Listening #69 Page 2
And, as serious record mavens know, reliably accurate frequency response can't be achieved when playing shellac records through most modern phono preamps: Standardized equalization curves for recording and playing back phonograph records didn't become a commercial reality until the late 1950s, and because every record company adhered to a different set of specs for their 78rpm discs, the fidelity-conscious collector is forced to adjust playback EQ on the fly. To that end, a number of manufacturers offer phono preamps with user-selectable EQ curves beyond just the RIAA standard.
Consequently, Jonathan Halpern also loaned me a Sentec EQ10: a monophonic phono preamp ($3000) with line-level output and nicely marked controls for adjusting bass rolloff, bass-boost turnover frequency, treble-cut turnover frequency, and output attenuation. The last made it especially easy to precede the EQ10 with a step-up transformer, for ideal electrical loading without excessive gain at the line stage. A detailed review of the Sentec is beyond the scope of this month's column, and may or may not interest a sufficient number of Stereophile readers to justify a Follow-Up at a later date. But the tube-driven EQ10 did nothing to detract from the EMT pickups' superb sense of flow and momentum, and added no detectable hum or noise to the music: a joy to use.
With the hardware ready to go, I turned my attention to the modest collection of 78s in my basement. They were disgusting: damp, smelly, and overgrown with more moss than an old jar of olives.
Now, more than ever, I was glad to have a Keith Monks record-cleaning machine on hand. I looked around for the squirt bottle I use for mixing the cleaning-fluid concentrate with distilled Holy Christ there's something's floating in the cleaning fluid!! I've lived next to a farm for a relatively short time, so I'm still jumpy whenever I stumble on something that's dead and not where it should be. I then realized that it was just more mold. Time for a fresh batch of fluid.
The cleaner did the trickvisually, at leastand I began working my way through the few dozen 78s I've accumulated. Collectibles? I doubt it. Shellac records by pop bandleaders such as Harry James, Stan Kenton, and Guy Lombardo are in no greater demand than LPs by Herb Alpert or Bent Fabric, and in one especially thick album of discs I found a distressing number of frothy singles by Leroy Anderson. Plus ça change. But I do own an Elvis single (too bad it's on RCA instead of Sun), as well as a couple of complete symphonies, including a really passionate Tchaikovsky Symphony 6, the Pathétique, recorded by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at the end of 1936.
The first number I tried came from an album of pop singles: the Irving Fields Trio performing W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues." The opening bars startled me, if only because I wasn't expecting anything quite so subtle or percussive: a hushed two-measure figure played by the upright bass and doubled by the pianist's left hand, with gentle tapping on a side drum without snares (or maybe a small tom-tom). Then Fields came in with his right hand, and the group kicked into gearby which time the bass sounded electric, in every sense of the word. The piano never became harsh, even in the loudest chords, and cymbal crashes were shockingly clean: They didn't have the natural decay of the real thing, but neither did they have that whipcrack distortion one hears on very old acoustic 78s.
I heard a backcurrent of shellac hash when I lowered the needle to the lead-in groove, of course, yet while it remained audible for the whole of the record, the musicremember that stuff?was sufficiently clean and loud and convincing that I could ignore the noise entirely. The experience was, in fact, a perfect example how an analog record with even a moderate amount of distortion can be more listenable than the best digital format: In the former, most of the distortion is separate from the music signal; in the latter, all of the distortion is woven into the music itself.
I moved on to the Tchaikovsky, and was charmed and surprised all over again. The original recordingwhich would have been direct to disc, of coursemust have been extremely well engineered: Instrumental timbres were more real, much less colored, than on a good many microgroove records from the 1950s. (I'm thinking Toscanini's Studio 8H recordings for RCA in particular, with their oddly pinched mids.) More important, the sound was extremely dramatic, with clean peaks and a superior sense of scale. Instruments seemed tangible and real, and while there wasn't the same degree of sonic presence as in the best modern recordings, there was an extraordinary kind of musical presenceof musical lines that were all but impossible to ignore. On the downside, the audible frequency range was less than wide on most discs, with the top-end rolloff more noticeable than that of the bass. (Actually, the most notable exceptions were those darned Leroy Anderson discs, chief among them the insufferably precious "Fiddle Faddle" b/w "The Trumpeter's Lullaby." Figures.)
I can't begin to guess how the EMT OFD 65 stacks up against other 78-specific cartridges. But I can tell you how EMT's ostensibly similar OFD 25 stacks up against other mono microgroove cartridges: It's by far the most vividly colorful and exciting mono cartridge I've ever heard. Switching to my OFD 25 after a few sides with any other cartridge or pickup head is always like inviting the Wild Man of Borneo to an Amish funeral: unsubtle, unforgettable, and the sort of experience that only a few will wish to repeat. The OFD 25 sounds big and, for lack of a better word, juicy, and it has superb impact and unbeatable flow and momentum. The bottom octave may be tipped up a little, but what the hell: Life is brief.
A good exercise
I can't begin to guess whether I'll ever want to own an OFD 65. Right now I have fewer than fifty 78sand with a program time of less than five minutes per side for even the largest (12") of them, that's not a whole lot of music.
That could change. People offer cheap or even free 78s all the time (along with copies of Vaughn Meader's The First Family, Herb Alpert's Whipped Cream and Other Delights, and Frampton Comes Alive!). If I luck into a collection of sides by Dock Boggs, the Skillet Lickers, or the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, I'll almost certainly buy an OFD 65 the same day. I could pay for it by selling every Mercury Living Presence Stereo LP in my collection: a poetic way to avoid growing sick of an old passion. But the prospect of a free classical collection on 78s would be less tempting. Getting up and walking over to the record player a dozen times during Beethoven's Symphony 9 is not my idea of funalthough, as Janet has pointed out, it's good exercise. Which ties in to the whole energy-crisis thing.
Back in my college days, when I worked part-time at a little hi-fi shop in upstate New York, I remember telling people: There's no such thing as a "classical speaker" or a "jazz speaker"or, least of all, a "rock speaker." Any kind of record you want to hear should be served well by any good system. Playing records is all about fidelity to the signal in the groove: nothing more and nothing less.
What a load of shit!
She stood in the doorway with a smile on her faceI'd heard her saying Ah and Wow from the next room for the past few minutesand asked, "Who's that we're listening to now?"
"Bing Crosby," I said, "with the Lennie Heyton Orchestra. 'I've got the World on a String.' This was recorded in 1931."
I paused in amazement at what I'd just said: We were listening to a record made the same year James Whale directed Frankenstein. Edison was still alive. Mahler had been dead for only 20 years, Brahms for only 34.
Janet watched the record spin wildly, mildly awestruck. She nodded its waya gesture that took in all the other 78s piled nearbyand asked, "How long have you had those?"