Listening #100

Audio journalism is an unwitting form of pornography, albeit one that debases the soul with materialism instead of carnalism. It encourages—inadvertently, of course—the objectification of its subject matter, and can lead to Chronic Disappointment Syndrome, as well as a lifelong difficulty in forging healthy relationships with technology.

Those used to be just fun things to say. But now I worry they might be true, if only because thinking, reading, and writing about domestic audio have, of late, brought with them the chalky aftertaste of guilt.

Specifically, when I consider the sound of a Marantz 9 amplifier or an EMT 930 turntable or an Altec 755-A driver or other such unobtainable vintage gear, I can't help feeling unfaithful. After all, the very idea that such long-gone things should resonate for me is taken by some as a rejection of contemporary audio, and of the ground the newest products have gained: neutrality, wide frequency range, spatial sensationalism, fuzzlessness, gritlessness, and scrapelessness.

Ah, but in the little-boy world of high-end audio—embraced if not birthed by baby boomers who would have us believe we can love Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams, the Beatles or the Stones, Toscanini or Furtwängler, tubes or transistors, but never both—we're not allowed to embrace more than one approach to musical bliss. And if you've been thinking otherwise . . . well, you've been very, very naughty.

But nice
Some vintage products are superior to their newer counterparts in ways that remain important to me, ways that are legitimate preferences that you may well share. The best geezer gear persists in sounding more colorful and textured than most modern products (even though makers of the latter appear to be catching on), and old idler-wheel turntables in particular are noted for playing back music with considerably more momentum and drive than virtually any other source technology.

Yet there's at least one quality in which vintage products remain not only superior but virtually unique, and that's their physicality: a meaty, human touch that endures, like the inexplicably undrained battery, in its ability to grab one below the waist. The best antiques (there: I said it) stand in contrast to their intellectually cool, wispy, wraith-like modern counterparts by being downright sexy (there: I said that, too)—in sound as in appearance as in gestalt.

As evidence, I point to an almost uniquely new/old product: the Ortofon SPU Collector's Box, which contains four of the most historically important versions of the world's longest-lived model of phono cartridge. (See "Listening" in Stereophile's January 2011 issue.) The SPU Collector's Box went on sale last year for the not-inconsiderable sum of $13,999, with production limited to just 100 sets.

Introduced in 1959, the Ortofon SPU was among the first two-channel phono cartridges offered for professional or domestic use (its target was primarily the former). In common with some of the monophonic moving-coil cartridges that preceded it in Ortofon's line, the SPU combined low output and low internal resistance with a low mechanical compliance that was well suited to the cartridge's highish mass—and to the chunky tonearms of the day. Yet the comparatively low mass of its spherical stylus tip helped distinguish the SPU from its competition, enabling treble response all the way to 20kHz: a pretty big deal at the time.

Still, when contemporary audiophiles hear the name SPU, the image that comes to mind is of something less than modern: a combined phono cartridge and universal headshell in which the precise position of the former relative to the latter can't be adjusted. Indeed, although Ortofon has offered a denuded version of their oldest stereo cartridge since day one, most SPUs have indeed been quaint, bulky pickup heads, in a choice of two sizes: the G-style head, in which the stylus tip can be counted on to be precisely 52mm (footnote 1) from the headshell's locking collet; or the A-style pickup head, where the stylus is 30mm from the collet.

For whatever reason, the G-style head has all but vanquished the A-style in the marketplace: Although a single A-style model remains in the Ortofon line, most SPUs have, for years, been G-styles—and so it goes with the SPU Collector's Box. In exchange for his $13,000, each high roller will receive a big cigar box containing G-style versions of Ortofon's SPU Classic, SPU Gold Reference, SPU 85, and SPU 90th Anniversary. In a bid to whip up excitement for all things SPU, the company also announced, in their last e--newspaper of 2010, that one especially lucky buyer will be selected to receive Collector's Box 001. Don't dawdle!

A winner hadn't been named as of this writing, but I know this much: Whoever buys Collector's Box 012 will get four Ortofon SPUs with which I've spent a few exceedingly cautious and gleeful hours, comparing them with one another and with my own old-style, A-style Ortofon SPU, with its low-output, spherical stylus tip and Bakelite body.

Footnote 1: The accepted wisdom has long been that the collet-to-stylus dimension of a G-style pickup is 50mm and that of the A-style pickup is 32mm, figures I long accepted as fact and even passed along in this space. But last year, my experience with Keith Howard's research into cartridge alignment (see his "Arc Angles" in the March 2010 Stereophile) inspired me to fashion a jig to measure such things.

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.


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.



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!