the agony and the ecstasy of vinyl
In our last installment, we ended with the statement that the new system was sounding so good that I gotten the itch to start listening to music again. “The new system's sound was not too bad, not too bad at all”.
The old Denon DP-60L turntable had lost its dust cover in the move to The Burgh and the company I gave it to, for repair, lost it. Then the cleaning lady cleaned the one month old stylus right off the cartridge while dusting the table. She did this despite my repeated subtle warnings like, “DO NOT TOUCH” the turntable. “Don’t dust it, don’t look at it! Just pretend it doesn’t exist!!!” Of course she said nothing, knew nothing, and admitted nothing. The old Sergeant Schulz routine. The 60L ended up stored for the duration.
Fast forward to a few months ago, and you’ll know the story; a forum leads to a web site, which leads to a new forum, which leads to a different web site. The end result of which eventually had me exchanging Pidgin English emails with a company in Japan. And $350 later I had both a new stylus and a NOS dust cover. Incredible isn’t it? Sometimes I just love the Internet.
Much time was spent cleaning, lubing, checking, and rechecking the table, aligning the cartridge, leveling the table and the tone arm, and balancing it to perfection. Then with much pomp, circumstance, and an audience of one (my wife) I went to connect the table to the receiver. That is the moment I discovered that receivers no longer have phono inputs. The humiliation and frustration were a unique combination that I’d not experienced since high school.
Back on online again, I learned that like everything else, technology has changed and everything was vastly more expensive than I expected. Phono amplifiers rated as junk were $200, mediocre units were $500 to $1500, and good ones were pure unobtainium. The numbers were crazy just like the $1000 power cords. In for a dime in for a dollar right? After weeks of research I came up with a list of acceptable brands/models of decent phono amps and the realization that If I was going to make this purchase, it was going to have to be a new-to-me piece. A good quality, used phono amp, is better than a junk new one for the same amount of money? Right? I eventually found a NTM Jolida vacuum tube phono preamp at AudiogoN (http://app.audiogon.com/) that was at the mid range of what I wanted (not really) to spend. It turned out to be a good transaction at a fair price and even included an extra pair of high quality tubes.
A little less pomp and circumstance this time and no audience, and yes, we have music! Absolutely beautiful music . . . Vinyl sounded great on the new system! The new stylus tracked very well. The sound was different than stereo and somewhat imperfect due to the surround speakers and their placement. The main issue seemed to be the lack accurate staging, but there was a very accurate and musical sound. Happiness was a warm vacuum tube.
There are two points to be made here: first, speaker placement which works very well for surround sound doesn’t necessarily work well for music. In the new family room, due to the room size and the large doorway, the KEF 900s front main speakers are almost 20 feet apart. For movies and TV this does not matter and might even help since the large center channel speaker is relatively centered, but for stereo reproduction it just does not work at all. Also, noteworthy is that it is difficult/ impossible to get the subwoofer to contribute in any of the direct or stereo modes on the Marantz 6005 receiver. They are set up for LFE only. Secondly, the surround effects on the Marantz receiver uses in converting a stereo two channel signal to multiple channels, produces some interesting but flawed musical reproduction. I have found that the neural setting on the Marantz yields the best results. Neural is much more natural sounding than using any of the Dolby or synthetic encoding.
I can’t begin to tell you how much I enjoyed listening to albums again. It was amazing how good they sounded. They sounded much better than CDs on the LG bluray player that’s for sure! For a couple of months I listened before work, after work and every chance I had. Then sadly, one very perfect Sunday winter morning it all changed. You know the type of morning I’m talking about. A light snow is falling, drinking coffee, listening to music, reading the paper, everyone else in the house still asleep. Desperado was spinning on the turntable and suddenly the music ground to a very slow, but definite, and painful halt. Had the Denon died? “We must do everything we can to save it.” So I had the motor professionally checked. There was nothing wrong with the motor. I multi-metered every connection I could see, I cleaned and I adjusted, I adjusted and I cleaned… but no go… It was a very sad day at our house.
For weeks I pondered and fussed, and pouted. Yes I’ll admit it, I pouted. A few weeks into this destructive process, my wonderful wife grabbed me by my . . . ah . . . shoulders, looked me in the eye . . . and said the words, ”I can’t stand it anymore, just buy a new turntable.” Really? Really! I kid you not. It was just like that. Those were her exact words.
Another serious search was on! Another quest for best bang for the buck. I love the process! I hate the process! Can you begin to imagine how I shop for cars? Sometimes it is just not pretty. I am not cheap, I’m just a bit frugal.There is a big difference. That’s my position and I’m sticking to it.
So it was back to the forums and web sites . . .again. What will it be? New or new-to-me? I read and I read, I studied and I ruminated for weeks. And it seemed that the best rated turntables that came close to my price range were either the Clearaudio or the VPI tables, and finding those used and in perfect condition for a fair price was not going to happen. I ended up settling on a new Clearaudio Performance SE turntable-- second from the bottomin their line but more than one reviewer’s “product of the year." I purchased it from Ron Buffington at Liquid Hi-Fi. (http://www.liquidhifi.com/
I forgot to mention that I had a “Vinyl Night” scheduled at my house in 10 days. My wife was to be out of town, and I had 25 guys invited to bring/listen to albums, drink beer and shoot pool. And suddenly I had no turntable.
The Clearaudio turntable showed up, with two days to spare. But of course it was the wrong color, and I swear the thing looked like it was used and repackaged. There were smudges, very evident fingerprints, and an open parts bag. I really wanted to send it back, but I had to keep what they sent due to the impending Vinyl Night party. I mounted the old Shure V15 Type V MR cartridge (with the purchased-from-Japan replacement stylus) and it just would not track. It would not track at 1 gram, not at 1.5 and hardly at 2 grams. At 2.25 grams it played but the sound was not very good, and the worry was that the tracking force would ruin the new stylus. Regardless, the sound was not nearly as good as the old Denon with the same cartridge. At this point the Performance SE was a huge disappointment for a new table that retails for $2800 without a cartridge.
None of the new turntables have a suspension of any merit. Where the old Denon sat comfortably on my rack and played fine, the new table was hugely susceptible to every foot-fall and anyone passing gas in the room. I didn’t read about this in any of the glowing reviews. If I could have, I would have thrown the Performance SE out the window. I was NOT happy. I got in touch with Ron at Liquid Hi-Fi. As nice a guy as he is, and as reasonable of a deal he provided, Ron has a policy that I was never made aware of-- no returns for internet sales. I was even less happy now! He put me in touch with the distributor. The distributor first lectured me on turntable set up, which was much appreciated since I have only set up maybe 1000 of them before. They did send me a low profile teeter totter scale to replace my very old but trusted Shure stylus pressure gauge, along with a 2 gram weight to increase the head weight. These both helped but still the table did not sound like what I would expect from a $2800 turntable and certainly not better than the vintage 1980 Denon.
Vinyl night was a huge success. With enough beer, no one seemed to mind that the sound was less than perfect. I moved the turntable into the living room and set it up on the fireplace lentil. No footfall problems there! But it just cost another $50 for a 30ft patch cord at Radio Shack ( hey, I was in a hurry).
To say I was not happy with my purchase would have been the understatement of the decade. I hated the turntable and was at the point of dumping it and trying something else or just taking my lumps and giving up on vinyl all together. I was not shy in letting Ron and the distributor know of my feelings, not shy at all. After a number of emails, Ron had me call the distributor and talk to them directly. After much discussion, they came at me to the conclusion that the Shure was too light for the tone arm and it tracked too light.
The minimum recommended tracking force on the Verify tone arm was 2 grams not the 1 to 1.5 grams that the Shure required. This information would have been friggin nice to know before I bought the stupid thing. Ron was made aware of my cartridge before I purchased the table and not one of the reviews etc. that I had read had mentioned it. After more email exchanges, Ron and the distributor offered a significant deal on a ClearAudio cartridge. A very nice gesture.
You need to take a gander online at the prices for ClearAudio cartridges. They are unbelievably expensive. Without a doubt they are among the very best rated, but the costs to Mr. Frugal are out of this world. Checking Audiogon.com I knew that at “the deal” price, I could buy it, try it and dump it for what I had into it… but like everything else in this story, it just involved spending more money! I hated the table as it was, so I made the decision to give it one more try. I bought their best moving magnet cartridge The Maestro. The Maestro of course was not in stock and I’d have to wait to get it. We can discuss the merits of moving magnet vs moving coil cartridgesanother time. Another two weeks go by before the thing shows up, and another few days before I could make time to mount it and see what the heck I had bought. I was very skeptical and my expectations were very low.
From the very first moment I dropped the stylus onto the first disc, the difference in the sound was absolutely amazing. As much as I wanted to hate it, I just couldn’t. Without a doubt it was the best sounding turntable/cartridge I have ever heard. I kept switching albums and genre to find the weak point and no matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t find a weakness. It tracked everything I threw at it. Perfectly. The sound was musical and it even made some of my less than perfect albums sound almost new. The thing I liked the most was that quiet passages and those between cuts was the dead silence… we use to call that “black”. It must be the cut of the stylus diamond. I have never heard that degree of “dead black” silence before on vinyl.
Now if I could just get rid of the base/turntable wave problem I have at high volume levels . . . it never ends! Back in the day I got rid of a Technics table with a SME tone arm after only one week because it was too finicky. As hard as it is to believe, this table and cartridge were worth the struggle!