On May 21, 2008, five months after purchasing my very first turntable (a Rega Research P3-24), I decided that my obsession with LPs had grown to the extent that I could no longer function without a good record-cleaning machine. I'd done some research and found that the device best suited to my life and wallet was VPI's time-honored HW-16.5. I was certain, anxious, determined. But that morning, when I gave VPI a call, the line was busy. When I called again in the afternoon, the line was busy. When I called again in the evening, the line was busy.
Like many audiophiles, I cohabit with someone who understands my audio obsession but has no desire to share it. That someone is my wife. Since I began writing for Stereophile, Ashley has helped me carry amplifiers, tape up boxes for shipping, and found room in our house for all the extra components and their boxeswhich sometimes make the place look like a scene from an episode of Hoarders. She's a peach. Every time new gear comes to the house or to my studio, my wife has calmly helped me move stuff around while I dance around like a six-year-old on Christmas morning.
Everyone's got their prejudices, and mine are against turntables with box-like plinths and big slabs of undamped acrylic. I have no problem with either in models that cost a few grand or less, but once you get into high-priced terrain, less plinth and less acrylic usually yields better performance. Generally, though, all a plinth gets you is a vibrating surface to transmit or store and release energy. Who needs that? If your high-performance 'table has a plinth, you need to heroically damp it the way SME does in its Model 30, and the way Rockport did in its System III Sirius.
I set out on a fishing trip but returned less than an hour later, empty-handed. You asked me, reasonably enough, "What happened?"
"I spent a half-hour digging in the garden for worms, but couldn't find any."
"You could have driven to Mr. Zetterstrum's farm, knocked on his door, asked his permission, and spent a few hours overturning the cowflops in his pasture. I'm sure you would have found one or two worms that way."
"You're right. I guess I didn't want to go fishing that badly."
In 2010, sales of motorcycles equipped with sidecars accounted for only 4% of total motorcycle sales in the US. But that was a significant increase over 2009, which was itself an increase over 2008. While numbers remain low overall, sales of sidecar motorcycles are going up at a decent rate, while sales of most other motorcycles are in the toilet.
Trends in turntable design shift back and forth over time, each "advance" turning out to be a mostly sideways move. Over its long history, VPI's founder and designer, Harry Weisfeld, has moved the analog goalposts back and forth as he's refined his thinking. His early turntables were mostly standard spring-suspension designs of normal size. By the time Weisfeld produced his fully tricked-out TNT model, which was originally designed to stably hold the heavy moving mass of Eminent Technology's ET2 air-bearing arm, he'd moved to a massive, oversized, sandwiched plinth with isolating feet at the corners. He first used springs and, later, air bladders originally designed to cushion a tractor-trailer's load, and which he'd found in a trucker's supply catalog. Via an O-ring, the TNT's outboard motor drove one of three pulleys that protruded from holes in the plinth, and attached to a T-shaped subchassis that, in turn, drove the other two pulleys via two additional O-rings.
Enticing more music lovers to try vinyl requires a foolproof, plug'n'play solution. Asking a member of the digital generation to install a cartridge in a tonearm and then set up the VTA, SRA, VTF, etc. is asking too much. It's easier to make such a request of someone already bitten by the analog bug, but with turntables, wishing someone beginner's luck will not guarantee success.
I tried to name a high-end audio product that's been recommended more often than the Rega Planar 3 turntable. I failed.
The closest I could come was Rega's own RB300 tonearm, surely the best-selling perfectionist tonearm of all time. After that came the Rega Planar 2 turntable, a sample of which I owned and loved in the early 1980s. Next on my list was the original Rega Elys, a moving-magnet cartridge that sounded as chunky and direct as it was cheap and magenta.
I won't debate here how to make a turntable's platter go around. Choose your favorite: belt vs direct drive, idler wheel vs belt, spring-windup vs wind power, whatever. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing to debate. Each of these technologies has its pluses and minuses, but none can produce CD's accuracy of speed and inherent freedom from wow and flutter.
Thirty years have not diminished the beauty and elegance of Oracle's Delphi turntable. In my opinion, it still ranks among the best-looking turntables ever made. I bought an original Mk.I, used, in 1982, and very positively reviewed the Delphi Mk.V in the December 1997 Stereophile.
In its three decades the Delphi has undergone many upgrades both technical and aesthetic. Not surprisingly, so has the price. The Mk.II Delphi sold for $1250 in 1986; the Delphi Mk.VI with Turbo power supply and dedicated power cord now sells for $8500, which, in today's market, I think is reasonable for what you get. The review sample came with an Oracle/SME 345 tonearm ($3100) and a Benz-Micro Thalia high-output MC cartridge ($1700), for a total cost of $13,300or $11,600 for just 'table and arm.
High-end audio exists at the intersection of art and science. Either discipline can produce a good product, but it takes both to create the very best. The Sonic Frontiers gear I auditioned many years ago, for example, was technically sound, nicely built, and sounded goodjust never as sublime as products from, say, Audio Research or VTL. On the other hand, an experienced, insightful designer such as Quicksilver's Michael Sanders can create wonderful products from humble circuits and parts, but be ultimately limited by the underlying technology. But when brilliant design, uncompromised execution, long experience, and artistry all come together, the results can be staggering.
If you asked me to name a single specific high-end audio component that could make or break a system, I'd name the Linn LP12 turntable. Of all the thousands of hi-fi products I've heard over the years, not a one of 'emnot a speaker, amplifier, or digital processorhas been able to draw me into the music, no matter what the associated componentry, like the LP12. I've heard the most highly regarded speakers/amps/processors fall flat in certain situations due to a lack of synergy with their surrounding systems, but I've never heard an LP12-based system that didn't put a smile on my face and make me green with envy.
Although LPs remain, for me, the high-end medium of choice, I'm not terribly interested in today's high-end record players. Most of them, from the 1980s through the present, have been soulless, uninspired, me-too products that utterly fail to communicate the presence, momentum, and punch of recorded music. And in certain waysexpense, complexity, size, cosmeticssome have been, quite simply, ridiculous.
Revolver? More like evolver: 80 years after the first electrically driven record players became available, professional and amateur engineers continue to seek new ways to spin LPs with ever-greater steadiness and precision.
In the January 2010 issue of Stereophile I gushed effusively about the $450 Marantz PM5003 integrated amplifier. Not only was I impressed with the sound, build quality, and features of this very affordable component, but, intrigued by how it might be combined with other gear to build a complete entry-level system for about a thousand bucks, I began to ponder other entry-level components that might nicely complement it. My goal here, of course, is to inspire a new generation of young audiophiles. I felt a turntable would be a good place to start.