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John Sciacca Writes...

Features, Reviews and a Blog by John Sciacca

Random Thoughts (Blog)

Random Thoughts (Blog)

The pleasing, dreamy, lotus-eating distortion of vinyl

Posted on March 22, 2011 at 8:09 PM

Saturday at CTA was a pretty slow day, making it a perfect magazine catch-up day. I grabbed the first magazine atop the once again growing pile – the March Resi – and it immediately served up a couple of delicious dishes of bloggery inspiration. First was the big, back cover ad of Crestron’s new Sonnex system.

 

Next I saw a rather sexy, fancy-schmancy red turntable reviewed by none other than Dennis Burger. Now, Dennis is another of those journalists that I’ve come to know fairly well recently. We both came to Jeremy G around the same time – within a few days or hours actually; it was at the Green Life, Smart Life, or Green House, Smart House, or Green Lantern vs Super Man, or something event in Rhode Island, and Dennis and I were both brought in to cover the event for our respective tribes. Little did I know, that we both arrived thinking that we were Caster’s favorite A/V journalist...  Little did I know that the truth would be revealed in a few weeks. And even though Dennis swooped me on that Ruth’s Chris steak contest – in what was *clearly* an act of favoritism showed on the part of the head mama-bear over at Caster – I don’t hold it against him. (That and some technicality about it being a friend us on Facebook contest and me not actually being on Facebook immediately disqualified me, but thanks anyhow for the funny-awesome submissions, even though the majority of the other Caster gals – thanks, PR Buddha!!! – felt I had the best entry. Hold a grudge? No. I let it all go. It washes off me like oil off a bird’s feathers...) Also, I realize that I never previously identified the other person in my There will be BLOG! post. Well, um, it was Dennis. So...ta-dah!

 

But like all great samurai-techno-journalists, Dennis and I have put aside our petty grievances over the fact that one of us was possibly wrongly awarded a delicious meat prize while the other was left holding a big empty sack of nothing-juice. But now we’re both firmly ensconced on Team Jeremy so our bond is strong. Strong like bull! In fact, Dennis has previously referred to me as “systems integrator, writer, and all-around sexy beast” which is pretty much exactly the kind of healthy, man-crush lingo I fully embrace.

 

So, I’m reading Dennis’ review not because I like turntables but exactly because I DON’T really like them. My parents were really not into music. Like not into it at ALL. (My dad did have a couple of 8-tracks that I can remember him playing in the o’le Datsun 240Z...) To be honest, I’ve never owned a turntable. OK. That isn’t EXACTLY true. I did own something that did *technically* have a table and turn and supported all the speeds popular of the day: 33, 45 and that crazy, outlying hipster, 78. It was packed up in one case and included the speaker and it looked eerily similar to this:

 

 

I used it primarily for playing these Disney 45s that came with storybooks and the two 45s I EVER purchased of actual music. First 45: Gary Numan’s “Cars.” Second 45: “The Conversation” by John Williams from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. (The part where the organ and the Mother Ship "talk" back-and-forth.) I know, I know... Even at an early age my musical tastes were totally dialed-in. Couple that with a rockin’ Steve Austin (the $6Million man version, not the wrestler one), pre-Justin Bieber styled hairbowl and it’s clear why I was as popular as I was.

 

My longest personal experience with a REAL record player was with a turntable my cousin purchased using my employee discount at The Goodguys! It was a Dual CS-5000 mated to a Shure Ultra-something cartridge. I can remember listening to Elvis Costello’s “Spike” on that and thinking, “Wow! This really sounds great! Flip it over so we can listen to Veronica again!” Clearly I was a tough critic.

 

So, now, back to the review; Dennis was reviewing model 170-1 by a company called Thorens; a company whose very name just oozes power and potential awesomeness, hinting and alluding at raw, unbridled, hammer smashing fury and power. Then, common record handling best-practices sense takes over and they’d undoubtedly say, “By the great golden hairs of Odin’s beard, no! You can’t smash anything around or even anywhere NEAR the vicinity of our turntable! That would cause irrevocable damage to the virgin vinyl, throw off the delicate harmonic balance of the plinth, create micro-vibrations that would reverberate the entire length of the tonearm and cause massive downforce tracking errors to the stylus!” (Now, the astute amongst you might remember that just mere paragraphs before, I mentioned the sexy red photo that caught my eye, but that the picture listed on the Resi Website is of a very grey, utilitarian, kind of drab looking model. A unit that would only have the word “sex” associated with it when it was ordered in a sextuple quantity pack. This model is wearing that dull, proletariat grey that speaks of hours standing in long lines for hard, crusty black bread, and stout and resourceful women with hands covered in thick, hard calluses whose kisses smell of beets, scorned and resentful earth, and vodka. Turns out this is the actual 170-1, and the picture I saw was the WAY sexier 309.)

 

But besides the misleading picture, what interested me about Dennis’ review was his opening: “The last record player I owned was a big hulking box of a thing with a buffalo nickel taped to the top of its tone arm. It boasted one ratty built-in speaker, you couldn’t close the lid with a record playing... And, oh yeah, it was covered in blue denim.”

 

Righteous! So here was (finally) a turntable review by a guy that was not a self-professed record messiah. Not someone who was going to stand on the corner with a greasy, folded and stained sign proclaiming that the digital end is nigh, and that we must accept the vinyl messiah before the great analog sunset swallows us in harsh, brittle, binary waveforms. And I knew that I could count on Dennis not to be unfairly seduced by vinyl’s analog charms. The hypnotic spinning of the record, the label whisking round-and-round, surrounded by that sea of lacquer-black-shiny vinyl with music that is quite literally reproduced by a diamond. As the record slowly spins, 33 mostly precise intoxicating revolutions per minute, weaving a golden glow over the room, handing out lotus flowers and laying a spell over the entire crew of the Odyssey; as they all lay about, imagining that they are lying shamelessly naked on a large, dreamy blanket amidst a warm, sweet-grass filled valley, surrounded by deep, groovy valleys all filled with big, fat, warm, gooey analogy globs of music butter while the listeners smile vacantly up into the sky, slowly rubbing pixie dust onto their nipples and pondering who will get up to flip the record over to keep the party going. No. Dennis would NOT do that.

 

So he admits that his “analog audiophile cred is exactly zero.” Which is good. No...which is actually GREAT! Do records sound better? From a straight up, I don’t care what is playing it standpoint – tape, CD, hard disk, microchip implanted in my back molar – I’m just going to judge the sound standpoint? That’s what I’m interested in knowing.

You see, when you read a lot of reviews of record players, it seems that the reviewer can’t help but get all swept up in the grand majesty of their own nostalgic walk down memory lane. You find phrases like, “There’s just something so magical about holding an album cover, smelling that cardboard and looking at that giant album art,” or “placing this record on the platter transported me back to a better time in my life; a time when I had my whole life ahead of me; a time when a young man with a full head of hair could conquer the world!” or even “CDs are shiny and scary. If I wanted to see my reflection, I’d sweep the giant pile of cocaine off my mirror, beam a laser pointer onto it and listen to that! No! Black, non-reflective vinyl is the ONLY way to listen!”

 

So, Dennis went in with exactly zero preconceptions. And his immediate discovery was that setting up a turntable is little if anything like setting up a more typical A/V component; and clearly demonstrates why I love his writing style with this commentary on the installation process:

 

“Being the dutiful manual reader that I am, I come across this bit of text: ‘Remove stylus guard carefully.’ Okay, that I can do. ‘Turn the anti-skating knob counter-clockwise until it stops.’ Wait, the what? A quick look at the accompanying diagrams resolved that matter, but I’m two sentences in and already running into vocabulary words I don’t know. This doesn’t bode well. The next few instructions are a little easier to follow. I attach the counterweight. I balance the tone arm. This is Newtonian physics. This I can handle. From there, though, the manual ventures into esoteric territories that absolutely blow my digital brain: ‘Adjust to 1.5 mN (Milli-Newton) for the factory-installed pick-up cartridge OMB 10...’ The only reason I’m reasonably sure that’s English is because the mirror text on the opposite page is even more incomprehensible and uses commas instead of decimals.”

 

And his feelings on the sonics?

 

“As I browsed through my stack of appropriated vinyl, comparing the albums here and there with CD copies, I’m struck by the fact that although CDs have much more potential dynamic range, LPs make more use of their potential. They’re also richer, meatier, and more tactile. And, yes, vinyl carries with it a certain amount of distortion– generally anathema to my digital mindset–but I find that more often than not, that distortion lends a certain warmth to the music that I rather like.”

 

This is a hugely important sentence and one that my partner – as in “work” not “life”; Dana and I spend tragically little time discussing and debating the merits of analog versus digital audio. Her line of debate usually starts and ends with her standby retorts of, “Turn it down!” and “Don’t make me listen to any of your depressing music!” – and I have long held. That vinyl has its own sonic signature and a quality that we describe as a “pleasing distortion.” It has a warmer, more tube-like, more lit-by-candlelight, more soft-and-fuzzy-and-butter-gooey sound. This isn’t wrong, but it isn’t necessarily all-praise-be-to-vinyl right either. Much like calibrating a video display is designed to get back to the closest point of what the director intended, if the goal in recreating music is to get to the closest experience possible when the artist created it, then any added warmth and fuzz – albeit potentially pleasing as it may be – isn’t accurate either.

 

And I think for many people, the act of getting up, of running their fingers through their album collections, of browsing through the album art, of studying the liner notes, of removing the record from its sleeve, of running it through whatever de-dusting and/or de-static-ing process they have and then carefully, lovingly setting it onto the platter, and then that most magical of moments; the scratchy-poppy interlude when the needle first drops; that glorious period before the first music filled groove swells to life, is what it is really all about. Because that sound and those acts are, in a way, a bit like the lights dimming and the curtain opening. They all signify that something possibly great is about to happen. And that the sudden bursting-forth-from-complete-silence of CDs is too unnerving, too jarring, too disjointing, and just too soulless to fully enjoying the musical experience.

 

Dennis concludes his review by saying, “I wouldn’t quite call myself an analog convert yet. I still prefer the convenience of digital and the superior fidelity of the few truly well-mastered digital recordings. But the TD 170-1 has opened a long untraveled road that I’m looking forward to exploring a little more. Consider it a gateway turntable.”

 

For those looking for arguably the best of both worlds -- digital's ease of use with no compromise sound quality -- I’d invite you to explore high-res audio downloads. There is probably no finer source for amazing sounding music than hdtracks.com and if the music is actually the most important thing – not the album art or the liner notes or that strangely-sweet aroma embedded in the cardboard lining – then you’ll be in for a real treat.

Categories: March 2011, Music, Reviews

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