Quo vadis, ‘analog’? Or, how I learned I’m not spending thousands on a losing proposition

Next year, 2015, I will celebrate forty years as an audiophile. I didn’t know I was an “audiophile” back in 1975 when I purchased my first “stereo” for the amount of $500—a daunting sum for an eighteen year old mail room clerk supporting his family. I was a “hi-fi nut,” a “stereo guy,” in the parlance of the times. That simple system, consisting of a Scott receiver, Kenwood turntable, and two Altec loudspeakers, gave me a lot of pleasure over many years and helped me discover a lot of great music. I’ve become very nostalgic for those early “stereo” days. Recently, I found the big brother of my Scott R74S receiver on eBay and almost impulsively purchased it out of sheer indulgence; I’m always amazed at how expensive these Golden era receivers go for on eBay.

Music is the raison d’être of our hobby. There’s no other reason why anyone would (or should) be an audiophile in the first place. It’s the burning desire to create the experience of the live performance in the home—the “perfectly realized illusion,” as I’ve described it elsewhere—that drives us every single day. Every purchase, every upgrade, every tweak, every adjustment, is made for one reason and one reason alone: to enhance the enjoyment of the music we love and bring us closer to the live performance.

A major purchase late last year finally allowed me to achieve a long time goal of mine: to have separate, dedicated analog and digital music systems—using the same B&W 804S loudspeakers. My digital music system consists of an Oppo BDP-105 connected straight in to a Bryston 3B-ST power amp, using Nordost interconnects and speaker cables. My analog system consists of an old, but upgraded, single-speed Linn Sondek LP12, purchased used, that came with a Japanese Grace G707 tonearm already mounted and connected to a pair of Mitch Cotter silver phono cables. I purchased a Sumiko high-output moving-coil cartridge to complete the package, and had it professionally set up. The table is fed through a Clearaudio Basic phono preamp to an old Classé Model 30 line preamp that’s connected to a pair of vintage (refurbished) McIntosh MC30 tube power amplifiers on semi-permanent loan from a good friend (and fellow Ford enthusiast) in Michigan. I use Nordost interconnects and dedicated Anti-Cable loudspeaker cables. Occasionally, I’ll connect the Oppo to the McIntoshes for that special audio experience only tubes can provide. Not too shabby, I’d have to admit. It’s been a long and winding road from my Scott, Kenwood, and Altec days.

I’d always wanted to separate the two intractable “sects” in this religious audio war. I had been, after all, an insufferable analog snob and hold-out until 1990. I hated compact discs and digital recordings and never thought—never believed, actually—that digital would ever measure up. Never the twain shall meet.

Boy, was I wrong.

Next to the California Audio Labs DX3 (the CD player that actually got me to like listening to CDs), and the absolutely indispensable PS Audio Soloist dedicated A/C port, the Oppo BDP-105 is probably the most revolutionary audio component I’ve ever had in my system. It’s been a jaw-dropping experience to listen to music with it. It plays everything: CDs, SACDs, HDCDs, DVD-Audio, Blu-ray Audio discs, MP3s, Apple Lossless, WAV, high-resolution FLAC files, DSD files, and, of course, movies. This thing even makes crappy, lossy MP3s sound better than they deserve.

However, it’s the high resolution digital content I’ve listened to over the last few months—Blu-ray Audio discs, 24-bit FLAC files, DSD files—that has compelled me to question and reevaluate everything I’ve believed to be audio truth since I started in this hobby.

Take Wagner’s Ring, for example. In the good old days, I owned the Solti, Karajan, and Böhm versions on LP. I listened to them many, many times, especially the Solti, a marvel of sound production and engineering thanks to John Culshaw. All three had pretty fine European pressings as I recall: UK London FFRR, German DG, and Dutch Philips, respectively. Currently, I own five versions on Compact Disc and DVD, Solti’s on Decca and Keilberth’s on Testament being my favorites. Thanks to the fantastic anniversary edition released last year, a Blu-ray Audio version of Solti’s Ring is now available: the complete tetralogy on a single disc! I know these operas. I’ve heard them dozens of times. I saw Walküre at the Met. I love this music and I’m very familiar with the Solti recording. When I plopped that Blu-ray Audio disc into the Oppo and pressed play, it was like a thunderbolt: the level of orchestral and vocal detail, the musicality, the soundstage, and the sheer power of this massive score had never been presented to me like this, not on LP, not on remastered CD. To say listening to this Blu-ray Audio disc gobsmacked my audio paradigm would be an understatement.

Here’s another example: I’ve owned the great Boston Symphony Orchestra stereo recording of Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis et Chlöe conducted by Charles Munch—one of my “desert island” discs—on LP, CD, and the Living Stereo SACD. One of the greatest compositions of the 20th century, and one of my all-time favorite pieces of music, I know it like my own skin. The BSO recording, justifiably famous, and beautifully recorded, has long been a reference for me. I can say without reservation that the SACD, to my ears, is the best of the three. Musical, huge soundstage, the BSO in its glory days. I have yet to hear the 24-bit/174kHz FLACs that are in my queue to buy. These will, in all likelihood, top the SACD.

The preferred high-resolution format from most labels is the 24-bit FLAC file. I have several that have made an impression on me. From Linn Records: a very short excerpt of Steve Reich’s Electric Counterpoint, adapted for percussion instruments, makes you think the performer, Kuniko, is right in front of you, live; and an achingly beautiful St. Matthew Passion with voices so real, so clear, they are almost heavenly. From LSO Live (courtesy of B&W Society of Sound): a superb—and probably not well known—Valeri Gergiev Mahler cycle (including a marvelous 9th), and a well, fantastic, Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique conducted by the late Colin Davis.

What really, finally convinced me that I was in a whole new ballgame was what I heard from the brave new world of DSD audio files. I downloaded some free DSD 64 files from 2L, a small Norwegian boutique label, primarily because of their classical selections. I listened to movements from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.32, Mozart’s violin concerto in D major, Haydn’s String Quartet Op.74, Schubert’s String Quartet No.14 (my favorite, Death and the Maiden), Tchaikovsky’s Souvenir de Florence, and an aria from a Vivaldi cantata: they are nothing short of breathtaking. They sound like real music in a real space, with none of the unmusical harshness and digital fatigue I’ve hated as long as I’ve listened to digital.

What I’m hearing from all of these high-resolution digital formats, and DSD in particular, is truly remarkable. That infamous promise—“perfect sound forever”—made way back in 1983, may have indeed been finally kept.

All of this bloviating begs the question that gets to the heart of my conundrum: Do I need a new turntable to bring the LPs I play on par sonically with these new-fangled high-resolution formats I’m listening to that sound so damned good?

There are turntables currently being sold that cost well over $100,000—the Walker Proscenium, Clearaudio Statement, and Continuum Caliburn, being the most highly regarded. Then there are the turntables priced in the $10,000 to $50,000 price range—VPI’s new $30,000 direct-drive, a fully-loaded brand spanking new Linn Sondek LP12 for around $20,000, tables by SME, Basis, Avid, DaVinci, etc. And finally, the “entry level” price range I’ve researched for myself—turntables ranging in price from $1,000 to $6,000 from Clearaudio, VPI, Rega, Pro-ject, Music Hall, etc. Please note that I’m not factoring in tonearms (if needed), cartridges, cable upgrades, phono preamps, new preamps, etc. All necessary links in the analog chain.

So where are you going, “analog”? Or rather, where are you trying to take me? Save for the most expensive and resolving systems—systems I have not heard and can only dream of hearing—won’t the inherent imperfections and limitations of LP record playback, well known to all of us, still be there for me? I’m not minimizing the incredible achievements of these turntable designers and inventors in the least, but you have to admit that the cost of quality analog LP playback—getting the most music out of those pesky grooves as perfectly as possible—is pretty steep. (To be fair, dCS and Esoteric digital gear ain’t cheap, either.)

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, if the truly amazing resolution and musicality I’m hearing out of my modest digital system, from uncompressed DSD files being played from a hard drive, can only be matched by an analog system requiring at minimum five or six thousand dollars (the entry-level cost of quality analog LP playback), or a serious investment on my part equal to that of a four-door sedan, an SUV, a Ford Shelby GT500 Mustang, or a Porsche Panamera, then hasn’t the medium made itself irrelevant to a ‘real-world’ audiophile like me with a ‘real-world’ budget?

Yes, I have lots of LPs, and yes, I have LPs that I thoroughly enjoy playing, and yes, I have LPs that will never, ever be released on any digital format, and yes, I have LPs that I probably couldn’t part with, and yes, I’m still emotionally attached to every last damned one of them after forty years. In the end, though, do they matter if I just can’t get the juice out of them with the system I have?

Sometimes, as Gertrude Stein quipped, there is no there there.

All that cold hard cash can purchase a hell of a lot of high-resolution downloads, Blu-ray Audio discs, and SACDs—and a music server or two.

There are so many irreconcilable differences that this time, I’m loath to say, the trial separation may end in divorce.

(This essay was originally published on PS Audio’s late, great weblog, PS Tracks.)

About The Mighty Thunderer

We write about music, audio, and technology. Like the namesake of this blog, Ludwig van Beethoven, we are hammer of polite society. We will point out the absurd and educate on the sublime...
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1 Response to Quo vadis, ‘analog’? Or, how I learned I’m not spending thousands on a losing proposition

  1. Pingback: Analog redux | The Mighty Thunderer

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