July 13, 2006

In This eNewsletter:
• From the Editor's Desk, 21st Century Vinyl, by John Atkinson
• Expert Schmexpert, by Wes Phillips
• This Month's Audio URL, from Wes Phillips

by John Atkinson

A highlight of recent Home Entertainment Shows has been the Sunday afternoon "Analog Clinic" presented by Stereophile senior editor Michael Fremer. Michael, who writes about vinyl playback every month in his "Analog Corner" column, spends an hour showing Show attendees how to set up a turntable and how to optimize the tonearm geometry. To judge by the attendance at Home Entertainment 2006, held last month in Los Angeles, this is a popular subject these days.

It seemed a no-brainer, then, for Michael to produce a DVD covering the subject in even greater depth. 21st Century Vinyl is the result: On this almost three-hour, double-layer DVD, Michael Fremer sets up three popular turntables. Using close-ups, illustrations, animation, and straight talk, Fremer takes you from leveling the platter to spinning a record. Mikey "guarantees" that after watching the disc, even a totally inexperienced audiophile will be able to set up a turntable (though he recommends first attempting it with an "inexpensive" cartridge).

There's a chapter on selecting tools and even one that suggests the proper set-up mood. You will never confuse this often entertaining, sometimes funny, and always informative DVD with one of those cadaverous home theater set-up discs. Bonus features include: a "tour" of Sterling Sound mastering engineer George Marino's cutting lathe and a 20-page PDF containing more set-up tips and easy-to-understand explanations of fun stuff like tonearm mass vs cartridge compliance.

In his review for Home Theater magazine's website, Mark Fleischmann praised Mikey's DVD, concluding that 21st Century Vinyl is "a helpful bridge between the first flush of analog enthusiasm and a long-term survival strategy."

The information in 21st Century Vinyl will be found useful by veteran audiophiles and tyros alike. The DVD is available from the Stereophile website's secure "Recordings" page for $29.99 plus S&H.

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Expert, Schmexpert, by Wes Phillips

The function of the expert is not to be more right than other people, but to be wrong for more sophisticated reasons.—Dr. David Butler

Are you someone's expert? I am—and not because I write audio reviews for Stereophile. It's because I "know about that stuff," whatever that stuff might be. You're probably someone who knows about that stuff, too. There are a lot of us around.

Here's my real question: When people ask you your "expert" opinion, do they actually take your advice?

Mine neither.

I remember the first time someone asked my advice on a hi-fi question. I was working at a record store and had painstakingly constructed a nice starter audiophile system: a fairly good turntable, a slightly long-in-the-tooth tube preamp, a classic tube amp, and a pair of compact, British, stand-mounted monitors. You, as a fellow expert, would recognize it as a lovingly matched system that pitted my champagne tastes against the ineluctable realities of a record clerk's salary.

To my friends, it was "that stuff." Which is why I got a phone call from one of my wife's friends, who asked if I could tell her friend which speakers to buy. I was impressed with myself. She'd called me because I knew this stuff! I spoke to her friend, asked what size room she wanted to put them in, how many watts her amp delivered (she didn't know), what kind of music she listened to—

This was where I started losing her. She'd wanted an answer, and she was getting the third degree. Anyway, I finally allowed as how, given her budget, musical tastes, room size, and placement constraints, a pair of Wharfedale Diamonds was precisely what she needed. Did I say "needed"? Nay, they were the speakers she was fated to own—she was going to fall in love with them, and then she'd need an amplifier and a source, and she'd become my novitiate in the sacred order of the audiophile...

None of that happened. I contained myself for as long as I could, and eventually called her to inquire how she and her new Diamonds were getting along. "Oh, I didn't buy them," she said. "I bought something the salesman told me was better."

"You went to the store I told you to go to and they said they had a better pair of speakers than the Wharfedales—at the same price?"

"No, that store was too far downtown. I went to Circuit City."

My audiophile mind tricks had not worked on her. I was outsold by the Circuit City guy.

In many ways, it was I who sabotaged that deal. My wife's friend's friend wanted a simple answer and I'd given her a complicated one. If she'd wanted to get queried about her listening habits and ponder the minutiae of hi-fi ownership, she could have gone to a real hi-fi store—like the one I'd suggested she go to. That's not what she wanted. She wanted to buy an appliance, something that worked and that she didn't have to think too much about.

We audiophiles tend to forget that most people don't divide hi-fi into bad, good, really good, and wouldn't-that-be-nice. To the nonenthusiast, hi-fi is like, well, a DVD player. Have you shopped for a DVD player lately? Okay, maybe I'm asking the wrong crowd—the chances are pretty good you have shopped for a DVD player recently. I'll rephrase the question: If you were going to buy your mom a DVD player, what would you do?

Most folks would go to CostCo, Target, or Wal-Mart and see what was on sale. My friend Jeff Wong—who rates pretty high on the audio-geek scale, maybe even higher than I—recently did just that. Jeff and his brothers came home with a $39 DVD player that had features I paid a lot of extra money for just a few years ago. It worked like a charm out of the box. And if it stops working? Hey, it was a $39 DVD player.

That's what our friends expect everything to be like these days: It should work better and cost less than the old stuff. If we enthusiasts make hi-fi more complicated than it needs to be, or if we immediately start mouthing off about some of the arcana we fixate on among ourselves, we'll be fogging our friends' minds when we should be clarifying them.

Always listen to experts. They'll tell you what can't be done and why. Then do it.—Robert Heinlein

About 12 years ago, I was visiting my hometown, attending to some details concerning my mother's admission into an extended-care facility, and I took the opportunity to spend the evening—well, the late evening and most of the early morning—with the same rowdy crowd with whom I'd whiled away a substantial part of my young adulthood. For a four-day trip, I believe I'd packed about 60 CDs. I played a lot of new music for my old pals.

"You know," Randy said, "music's just not as important to me as it used to be. We watch movies at home or play computer games, or just read magazines. It could also be that the music's not as good as it used to be."

Emboldened by a small amount of Bordeaux, I countered: "That's a lot of hooptydoodle. The real problem is that you're listening to crap gear. You bought this stuff at the PX when you were on R&R in Japan—and those speakers were so bad, JVC never even tried to sell them in this country."

Okay, maybe it was more than a small amount of plonk. But in vino veritas, and we were all old enough chums to really let it all hang out. My friends Frank and Robin were there that night, and, a week later, announced their intention to build their own house. Because Frank was one of my oldest and dearest friends—he'd helped me move more times than I can remember, and I could always crash on his sofa when I had nowhere else to go—my wife and I decided to give them a special housewarming present: a new hi-fi. It wasn't elaborate; just a simple NAD system with a pair of compact, British, stand-mounted monitors (with stands). I considered telling them how good the stuff was, but I'd been an expert too many times to go there. I just set up the system and shut up.

Frank called two weeks later. "Remember that time you told us we never listened to music any more because we were listening on crap? Well, I thought you'd surpassed yourself for being full of yourself that evening."

Well, yeah, it is sort of embarrassing to recall that outburst.

"But the thing is, you were right! Since you gave us that hi-fi, we don't watch TV anymore. I listen to music all day at work, but I find myself thinking, Wow, I can't wait to hear that at home, and when I come home and listen to it again, it is better.

"I don't hear a lot of that stuff you go on—and on and on and on—about, but this is different. It's like the music has more flavor or brighter colors. Even though it's easier to hear stuff, we listen harder."

Yes! My best friend gets it.

No expert was ever paid a higher fee for his testimony.

There's a lesson to be learned there. As an audiophile, I knew that the point of the hobby was to hear better and listen harder, but I'd never actually thought to tell anybody—not even my best friend. Anyone can recommend a pair of loudspeakers—but we experts need to remember what it's really all about. Then, maybe people will actually take our advice.

Wife, looking over shoulder: "Hah!"

Visit Tower Records or www.tower.com/monkcoltrane from July 13 - August 7th and enter to win a tour of the vaults in Berkeley, California and touch the tapes of The Complete 1957 Riverside Recordings. (U.S residents only). (Note: sweepstakes details are available at Tower Records effective 7/13).
From Wes Phillips

Careful! You don't want to end up being this guy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bRR67RawozQ&search=VINYL

For more of Wes' amazing links, go to his blog at http://blog.stereophile.com/wesphillips

Simaudio Ltd.
Simaudio Ltd., celebrating 25 years of excellence, manufactures state-of-the-art components for both 2-channel and home-theater systems. Maintaining a world-class reputation, we continually push the performance envelope to the next level with each new product. Visit us at www.simaudio.com.
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