Gramophone Dreams #85: Let the Right Brain In; the Hagerman Audio Labs Piccolo Zero head amp

In the months since I told my Lenco story in Gramophone Dreams #79, two of my friends have bought L75s, and now they're enjoying them more than their shiny movie-star decks. One told me he has put more than $2000 into a Lenco L75 he bought online for $350. When I asked how his hot-rodded Lenco compared to his fancy belt drive, he replied, "You can feel it. The Lenco's motor pulls like a team of Clydesdales. It makes my belt drive feel like a pony pulling a child's cart."

When I asked him what he thought his rebuilt Clydesdale deck, with its new bearing, Jelco tonearm, and Grado Prestige Gold cartridge, was doing that his well-regarded belt drive was not, he replied, in a low, serious voice, "I think it gets more of the first part of a note."

My response to that familiar-sounding observation was a long phone silence, during which I tried to imagine all the ways the first part of a note could disappear.

When low-level background sounds disappear—traffic noise outside the building, a subway passing below the concert hall, or a droning air conditioning fan—where do they go?

Likewise, when a record player plays flat instead of frisky and can't carry the tune, where does the tune go? Did the front part of the note take it?

After my friend said that, I became desperate to know what electrical, mechanical, or electromechanical phenomena could cause the front part of notes to be conspicuously present on one record player and absent on another. This is what I call "subtractive distortion." (footnote 1)

I began to speculate. Maybe each type of platter-rotating mechanism is producing its own signature form of speed correction, which I imagine as "stall-and-recovery" cycles of varying durations. Maybe these changes in velocity defocus transients, altering the texture of the sound. I picture these speed corrections as blending with and being masked by the texture of the player's sound—as something that could dull those edges that define the front parts of notes.

And then I remembered the analog equivalent of Godzilla: stylus drag (footnote 2).

Maybe how—by what method—a turntable adjusts and maintains its speed against the varying drag of the stylus is what fortifies or diminishes the clarity, weight, and urgency of tempos. I've long presumed that any interruptions in platter speed will affect sharpness of focus, but only recently have I recognized how seat-of-the-pants beat-keeping must be affected by speed corrections and stylus drag. Perhaps how easily the platter slows down and how long it takes to recover make each motor-drive strategy—belt, idler-wheel, direct—feel different.

These differences in drive-system feel are subtle. I wouldn't notice them if I weren't looking for them. But today I have no choice but to look. Fifty years ago, Linn Products founder Ivor Tiefenbrun taught me that toe-tapping and "carrying the tune" should be my chief priority when creating a home audio system. And I believed him.

Remembering that inspired me to wonder if heavy, idler-driven platters correct more slowly, hence less noticeably, than direct or belt drives. Maybe it's the rate of change of platter momentum that listeners like Ivor and me are noticing. As I tried to picture these phenomena, I remembered the belt-drive Palmer Audio 2.5 turntable I reviewed in 2017 (above), how its heavy platter sat on a Mars lander–quality bearing spun by a walnut-sized motor that needed help from my hand to get the platter turning—by design of course. But once the Palmer's platter was settled in at 33.33, I could feel its mass-fueled inertia as part of my music-listening experience.

I remember asking myself, as I listened to the Palmer: Does its steady sense of forward momentum coincide with a perception of less blur and sharper focus? I thought it should, and I think it did. What I remember most about the Palmer was the deep-river beauty of its steadiness and how it could wrangle a whole orchestra forward without hardness, blur, or congestion.

My other Lenco friend, a serious jazz record collector, kept his Lenco stock but installed a Denon DL-103, as I did. The first thing he told me when I asked how he liked his L75 was, "The Lenco showed me why so many audiophiles collect jazz records. Jazz sounds more like jazz coming off a record player like this."

What he meant, he told me, was "Jazz via streaming loses its bite and urgency. Without those raw, hard traits, it becomes background music." I reminded him that jazz and blues collectors have always been partial to idler-drive 'tables.

When will my left brain let my right brain speak?

I keep talking about how the various platter-turning strategies compare experientially because I know that rhythm and momentum are what draw me into a piece of music and keep my right brain focused on the music's unfolding. Playing records on the Lenco has shown me that PRaT is an impossible-to-describe, nonquantifiable, right-brain perception. Like beauty. Or pleasure.

I'm an artist, which makes me a social outsider by choice. Being an artist means I've devoted my life to willfully disregarding instructions from my brain's left hemisphere because my right hemisphere tells me those instructions represent values I've rejected.

Now that I'm old, I can see that ignoring left-brain scolding has served me well. It has permitted me to fashion a wide array of objets d'art that I am proud of as the majority of society rejects them out of hand.

Being an artist also means I've developed a skin that's thick to the criticisms of cynical left-brainers who think the value of objects resides in something quantifiable, like "the cost of materials times six."

Every time I hear that phrase I'm reminded of the day in 2012 when an orange Mark Rothko painting sold at auction for $86.9 million (footnote 3), throwing the cynical, left-brained proletariat into a frenzy, mocking an artist who in their eyes had produced nothing of "real" value. When they finished mocking the artist, this angry mob of reason-defending citizens turned on the rich person who bought it, mocking him for stupidity and gullibility. In their eyes, this rich art collector had been led by snake-oil hucksters to believe that this conspicuously "vacant" painting had genuine value. Sound familiar?

If they could have seen the bigger picture, those cynical mobs would have realized that an impoverished art worker, using mostly their right brain, had somehow transformed $20 worth of base materials into a museum-sized pile of gold, and that long ago, the artist who painted it sold it to its first collector for less than $10k. They would have realized that each subsequent collector paid a higher price, all the way up to $86 million. Everyone in this chain of fools made a substantial profit on their investment, including the artist. The complainers failed to realize that, artistic merit aside, that vacant orange canvas (made with paint, wood, and sticks) had become a prime vessel for storing generational wealth.

It took me decades to realize that both my brain spheres operate like trains without brakes, and that working alone, neither is an effective tool for my survival or success.

My right brain can feel the difference between a Lenco and a Linn. My right brain can tell copper audio wires from silver. My left brain claims I imagine those things. That's why mid- and bottom-level audio is created to appeal to the audiophile's left brain: Its designers, manufacturers, ad people, and most of its customers are comfortable only in that realm. The left brain can decide rationally and quickly, but the right brain is prone to indecisiveness.

I am worried that many of today's audiophiles are becoming comfortable choosing audio components using only their left brains. I never endorsed this practice, and I'm always campaigning against it, but I understand why they, especially the less-experienced ones, do it. Who can say what makes one turntable more compelling than another, which DAC is most accurate, or which wires will perk your system up? Nobody I know knows these things.


Footnote 1: The earliest mention of this concept in Stereophile that I'm aware of was by Peter W. Mitchell in 1990, in an As We See It article comparing CD and LP sound. Mitchell wrote, "Analog tape had its drawbacks, but they were basically distortions of the subtractive kind: fine detail blurred by scrape flutter, high-level transient peaks softened and compressed, timbres rounded by low-order harmonic distortion, hall ambience at once buried and magnified by random-phase low-level hiss. The distortions of the LP, however, were mostly additive: wow, rumble, surface noise, ticks, grating breakup in transients, harsh congestion in climaxes." Also see Art Dudley's discussion of the issue in Listening #146.—Jim Austin

Footnote 2: See youtu.be/BEAG7-TmeCg. Note that this model of turntable is unusual in combining a high-torque motor with belt drive. The model shown appears to be using linen thread in place of a rubber drive belt, as is common with

JC Verdier La Platine 'tables. A low-torque motor would of course be expected to be even more affected by stylus drag.

Footnote 3: See bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-18001432.

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COMMENTS
adeep42's picture

Hi Herb,

Big fan of yours. After I read about the new Piccolo Zero a few months ago, I ordered it immediately. Have been interested in transimpedience tech since Southerland first offered their phono pre. Also really wanted to try the MM input on my VPI integrated. Can't say how happy I am. My Lyra Kleos never sounded better. A true hifi bargain. Hats of to Jim Hagerman. Absolutely brilliant!!!!!

zipzimzap's picture

Right brain audio discussions tend to be more enjoyable and right brain audio people generally seem to be more interesting to be around.
I may not always agree with them on everything but, in general, they are a nicer group to spend time with.

Yeti 42's picture

I bought one a couple of months ago but unfortunately just plugging its SMPS in with my amps seems to degrade my system eg muffling the high notes of some Chopin I have on at the moment. I haven’t even connected the signal leads to it yet, they’re still on the SUT. Said SUT is on loan though and will likely cost considerably more than the Piccolo head amp so I really should get round to making up a cable to try my spare (Naim) Hicap with it before giving up.

PaulMG's picture

What about speed stability (wow & flutter) when the cutting lathe is creating the grooves. Are wow & flutter zero? If not then every vinyl record being pressed has conserved this inherent wow & flutter pattern from the cutting process. By the way: there is no stylus drag when you let the vinyl record replayed by the laser turntable from ELP Corp., Japan.

supamark's picture

for one thing they're direct drive, not belt. Second, have you actually seen one? They're like scientific instruments. Neumann, they don't just make mic's!

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disc_cutting_lathe#/media/File:Neumann_VMS-70_Cutting_Lathe,_SAE_Mastering,_Phoenix,_AZ.jpg

Glotz's picture

And when I need to check my system's right brain performance, I always put on something that deals in pure euphoria. If it deals out the opiate-like bliss- the whole brain is happy, largely because I spent substantial time getting my left brain side mostly satisfied first.

I still believe correct set up dictates yin-yang balance. The left side always makes sure that the right side gets the right components- Warmish, sustain-driven selections like Hana ML and PS Audio Stellar Phono. The cabling better be left-brain certified to the core. More of whatever is upstream is my way to go vs. re-tailoring mistakes with cabling. Cables can flavor but it's not advisable for ones' long-term mental health. (What is right?!)

And I have dug deep this month into comparing a ton of recordings I have on LP, CD and digital files to get to the heart of the nature of 'neutral' and what my various sources lack or possess in the music/audiophile lexicon. It continues to entertain and educate.

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