The Analog Twilight

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It's a sad truth that many technologies don't reach their ultimate expression until they are in their twilight years, while in the process of being superseded by a new technology that is (take your pick) cheaper, smaller, faster, more convenient, more efficient. Such is the case LP record reproduction today. What's that you say, you can still buy Long Playing records? The old-fashioned 12" vinyl black disk, almost 100 years old as a technology, has not died out, and I'm not just talking about DJ's spinning old Parliament recordings. The analog LP is in a healthier state now more than at any time in the last 15+ years, along with associated equipment - turntables, arms, cartridges- that are in greater proliferation than at any time since the 1970's. And the quality of the sound and the beauty of the physical aesthetics and the attention to the engineering have never been better. They put, in fact, any iPod or mainstream CD player to shame.

High-end turntables deliver an experience that transports you through space and time to the place of the original recording. Done right, it's spooky. 

 
kuzma_stabi.jpgNo records are available through mainstream outlets. Don't expect them to make a resurgence at Best Buy. Likewise, the equipment to play them is esoteric to the extreme (with prices to match) and requires seeking out at specialty audio stores. But if you have the opportunity to see one of these beautiful monstrous machines, and to hear it with equipment that can properly convey the delicate signal through to the speaker voice coils, you won't be able to go back to mp3s (or most CD's) again with much satisfaction.

Since the very earliest days of the "CD revolution" in the early 1980's, audiophiles have held that LP's continue to surpass CD sound. But the convenience of the CD far outweighed sonic consequences for the mass market, especially since most were listening on poorly set-up, price-point designed turntables with dirty records. That experience compared to these new turntables is as like McDonalds to the French Laundry. There simply is no comparison.

spiral groove.jpg(We are in a similar state today with mp3's: Worse sound than CD's (considerably worse at their usual 128k bitrate), though more convenient. And indeed, high-end CD players (we're talking $20,000 here) are now just revealing what can be done with the bits in the silver disks. And it's just matched top-flight analog.)

So what are these crazy LP lovers buying?

Ultimately they are buying an experience that transports them through time and space to the location and time of the original recording, with all the subtleties intact. This is placeshifting and timeshifting, old school style. With a well set up high-end system you don't have sound coming from two speakers, you have an entirely new room placed in front of you. You can audibly tell the difference between the singers chest cavity and her mouth. The drums are several feet behind her, with the cymbals above and snares on either side. Other musicians are arrayed around, with the gaps between them clearly evident. Each person occupies a point in space that is three dimensionally defined - voices are 5 feet above the floor, guitars at waist level, feet tapping time are gently heard at floor level. The size of the room, even what the walls are made of, can be heard. When done right, with a good recording, it makes the hair stand up on the back of your neck it's so spooky.

graham_phantom.jpgAnalog buyers are certainly not buying ease of use. In this sense, turntables violate major rules about user experience as it is defined today. These machines are finnicky to set-up to the extreme, and while it's true some pleasure can be had from the tweaking, over time it becomes tiresome. (Ultimately this was what caused me to sadly largely abandon analog, and I certainly never had the income to touch any of the products you see here!)

But let's consider what a turntable must do. The smallest grooves on a record are tiny, and must be decoded by a diamond being scraped through the groove with so much pressure that it momentarily melts the vinyl as it passes. The grooves correspond to the air waves that hit the microphone at the recording studio, literally an analog of the original event. If you were to scale the back and forth movements the stylus makes as it travels the grooves up to the size of an inch, the pivot point of the tonearm holding the cartridge would be almost a quarter of a mile away. It's no wonder then, that these high end turntables have platters (the disk the record sits on) weighing over 30 lbs, some made out of granite! Weight translates to stability and vibration reduction, the holy grail of analog reproduction, which is why the $18,000 Kuzma Stabi XL weighs almost 200 lbs. It also means there is so much flywheel effect that the tiny speed variations of the motor are smoothed out, meaning sustained notes keep a constant pitch.

Getting all the pieces to work just so is very difficult, both for the manufacturer and the user. This is not a push button operation. The cartridge (or more precisely, the stylus it holds) must be positioned at just the right orientation in 3 dimensional space to hit the grooves at the optimum angle, with just the right counter-balancing pressure. Trial and error are the only way to really hone in on these, with increments of fractions of degrees and grams.

koetsu onyx.jpgComplicating the fact is the LP's come in different thicknesses, which affects the angle of attack for the stylus. Dedicated audiophiles adjust the height of the arm up and down accordingly per LP.

But, gosh, just look at the beauty of these things. Koetsu cartridges, such as the Onyx Platinum seen here, are made by a revered Japanese company, each one custom made by hand in extremely limited numbers, and outrageously expensive.

The turntables themselves have become fantastically over-engineered. Typically styled as conglomerations of multi-sized cylinders, these are works of art that reproduce art, and priced accordingly. The choices of materials are both sumptuous and pragmatic, having to deliver the performance as well as pride of ownership. They demonstrate ingenious thinking to defeat what are fundamentally fairly basic, yet difficult, physical problems (mostly having to do with handling vibration), and what’s so great about it is that it’s all so visible. Turntables are like bicycles - the engineering is manifestly visible, and it’s easy to see how the physical form into functional purpose. This makes them much more interesting than the black-box CD players that have long since superseded them in the marketplace.

I'll be the first to admit that these are extravagent, indulgent devices. No doubt about it. Only the very rich get to play here. But personally, I find it heartwarming that there are people who will persist in spending a lot of time creating something that most other people find pointless, and which in the market logic of corporate-think, would never get made.

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