Analog Lives! A Guide to LP Playback (TAS 197)

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Analog Lives! A Guide to LP Playback (TAS 197)

So the kids are off to college, you have more free time, and maybe, if you’re lucky, at least a little more disposable income. And you’re getting back into one of your first true passions: listening to music over a high quality sound system. But somewhere along the way you either put your old turntable in the attic to gather cobwebs with other outdated stuff—you know, like compact discs—or you got rid of it altogether when it became obvious that LPs were finished—you know, like compact discs.

Okay, I’m exaggerating the demise of the CD for effect, but it is more than a little ironic that the generation that grew up with compact discs has largely abandoned the format in favor of MP3 players, while simultaneously embracing the once again flourishing vinyl LP. And while not every twenty-something spins black plastic, I’ve recently advised more than one young friend on his first turntable purchase.

But if you’re reading this magazine chances are you probably owned a turntable way back when, or maybe got into audio with the CD’s ascendance and never took the vinyl plunge. Either way, it’s reasonable to ask if all the buzz about an analog renaissance is true, and, if so, if it’s worth the considerably greater effort it takes to operate and maintain an LP playback system.

As vinyl enthusiasts, we at TAS can confirm that, yes, the analog resurgence is very real, as are the accompanying musical rewards. Even if you haven’t visited a CES, Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, or other recent audio show, the evidence is in plain sight—not only between the pages of magazines such as this one but also in mainstream media as well as catalogs and on-line sales sites.

Turntables are cool!

Vinyl is hot!

Moreover, with the exception of classical record companies, pretty much every other major label has jumped on the LP bandwagon (and why not, with CD sales plunging and vinyl sales rising?), issuing new pop releases while also mining deep back catalogs. Those doing it well, like Warner and Sony, have learned their lessons from reissue specialists such as Analogue Productions, Classic, and Mo-Fi, and are releasing LPs cut with superior mastering techniques on quality vinyl.

But even with the demise of brick-and-mortar record stores, purchasing vinyl is in some ways easier, via the Web, if not cheaper, than it’s ever been (see our accompanying sidebar: Where to Buy Vinyl).

And while I’ve not attempted a formal census, I would venture to say that there are actually more LP playback choices available today than ever before—and at an ever-widening, even wilder range of price points.

Where to Begin?

Let’s assume you already own a fairly decent audio system. Although it may be obvious to say so, it is absolutely critical that whichever record playing devices you choose fit into that system’s overall quality in both build and sound.

Practically speaking, if you have a fairly high-end system you shouldn’t purchase a lower quality turntable because you think you want to check out vinyl but aren’t yet committed. Likewise, if you’re lusting after a fine LP playback system but the rest of your system needs a makeover, then spending a lot of money on a great record player doesn’t make much sense—unless, that is, it’s the beginning of an upgrade path you’re already in the process of mapping out. In other words, go about selecting your record player thoughtfully. 

Hah, you might be thinking, that’s easy to say, but where do I find dealers for such products? This is the one area where making an informed purchasing decision by way of hands- and ears-on experience is much more difficult than it was twenty years or so ago. Back then you could walk into any number of high-end audio retailers, such as the one I worked at, and, over the course of one or more listening sessions, actually hear the difference between, say, a Rega Planar 2 and 3; what your money bought if you graduated to a Linn Sondek (and is the Ittok arm that much better than the Basik?); the difference between a Linn and a Sota and an Oracle; and, if you had the bucks, the musical ecstasies (and attendant mechanical agonies) awaiting if you could reach for that Goldmund or Versalab.

Today, even if you live in a major city, quality high-end dealers are increasingly hard to find. And those willing to invest the money, time, and commitment it takes to set up, maintain, and properly demonstrate even a handful of turntable, arm, and cartridge selections are rarer still.

But they do exist and are well worth seeking out. And even though ideally you will find yourself within reasonable driving distance of a good dealer—because, make no mistake, proper turntable setup, cartridge alignment, and fine tuning are critical if you’re going to get the performance you paid for—the best on-line dealers now offer expert consultation and setup before shipping.

Without claiming to be a thorough explanation of all things analog, or an exhaustive survey of available products—we won’t, for instance, be delving too deeply into the super-pricey gear we review as Cutting Edge (though we do touch on it)—this article’s aim is to guide you through the options, identify the major players, explain what you get as you move up the chain, and, we trust, make your journey into vinyl a fun one that will bring years of musical pleasure, whether you’re getting into it for the first time or perhaps a second go-round.

Pre-packaged Turntable-Arm-and-Cartridge Combos

Once aimed at those on slimmer budgets, these packages were also generally, though not exclusively, aimed at novice users. That was then. Today, with serious players in the game, and a range of fine models ranging up to several thousand dollars to choose from, these pre-packaged turntable, arm, and cartridge combinations are perfect for folks—and that would be most of us—who want to enjoy LPs while fussing as little as possible with the mechanical side of the equation. When a turntable is delivered with a pre-selected and installed arm and cartridge, the remaining setup is a relative breeze that usually involves nothing more than mounting the platter, belt, and tonearm counterweight, and adjusting the cartridge’s tracking force to the manufacturer’s spec. These packages are often a deal, too, selling for less than the sum of their collective parts.

For $395, Rega’s excellent P1 comes mounted with the Ortofon OM-5e moving-magnet (mm) cartridge, which is also bundled with the likewise impressive Pro-Ject Debut III turntable and arm ($379). Another fine contender in the under-$500 range is Music Hall’s $449 MMF-2.2, which sports the company’s Tracker mm cartridge.

Crossing the $500 price point, at $559, the TD170 from the venerable Swiss firm Thorens—which has been building phonographs since 1903—includes another Ortofon cartridge, the OMB10.

What you should expect to hear from packages in this range are the fluidity, rhythmic pulse, and musically satisfying qualities people so love about analog, if not the widest dynamic range, subtlest nuance, or most extended bass and treble response. But as I suggested, these limitations will more than likely match those of the systems these designs will be paired with. Also assume that build-quality is going to be necessarily less heavy-duty, and bearing and other tolerances (though quite good) less precise than those of costlier designs.

While any generalization is just that, figure that to get a significant step up in audible performance—the kind that you can hear the moment the stylus hits the grooves—as well as better build quality, which of course also affects sound, you’re going to start looking at roughly doubling your budget.

At $875 Music Hall offers the MMF-5.1 with Goldring’s G1012 mm cartridge, as well as the MMF-7.1, which goes for $1495 with Goldring’s Eroica H, itself a $450 value. At $999 Pro-Ject’s RM-5 SE comes mounted with importer Sumiko’s highly regarded Blue Point 2 high-output moving-coil (mc) cartridge, while at $1159 Thorens moves up to the TD 295 with an Audio Technica AT-95E. Finally, Sota will package its fine Comet ’table and s301 arm with Dynavector’s high-output 10x5 moving coil ($1545, $1150 sans cartridge).

Reaching the outer limits of our combo category, we come to the German company Clearaudio’s Emotion turntable, which includes the Satisfy tonearm and Maestro cartridge ($1999), as well as two teardrop-shaped models from Pro-Ject: the RM-9.1 with Sumiko Blue Point Special cartridge ($2049), and the RM-10, which relies on an air-assisted bearing for its acrylic platter, ($3499 with Sumiko Blackbird cartridge, $2999 without).

As you climb the ladder, expect these designs, with their more massive platters and less resonant bases, more sophisticated materials, and more finely tuned tonearms and cartridges, to retrieve more information from LPs’ miniscule grooves, resulting in deeper, tighter, more tuneful bass; airier, more extended and detailed highs; a richer, more fleshed out and vivid midrange; more precise imaging; a bigger, airier, more three-dimensional soundstage; wider as well as more finely defined dynamics; and, ultimately, an experience that is that much more emotionally involving and that brings you that much closer to the sound of live music.

Turntables with (and without) Tonearms

This category offers far and away the most diverse range of options. Potentially confusing is the fact that some manufacturers package their ’tables and arms together, while also offering them separately. In an attempt at clarity we’ve created a separate category you’ll find below for separate arms.

Also, rather than repeat earlier generalizations, assume that the differences in build- and sound-quality described above will keep stepping up as these models become more refined—turntable design is as much art as science—more precisely engineered and built, and, concurrent with that, more costly.           

While following the company’s long-held philosophy that low mass plus rigidity equal low resonance, Rega’s line of entirely British-built models runs from the $545 P2 up though the $4995 P9. The many stops in-between include the $1295 P3c and $2695 P7. In some cases separate power supply options further improve performance.

VPI Industries has been one of the U.S.’s premier manufacturers for 30 years. It also builds some of the strongest values to be found in analog playback, starting with the Aries Scout, $1850 with JMW-9 arm, and extending to the new Classic, which may be the company’s highest value yet—$2500 with the JMW-10.5i arm.

Basis Audio builds a range of beautifully engineered acrylic-based turntables, which can be purchased either with or without the Vector Model 4 arm. As you advance through the entry-level model 1400 Signature ($2900) up through the Debut Signature ($15,900), which with refinements has been in production for 20 years, these designs gain in mass, in the refinement of suspension, bearings, and all parts, and in some cases in the capability to mount extra arms, as well as a vacuum system which couples LPs to the platter.

Another prominent user of acrylic, Clearaudio makes a wide range of turntables. The Performance model includes a ceramic-magnetic main bearing that floats the platter on a pillow of air to reduce friction and improve isolation, $2799 with Satisfy arm; while the Ambient, which ranges between $5000-$10,000, depending on options, incorporates layers of compressed wood in the unit’s base, which adds warmth to its traditionally somewhat cool sound.

Sota’s line tops out at the $8700 Millennea, but for $2400 you can get the Sapphire, which utilizes Sota’s now classic four-point hung suspension and vacuum LP-hold-down system.

At $2800, Well Tempered Lab’s Amadeus redefines another classic of American design, the $6600 Reference. Perhaps the only arm of its kind, the Amadeus’ sports a “precision”-made golf-ball “bearing” floating in silicon fluid.

Nottingham’s well-regarded Studio Space 294 turntable ($3999) comes equipped with the Space Ace 294 arm, a 12-inch carbon-fiber unipivot design, which makes for an excellent mid-level point of reference.

Known for its staggering engineering capabilities, the British maker SME builds outstanding turntables and arms that are usually sold in tandem. The $9900 Model 10A/309 arm is followed by the Model 20/II ($17,000 with IV.Vi arm), the 20/12 ($28,000 with 12" transcription arm), and the $36,000 Model 30/2, which is one of the world’s most desirable record players paired with the classic Series V arm ($5300 when sold alone).

Another British firm, Avid, builds an impressive range of ’tables using 3-point suspension systems using elastomer or springs, including the $2499 Diva II, the $5000 Volvere, and the $12,500 Acutus and Reference ($19,995).

TW Acustic’s Raven One ($6500) is a cleverly engineered and very well made German design that’s considered a strong value in expensive record players. It, like its $18,000 sibling the three-motor AC-3, has the ability to accept up to three tonearms.

Separate Tonearms

As noted, many of the models listed above come without tonearms, which isn’t necessarily better or worse than a ’table designed with its own specific arm, but does allow the analog lover to engage in the time-honored sport of mixing and matching a favorite arm to a turntable of choice.

As it happens, two of the finest tonearms ever made come from manufacturers that, at least as of this writing, do not make a turntable.

The Graham Phantom B-44 MK II ($4700) is a classic of unipivot design that has evolved to peak performance over two decades of intense design development. An engineering marvel, the Phantom is one of the greats.

And so is the equally excellent but very different Tri-Planar Ultimate VII, which has been duking it out with the Graham for years. At their current levels of excellence, it’s almost like having to choose between Grace Kelly and Rita Hayworth. (See what I mean?)

At the entry-level, Rega’s $495 RB301 not only graces the firm’s own ’tables, it can be purchased separately and has also become something of a de facto OEM choice for several turntable companies that do not build their own arms.

VPI’s fine unipivot arms straddle the gap between Rega’s and high-end examples, starting with the $1400 JMW-9 Signature and its longer brethren, the 10.5 and 12.5 (as in inches), which sell for $2300 and $2600 respectively.

SME’s superb arms were touched on above, and have long been industry standards. If the $5300 Series V or IV.V1 ($3995) are out of reach, check out the titanium 309 ($2195), which offers a detachable magnesium headshell to aid in cartridge swapping.

Another superb unipivot, Basis Audio’s Vector 4 uses a clever stabilizing method to solve an inherent “roll” problem with unipivot bearings.

Finally, should cost be no object, the extraordinary wood-and-metal-sculpted Da Vinci Grandezza “Grand Reference” may be your ticket, albeit an expensive one at $9700.

Phono Cartridges

With literally dozens of models to choose from, the following list merely glimpses at some of the available choices, while touching on a wide range of price points.

Thankfully, cartridges, especially of the high-output moving-magnet and moving-coil varieties, are an area in which many fine values are to be had.

Grado, which focuses on moving-magnet designs, begins at a mere $60 for the Black, and nails pretty much every price point until it hits the moving-coil Statement ($3000). Notable stops on the way are the Prestige Gold 1 ($220), the Reference Sonata ($600), and the Reference 1 ($1500).

While its range of offerings is now limited, Shure’s M97XE ($89) is a remarkable value, and one of the finest entry-level mm cartridges on the market.

Denon alone makes three high-output mc’s under $250 (the DL-110, -160, and -102); Clearaudio’s notable “wood” series ranges from $400 to $725; Benz makes the MC 20E II ($250), Ace ($700), Glider, ($1000), and Wood S ($1500); Shelter now offers the 201 mm ($250); while Sumiko, a standard-bearer for quality budget models, racks ’em up with the $55 Oyster, the $75 Pearl, the $95 Black Pearl, the $299 Blue Point 2, and the $399 Blue Point Special.

As it is with specialty audio in general, there’s almost no limit to what you can spend on a high-end cartridge. However, before hitting the stratosphere there’s also a large middle ground of, say, $1000–$3000 where you can find really great cartridges that won’t break the bank. Most, by the way, will be of the low-output moving-coil type.

Besides those already mentioned, other noteworthy contenders include the Lyra Dorian ($1100), Argo 1 ($1675), and Helikon ($2780); the Shelter 301II ($895), 5000 ($1950), and 7000 ($2800); Clearaudio’s Talisman ($1200), Symphony ($1800), and Concerto ($2400); Transfiguration’s Axia ($1500) and Phoenix ($2500); Sumiko’s Celebration ($2000); the Benz “Gullwing” ($3000), and from Koetsu, maker of the $20,000 Blue Lake Platinum, the Black ($1800) and Rosewood ($2600).

Phonostages

In days of yore, all preamps came with built-in phono preamplification. As CDs replaced LPs in the 80s, manufacturers started eliminating phonostages from their preamps, creating a whole new component category—the dedicated phonostage. In actuality, this has brought phono preamps to staggeringly high levels of performance, which in turn has resulted in the likewise huge advancements in all aspects of LP playback.

As you might expect, the proliferation of good affordable analog gear has included phonostages, but do be sure that whichever model you choose is compatible with your cartridge (some handle only moving-magnet or moving-coil cartridges, and some accept both).

England’s Creek Audio has long championed good low-priced phono playback. Its OBH-18 ($250) accepts only mm models, while the OBH-15 also plays moving coils. Grado offers the nifty PH-1 ($500); Parasound, the ZPhono ($200); Pro-Ject, the Phono Box MKII ($159) and Phono Box USB ($199) for use with computers, and the $499 Tube Box II and SE version ($699). Bellari also makes a tiny tube model, the $250 Rolls VP 130; Clearaudio offers the Smart ($600) and Basic ($900); Rogue Audio’s Stealth goes for $795; Simaudio builds the fine Moon LP3 ($500) and LP5.3 ($1500); PS Audio has the versatile GCPH ($995); and Musical Surroundings markets the Phonomena II ($600) and Nova Phonomena ($1000).

Stepping up—er, no pun intended—Sutherland’s battery-powered Ph3D ($1000) and PhD ($3000) offer terrific sound with very low noise; as does the tiny Benz Lukaschek ($1750).

Finally, it should be note that Audio Research is again building a full-function tube preamp with built-in phono capability, the $3495 SP1.

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Sidebar: Where to Buy Vinyl

With Tower and now Virgin up in proverbial smoke, I’m lucky to live in one of the few cities that still has a truly great brick-and-mortar record store (Amoeba Music, here in San Francisco, as well as Berkeley and Hollywood), let alone any brick-and-mortar music store. Although it’s not the same experience, Internet sales of new and used vinyl are just a few clicks away. The main sources are: Acoustic Sounds, Audiophile International, eBay, Elusive Disc, Music Direct, The Needle Doctor, and Todd the Vinyl Junkie.