Getting Back into Vinyl, Part 2
“Hi, Ariel? This is Steve Cohen at In Living Stereo. I just opened up your turntable box. There are some sweatpants in here. Oh, and the tonearm cable is missing.”
When I dropped off my turntable at In Living Stereo for repair, six months had passed since the late-night tonearm cable-splitting calamity. I had totally forgotten the extent of damage committed to my Rega P1. To my memory, only a pin had to be resoddered to the cable, as I had told Steve when I dropped it off.
“Lemme see what I can do with it,” Steve put me on hold for a week.
“Hi Ariel. It’s Steve again. It seems re-cabling the tonearm would cost more than getting a new one. How about we order and install a Rega RB101? It is the stock tonearm for all new Rega RP1s and is a much better tonearm than the RB100 you currently own.”
“How much would it cost?”
What had started out as a simple $50 cartridge replacement fee, a price offered based on the inaccurate damage report I gave when I first turned in my table for repair, now turned into a $250 ordeal, a big difference for someone who’s excited sell their laptop for parts on eBay for $45. But, as I promised myself before, I would bite this bullet. I needed vinyl back in my life.
“Let’s do it. Replace the tonearm please.”
“No problem. I think you have to buy the new balance weight as well. That’s $30.”
“…go ahead. Yes. Please order it.”
The tonearm took a week to arrive. I scheduled pickup for Sunday, July 29th.
Saturday July 28th, my band Heroes of the Open End traveled from Rutherford, New Jersey to Albany, New York for a gig at the Bayou Cafe. We were stunned by Albany’s steep hills, garish architecture, and creepy sculptures surrounding the historic district. The Bayou Cafe (79 North Pearl Street) was a beautiful and multi-roomed sports bar, featuring wood-grained floor panels, a long and wide room completely devoted to live music, and a mini-pool table on which I kicked my drummer’s ass swiftly. The Bayou Cafe also serves alligator tail and jambalaya.
We played the gig to a nearly empty room, minus the bartenders and a nice fellow who always held a beer in each hand. Recently in Rolling Stone, I found a Jim Beam ad on the last page where they dedicate their whiskey to all the bands who play their hearts out to empty rooms (plus the bartender). Well that’s us Jim! Where’s our whiskey?
Sunday morning, I woke up back in our drummer’s basement. We drove back after the gig. No pay. No whiskey. Nobody. Our bassist was shell-shocked, his first “nobody” gig with us. The rest of us were thrilled. Nothing like the exhilarating feeling of remembering you are on the bottom to gear you up to push that boulder up the mountain.
To sweat a little and earn my upgraded rig, I decided to walk from the Port Authority to In Living Stereo, located in the area of NYC formally known as NOHO. I noticed two missed calls from Steve at In Living Stereo, one voicemail: “Hi Ariel. It’s Steve. Things are a little crazy here, and I was just wondering what time you were stopping by?”
Catching a breather at 28th Street, I gave Steve a call back: “Hey Steve, I’ll be there in about 30 minutes.”
“Great, I’m looking at your ‘table right now. Should be done by the time you get here.”
40 blocks later and I’m at the front door of ILS surrounded by midriffs and vinyl. This is one hip hi-fi shop. The Sunday customer clientele ranged from horn-rimmed audio dorks to record-diving sirens to acid-washed deadheads.
“Wsup Steve!” I burst through the entrance.
Steve Cohen stood around the corner from his entrance, my turntable on a platform. He was measuring tracking force: “I’m almost finished here.” Steve dropped the cartridge onto a miniature scale to measure the tracking force. My boisterous entrance had not disturbed his focus.
“One thing you had mentioned…eh…hm… you wanted us to change the cartridge? Well, the new RB101 actually came with the OM5e ($55) on there. I think it’s worth more than your Audio Technica anyway.” Incorrect! But I wasn’t going to make a fuss about it (the Audio Technica AT95E will retail for $71 by the time our October Recommended Component issue hits newsstands). More importantly, I wanted to stick to the plan with the AT95E. I was attracted to what Michael Fremer described as its ability to retrieve “inner detail”, the 2.0g tracking force muscle implied by its big boxy shape, and the ultra-rad slime-green stylus housing.
“Nah dude, I really think we should put the Audio-Technica on there.”
“OKgive me a bit. Where is that Audio-Technica anyway?”
“Was it not in the box?”
Steve pulled out the box from a corner. I fished through layers of towels and hoodies to pull out a little construction-worker earplug case. Inside the capsule was my clipped tonearm cable dangling off the broken cartridge as well as my Audio Technica AT95E covered by its plastic stylus guard.
Steve smiled at the mini-Tupperware of vinyl bits: “Aaah. So here is the tonearm cable you were talking about.”
I ask him if I could watch him change the cartridge. I didn’t want my six foot two shadow looming behind him to make the man nervous.
“Sure!” Steve happily obliged.
We unscrewed the brand new OM5e, which was nearly set-up on arrival. Steve placed the AT95E under the front of the RB101’s headshell. The RB101 is the sexy lady version of the RB100 featuring sleeker curves and thinner tonearm tube. As Steve slid the screws down into the headshell and into the screw slots on the Audio-Technica, he met frustration as the nut would not pass the green stylus housing onto the bottom of the screw. That’s when Steve started cursing.
“We have to remove the stylus,” Steve suggested strongly.
He scampered to his desktop to pull up the manual for the AT95e on VinylEngine, where he found a diagram indicating how to remove the stylus.
To remove the stylus from the cartridge, some sort of back and forth/upwards and downwards motion was needed. Steve finagled with it for a bit and muttered a couple f-bombs. He passed it to me: “Why don’t you take a shot?”
I carefully squeezed the sides of my AT95E trying to wriggle the stylus from whatever latch was holding it tight. Flashbacks from the morning I killed my cartridge blurred my thoughts; the same sweat beads from the evening I tried to change my cartridge tickled and itched my brow again. My hands started trembling. I couldn’t slide the stylus off. I just couldn’t. “Take this away from me Steve.”
He spent a couple more minutes looking at the manual and back at the cartridge and then wiggled it some more: “Got it!” With the stylus removed, installing the screws into the cartridge was a piece of cake, and we reattached the stylus once the screws were secure. From here, cartridge installation ran smoothly. Nuts at the top of the headshell were kept loose so he could adjust the cartridge’s alignment along the headshell.
To ensure proper cartridge alignment, Steve used the Clearaudio Cartridge Alignment Tool ($275). After setting the tool on the spindle, Steve repeatedly dropped the needle onto the device’s reflective grid to ensure that the edges of the cartridge lined up both parallel and perpendicular to the grid. He asked me if I thought it looked OK. At the time, I had no idea what I was looking at: “Looks good to me!” I approved, not ready to show my lack of knowledge.
I added, “It looks like its falling right in the center.” Yes, there was a little center dot on the Clearaudio alignment tool where the needle should fall, but the focus is to be placed on its alignment between the lines, not if the needle falls in the circle. Steve could read my bluff.
Disappointed in my knowledge, Steve locked me in his main listening room and forced me to listen to Line Magnetic’s Replica Western Electric Theater Speaker System while he attended to some other customers. Based on a 1930s movie theater system, the system made Jimmy Smith’s organ dripping wet with liquid harmonics, and with Jimmy’s every in-your-face grunt, I felt the stubble of his mustache and smelled warm whiskey on his breath. Steve walked in and directed his attention to the system: “She’s got potential.” He paused. I nodded. He concluded, “Let’s get back to work.”
Using a set of needle-nose pliers, Steve then attached the color-coded tonearm cables using the diagram in the AT95E manual as our guide. The diagram confused Steve and me. It indicated which pin matched to which color, but the cartridge image was upside down, so one had to mentally flip the cartridge right-side-up to match how he or she is connecting the pins as on the turntable. At one point, we both had our heads turned sideways looking at the computer monitor.
Once the pins were attached, Steve measured the tracking force to 2.0g for the cartridge perfectly. The AT95E says it can handle up to 2.5heavy duty! I’ll be testing that out later. We brought the P1 to a listening room where I picked out The Band’s The Band. Once the record started playing, I knew something was off. The image was diffuse, vocals sounded panned and distant, and cymbals were smeared. I knew this sound, this hollow absence of focus. I had experienced it on Day 1 at the New York Audio Show 2012 in the Audio Note room. The sound was out of phase. In addition, there was a lot of extraneous noise!
Steve was the first to say it out loud, and he was on his knees again switching around the pins on the cartridge. We re-analyzed the diagram, making sure we had followed the instructions correctly. We had. What was going on here?
So one by one, Steve attached each pin, first confirming the output pin for the right channel, followed by the left, followed by the ground. Once we identified the correct sequence, The Band’s multiple layers of organ and keyboard bounced playfully across the soundstage while Richard Manuel’s introduction vocals on “Across the Great Divide” were clearly centered.
I had invaded In Living Stereo. My clothes were all over the floor, turntable set-up took place in the lobby, my backpack against the chair in the Western Electric’s listening room, and then bunkering down and testing the Rega in the smaller listening room. ILS had become my home that Sunday. I think Steve and I left as friends. It was pretty cool.
He suggested that I not take the subway home and instead take a taxi so I could keep my turntable as stable as possible. Another $30 down the tube. He also suggested that I did not put my Rega back in the box with all that clothes, ever again. So I carried the P1 out to the corner under my right palm like a pizza and hailed a cab. How New York!
Thanks to Steve Cohen at In Living Stereo for taking the time to help me out with this set-up.
In Part 3: We get the turntable up and running, and I work on speaker placement in my bedroom!
Keep Reading: Part 3