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SACD Review : Pixies – Surfer Rosa (Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab remaster)

cover of surfer rosa mfsl sacd

Artist – Pixies

Title – Surfer Rosa

Format – Hybrid SACD

Label – 4AD

Year – 1988 (original) , 2007 (remaster)

When the topic of the Pixies comes up, I’ve actually heard some indie fans scoff and call it “entry level”. Fuck that opinion. Yeah, everyone’s seen Fight Club and we all know how Kurt Cobain admits he was basically ripping off the Pixies for most of Nevermind, but you can’t dismiss how pivotal this album was in the context of the 1980’s. Before this album, American indie rock was dominated by jangly R.E.M imitators, stodgy post-punk (yes, I know I just previously reviewed Mission of Burma), or hardcore bands that finally learned to play their instruments. Surfer Rosa defined the sound that carried through to the 90’s and was unfortunately beaten to death by the middle of that decade. The album isn’t perfect (“Tony’s Theme” is a painfully lame piece of filler), but the first seven tracks are unforgettable classics.

I’ve had this album on vinyl for a while but it has a really bad warp that affects the first couple tracks on each side. I figured I should get a more listenable version of it, so I went with the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab SACD. For the uninitiated, a brief intro to SACD and MFSL: SACDs (Super Audio CD) are basically hi-resolution, dual layer CDs. Think Blu-Ray, but for music. The first layer contains the SACD recording, which is stored at a whopping 2822.4 Khz sample rate .The second layer contains the standard “Red Book” recording at 44.1 Khz, which works in any CD player and can be ripped to a computer. In order to get the improved sound of a SACD, you need a compatible player.

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab has specialized in audiophile-grade remasters of rock albums since their inception in the late 70’s. They start from the original master tapes and produce an excellent new version true to the intended recording and not all compressed and shrill like modern attempts at remastering (louder=better!!!!111). There is currently a dearth of rock music on SACD, as most of it is classical and jazz, but MFSL is definitely filling the gap. Surfer Rosa is the first non-classical SACD that i’ve bought, as well as the first MFSL release.

So how’s it sound, Mike? Amazing. I started with high expectations which were more than fulfilled. Every song has a distinct sense of ambience and reverb, I really get a sense of the recording space. The drums sound like an actual drum kit and not a bunch of detached, percussive strikes. Joey’s guitar screams and squawks without sounding unpleasantly harsh, and Frank’s strained shrieks are maddeningly detailed. I heard little things that I hadn’t noticed on previous CD and vinyl versions; bits of feedback, string squeak, and a creaking chair during the studio banter at the end of “Oh My Golly!”.

Surfer Rosa SACD unpacked

The only letdown was the packaging. I had expected a plastic case but was instead served a cardboard sleeve (which at least had a protective slipcover for the disc). If you want to own a quality physical copy of this landmark album, I would definitely recommend this version. You can get it from Amazon for about 27 bucks. Even if you don’t own an SACD player yet, this is worth getting because you’ll still get some of the sonic benefits of the remaster on the CD layer.

Music: A-

Sound: A+

An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

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.

Pro-ject Debut III

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).

Topaz AM10

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.

Polk Audio TSi 200 - cherry finish

Speakers –

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

Speakers- $180

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.

Green hi-fi

Green hi-fi

Caring about the environment is another pillar of hipsterdom, so if you’re going to get into hi-fi, you should do it in a eco-friendly way. There’s a few ways to go about this:

Green hi-fi
Image courtesy of www.ecdsounddesign.com

1. Use energy efficient amplification

The folks at MetaEfficient drew up a list of power saving stereo amplifiers, but most of them are beefy power amps that require a separate pre-amp to function. More resources, more space, more weight, etc. However, one amp on the list that stands out is the Onkyo A-9555 which uses efficient digital circuitry and is available new for only $439.99.

2. Buy from sustainable companies

NAD Electronics, in addition to using efficient circuitry and standby modes in its products, also avoids using harmful heavy metals or excessive packaging (and utilizes recycled material in the packaging it does use). Cambridge Audio, another affordable hi-fi company, also has a strong environmental commitment, as well as pledging to not use child or prison labor. Now that’s a plus!

3. Buy used gear

If you’re just starting out, thrift stores can be a great place to find components for your system. You can also check out the Audiogon Marketplace for deals on used high-end gear, and eBay or Craigslist are options as well. By buying used, you keep old electronics out of landfills, reduce the amount of resources consumed, and just might score some hip vintage stuff to impress your guests!

4. Listen to vinyl

Keeping with the thrift store theme, there are tons of old vinyl records out there that would otherwise end up in a dump. Sure, you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to most of the crap they have at Goodwill, but there are some great finds if you’re willing to look. Plus, all those Burt Bacharach records you’ll find can be hung on the wall for decoration or turned into DIY snack bowls or bookends. And finally, turntables use less power than other music sources; my turntable consumes only 2 watts while my Sony SACD player sucks down 15 watts.