridges. Moore's work may be better known than his name. He designed the Paragon 10 phono stage in 1975, the Dual Cascode preamp for Precision Fidelity (1978), the Dual Mono and the classic Modulus preamplifier for Audible Illusions (both in 1982), and the legendary twin-triode MFA Luminescence preamplifier (1983). I was unable to get more information about the new phono section by deadline time.

The Rega boys flew over from the UK to present their new importer—Dallas, Texas–based Steve Daniels—with a stars-and-stripes–bedecked P3 turntable. It was the first show—consumer or trade—for Cogent Inc., the company Daniels has set up with Toffco's Mike Pranka (Dynavector) to import the Rega line. Music Hall showed off the new MMF-9 turntable, which I reviewed last month. Roy Hall hadn't been thrilled with my less than gushing writeup, but he took it in stride. I softened the blow by getting an MMF-5 on KRON-TV Saturday morning. The MMF-9 is a beautiful thing, and, considering what you get, a bargain. But it's like comparing Pro-Ject's $1600 RM-9 to their $1000 Perspective—the MMF line's "sweet spot" is the MMF-7. Some of you may find the extra cost for the MMF-9 worth the difference. The show ended on a bright spot for Music Hall and for analog: a representative of the Good Guys, a major West Coast chain, walked into Hall's room and placed an order for "hundreds" of Music Hall turntables. "It's time for a turntable," the Good Guy said.

Amazing. I've heard it from many retailers: Kids are coming in asking for turntables. Inexpensive ones, to be sure, but from there it's onward and upward. A few weeks ago, we were in the supermarket on a Saturday night (my life is so exciting), and at the checkout counter my wife asked if I was going to rent a DVD. "Nah," I said, "I'll go downstairs and listen to music."

"Good choice! That's what I'd do," piped up the carrot-topped checkout kid, who couldn't have been more than 16 or 17. "But, I gotta ask you," he added, a wistful look in his eyes. "Do you listen to CDs or LPs?"

"Vinyl!" I answered.

I could see the relief on his face. "Me too! I love records! I've been collecting for a few years now!" He then went into a "need it/got it" thing usually associated with kids and baseball cards. How cool is that?

Back to HE2003: California-based OS Services Audio is now importing Amazon turntables from Germany. When I've seen the Amazon line in Germany, I've always admired its good looks and high build quality. There are four models: the Three ($1895), the Two ($3095), the One ($4595), and the Reference ($8995 without arm). Each features an inverted bearing of hardened steel with a ceramic ball and a Teflon thrust plate. While such a configuration is now commonplace, Amazon has been using it for years. All four 'tables have electronically adjustable DC motor drive; the more expensive models are driven outboard. Plinth and platter weight increase with price, and all models use sandwich plinth construction with integral, low-resilience polymer damping. While I'm no big fan of acrylic plinths and platters, I'm always open to being proved wrong. Fans of acrylic platters suggest that they have an openness, clarity, and freedom from "overhang" lacking in other materials, especially metal. Experience tells me otherwise, but I'll keep an open ear.

Donald North Audio, which makes two models of turntable from wood laminates, displayed the two-piece Nordic Concepts Reference 'table. One unit includes the motor drive system, the other the acrylic platter and arm assembly, in this case an Airtangent 2002. The 'table, without tonearm or integral phono section, now costs $8900, or $11,600 with phono; add $9000 for the arm. Other familiar turntables I spotted at the show included a VPI HR-X, a Spotheim SpJ, a Teres, an Audiomeca Pierre Lurné Romance, and the finished Thorens TD 850, which I'd seen in prototype form at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. The TD 850's plinth is a 15mm steel plate sandwiched between slabs of high-density wood. A fully electronically regulated AC synchronous motor drives the almost 9-lb platter of damped aluminum via a thin belt. The tonearm is an OEM Rega RB 300 with integral VTA adjuster. The TD 850 has nothing to do with the classic Thorens 'tables of the 1960s, but it appears to be a sleek, well-made, no-nonsense design.

I don't think I missed anything analog, but I was so busy being show spokesperson and ushering reporters around that I didn't get much chance to go exploring. If you're getting the idea that this wasn't the most exciting show for analog, you're correct. It wasn't the most exciting show for digital transports, either. It seems that the days of "excitement" generated by CD transports based on laserdisc players, exotic glass fiber-optic cables, and other vain attempts to improve CD sound with complexity, are over (upsampling has replaced the hardware fixes).

In fact, David Hyman, one of the two keynote speakers at Thursday's press luncheon—the other was Head Monster Noel Lee, in rabble-rousing mood—said to the approximately 500 journalists assembled that he thought exotic CD transports were going away, to be replaced by "high-end" hard-disk–based storage systems that would rip discs at full resolution. Hyman has an economic stake in this: His company, Gracenote, licenses its Compact Disc Data Base (CDDB) technology to server manufacturers and to computer companies such as Apple, whose iTunes program automatically goes online when you insert a CD in the drive, then downloads all of the song titles and other information. It's the world's largest CD database, and it's what makes the whole server system (and Apple's iPod) feasible. If you had to sit there and type in every album and song title, you'd probably never do it.

Gracenote uses sophisticated filtering technology—not, as some believe, a code embedded in the disc—to identify the disc you're trying to download information for. Rather, it searches the ToC and matches the number of songs and their lengths to the database. The database is actually created by fans, who, when they find that their favorite CD is not included, take the time to upload the info. If more than one disc has the same number of songs and lengths, CDDB gives you a choice—you pick the one you want.

I once made a CD-R of a Roxy Music LP for a friend and stuck it in my computer just to hear it. The computer went online and started searching the CDDB, which made me laugh—until my computer downloaded all of the titles and running lengths of the songs on For Your Pleasure! I thought my computer was haunted—at the time, I didn't know how CDDB worked. Hyman, who is about as fanatical an audiophile as I've met, displayed a picture of the Rockport System III Sirius during his speech and said something like, "These are not going away, Michael Fremer"—which, of course, I knew. I've made some CD-Rs from vinyl for David, and he's heard them. I walked around the show with him and a skeptical audiophile friend of his, and through the Calix Phoenix Grand Signatures we listened to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on a CD-R recorded using the Rockport. His friend, to put it mildly, had his world rocked. But good.

Another Show, Another Seminar
On Sunday afternoon, as HE2003 was winding down, I conducted yet another rambling analog seminar, without benefit of the overhead opaque projector I'd been promised. This is like performing a microsurgery demo for a group of doctors, none of whom can see what the hell you're doing. I had all of the Wally Tools tools assembled, along with a special mock turntable Wally Malewiecz had made up, so I could do a complete cartridge alignment on the spot. I also had charts and graphs and diagrams I was hoping to show everyone, explaining how the Westrex 45/45 system worked, the basics of tonearm geometry, VTA/SRA, and all of the other aspects of proper vinyl playback. I was left with hand gestures and painting word pictures of concepts that, even with visuals, are not easy to deliver or to grasp. But overall, judging by the reaction, the crowd felt the 90 minutes were worthwhile.

And there was a crowd. In fact, the analog seminar was at least as big a draw as the talk on "Flat Panel Displays" that preceded it. I did get some feedback afterward—a few people complained that what I'd said sounded like a sales pitch for Wally M.'s setup tools. Well, what can I say? I find the Wally Tools the best currently available: his arm-specific, laser-cut WallyTractor gauge is the most precise and easy-to-use device for setting overhang and zenith I've found. Ditto most of his other tools. Yet, where possible—such as with azimuth—Wally is happy to tell you how to perform the setup without using his tools. If this, too, sounds like a sales pitch, so be it.

Good and Bad Sound
Although I didn't get to visit as many rooms as I would have liked, my votes for best sound go to (in no particular order) VTL–Wilson, Joseph–Manley, Wilson-Benesch-Naim (home theater), various rooms with JMlab speakers, Lumenwhite-Vyger-Ayon (despite my Vyger review in July), Meadowlark–Rogue Audio, Music Hall, and Outlaw Audio (home theater). However, looking at the show guide, it's obvious that I missed many rooms I wanted to visit, so this "good sound" list is incomplete.

As for bad sound, I'll avoid mentioning names to protect both the guilty (bad-sounding gear, poor choice of music) and the innocent (bad rooms). However, some people's idea of what sounds like real music is bizarre: hooded, rolled-off, soft, dynamically squashed, and overly romantic. I heard a $60,000 pair of speakers that sounded that way playing a CD-R made with the Rockport turntable and the van den Hul Colibri cartridge, and which should have sounded sharp, well-defined, dynamic, and, if anything, a bit bright. The speaker designer thought the sound was swell.

In another room, featuring a well-known single-driver speaker powered by a tiny 2A3-powered tube amplifier, they decided to play the orchestral version of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Reiner/CSO, Classic Records reissue LP), with predictably dismal results on large dynamic peaks. What were they thinking? Solo guitar? Solo voice? Yes. But 110 or so instruments sawing away at full throttle? Nope. Overall, the music played at HE2003 was the least inspired I've heard in years. I don't know why.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Palo Alto, Heroes and Villains, American Recordings CD
2) Lightnin' Hopkins, Broken Hearted Blues, Audio Fidelity 180gm LP
3) Lucinda Williams, World Without Tears, Lost Highway LPs (2)
4) Daniel Lanois, Shine, Anti LP
5) Antonio Forcione & Sabina Sciubba: Meet Me in London, Naim 180gm LP
6) Aimee Mann, Lost in Space, Mobile Fidelity 180gm LP/SACD
7) The Who, Who's Next, Special Edition import LPs (3)
8) Art Pepper, Meets the Rhythm Section, Analogue Productions 45rpm 180gm LP (2)
9) Procol Harum, Procol Harum, Classic Records 200gm LP with bonus 12"
10) Ben Folds, Live Sundazed 180gm LPs (2)