Monday, August 15, 2011

Audio Guide Part 5 - Options for Flat Round Things

My delay in getting the guide up was partially due
to photographing at the Little Tokyo Nisei week.
Not pictured: me being partially deaf from seeing
Eyehategod, All Pigs Must Die and Pentagram.

So now you have an amp, speakers and a DAC. Whoohoo! You're probably rocking out, air-guitaring to your Slayer collection on iTunes as we speak. 

If you missed the previous installments check out part 1, 2, 3, and 4.

Now let's look at other options you might need for playing those outmoded discs such as a CDs or the ever-intimidating but hip vinyl. 

1) CDs

Let's get the easiest one out of the way first!

This one is easy because there is basically one good option on the market, if your collection and listening habits are mostly CDs: the Marantz 5004. Sure it's $350.00 but I've owned one and you can seriously tell the difference between the music coming from it and a regular CD player from outside with your windows closed sitting on the roof drinking all night on the winter solstice. Not that I've ever been there… just trust me. It's a technical comparison. 

But basically, your output device you are going to be using to drive about $1000.00 in equipment - don't send it a $50.00 Wal-Mart signal 

The one trick here is that CDs, while awesome to support artists and all, can be much more easily ripped to lossless files and managed in iTunes these days than ever. Even piraters are being kindly and using 320/kbs encoding (not as good as CDs but still pretty good). As internet speeds increase we're sure to see a rise in using what might be termed HD digital audio for sale directly from the artist. Some basic math: even if you own 1000 CDs, you can rip them in lossless file and still have 300 GIG left on the decently cheap terabit firewire 800 external had drives these days. 

But I can say if you do still want to spin those CDs, the Marantz 5004 is awesome, and certainly less work than ripping 1000s of CDs!  (I heard that the Cambridge Audio Azur 350C CD player is really good too, at around $450 if you're more serious about CDs.) 

2) So you love vinyl… but are confused about good turntables.

Most people don't even know how to put a record on a record player but there has been a real resurgence of interest in vinyl in the past few years. There are probably numerous philosophical reasons for it (including, but not limited to a rebellion against the digital, nostalgia, hipster-ism, or in my case, the desire to support the bands I love as well as the larger art pallet of the 12") but the case is clear — Vinyl is back.

So I'm going to start with saying that even though I collect records, DJed, and was the last generation to grow up around vinyl, the more I research the more that I find that vinyl lovers and turntable fanatics to be the most esoteric of all the audio cultists.  

Once upon a time (in the 1990's), you could get decent cheap vintage turntables galore. You will see this as a recommendation on almost every audio forum online. The myth goes that you could spend $50.00 on eBay and get a pretty decent classic turntable. Everyone was moving to CDs and vinyl seemed dead. Fast forward 15 years and the only record stores that are booming are vinyl speciality places. Increased demand has quadrupled (or more) used prices on turntables. 

Also, those turntables from the "classic" 60's and 70's manufacturers are increasingly dying or worn-down to the point of needing serious overhauls. I mean, most of them will have been subjected to 30 or 40 years worth of use before you, novice audio nerd, have touched them! If you have the skills to rebuild a classic turntable, you can still get a great deal, but it's very unlikely you (nor I) have those skills and are reading this guide guide for noobs.

Which leads to our conundrum. I'd love to recommend buying any random used turntable, but I can't. Nor can I recommend buying a cheap new table. Even more than speakers, CD player or  having a great functioning turntable matters. Why? Because a, cheap and/or improperly functioning (and improperly set up) table can wreck your precious records fairly quickly!

So, that all said and done, if you are obsessive enough to track down, buy and lug around records, just suck it up and buy a decent table. Depending on your threshold for self-inflicted pain, I'll provide two options. 

The first choice you should consider, if you are quite the masochist/purist, is the much beloved Rega RP-1. Yeah, it has no automatic speed change nor automatic tone arm control. Yeah it's $450.00. But everything I know says that with this player will last you many decades and sound better than anything anywhere near it's price. If I had to buy a new turntable, I'd buy this. 

However let me reiterate that it is full manual. Meaning you have to set the arm on the start of the side and pick it up at the end or it will spin around forever. And more, if you want to change from 33rpm to 45 rpm, you have to take the platter off and manually change where the belt is seated. This wouldn't be a huge issue if you collection is mostly older records in 33, but a few presses are recorded in 45 too (like that damn "Monoliths and Dimensions" album which has alternating sides at both 33 and 45………….) But the sound quality and upgradability is fantastic. 

[A quick note about "upgradability" - this is basically the ease with which any given item or system will take an upgrade. A highly upgradable turntable would be one that you can easily find, buy and install new and better parts. In the case of the Rega, everything from the needle to the wires to the whole tone arm has plenty of available upgrades if you want. Which translates to not having to buy a whole new turntable if you have the itch for better quality. (Something with terrible upgradability would be one of those Wal-Mart all-in-one systems with the amp, DVD player and everything ell in one box with proprietary connectors. If you want to upgrade, you just have to throw them out and start over.)]

So let's say that replacing the belt every time you need to switch RPM strikes you as a bit too much effort. The other turntable option is to get a Denon DP-300F which we'll add a couple of upgrades. It's probably the best mass-market turntable around $329.00. But has some problems. But we can correct for most of them.

Back to our more-automated Denon, most reviews note that it is a light turntable that has problems with isolation with "loud" (i.e. metal/rock/hip-hop/electronic/my) music. Isolation, being that it has added noise caused by the jostling caused by the speakers. So now add another $24 for Vibrapods which extra "feet" that cushion it. The cartridge it comes with sucks. The Needle Doctor recommends an Ortofon 2M Red at around $100. And new total cost? $450. About the same cost as the Rega. It won't sound quite as good, but it will be more convenient as it is fully automatic! 

The third option is buying a professionally refurbished used turntable. This is probably the ideal cost-benifit ration though only folks in larger cities will have this opton. You might have a very cool vintage audio speciality-repair shop around that sells nice turntables they have refurbished. In Los Angeles we have a place called The Audio Specialist which at any given moment will have fifteen or twenty used high-end turntables that they have rebuilt for sale at good prices (around $250-450 for very nice gear). Like record shops, some of these places can be quirky, but don't let them scare you. I ended up buying a very excellent Technics SL-1700 mk2 for my table.  

So after you get your turntable, if you recall when I was discussing amps I mentioned how most of the built-in phono preamps suck (and the rest didn't even have phono preamps)? Well, if you love vinyl, a phono pre amp is the best $70 you can spend. 

What is a phono pre-amp? The sound coming from the turntable needs to be amplified significantly as it is very weak compared to a CD player or such, and a special EQ curve needs to be applied to expand it to full frequency. Basically, it's the device that takes the tiny signal from the needle and cartridge and turns it in to a regular signal that comes from something like a CD player. 

What a separate phono-pre-amp does is do both of these things as it's only job. The phono pre-amp that regularly gets rave reviews is the TCC TC-760LC. Get it, love it, and be happy.

(Another more pricey option at $120 is the NAD PP-2 which was for ages the standard phono-pre. The reference point for most folks is the Cambridge 640P, even more pricey at $180).

Also necessary is to get some sort of record cleaning / anti-static setup. It wouldn't hurt to get a force gauge and an anti-skating guide. You can also upgrade the needle on your cartridge. Getting a good Elliptical needle will improve the sound quite a bit regardless of cartridge — Getting a Linear Tracking (or the pricier "nude" Linear Tracking) needle will be even better. Why? Because the close the needle shape is to the one that cut it the closer the sound will be to what was intended! 

Vinyl is still a wilderness for me, technically speaking, but you'll just have to get one of the two turntables and jump in there with me and flail around - You can always lurk at Audio Karma and learn tons.

Next up - headphones!

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