I apologize for for not updating in a long time; the timesink of a real job instead of being a wannabe pro blogger gave me less opportunities to write for this thing. Rest assured, I have since acquired a ton of new records I intend to review in the coming weeks.
Singles are often overlooked by hi-fi enthusiasts, disregarded as junk in favor of limited edition 180g boxsets and the like. In some ways they were the MP3s of the vinyl era: cheap, tradeable, compact, and expendable. So expendable that they are a dime a dozen these days and often in very poor shape (people used to stack them up on their turntable, removing one after each track to create a primitive playlist). But despite the difficulty of finding singles in good condition, they are a good way to get some easy wax into your collection. In addition to affordability, they have a supposed sound benefit because the 45 RPM speed allows greater spacing between the grooves which in turn permits better dynamics.
I own only a few singles, most of which I took from my father’s collection. The rarest in the collection is probably “Robot Love / For Adolfs Only” by The Valves , an incredibly early punk band from Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my copy was wrecked when a girl I was dating sat on it. I was sorting through my collection and set the single down on the couch next to me, she plopped down without realizing and hairline cracked the damn thing. The whole thing was my fault entirely but I got mad at her regardless, and we broke up like a month later (for other reasons, but the record cracking incident was the start of the downfall). Anyway, I’m going to give some of my singles a good listen and report back on the sonic quality or lack thereof.
Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart / These Days” : The krautrock-esque drums snap outward (but the hihat sizzles in the distance). Ian Curtis’ robotic murmuring emanates from the dead center, the synths swirl and the guitar just kinda stays there. When I flipped it over to “These Days” I hadn’t noticed that side B was at 33 RPM and briefly wondered why it was some cheesy New Order dance remix…yeah. Curtis sounds even more like an android on this tune, proper speed or not. The percussion is desperately thin but the guitars are at least up to something. Track 2 on side B is some kind of alternate take for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and frankly it just sucks.
Nirvana – “Sliver / Dive” : The vinyl is quiet for a used record, ill give it that, but this kind of stuff is hard to judge on audiophile grounds. At the beginning, the bass intro sounds promising but it disappears into mush which I guess is the point. Side A ends with a pointless recording of a hung over / strung out Cobain on the phone with his producer or something. Side B’s “Dive” is a better song and a slightly better recording.
Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side / Perfect Day” : That famous bassline rumbles nicely and the acoustic guitar chills in the right-center channel. The “colored girls” surround Reed on both sides during their bit, but the rest of Reed’s vocals get that irritating sibilance which I pin more on the record wear rather than a flaw in the recording. An unfortunate buzzing quality affects the closing sax solo. “Perfect Day” lacks most of these sonic faults for some reason. The occasional popping and clicking enhances this intensely defeating and ironic tune.
So despite that these singles aren’t shining examples of acoustic brilliance, they are still worthy components of my music library. The only real pain in the ass associated with them that my turntable ( the Pro-ject Debut III) doesn’t have a speed control so I have to remove the platter and physically move the belt to a different part of the motor when I want to switch between 33/45 . Fortunately, there exists a speed box that you plug in between the power source and the table which adjusts the motor speed.
In my very first blog post I briefly bashed MP3 as an inferior format for tone deaf plebes. I soon realized that was an extremely hypocritical thing to do, as the majority of my music collection resides on my laptop and iPod in either AAC or MP3. But whenever I listen to these formats, I’m usually doing something else at the same time: riding the bus or subway, walking to class, fidgeting in an uncomfortable airline seat, or hunched over my laptop surfing the internet. I reserve my “critical listening” sessions for vinyl, CD and SACD and so I had never sat down and really listened to MP3s. As far as I know, MP3 sounds pretty damn good when piped into a hi-fi setup but I was just going off the standard snobbery and assuming that it sucks.
So, I decided to plug my laptop into my amplifier and give some tracks a good analysis. I had done this before in my previous apartment, but again I never had a chance to critically regard it since it was usually done during parties. To do this, I bought a cheap 3.5mm to L+R RCA adapter much like this one which Amazon is selling for an unbelievable penny, not including shipping. The red and white plugs go into the amp and the other end goes into the laptop or other MP3 device. Some newer amps have a port in the front that you can plug a player straight into using a cable like this.
It’s important to first briefly summarize bitrate: basically, higher bitrates translate to better sound quality. The most common bitrate seems to be 128 kbit/s ; this is what you’ll likely find on filesharing networks unless otherwise specified. By default, iTunes rips CDs to 256 kbit/s AAC format, and the same goes for stuff downloaded from the iTunes Store.
Now that i’m plugged in, I try a few selections:
The Chameleons – What Does Anything Mean? Basically (224 kbit/s MP3) : This layered, atmospheric post-punk/goth really suffers from the MP3 encoding. It sounds as though the music is struggling to escape the speakers, and this tires out my ears because I have to force myself to focus and interpolate what i’m supposed to be hearing. Turning up the bass knob on my amp filled out the bottom end a bit, but I really don’t like to play with the tone controls if I can help it.
Catherine Wheel – Chrome (160 kbit/s MP3) : A slight improvement, but the music still lacks any sort of punch or edge. This might be blamed on the album’s production; shoegaze bands liked to go for the muddy, distant sound.
J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Benjamin Britten: English Chamber Orchestra (256 kbit/s AAC) : This is one of the better selections so far. The music actually has life and presence, although the violins lack attack/decay. Could this improvement be a property of the AAC encoding?
Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Goes to College (141 kbit/s MP3) : First off, this is a live concert recording, so the overall acoustics will differ from something taped in studio. Nevertheless, this actually sounds fairly musical and I would say is the best set of MP3s i’ve sampled so far. The sax and piano are smooth and feel as though they are in a concert hall like they should. However, like all the tracks i’ve tested, the bass is disappointing and there is still that lack of thrust and definition that I like to hear (Additionally, a minor gripe: the applause and whistles of the audience don’t feel “live” either).
Now there are some flaws in this experiment that I’ll readily admit:
1. This is an entirely subjective test. I didn’t take any actual measurements of the sound output (such as level or frequencies), although I kept the volume the same.
2. The output level of my MacBook is probably less powerful than other sources, thus giving the amplifier less to work with. An MP3 player might give different results.
3. I didn’t do any sort of A/B comparison between the same recording on a different source like CD or vinyl. This is why in Part 2 of this article I intend to listen to Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto , a recording that I have on both vinyl and CD, so I can compare the two to an MP3 rip I made.
In the meantime, I can say this about MP3s : They clearly have a lot of advantages, in that they’re , uh, “free” and they take up very little space on your hard drive. And despite that they aren’t a hi-fi medium, i’m willing to bet that most of my readers have a substantial amount of their music in this format. To take advantage of this, and to get the best sound possible, hook your MP3 player into an amplifier + speaker combo. By simple virtue of playing through actual speakers and not earbuds or a cheap docking station, you will reveal details that you wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, Kitchens of Distinction’s Love is Hell was an album that I had only listened to on my iPod, so when tried it through my system it revealed details like fuller chorus guitar effects.
If you want to get your feet wet with hi-fi, get yourself a setup like the one I recommend and plug in your computer or MP3 player. You’ll get a taste of good sound while keeping your current collection, and I have no doubt that it will inspire you to do more with your system.
One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.
Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.
Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III
This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).
Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10
The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.
For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.
Turntable – $349
Amp – $349
Cables and other accessories – $50
Total: +- $928
I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.
Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.
In my first entry, I mentioned that among the more ridiculous hi-fi products are “bags of magic rocks that enhance your system’s sound”. These special stones are Brilliant Pebbles, one of the fine products offered by Machina Dynamica, a company with an infamous reputation in the online audiophile community. They specialize in intensely dubious “tweaks” backed by incomprehensible pseudoscience, such as a chip that upgrades the sound of CDs with the power of quantum physics, a Casio clock radio that affects A/V equipment through the aether, and my personal favorite, the “teleportation tweak”, where you pay sixty bucks to call MD up and have them play a 20 second series of “sharp, mechanical pulses” over the phone (your gear doesn’t even need to be on, but it helps!).
Anyone with a functioning brain stem would naturally be skeptical of these extraordinary claims, so we might go ahead and assume this is all one big troll; a jab at some of the more bizarre thing audiophiles really do to their system (like cable elevators or cryogenically treated speaker wire ). The Machina Dynamica website doesn’t make it easy to actually to purchase their products; you must manually enter the item and price into a PayPal form. Additionally, the product descriptions are full of absurd technobabble and the site’s proprietor lists his credentials as:
Education: Aerospace Engineering (theoretical fluid dynamics, propulsion, statistical thermodynamics, nuclear physics, indeterminate structures). Undergrad thesis: Design of propulsion system for interplanetary travel utilizing momentum transfer mechanisms in highly magnetic metal crystal bombarded by high-energy ions. Work experience: NASA satellite operations & radar data analysis; aerodynamics of high-performance aircraft; reentry vehicle dynamics; radio and satellite communications; spread spectrum communications. He incorporated Machina Dynamica in 1998.
An hilarious troll, right? Maybe not. This guy actually sells this stuff, and people buy it. Hi-fi sites have reviewed the products and his Audiogon profile is full of positive feedback. If this is a joke, this guy is laughing en route to the bank.
Someday (when I have the cash to waste and I am drunk enough to make it seem like a good idea) I just might buy those Brilliant Pebbles and test the power of the placebo effect. If I spent over 100 dollars on a jar of aquarium gravel , you better believe I’m gonna delude myself into hearing an improvement. If I like them, maybe i’ll get a rock tumbler and start my own tweak business.
An endless debate has raged among audio lovers since the introduction of the Compact Disc in 1982. Detractors of the format complained of a “harsh”, or “bright” sound and stood by their vinyl records as the truest form of music reproduction. Those in the CD camp extolled the format’s ease of use and setup, lack of pops and clicks, no need for extensive cleaning procedures, and the fact that they could hold more music.
Both sides had valid points; early CDs did not sound very good for many reasons. The first CD players released used inferior decoding equipment and frequency cutoffs, fixed in later players by better circuitry and processors. Additionally, recording engineers in the early days of CD were not used to mixing and mastering for the format, hence the unpleasant sound. As for vinyl, the drawbacks are still clear: dust and dirt affects the sound, the grooves eventually wear out, and the frequency response is slightly more limited. Not to mention that turntables can be fiddly, complex things to set up (although some people like them for that).
My opinion on all this is that both formats are equally valid in anyone’s colleciton, and like pretty much anything in hi-fi, it’s all up to the listener’s personal preference. My vinyl collection is currently bigger than my CD/SACD library (and my MP3 list is bigger than both, more on that some other time). My preference for vinyl or CD depends a lot the type of music. Jazz and classical seem to fit CD better since there is a lack of surface noise, which can be distracting with quieter instrumental pieces. Rock music is more at home on vinyl, partly for the “authenticity factor”, but also because louder instrumentation tends to cancel out any noise caused by debris on the record.
But what I like the most about vinyl is the artwork. It’s much larger, bolder and overall nicer to look at than the tiny renditions squeezed onto a CD booklet. For example, the artwork on the CD version of The Grand Wazoo is cramped and compressed, but on the vinyl version’s cover you can see much more amusing, Sergio Aragones-esque detail.
So for hi-fi newbies, there is no need to throw out your CD collection. If you’re looking to start a vinyl collection, a good place to start first would be a local thrift or charity store. The records are usually incredibly cheap, but the drawback is the selection (hope you like Barbara Streisand or Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass!) and the physical condition of the records is often quite poor. But at around a buck a pop, its not a huge loss if you take one home and find it unplayably damaged. Within all the crap, there are hidden gems at these stores; recently I got the first two volumes of The Beethoven Bicentennial Collection (by Deutsche Grammophon) for 20 bucks. It includes all 9 of his symphonies and were in great condition.