Posts Tagged ‘Vinyl’

How bad is MP3? (Part 2)

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010
lego mp3 player

Image courtest of stuffwelike.com

Last week I wrote up a post about my opinions on the MP3 format which included a few listening reviews of various MP3s in my collection. I admitted the weakness of this experiment, in that I wasn’t comparing these recordings to any other format, so I concluded that I needed to do a review the same recording in both MP3, CD and vinyl forms.

I chose to review Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1961 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”. Specifically, the third and final movement. I own this recording both on vinyl as part of the Great Men of Music boxset I reviewed a while back and as an RCA Living Stereo SACD . I ripped an MP3 copy at 160 kbit/s using iTunes, which was sourced from the CD layer of the SACD disc. Before each test, I calibrated the sound level for each source to -25 dB using the trial version of Electroacoustics Toolbox 2.0 , a versatile sound analysis program. To do this, I placed my laptop in my listening position and then played a 1 KHZ test tone from the Stereophile Test CD , test MP3 file in iTunes, and the Cardas Test record . The laptop microphone picks up the test tone and displays the current SPL (sound pressure level) ,and I would adjust the volume knob on my amp until it reached -25 dB. Performing this adjustment for each source reviewed ensured that the music was being pumped out the amplifier at a consistent level so that differences in the sound pressure wouldn’t color my judgment. So, here’s what I came up with:

CD- I made sure to play the CD layer of the disc for this test, as it wouldn’t be fair to compare the MP3 it was sourced from to a hi-rez version of the same recording. Bass frequencies are very present (if not fairly boomy) and Cliburn’s piano is fresh and lively but demonstrates some “smearing”. The strings are dense without sounding excessively stodgy and the soundstaging is good. Everything is in its proper place, and since I have actually attended a concert in that hall before, I could really reimagine it.

MP3 – A marked flatness is apparent right off the bat, the dynamics are severely reduced. Just as I had remarked about some tracks in the previous week’s part of this review, the music just can’t seem to escape or transcend the speakers. The orchestra is trapped in a wood and kevlar prison. In contrast to the CD recording, the piano seems a bit more defined and runs together less. But despite the improved clarity, the piano still suffers from a loss of energy. The soundstage has shifted to the left somewhat…somehow. Overall, the MP3 was not unlistenable but still not ideal.

LP- Well, to start off, hissing, rumble and clicks are apparent in quiet portions (no shit) but it’s not bad enough to be distracting. This recording shows excellent soundstaging and the bass is subdued when compared to the CD and MP3 edition. The piano isn’t as shiny as the other two tests, it lacks in high treble which can be a limitation of vinyl records. This was craploads better than the MP3 and rivaled the CD for clarity, warmth and overall enjoyability.

So to conclude, MP3s still kinda suck. But as I wrote last time, they have their definite advantages if you’re concerned about space and price. I understand that this wasn’t a double-blind ABX test , the gold standard for hi-fi experimentation, but the point of these reviews wasn’t to determine if one could tell a difference between the formats (which ABX does), but instead to assess the subjective qualities of each format. Sound is still always a matter of taste and preference, so you might not mind or even care about the sound of an MP3 if it seems okay to you. But for me, i’ll stick to MP3s cranked out of a portable device for when i’m on my way to work, and i’ll use CD and vinyl for when I really want to sit down and enjoy the music.

Vinyl review : R.E.M. – Chronic Town

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

R.E.M. Chronic Town EP

Artist – R.E.M.

Title – Chronic Town

Format – Vinyl EP

Label – IRS

Year – 1982

Short record, short review. This five song EP was R.E.M.’s first major release after their 1981 single “Radio Free Europe” (and that single sounds a hell of a lot different than the album version they put out a few years later).

I picked this up for $12.50 at Joe’s Record Paradise in Silver Spring, MD, a shop I used to visit at their old Rockville location before I left for college. The record is in good shape with quiet grooves, although i’m pissed at myself for damaging the sleeve when peeling off the pricetag. With the needle down, the guitars ring and chime appropriately and Stipe’s mumbling follows suit. Bill Berry’s drumming on the first few tracks, especially on “Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)” are really muted and indistinct; the cymbals mush together and sound like those maracas you made out of an oatmeal box filled with rice back in 2nd grade art class. Side B’s percussion has much better definition and push, but the cymbals are still kinda dialed down. I guess we can’t really expect world-class sonics from a debut EP.

Acoustic flaws aside, this is an excellent first record that nicely lays out the style they pursue on their next two LPs.  Some smug British dude wrote that R.E.M.’s stuff from the first half of the eighties was just Stipe “…mumbling gibberish into his fringe over tinny old Byrds riffs”, but I think that their work from that period was some of their best. Everything after Monster is entirely forgettable. Speaking of irrelevant musicians, Stipe should team up with Moby and do a tour of bald vegan white dudes with serious opinions about things.

Music – B+

Sound – B

Vinyl review : Rick Astley – Whenever You Need Somebody

Saturday, September 18th, 2010

Artist – Rick Astley

Title – Whenever You Need Somebody

Format – Vinyl LP

Label – RCA

Year – 1987

Yeah, I know, old meme is old and we’ve all been rickrolled over 9000 times already. We really don’t need to talk about Rick Astley any moar, but as far as i’m concerned, haters gonna hate. So while I haz your attention, I’m gonna ask a question: Has anyone really been far even as decided to use even go want to do look more like? Because….um..uhh….okay, that’s enough obligatory 4chan memes (but I did briefly consider writing this entire post in Impact).

In case you have been living under a rock for the past three years, Rickrolling was an internet fad where you trick people into a clicking a link to the YouTube video of “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley. The purported humor lies in the intense eighties-ness of the song and the general incongruity of suddenly viewing a scrawny red haired Englishman awkwardly gyrating in front of a chain link fence instead of that funny cat video your friend promised. This prank was intensely popular throughout 2008; it became the theme song for Anonymous (the ad-hoc group of Guy Fawkes mask wearing basement residents who surface in public to protest Scientology, of all things), the target of online poll spamming to get it played at Mets games, and finally culminated in Astley himself lip syncing the song during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

I gotta be honest , I’ve only listened to the first half of this record so far and I don’t really plan on even attempting the B side unless under extreme duress or extreme intoxication. Like all of Astley’s oeuvre, it consists of competent but uncompelling dance-R&B constructed on synth equipment that sounds charmingly dated to modern listeners. But even before Rickrolling was a thing I unironically enjoyed “Never Gonna Give You Up” and to this day maintain that it is a corny but solid pop song, despite all the jokey baggage it accumulated thanks to Family Guy and the Internet.

Rick Astley's Whenever You Need Somebody vinyl LP plus liner notes

Like most mass-market LPs, this album comes on thin, floppy vinyl. The inner sleeve is printed with lyrics, credits, and several B&W portraits of the man himself. Drop the needle on Side A and that opening drum fill we’re all too familiar with bursts out the speakers with surprising depth. In fact, the tracks I’ve listened to so far have a fairly rich and detailed sound for something that was likely recorded on some crummy 16-bit Sony DASH machine. However, it’s still difficult to judge the sonic properties of electronic music like Astley’s because drum machines and synths don’t “exist” in an acoustic space, they are dumped straight to their recording medium instead of being miked in a studio.

In about 10-15 years when we’re all grown up, Rickrolling will officially count as nostalgia. If you have this album on vinyl by then, you can put it on during one of your yuppie wine & cheese parties and smugly revel in the fact that you just Rickrolled your friends…IN ANALOG! The guests geeky enough to remember the joke will briefly laugh and reminisce about various other dumb memes from a youth wasted online, while those who don’t get it will just shrug and go back to their Pinot Noir. To prepare yourself for that day, Amazon has used copies starting at just under five bucks , or you could probably find it at your local record store like I did.

NEXT WEEK : “Bed Intruder Song” split 7″ with Eduard Khil

Music: C

Sound: B-

Vinyl review : Crucial Youth – The Posi-Machine

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

Artist – Crucial Youth

Title – The Posi-Machine

Format – White Vinyl LP

Label – New Red Archives

Year – 1988

I first heard of Crucial Youth back in middle school, from a friend whose uncle was in the band. I managed to find a few MP3s on Napster, downloaded them, had a laugh, then forgot about them. I came across this LP on eBay a few years ago and just now decided to give it a review. Basically, Crucial Youth was one big parody of straightedge hardcore, featuring hilariously overblown songs about brushing your teeth, eating a balanced diet, and not masturbating. Active in New Jersey in the mid through late 80’s, they were a pretty good antidote to overbearing punk bands preaching militant asceticism, and pointed out just how silly the whole thing can sound to an outsider.

Tracks on this album include “Caffeine”, a warning about the dangers of legal stimulants (“STAY A-WAY FROM MEEEE WHEN YOU’RE DRINKING YOUR CO-FEEEE!!!”), “4 Food Groups”, a primer on healthy eating, and “Cross at the Green (Not In between)”, an informative lesson on crosswalk safety. The music itself is unremarkable, intentionally amateurish hardcore somewhere between Cro-Mags and DRI. Vocalist “Joe Crucial” delivers appropriately trite lyrics in a honking bellow (a commenter on another website described it as “Ian MacKaye with a 47th chromosome”) that consist of gems like:

“When you smoke pot / what have you got? / I’ll tell you what / Not a lot!”

album cover + record for Crucial Youth - The Posi-Machine

Hardcore albums in general aren’t known for their impressive sonics, and this record follows the rule. The guitars groan and drone in the distance while thin, spitty drums dominate the mix. Great sound isn’t the point of this record though, it gets its satirical message across just fine.

This album comes on “milk white” vinyl and has cover art depicting the band and their crew gleefully steamrolling glam rockers and Quincy punks. I’m not sure if it originally came with the “Crucial Youth comix” or if these were in a zine, but my copy didn’t have them. A seller on GEMM.com is offering it for almost 60 bucks, which means I got it for a steal at 10 from eBay. If you want the CD, Amazon has it for 14 dollars and it’s probably remastered so the sound will be improved. Buy it to troll your sXe friends with, or just as a vaguely amusing satire of a scene that desperately needed it.

Music: C+

Sound: D

Vinyl review : Mission of Burma – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Friday, September 10th, 2010

Mission of Burma - Signals, Calls, and Marches

Artist – Mission of Burma

Title – Signals, Calls, and Marches

Format – 2x 180g Vinyl LP + bonus DVD

Label – Matador (remastered edition, original release on Ace of Hearts)

Year – 1981 (original), 2008 (remaster)

Among the slew of post-punk bands in the early 1980s, Mission of Burma was one of the few American groups, and probably one of the best. I had known of them for years but never checked out any of their work until the autumn of last year when I downloaded their Rykodisc compilation. I was living in Scotland at the time, and something about their songs really resonated with me as I spent countless grim mornings huddled at a bus stop in the pouring rain, hood up and headphones on.

The two disc set consists of the original 1981 EP (remastered from the original tapes) and their debut 7” , both on 12” , 33 1/3 records. These are 180g LPs, which means these records are thicker, heavier and generally better quality than other discs, which are generally 120g-140g. Most audiophile grade recordings are on heavy vinyl, and the improvement in sound is apparent. This is some of the quietest (in terms of surface noise) vinyl I have ever heard. Not a single pop or crack in either the lead in or run out groove, just a faint hiss. Nearly every other record I own has a noticeable amount of crackle, even brand new ones.

Little details are revealed by the new remaster, like the acoustic guitar buried in “Academy Fight Song”, and the bass has a good punch without being overwhelming. However, the vocals are a bit thin and the drums are vaguely distant. Despite this, i’m quite pleased with the sonics: the background is nice and black like I mentioned, and the whole thing has that laid back analog sound I know and love.

The set also includes a coupon for a free MP3 download of the album, booklet with pics and interviews, and a DVD of some live performances from 79-80. I haven’t checked out the DVD yet, but they supposedly had a mixed reputation as a live band (hence the title The Horrible Truth about Burma for their live album). You can get it from Amazon for 28 dollars , but I got mine from elusivedisc , a company i’ve been a fan of for a while.

Music: B+

Sound: B

An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

Thursday, September 9th, 2010

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.

Pricing:

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.