Rediscovering the Faith

I may have had 4000 LPs and a perfectly wonderful Linn LP12 turntable, but I could go for weeks on end without listening to a single LP. But I still thought of myself as one of the vinyl faithful, even as I rationalized my digital-centric listening tendencies. I loved analog in theory—I just couldn't bring myself to listen to it all that much.

Lucky me, my vinyl doldrums were interrupted when, last summer, I reviewed a VPI Classic turntable for Home Entertainment magazine. I put the Linn aside and hooked up the VPI. Wow, what a difference a turntable can make! One record led to the next, and night after night I stayed up late, listening to LPs. That hadn't happened in years. I was smitten.

My LP12, Graham Engineering 2.0 tonearm, and van den Hul Frog cartridge weren't too shabby, but they didn't move me anymore. I have no idea why that relationship soured—I was just thrilled to get into vinyl again. When I eventually mounted the vdH on the VPI's arm, the Frog had never sounded better. At least that part of my old front-end survived the transition.

I can't remember who first pointed it out, but the best way to enjoy digital is to never listen to analog. Abstain too long, and you'll be in for a shock when you start listening to a first-class analog front-end. You'll hear oodles of texture, body, bloom, and harmonic complexity that CDs—and even SACD and DVD-Audio discs—never fully convey. But if that were all there was to it, I wouldn't have sold the Linn and bought the VPI. No, the real clincher for the VPI was this: It's a lot more fun to listen to.

It's not that I think digital sounds "bad." It's just that analog is a very different experience. Coming back to analog, I now see that digital's primary fault is that it encourages passive listening. People turn music on and immediately do something else: read, talk, work, exercise, etc. Because vinyl engages the listener more completely, it's much harder to ignore. And it doesn't seem to make any difference whether the music is on CD, SACD, or DVD-A—zeros and ones are nowhere near as compelling as grooves.

Forgive me, Mikey Fremer, but we all know lots of audiophiles who gave up on vinyl ages ago. For them, vinyl's imperfections—its pops, clicks, warps, groove noise, rumble, off-center pressings, and mistracking woes—were banished by digital, and they never looked back. But with a great turntable such as the VPI Classic, vinyl's foibles become easy to ignore.

I'm not about to claim that analog automatically makes bad recordings sound great, or even good. And I'm not giving up on digital—there's a lot of excellent digital music out there. I'd even go so far as to say that the clarity and macrodynamics of the best digital recordings trump those of analog—but the best analog is more transparent, and its dynamics seem livelier and more lifelike. (And in case you're wondering, my digital front-end is definitely up to snuff: my disc player is the superb Ayre Acoustics C-5xeMP.)

I have no idea why, but LPs sourced from digital recordings retain most of analog's allures. It might be that the stylus tracing the groove, in and of itself, imparts some portion of analog sound to LP. Synthesizer music bores me to tears on CD, but it sounds so much more inviting—dare I say, soulful?—on LP. I'm now exploring treasures in my collections of Wendy Carlos, Philip Glass, and Kraftwerk; it's as if I'm hearing them for the first time.

Some of my friends are getting into high-resolution digital downloads. They're jazzed about the promise of music servers, believing that buffers and solid-state drives will finally make digital safe for analog holdouts. They rattle off catchphrases—"No moving parts!" "Zero jitter!"—and believe the coming technology will somehow bring the digital nirvana that eluded the physical formats of CD, SACD, and DVD-A.

I'm not so sure about that. Similar logic was used by early digital converts to prove the superiority of first-generation CD players over turntables. Looking back, those were digital's blackest, most wretched, bad old days. But in the early 1980s you couldn't argue with the logic—in almost every measurable context, the CD flat-out crushed the LP.

It was before my time, but in the 1960s a similar case was made for transistors, which nearly steamrollered tubes out of existence. Most designers and engineers of the time felt that transistors were, in every way, superior to tubes. The measurements confirmed it, and eventually even stalwarts like McIntosh abandoned tubes. But tubes didn't go away. McIntosh long ago resumed using them, and tube gear now accounts for a sizable part of their business.

Nor has the LP disappeared. The ears—at least, some people's ears—hear the difference. Measurements still miss a lot of vital information that the ears can hear.

For those of you who've never owned a turntable, perhaps now is the time to take the plunge. You don't necessarily have to drop a couple of grand; if your budget's tight, invest a few hundred bucks in a used Rega, Music Hall, or Pro-Ject turntable, and buy that Audio-Technica AT-PEQ3 phono preamp ($119) Mikey reviewed in the December 2009 Stereophile. For the price of a decent pair of interconnect cables, you can hear what all the fuss is about. Don't have any records? Drop by a few yard sales or used-record shops and load up on $1 LPs.

Or if, like me, you still have your turntable and records but rarely play them anymore, there's even more hope: Check out the VPI Classic—or stick with your old 'table, buy a new cartridge, and get back in the groove.