Listening #100 Page 3

My favorite of the four? The best I can do is to narrow it down to the oldest and newest SPUs in the box (though I did keep returning to the SPU 85 for its warm, richly textured tone): The SPU Classic was consistently the biggest and most forceful sounding, while the SPU 90th Anniversary was surely the all-arounder of the collection. Were I lucky enough to own such a set, I imagine I'd choose according to which record I wished to play—or simply my mood at any given time or day. These Ortofons provide four different views of a very large and complex truth; as with amplifiers—and perhaps other types of audio components as well—the thoughtful listener would do well to hear, enjoy, and perhaps even own as many different samples as he or she can.

Of the Moon
I buy new LPs from a number of different specialty retailers—ElusiveDisc.com and MusicDirect.com are my two favorites—and used LPs from a variety of sources, ranging from Academy Records on West 18th Street, in New York City, to the always-providential Salvation Army thrift store on Main Street in Oneonta, New York. (I probably shouldn't have said that.)

But then I heard that Amazon.com sells vinyl. Not only that: They've devoted an entire little corner of their website to the stuff. What could be cooler?

As it turns out, a whole trainload of things could be cooler. Setting aside humanity's enduring need for peace, justice, clean water, and an end to the media's effort to brainwash everyone into thinking that Sarah Jessica Parker is attractive, record lovers could do with a consistently friendly, well-informed, fairly priced dealer that understands the basic premise that a damaged record is an unplayable record, and an unplayable record is a worthless record. And that is so not Amazon.com.

But back in October, when I still had Amazon-has-noticed-our-hobby! stars in my eyes, I didn't know any better. There was an LP I wanted (the reissue of McCoy Tyner's The Real McCoy), so I decided to give Amazon the business. They gave it right back.

Things went smoothly at first. I placed the order on October 26, they shipped it on October 27, and I received it on October 29. Not bad! But when our local Postmaster handed me the carton, I knew in an instant there was something wrong: The carton was oblong, and was larger than 12" in only one dimension.

The McCoy Tyner album—what was left of it—was folded, Houdini-like, into a box too small for it. It was bent and clearly unusable—clear, at least, to anyone who knows what an LP is. But, this being 2011 and all, I guess I can't really blame the person who shipped my album: He probably glanced at the shrink-wrapped cover, assumed it was one of those rare calendars that isn't decorated with scenes from Garfield, Twilight, or the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, and rammed it into a rectangular box with his fist. Happens all the time.

I assumed there would be a handy Returns form in the carton: a sheet on which I could check a box or two, scribble a complaint, peel off a new mailing label, then hand the box back to the Postmaster. But no: There was just a slip of paper saying I had to do the click-and-wait thing online and fill out a complaint form there. Then I would have to wait for a return form to download, which I would also have to fill out, by which time I would be mildly pissed off. And I was. But I contained my rage, and when prompted for the reason for my return I wrote, in the space provided for Return Details:

This is a vinyl LP, and whoever packed it did so by mashing it into a box that was too small for it. The jacket is now bent, and the disc inside is obviously warped. Please send a replacement.

Later that evening I received a polite response, apologizing for the damage and saying that an order for a replacement LP was already flowing through the Amazon bloodstream: All I had to do was make sure to return the bent, useless LP within 30 days, or I'd have to pay for two records.

I'll skip ahead, since you probably already know which rock this ship is headed for: On November 2 I received a replacement copy. And while it was shipped in a carton that was slightly larger than the first, this LP, too, was bent and obviously unplayable. As it turned out, John Atkinson happened to drop by the next day, and when I told him the story and showed him the second LP, he sorrily shook his head. He's very good at that.

So once again I downloaded, waited, filled out, waited, downloaded, and filled out. By the time I'd printed the new return form I was in a slightly worse mood than I'd been for the old return form, so the comments I added were a little less sweet:

Please do not—I repeat, DO NOT!!—send me another bent, damaged LP. If your shipping dept. isn't capable of mailing an LP, please just issue a refund!!

I received another reply with another mild apology, but this time they requested a fuller explanation: They wanted me to describe the damage in detail, and they seemed especially interested in whether or not I'd actually listened to either of the records I'd received. Maybe they suspected this whole thing was my fault all along, or that I was just being picky. So even though I'd already killed an hour or more trying to make a simple purchase from Amazon.com, I spent another 15 minutes writing this:

The damage to the replacement LP (and the one from the original order) was that the cover was severely bent and creased on one edge, indicating that the record inside was probably not flat. I did not try to play the record (or the one from the previous order). The original LP was bent on its upper edge; the replacement was bent on one of its side edges. The packaging on the original didn't look damaged, but it was flimsily taped, and it was obvious before opening it that the record had to have been damaged. (LPs measure 12 inches x 12 inches; the box was considerably smaller in width and depth.) The second box was barely big enough to contain an LP; it appeared as though the replacement record was itself a returned item—one that had probably been damaged in the same manner—that had been rejected.

After a while I received another return form, which I duly filled out and placed inside the box with LP No.2. Later that week I drove it back to the Post Office. And I made a mental calculation: Even if my time were worth a mere $20 an hour, this $15 LP had already cost more than 50 bucks—and I hadn't heard so much as a single note. I was beginning to regret having taken my business to Amazon.com.

That regret was about to deepen: On November 18 I received a response from Amazon.com that said, in part:

We'll investigate further and make sure this doesn't happen to anyone else. In the meantime, the item may temporarily be unavailable to purchase from Amazon.com, though it may be available from other Marketplace sellers on the Amazon.com website.

I felt like a hunter who'd wasted an entire day tramping through the woods without finding any game and then, on the way back to his car, blundered onto a frozen pond, fell through the ice, and was bit by a hibernating weasel. I was most irate (footnote 2). So I replied:

"The item MAY temporarily be unavailable"?! You don't even KNOW?! What the hell does that mean? Am I getting a refund? Or do I have to waste more of my time in an effort to correct YOUR errors? Weeks ago I ordered, and paid for, an LP record, presumably in usable shape. I still don't have it, and in the meantime I've had to fill out a bunch of forms and return two parcels. And now my item "MAY be unavailable"?! What's wrong with you people, anyway?

In the days that followed my last message to Amazon.com, while I waited for a response—which never came, although a refund was eventually credited to my AmEx account—it occurred to me: All along, I had wished for an LP retailer that was consistently friendly, well informed, fairly priced, and knowledgeable. Sufficiently knowledgeable, at least, to pack and ship records in such a way that they stand a chance of being playable on arrival. And all along, that description fit my favorite LP specialists, ElusiveDisc.com and MusicDirect.com (and maybe a bunch of others). Amazon.com was right after all: The whole sorry mess was my fault. From now on, I decided, I would bring my business only to people who have earned it.



Footnote 2 During this same week, the major American news organizations dropped their 24/7 coverage of Sarah Palin's tweets long enough to break the news that Amazon.com had entered the child-pornography market with The Pedophile's Guide to Love and Pleasure, a book by one Philip R. Greaves. Initially, Amazon defended their sale of the book (the electronic version made it to their top 100) as an act of free speech; by November 20, they had apparently changed their corporate mind and, uh, yanked it.
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smittyman's picture

A couple of weeks ago I went on a Willy/Mink DeVille splurge and ordered two LP's and a CD through a couple of the Amazon Marketplace dealers. All arrived in great time and great shape - one LP and the CD were bought used but were in excellent condition. Everything was well packed and I have no complaints. I think most of the marketplace dealers are record stores that are expanding outside of their local market; you might have better luck with them.

deckeda's picture

... that it may have more to do with the fulfilling vendor than with Amazon proper.

Nevertheless, to a buyer, it's "Amazon" that's the seller, not the vendor who fulfilled (i.e., actually sold) it.

Assuming of course it wasn't fulfilled by Amazon, and AD didn't say.

Either way, what's really odd about AD's experience is that from what I've read, Amazon is reputed to lean towards the customer's side to the extent that vendors sometimes get screwed over by Amazon in forcing unwarranted returns upon them.

All in all, it's a process more complicated than it needs to be as soon as something doesn't go according to Amazon's efficient plan.

WillWeber's picture

Ouch, I hate it when that happens.

Personally, I have had pretty good luck with Amazon LP orders over a relatively long history. If ordered direct from "supplied by Amazon" the LP generally ships double boxed with air pillows between.

Things can be more humorous if from a third party supplier through Amazon. These usually are packed in a box designed for LPs, and sometimes are layered between older LP sleeves, and once in awhile these actually contain those old LPs, a real bonus. These bona fide extras are never playable however, nor are they ever titles I would dare to listen to. It is fun to see what I might get.

I stopped buying used LPs through Amazon, unless an exceptionally rare album. Too often, the stated condition is just wishful thinking. I've had to preach all too often to hapless sellers that "Like New" does not mean that the large and plentiful scratches are OK just because they are relatively new customizations. I have always received a refund in these situations. Yes, inconvenient as hell to return disappointing treasures.

The worst is the USPS, which is the MO for 3rd parties. They have no clue about LPs. Even when shipped in LP rated cartons, several have arrived looking as though they made nice seat cushions for an overweight diver on a mountain dirt road. It is really heartbreaking to receive such arrivals.  And when a rare album  is found inside in priceless sparkling condition, but has just become a double LP, the only thing that will travel in those grooves are tears.

WillW

Glotz's picture

... about the materialism reference.  I really enjoy Art every month, even though he is very different in so many ways... even going back to Listener.

 He infuriates, but educates.  He does get me to re-evaluate my musical and sonic values, every month. 

Cool animation too.  Love that guy.  (Is his forehead really that big? Nawwww..)

John Sunier's picture

Agreed. Always taking a chance with used vinyl - everyone has different definitions of condition. Better stick with new audiophile vinyl at Amazon. Ordering more than one at a time from one source can reduce warpage damage. And on shipping/packing/delivery:  At least twice now - and even tho I have a very large mailbox it is not 13 inches in any dimension - carriers have bent a 12" LP in order to fit it into the mailbox!

robertbadcock's picture

So far; 100% packed so well I feel guilty for the amount of cardboard it takes, sometimes just for one LP.

Middle of the States / Bible belt = culture lag might be severe enough that the LP form is still recognizable.  I mean, the whole Serenity thing finally got here just a few months ago...  go figure the LP remains viable.

On a positive, yet sandpaperesque note; be glad you were refunded.  Aural Exploits (which I heard of here <cough cough> ) did not refund any of my monies for the never arrived order I made with them.

otaku's picture

Ordered new, directly from Amazon.

Took a few weeks, but it came in a nice LP-specific cardboard sleeve.

sommera's picture

I showed my wife your column about Amazon. She empathizes but thinks you might have been just a bit too honest. I thought you might get a kick out of it.

http://thesommertimes.wordpress.com/2011/03/28/ships-in-certified-frustration-free-packaging/

 

 

discjockey2006's picture

Hi Art!

The funny cartoon depicting you with a guitar and a Smash 45 on the floor brings back the eternal question of how to play properly those wicked 45s from Smash, Mercury, Bell, Amy, Mala etc...My best bet so far is the Ortofon MM OM Pro S or D25M with a 1 mil. radius with a 4g VTF (bias optional). Note that those 2 carts OM PRO S an D25M are the exact same product!!!!!!!!!!

Hope you're well in Upstate New York.

Your friend from Paris, France (and occasionally Rocky Hill CT)

John/Jean smiley

DetroitVinylRob's picture

Don't get it when Hifi blogs go on a tie raid about high end audio reviewers... 

I laughed so hard with the very first paragraph of this column that I nearly fell out of my sweet spot, audiophile appropriate chair in our living/listening room.

Maybe it's to prop up against their own insecurities with the very nature of our lovely hobby/pass time, I don't know. 

Speaking of falling, since the lose of Listener and the most excellent rise of Listening I have enjoyed the tangential amblings of yours Art and the great deal of insight and exploration in the analogue realm. You make it a great read and leave me (anyway) with some larger view and a few more of the dots connected than before the last copy of Stereophile wound up in our mail box.

Let's continue to not take ourselves nearly as serious as we take our hobby! And yes Art, you have truly helped.

Happy Listening!

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