Big Wheel Keep On Turning?

You probably know that the vinyl LP is enjoying an incredible regeneration in interest. Not that it was ever dead in many of the circles that I encounter. Quite the contrary, in fact. Since this is my first article for The High Fidelity Report, and most of the writers – and most likely a number of its readers – are vinylphiles, I thought it’d be a good idea to make them angry. NOT!

I do want to say a few things that might make some readers unhappy. So consider this a thought piece.



Why I cringe

In my travels, attending and participating in shows, dealer events, and countless voicing sessions, including those going back for over 35 years, I have yet to encounter a single turntable that I thought was voiced as well as it could have been. That’s right, I’ve never heard one that I thought was delivering all of the music!

The bad news is that all of them could have been better. Some ‘tables needed just a bit of help – and sadly, some required a lot.  The good news is that — at least in recent times — typically, it didn’t take much to effect an improvement.  When I had the opportunity to experiment, it always proved to be the case that I could make that vinyl-playing-rig sound better. And it often didn’t take long to do it. Maybe that’s why I cringe when I see audiophiles claiming their ‘tables sound so good.  They might sound OK, but are they playing at the level that they could?  Probably not.


Vinyl – Vivid or Veiled? – A Dozen Dilemmas

To be fair, who knows what our vinyl replay is really supposed to sound like?  The truth is, none of us have that information, and (with a few exceptions) that may include the mastering engineer.

1) Most of us fancy ourselves as purists who wouldn’t sully our rigs with EQ – analog or digital.  I cannot recall any audiophile answering YES to this question: “Would you use a full-range equalizer in your system?” Yet every time we play an LP, the sound has gone through not one, but two levels of EQ! First, the RIAA mastering curve is introduced to the LP itself, and then we must play the LP back through a phono preamp stage that contains (hopefully) the mirror image EQ to get us back to “flat” response.

This situation assumes precisely mirror-imaged curves (recording & playback), which, truth be told, occurs less frequently than we might think.  Different labels introduce slightly different emphasis.  Earlier, pre-RIAA recordings used their own “in-house” EQ curves. So we have two levels of the dreaded EQ, and they may not be accurately EQ’d for some of our recordings anyway.

2) Most audiophiles pay attention when they see a design that has managed to dispense with an extra gain stage, but for some reason, we give the additional – relatively high-gain – phono-stage a pass.  Additionally, if we have moving-coil cartridges, then we may opt to purchase a high-quality outboard phono-preamp.  Same EQ question, same gain required, only now we’ve introduced even more cables and connections into the equation.  Of course, this is totally against what we attest to believe is best – fewest gain stages, fewest connections & cables, but, hey, this is analog, so fuggedaboutit!

3) You never see mention of the varying eq in the high frequencies as you get further into the center of the LP.  In other words, cutting requirements may require a subtle (or sometimes severe) change in high frequencies as the stylus gets nearer to the inner grooves.

4) Sadly, no engineering breakthroughs have occurred that significantly reduce inner groove distortion – it’s simply a part of the vinyl LP package.

5) You do know that no two phono cartridges sound the same, right?  Question – is the one that you own the best of its breed?  Have you compared it to other cartridges of the same manufacturer and model number?  Just asking… ☺

6) The varying thickness of LPs will mean that you often will not be playing your LPs at the optimum SRA. Are you going to readjust for every record, or simply live with the resultant degradation in sound?

7) As someone who has made hundreds of master recordings, both 30 IPS analog and digital, to say that analog LPs deliver the music powerfully is to say that I have never heard a master compared to the commercial LP.  The tape master makes the LP sound broken – lacking in dynamics, tone, & presence.  No turntable at – any price – can bridge the inherent gap between the master tape and the mastered LP. It is HUGE – and even that comparison assumes the use of a correctly set-up turntable/phono-stage rig.

8) These days, anyone who is willing to go to the effort and expense of playing vinyl LPs should have managed to properly execute the basic mechanical aspects of setting up their turntable.  And now, there are a number of useful tools that make the mechanical aspect of the task achievable.  When I a mention that I still encounter turntables that fall short, it’s rarely from the mechanical set-up side – overhang, azimuth, etc.  That’s good news indeed.  The one mechanical aspect that sometimes can still be addressed is turntable isolation.

9) One more mechanical that can sometimes be addressed would be the variable ratio of moment of inertia of the counterweight and cartridge (when the option is available).

10) The areas that seem to consistently benefit from a bit more work are phono cartridge loading, vertical tracking force, VTA/SRA, and anti-skate.  I do NOT feel that gauges can get this job done – you need to LISTEN to the effects of all of them.  And they are inter-related – as is room temperature.

11) Finally, if the main system hasn’t been dialed in to “play the room” how can the vinyl lover know if his/her adjustments are going in the right direction?  This reminds me of RoomPlay Reference clients who come here, and at some point, ask to hear their CD, because they “know it”.  IMO, they probably do NOT know it, but I try not to say that – at least not right away.

12) Need I mention LP surface noise?



A finyl word

When a digital system is done right, or at least pretty well, the music can flow and pluck your heartstrings.  Although I love to listen to my vinyl, I haven’t in several years, preferring for a number of reasons to pursue making my digital archives the medium of choice. Most listeners assume – and often mention – that one reason the sound is so listenable is that I am playing “Hi-Rez” digital, but no, it’s simply 16/44.1 material.  This news usually comes as a big surprise to them. No one ever complains or expresses a desire to hear vinyl.  Maybe it’s just an unusually polite crowd, who knows.

All the above being said, I wish there weren’t this source divide, but it is very real. Fortunately, it seems to be softening.  And maybe it’s healthy, if it keeps us engaged. It would be nice if some audiophiles would stop and think before declaring that their vinyl playback is the superior/more accurate/higher resolution medium.  Maybe it is for them, but these days, it’s not necessarily for others.

The current digital offerings are worth the effort of exploring now, if for no other reason than archiving your beloved analog LPs. And yes, in some cases, better sound.  There, I said it.


JIm Smith is the author & producer of the acclaimed Get Better Sound book & DVDs. He has over 35 years of experience in the high-end audio industry, including his achievements as an audio distributor, the owner of a respected high-end audio store, and even earlier, as Magnepan's National Sales Manager & Audio Research's Customer Service Manager.

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