If you missed the Tele-Briefing with Jonathan Valin on The State of Analog Reproduction, you can listen to it here:
What Goes Around Comes Back Around
Having been repeatedly pronounced dead for two decades, the long-playing vinyl record is now making the most amazing comeback since Dracula last rose from his coffin. While CD sales continued to decline precipitously in 2009, LP sales were up another 33%, after going up 90% in 2008, making the grizzled old LP the only growth sector in packaged musical media.
This turn-of-events may surprise some in the high-end community, and immensely satisfy certain others, but the big question, even for long-time LP fans, is how the hell did it happen? And why now?
I’d like to say that we vinyl loyalists at TAS are responsible for the boom, but that clearly isn’t true—or only true for the small percentage of record-buyers with high-end credentials and a TAS subscription. Most of the boom is owed to civilians, teens and young adults who have fallen in love with the cover art, the liner notes, the physical packaging, and, of course, the sound of vinyl and whose favorite artists are now releasing albums on LP regularly. Some of those artists are names you and I would recognize—like Radiohead, Elvis Costello, Metallica, Wilco, and Bob Dylan. But many of them are lesser-known independent artists, who have embraced the LP because it is retro-cool, relatively cheap to make, can be spun by DJs in clubs, and, yes, is better sounding. It is these lesser-known pop artists and smaller labels that have been feeding the vinyl craze all along. More than two out of three of the 2.5 million albums sold in 2009 were bought at independent record stores that specialize in off-the-beaten-path fare.
Whenever money is being made, people take note, and some of the major labels like Warner Brothers have begun vinyl reissue campaigns of their own—the Dire Straits catalog is Warner’s big release in 2010. What is interesting about the Warner reissues is that they’ve been done with an audiophile sensibility. The Dire Strait albums, for instance, are being remastered by none other than Bernie Grundman and pressed on 180-gram “European” vinyl. To top this off, Chad Kassem of Acoustic Sounds is on the verge of releasing a fresh bundle of direct-to-disc blues recordings on his own label!
Imagine that! Direct-to-disc in 2010! I don’t know how Chad’s D2Ds are going to turn out (I’ll be reviewing them in TAS in a future issue), but back when vinyl was still king some of the most natural-sounding recordings I heard were made D2D by Sheffield Labs and M&K Realtime.
Even a cynic like me, who has sat back and listened disgustedly to the “bits-is-bits” proselytizers browbeating us—since before the word “go”—about how digital has it all over analog in every regard, has to wonder whether other people, younger people with considerably less emotional investment in vinyl playback, are actually beginning to notice that LPs don’t just sound good; they sound more like the real thing. That’s what some of the mainstream media are suggesting. When you read an item like this from Computerworld (and I quote):
"There's nothing like a vinyl record. It's analog. It sounds as close as you're going to get to the artist. If you're that guy who sits in that optimum space in your living room, you're definitely going to hear the difference."
Well, you gotta scratch your head. Can you believe a computer magazine extolling something because (quote): “It’s analog!”
Let’s assume, in the face of this hopeful evidence, that the absolute sound really is part of vinyl’s newfound allure for the younger audience. What might that mean for the high end?
Well, it may mean nothing. Most of those youngsters are undoubtedly listening to USB-turntables—the 21st-century equivalents of the portable stereos we use to listen to when we were kids. On the other hand, those kids grew up digital, and it doesn’t appear as if CD playback led them to the high end. At least in a few cases, maybe vinyl will.
If it does, what awaits them is a world of analog playback that’s currently better than I’ve have seen or heard in all my years as an audiophile. While it is true that digital playback also has improved vastly—to the point where even a diehard like me listens to CDs fairly regularly and with pleasure—analog has, I think, improved even more.
What’s different? In four words, “lower noise, higher fidelity.”
Let’s look at turntables to begin with. When I was growing up, wow and flutter weren’t just advertising buzzwords. Turntables often didn’t run consistently at the right speeds. One of the big reasons, I think, over and above convenience, that CDs caught on with classical music lovers in particular was because of the pitch instability of turntables. (It was also one of the chief reasons that direct-drive turntables replaced belt-drives.)
Today, wow (slow variations in speed) and flutter (fast variations in speed) are non-issues. The accuracy of outboard motor controllers and of the motors themselves and the build-quality of drive pulleys and drive belts are so precise that the pitches of musical notes are, in the best turntables, resolved more accurately than ever before. It is kind of amazing to discover how much more of the music you can hear with a really time-accurate ’table like a TW Acustic Raven AC-3 or a Walker Audio Black Diamond Mk II (to name just two of many great ’tables I’ve auditioned). Not only are pitches stable but the duration of notes seems to be more fully resolved, allowing you to hear them in their entirety from initial attack through steady-state tone to lingering decay. One of the areas in which analog still rules is duration—the full utterance of tone colors and instrumental textures. Vinyl’s superiority here is one of the things that makes records sound richer, more natural, more three-dimensional than most digital.
Of course, speed accuracy isn’t the only source of noise in a turntable. There is also the matter of the turntable’s bearing feeding resonances into the vinyl record sitting on the platter and, thence, down the tonearm to the stylus and back to the phonostage. Here again, turntables have come a very long way. Magnetic bearings and air-bearings, which reduce or eliminate physical contact between moving parts, and platters made of vibration-killing materials have definitely lowered the noise floor of vinyl playback. And with the lowering of noise has come an increase in the resolution of musical detail, particularly at lower volume levels. One of the things that astonished me about the AAS Gabriel/Da Vinci magnetic-bearing turntable, for example, was the way it seemingly expanded dynamic scale on the soft side, from mezzo-piano to pianissimo. Reproducing very-low-level dynamics more clearly means that overall dynamic range is improved and large-scale dynamics become that much more affective.
Of course, none of these improvements in turntables would matter much if they weren’t accompanied by improvements in tonearms and cartridges. But they have been. Tonearms and their bearings are less subject to ringing, torquing, and resonance, more capable of keeping cartridges precisely centered in grooves without mistracking than ever before. Uni-pivots such as the Graham and the Vector, gimbaled and captured-bearing arms such as the Tri-Planar, the Schroeder, the Dynavector, the SME, and the Da Vinci, air-bearing arms like the Walker, the Rockport, the Kuzma, and the Bergmann are capable of recovering more detail, preserving better stereo separation, tracking steeper dynamic swings, and reaching deeper into the bass and higher into the treble with less noise and lower distortion than any previous generation of pickup arms. There was a time when I thought that CD was vastly more detailed than LP, at least below the treble range and without considering ambient information or three-dimensionality. I also thought that CDs killed LPs in low-bass dynamics. Today, I cannot honestly say that CD is vastly more detailed than the best LP playback or that CD bass “kills” LP bass (although it still has superior slam and extension).
As for cartridges, it used to be that compliance, output, and the shape of the stylus got most attention paid. But as the vinyl world slowly became more of a moving-coil world, the coils themselves—the mass of their winding materials, their geometry, and the saturation flux density of their magnetic cores—became more of a primary focus. Today we’re seeing a new generation of ’coils with magnetic engines—cores and winding materials—that are lower in mass and saturate at much higher levels, reducing noise and greatly increasing resolution. Cartridges like the Clearaudio Goldfinger v2, the Air Tight PC-1 Supreme, and the Da Vinci Grand Reference (among others) are capable of reproducing timbres, dynamics, and soundstaging with a fidelity to the absolute sound simply unheard of back in the day. It is a testament to the excellence of this new generation of coils that complaints about the unnatural brightness of their upper mids and treble, the technicoloration of their tonal palettes, and their poor tracking ability are much less commonplace than they used to be. Like tonearms and turntables, moving coils have matured.
So have phonostages, the best of which—thanks primarily to improvements in caps and power supplies—have considerably lower noise, higher resolution, better dynamic range, and soundstaging that is far to superior to the state-of-the-art in phono preamplification of just a few years ago. Many of this new breed also come equipped with different EQ curves—a “back-to-the-future” trend, started by FM Acoustics and Zanden, which has its own points of interest and controversy.
Given first-rate vinyl, great electronics, and a great speaker, today’s best analog playback systems are astonishingly natural sounding—no longer a weak link in the chain of reproduction. Indeed, they’ve become one of the strongest links. However, there is still better analog playback to be had—at least on a very small scale.
It’s easy to forget that—just like CD—the stereo LP was itself marketed as a “new and better” medium back when it was launched in 1958. The medium it replaced was the reel-to-reel tape and it replaced it in no small part because, like CD, LPs were a helluva lot more convenient to use than those must-rewind, easy-to-tangle-up, easy-to-break quarter-inch, four-track, 7ips pre-recorded tapes.
Some of you may not know this but when stereo LPs first came on the market in 1958, the reviews in the hi-fi magazines were mixed, just like they were throughout the transition from LP to CD. You see from 1954 through 1958, a hi-fi enthusiast could ONLY listen to stereo material on a tape deck. When RCA, Mercury, and others began reissuing those same tapes on LPs, a lot of critics in magazines like High Fidelity (which had reviewed those same titles on prerecorded tape) were critical of the falling off in sound quality and the variability of vinyl pressings. By 1959-60, however, when stereo LP mastering and manufacturing problems were ironed out, the reviews began to improve. And pretty soon everyone more or less forgot there was such a thing as reel-to-reel tape—and what it brought to the table sonically that LPs didn’t.
Today, you can still get a small but delicious taste of what really good reel-to-reel tapes sound like, thanks to Paul Stubblebine’s Tape Project. Stubblebine and his partners at the Project have secured the rights to dub the mastertapes of several outstanding titles onto quarter-inch, two-track tape at 15ips, which is as close as commercially available tapes have ever come to the mastertapes themselves. The Tape Project titles are uniformly excellent: albums like Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie, Thelonius Monk’s Brilliant Corners, The Band’s Stage Fright, Linda Rondstadt’s Heart Like A Wheel, and the phenomenal Nojima Plays Lizst, among several other very fine Reference Recording titles. Of course, you’ll need a two-track 15ips tape deck to play these recordings back and given the relative dearth of titles and the high cost of The Tape Project tapes (which go for about $300 per album) that means a substantial investment for a limited return in sonic enjoyment. Still and all, if you want to know why some folks, including me, still prefer analog to digital, The Tape Project gives you the opportunity to discover (or rediscover) par excellence what makes analog so special.
Ironically, it also gives you the chance to see how far LP playback has come in recent years. Although some of The Tape Project tapes—such as the Arnold Overtures from Reference Recordings—are distinctly better than their LP counterparts; some of them aren’t. And in any event, the difference between tape and LP playback is nowhere near as vast as it once was, thanks to all of the improvements I’ve just mentioned in LP playback gear. Nonetheless, you will still get better soundstaging, finer resolution, somewhat truer timbres, simply phenomenal dynamics, and greater overall realism on select 15ips tapes.
Finally a word about the future. CDs and CD players have gotten very very good—rather in the same way LPs and LP playback gear did when vinyl was first counted out. Moreover, even with sales falling CDs still outsell LPs by an order of magnitude—and for the classical music lover, they’re really the only option for new releases. True, CDs still don’t have the dimensionality of LPs or quite the same truth of timbre or texture. Indeed, it is sort of ironic that the very first thing that CDs sacrificed was the dimensionality that went so far toward making the stereo LP a commercial success. (Don’t forget that “stereophonic” literally means “solid sound.”) Still, CDs have lifelike virtues of their own; they are also fairly uniform in manufacture. LPs, damn it, still aren’t. I recently bought a Diana Krall album (“Live in Paris”) with an unplayable first side, due to pressing defects, and warps still abound on new releases (although turntables, tonearms, and cartridges are much less bothered by them than they used to be). My point is that unless LP manufacturers take care, they may throw the baby out yet again by marketing better-sounding products that are unplayable due to poor quality control, poor vinyl, and lousy pressing. Let’s hope this doesn’t happen, and that we really do enjoy a new golden age of vinyl. All the elements are there.