October 2008

Looking Ahead to the Past

It all began with a heated discussion on the SoundStage! internal e-mail list, where our writers consider and debate all manner of topics. We were discussing analog and digital playback, and I made what I thought was an observation with which everyone would agree: "Digital playback is no longer clearly inferior to analog." I was all digital then -- I hadn't played an LP in my system for more than a decade -- and over the course of those years I heard the great sonic strides that digital sound had made. But others on the list were unconvinced, and a couple of our writers let me know in no uncertain terms that because I wasn't into analog then, I simply didn't know what I was talking about -- past experience and experience at shows counting for zilch in their minds. Analog lovers are a zealous bunch; only the debate we writers had on intelligent design was more heated, and not by much.

But that discussion triggered something -- the desire to explore analog playback again and write about what I discovered. Writers need subjects, and this seemed like an especially fruitful one. So I immersed myself in turntables, cartridges and LPs, and I've since heard that there is much that analog does sonically that digital, even DVD-A and SACD, cannot equal. Resolution for one -- everything that makes up what the microphone captured, including instrumental texture, dynamic gradations, and acoustic space. Short of the reel-to-reel tapes from the Tape Project, a good LP is the highest-resolution medium there is, and along with this are ease and naturalness that only the very best digital gear -- like the Audio Research Reference CD7 or the Zanden Model 2000P transport and 5000S DAC -- can approach. This is a rare and seductive combination of sonic traits, if you're open to hearing it, that is. And if you think mono playback is inferior by definition, you need to hear a mono LP played back with a mono cartridge. The purity and immediacy are addictive.

LPs have improved tremendously since I was buying them new a dozen years ago. Current releases are often pressed on thick virgin vinyl that's very quiet -- CD quiet in some cases. It is true that most new LPs cost double what the same title does on CD, but you can amass an LP collection on the cheap by frequenting thrift stores and garage sales -- so many people just want to get rid of their old records. I'm often amazed by the LPs I find regularly for a dollar or less. Yes, many of these records need a good cleaning to sound their best, so investing in a vacuum record-cleaning machine and the proper cleaning fluids and brushes is mandatory if you want to be serious about analog playback. I have been surprised many times by how quiet even an old dusty LP sounds after it has been thoroughly cleaned.

Turntables, tonearms and cartridges are tricky to set up, but anyone who got a C or better in geometry can figure out and accomplish it, and there's something uniquely satisfying about mounting a tonearm and properly aligning a cartridge -- a hands-on element that other audio equipment omits. Setting up a turntable gives you insight into the precision required for a piece of diamond to scrape through a groove and make beautiful music, and a greater appreciation for the music that's made.

Ironically, as digital downloads become more prevalent, the LP is going through a renaissance. Pressing plants are having a difficult time keeping up with orders, and record stores are stocking more and more new vinyl. As no physical format enjoys brisk sales, the most obtrusive and fragile format to ever come to market is making a comeback. I have to think that along with this comes an appreciation for willful, attentive listening. LPs just don't lend themselves to being background noise; playing an LP is something done deliberately, not casually, and doing so commands deliberate listening as well.

All in all, my move back into analog has been extremely satisfying, especially in terms of appreciating music, which is what chasing the best sound possible should be about. I still own two CD players and thousands of CDs, but I have three turntables and hundreds of LPs, and they never cease to delight me. To the SoundStage! writers who chided me for my lack of firsthand analog experience (you know who you are): Thanks for the nudge.

...Marc Mickelson