Listening #105

Word went out among the small, frightened woodland animals in this part of upstate New York: If you come down with rabies, go to Art Dudley's place and die under his shed. The latest was a raccoon that showed up last Saturday morning with a face full of burdocks and a head full of pain. Before wedging himself beneath the floor of my freestanding shed, the dying animal produced a series of moans and yips that frightened even my dog, a Jack Russell terrier who appears to have been a Somali pirate in a previous life. For the remainder of that sunny afternoon, my family and I holed up inside the house, unenthused about being bitten by an unpredictable animal with a diseased brain and a foamy mouth. (Feel free to imagine your own political joke in this space. God knows I did.)

I spent the rest of my day taking stock: My priorities in audio reviewing have remained more or less the same for the past couple of years, but my collection of gear has changed in a number of ways. Consequently, in an effort to help you make sense of the product reviews I write for Stereophile, and in response to the oft-heard and very reasonable suggestion that I and other reviewers should declare which review samples we've bought for ourselves and which we persist in using for free, here's an updated look at my listening environment and the reference system(s) therein.

Make of this what you will
During 40 years as an audio enthusiast I've owned at least 15 different turntables—five of them still in my possession—but only three CD players: a Magnavox, a Naim, and a Sony. The thing is, I rely on analog sources much more than digital for musical pleasure; by the same token, whenever feasible, I rely on analog sources for reviewing new products, for the otherworldly reason that musical pleasure is the whole damn point.

It isn't enough to say that the first commercial CD players and discs failed to please me: They were contemptible. And while I don't mean to offend either my readers or my peers, neither can I resist pointing out a simple truth: If you could listen to a 1984 Sony CDP-101 playing, say, an early Beatles CD or virtually anything from Leonard Bernstein's catalog on Columbia Masterworks, and honestly declare the sound to be more like the master tape than any analog front end, there's something wrong with you, on a medical level. I mean, for God's sake, not only did early digital audio sound terrible—screechy, bright, and broken—it couldn't play music worth a tin shit: It missed the senses of flow, momentum, and temporal nuance that distinguish music from sound (and that good LP players naturally nail).

Just as I'm happy to see other reviewers start talking about musical flow and suchlike in their product reviews, I'm delighted that the digital recording and playback technologies have come a very long way. I make it a point to keep up with computer-audio technology in particular—the genre seems to have the greatest potential for high performance, high value, low obsolescence, and high fun—and today I find that an awful lot of digital playback sounds good and plays music acceptably, satisfyingly, and sometimes even thrillingly well.

But the best analog is still better at the performance aspects I most value. Good LP playback continues to exceed digital when it comes to pulling me into the performance, getting me emotionally worked up, and allowing me to fool myself that I'm in the presence of human-made music. And whenever I compare original 78rpm shellac records with CD compilations made from same . . . well, there's no comparison at all: Digital still can't do the force, the touch, the cold-water shock as well as an ancient shellac record, notwithstanding the latter's noise and inconvenience. Analog remains, in my experience, the best—and, to the extent that I can afford it, the best is what I want.

Thus my investments in analog gear outstrip my digital investments by a wide margin.

For the majority of my listening these days, I use two turntables: a 1957 Garrard 301 and a 1961 Thorens TD 124, both of which I reconditioned myself, both of which are now in plinths I've made of stacked plywood. Following a recent flurry of swapping, I now use my Garrard 301 with the fine-sounding and very high-value Schick tonearm (I bought the review sample at the beginning of this year), and a recent vintage Ortofon SPU-A pickup that I installed in a vintage Ortofon (Bakelite) head. Since my budget can't yet stretch to the magnificent Hommage T1 step-up transformer ($4995)—the best I've heard, to this day—I've now opted for my second-favorite SPU-happy transformer and purchased the version of the stock Auditorium 23 unit, which provides almost all of the Hommage's color and physicality, and perhaps three-quarters of its drama, for only $1395.

My Thorens TD 124—which used to spin vinyl in the Santa Fe home office of Stereophile's copyeditor, Richard Lehnert—now shares a plinth with my EMT 997 tonearm, itself paired with two different EMT pickup heads: the OFD 25 ($1850), for mono microgroove records; and the OFD 65 ($1850), for 78rpm shellacs. Both of those high-output EMTs drive a Silvercore One-to-Ten transformer ($510), which I wrote about in the May 2011 issue. I have yet to buy the Silvercore transformer, though I intend to do so within a reasonable time.

Because I used a Linn LP12 turntable as my reference for so very long, because there appears to be a sizable base of LP12 fans among Stereophile readers, and because Linn remains an important manufacturer of domestic audio gear, I think it behooves me to say: During the 20-odd years I've owned and loved it, my LP12 never failed to enhance my appreciation of recorded music and the associated gear used to unravel it. But while Linn's ideas about fidelity are as valid today as ever, my own priorities have evolved, and my playback system has followed a new curve. I continue to admire the LP12 as a product, and Linn as a company of nearly unique longevity and integrity.


DetroitVinylRob's picture

Lovely Sarouk Art, and a great read. It is also so refreshing to have you (a writer, reviewer, tinkerer...) consistently throughout the years open up the door of your Hifi room and share how you live, and listen, and how the method of that and vehicles of that change, and in turn change you. While many treat this hobby as a sport, it appears to me, more of a romance for you too.

Ps. three and a half bunnies for matching the hemp cones, rug, and paint and still having good Hifi ;^)