Listening #137

Except for a few titles I've combined with the ones in my listening room, and a few others that I intend to sell, the record collection I bought last year remains in three rows of boxes on the floor of our guest room. Because that room is spacious and comfortable, and equipped with a small refrigerator and a flat-screen TV, it is also the place where my 16-year-old daughter and her friends have their slumber parties and Dr. Who marathons. Thus, as you can imagine, I must sometimes explain to our young guests the Tao of collecting records.

It's like explaining religion in reverse: "These thousands of LPs—the ones that occupy the groaning shelves downstairs, and these boxes on which you stub your toes upstairs—are just like the virtual disc in heaven that, according to your easily led parents, contains all the albums you have ever bought. The difference is, you can touch these. Their existence, and your ownership of them, is demonstrable. You can hold them and look at them and move them from place to place. You can trade them if you want to, sell them if you have to. Yes, they can be stolen from you, but that requires real, physical work, and is thus unlikely to happen. Many are worth more than the sums for which they were purchased. And, as they age, they can be washed of most of their corruptions. They are real." It is a convincing speech, and I make it well.

It has not been without effect. For example, my daughter's best friend's brother asked for and received a turntable for Christmas, and his humble collection of LPs grows weekly (thanks in no small part to the fact that our village now has an excellent used-record store, called Xawax). This young man already has found a few titles that I covet, including a mint, original mono copy of Charles Mingus's The Clown, found for pennies on the dollar. Mingus, unlike youth itself, is not wasted on the young.

Primary caregivers
People who enjoy good mental health in abundance might not know it, but the addition of a thousand or so LPs to an already large collection brings with it a number of benefits. The most obvious, of course, is to expose the collector to new performances, compositions, and genres. One of my greatest windfalls so far has been the discovery and enjoyment of the singer and activist Paul Robeson, whose live recordings are satisfying on a number of levels. (If you're not familiar with Robeson, think Pete Seeger—whose music I also love, and whom I admired as an American—but with a little less sanctimony, a lot less banjo, and a magnificent trained voice.) And there remain several hundred unknowns I have yet to crack open. Life is good.

Other pleasures are more specific to the medium. One of those relates to my enduring opinion that analog discs surpass digital media—all digital media—at communicating the physicality, color, texture, presence, momentum, swing, and force of recorded music. I mean no condescension to those who haven't reached the same conclusion; at the same time, I don't see the point of trying to spare someone's feelings by keeping to myself an opinion about record players, for Heaven's sake.

Further, because much of my newly added collection was amassed in the 1950s and early '60s, many of the titles are in monophonic sound—and good mono sound offers a kind of listener engagement that multichannel recordings and playback simply can't match. Make no mistake, good stereo can sound convincing and beautiful in its own way—just think of all the great classical recordings on EMI and Decca, and of the big, dry, colorful stereo recordings Rudy Van Gelder made for Blue Note and others—but it also seems that every increase in sonic spaciousness brings with it a concomitant decrease in sonic touch and impact. Put another way: As you double the number of channels, it seems that the amount of real force that reaches the listening seat is halved.

So we are faced, yet again, with this axiom: The recording technology of a given age is sometimes best served by that era's playback technology. Consequently, if you lacked the luck to be born into a family that saved all their phono gear from the early 1960s—and I know very few people who are so blessed—you must now buy some of it back in order to unlock the magic in those mono grooves. You will need, at the very least, a true mono cartridge: one that produces an electric signal only in response to the mono groove's lateral modulations, thus leaving unread and unheard everything in the vertical plane (including most record damage: a secondary windfall). At the same time, there is no sense trying to maximize a medium known for its superior touch, texture, and impact if you haven't already upgraded your system to include a step-up transformer.

The latter, in fact, may be the most readily addressable challenge of all, if only because the selection seems to increase all the time. A case in point is the latest phono transformer from Bob's Devices, a North Carolina company I first wrote about in the June 2010 issue of Stereophile. Their new model is the CineMag Sky 30 ($1250), which is descended from—and nearly identical to—the CineMag 1131 ($1195), which I wrote about in the May 2012 issue. The primary difference is, literally, a primary difference: Whereas the 1131 offered switch-selectable impedance ratios of 1:40 and 1:20, for high- and low-gain settings, respectively, the Sky 30's choices are 1:30 and 1:15. According to Bob Sattin—the Bob of Bob's Devices—the lower-gain Sky 30 also exhibits lower inductance, which, all other things being equal, can equate to better sound.

As with the other step-up transformers available from Bob's, the hand-wired Sky 30 is constructed using a resistance-soldering station, which applies to the parts being joined far less wayward heat than a traditional soldering iron—no small consideration when working with fragile coils of very fine wire. A glimpse inside the Sky 30's cast-aluminum case confirms that its solder joins are indeed neat, shiny, and spare. Considered at a time when at least one other manufacturer seems to confuse solder with quick-setting cement, Bob's meticulously crafted Device is a welcome sight. Other outward signs of quality include gold-plated RCA jacks—XLRs are available on request—and a pair of silver-contact toggle switches from C&K. One of the latter selects between high- and low-gain primary coils, the other being used to lift the Sky 30's coils from the chassis ground.

Of course, each new record player and step-up transformer, or combination thereof, seems to require a slightly different grounding scheme from the last, and so it was when I added the Sky 30 to my system. I achieved the best, most humless results with the Sky 30 switched to Ground rather than Lift, and with a ground lead from my Garrard 301 turntable to the ground lug on the back of my Shindo Masseto preamplifier. (With the Bob's Devices transformer, it seemed at first that I could do without a ground lead and still enjoy perfect freedom from hum—until I switched off the Garrard's motor, at which point a mild hum persisted until I connected the above-mentioned lead. Go figure.) Incidentally, unlike with other transformers, the physical position of the Sky 30 relative to other components in my system had zero audible effect.

Although I didn't have the CineMag 1131 in-house and so could not run comparisons, it was my impression that the CineMag Sky 30's 1:15 setting was even more suited to my EMT mono pickups than either of the older model's settings. In recent months, especially after spending time with such exceptional mono records as the US version of the Rolling Stones' debut album, England's Newest Hit Makers (London LL 3375, in a late-'60s "boxed-logo" pressing) and the 1959 album Gerry Mulligan Meets Ben Webster (Verve MG V-8343), I've come to realize that the best playback gear presents detail and impact as inseparable from one another. High-end phono cartridges, electronics, and loudspeakers that are renowned for their "airiness" often present detail without an iota of force; at the same time, we've all been tormented by high-power amplifiers and low-frequency speakers that present force in the manner of a howitzer, lacking even a suggestion of nuance—especially when used to play simplistic music at painfully high loudness levels, which tends to be the only way such products are demonstrated at shows and in shops. But when you start to notice that detail and force are two aspects of the same thing, you know you're in the presence of either real music or very good recordings and gear.