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Posted by gustav at 09:01PM, Tuesday, December 03rd, 2002

Vinyl Roolz, Dudez!

I've been experiencing the frequent frustrations and rare pleasures of listening to good old vinyl records in a pretty serious way for about eight years now. After lots of futile attempts to banish irritating end-of-side distortion and dust bunnies, by happenstance and with the help of my boyfriend and internet strangers, I've finally stumbled into Nirvana.

It all started when I was in college, and began taking my music-listening more seriously. Having grown up listening to my parents' scratchy old records, I really wasn't that impressed with vinyl as a medium, but, as I was getting into CDs more, I bought an amp made by a Scottish company -- Linn -- a company which got its start making probably the most-influential-ever record player. I certainly had a fair amount of vinyl: stuff from my parents' now-abandoned collection; classical music from my childhood; and a handful of rare violin LPs given to me by my first violin teacher when she decided to get rid of everything and move onto a house-boat. However, the sound I was getting out of my old Technics direct drive turntable left a lot to be desired. So, one Summer day, I took a trip South to Natick, Massachusetts, and came home with a Linn Sondek LP12, the grand-daddy of high end, audiophile turntables.

I got some great sound out of records -- at times, it was sublime. I found out that, if the stars and planets were aligned right, I could crank my records a lot louder than CDs, and they would sound more relaxed and comfortable, but also more interesting, more groovy. They made you want to sing along more. I even wowed some of my college friends by getting up in the middle of conversations to flip a record over. "That's a *record*?!" I found good local record stores, and, for $1 or $2 apiece, got into some amazing new music I wouldn't have given a try at used-CD prices.

But things didn't always sound good. My deck didn't track a lot of old beat-up records very well -- and some brand new, shrink-wrapped ones were shrill and distorted at the end of a side. As I started reading a lot of hi fi magazines, I thought I'd figured out the answer: I needed to align the cartridge better, so the stylus was closer to tangential with the groove along the whole record. (Because most tonearms have a pivot one end and the cartridge goes at the other, the stylus traverses the record in an arc. The stylus can, at best, only be perfectly tangential with the grooves its tracing at two points, or, at worst, none. If you get those two points in the right place, by moving the cartridge back and forth in the headshell and pivoting it side to side until it's in ideal alignment, you can get much better sound out, even at the hardest-to-trace innermost tracks.) I went out and bought a GeoDisc, a sort of big plastic protractor to align the needle. I think the deck sounded worse after I was done fiddling than it had before.

I read more magazines. I moved to Arizona. I discovered stereo forums on the internet. I found out that on my particular tonearm, the Linn Ittok, rumor had it you could destroy the bearings my putting any torque on them while the arm was attached to the turntable. This supposedly happened if you did something like screwing a stylus into the tonearm while it was attached to the record player. I must have destroyed the bearings -- and this destroyed the arm's ability to follow the stylus across the record! Oh no! Or maybe my cartridge was old and the diamond stylus was worn -- I had been under the impression when I bought the deck, that the cartridge was new. I later found out it was not. One thanksgiving, my then-boyfriend and I drove from his parents' place in Bullhead City, Arizona to the Linn dealer in Vegas to get a new Linn K9 cartridge put on the deck. It made me feel better, but I still had all the same problems.

One day a year or so later, I decided I just wasn't getting the magic sound out of the deck any more, and it probably needed a tuneup. The rest of my stereo had gotten much better -- newer, bigger amps; higher-resolution speakers. The record player just didn't keep up any more.

See, unlike the cheap Technics I'd grown up with, the LP12 has a suspension, which isolates the subchassis -- the thing that holds the platter where the record sits and the armboard the tonearm attaches to -- from the motor and the outside world. Play music loud, and you shouldn't get feedback with a suspended subchassis (as opposed to the Technics, which was in the wall with the rest of the stereo at home when I grew up. My dad would crank Dylan on Sunday mornings, and the wall would vibrate, feed the vibration into the turntable, and back into the amp and speakers. It was horrible.) Also, any big vibration from that rotating motor doesn't go straight into the platter and then get read by the stylus; instead, it gets soaked up by th esprings and the soft rubber belt that attaches the motor to the platter. The suspension on this turntable is composed of three metal springs with little rubber grommets. The problem is that the three springs can get out of alignment -- they have to be rotated just so to make the subchassis bounce straight up and down instead of sideways and diagonally; the cable from the tonearm has to be fastened in position in just the right way so as not to screw up the all-important bounce; the motor has to be positioned just so, etc. etc. There's some mysticism to all of this, and people able to properly tweak a Sondek can start to sound a little like members of a secret priesthood.

This was all too much for me to deal with by myself, and Linn's official policy is that their esteemed dealer network should take care of it for customers. I drove the turntbale up to the Phoenix Linn dealer and paid a good bit of money for a tuneup. This was the same place I'd just bought another amplifier from a couple months earlier. I had a long chat with the guy who had sold me the amp, and was going to be working on my record player, about why I was getting distortion on some records but not all. He claimed it was that the vinyl was damaged -- which didn't really convince me, since some of it already sounded horrible when the vinyl was brand new. The reviewers in all these magazines I was reading didn't talk about how they had to stop playing a record halfway through the first side because of the distortion, or say that they threw away 7/8s of the stuff they bought used because it was unplayable. He let me play some music on my turntable and on the store's reference Sondek with all the options -- about ten thousand bucks of record player in a stereo in the high five figures. I thought their deck didn't sound much better than mine, and that, as a whole, my system at home sounded better. Got home, and my turntable didn't sound much different than before. No magic, plus now the armboard, on its suspension, floated about a centimeter above the rest of the plinth, which looked really crappy, and it bounced strangely.

I'd started noticing that my turntable was having occasional problems holding its speed after I turned it on. Sometimes it would slow down and make all my records sound like 78s played at 45. Sometimes it would stop altogether. Eventually, it had pretty much stopped spinning up at all. Back to Phoenix I went. I was told that the guy I'd talked to last time, who was a bit patronizing but at least engaged me in conversation, no longer worked there. A rushed-seeming younger guy gave me the impression that he would rework his entire schedule and do me all sorts of favors just to take the tiny amount of money I could afford and work on the deck (even though the store was empty.) The problem was diagnosed as a burt out motor. I had to leave it there for a while to get worked on. When I picked it up, after paying, I asked what had caused the problem. The guy told me it was the stress on the motor caused by the suspension running too high -- and oh, look, it was still running high; he'd have to strip the deck down again and fix it, and would have to charge me another $75 of labor for that (on top of the $225 I had already been charged.) I said wait a minute -- you're telling me that this motor burnt out because the last time the deck got set up -- which was in this very store, by your staff -- the suspension was too high; and that now, because you failed to notice this while you were charging me the first $75 in labor to install it and set up the deck correctly (which, presumably, includes things like setting it at the right height), you have to charge me another $75? He said errr, ummm, okay, we'll take care of this. That was the last time I set foot in the store. About two weeks later I started having exactly the same motor problems.

Not long after that, I packed the whole thing up for my move back to the evil East Coast. My boyfriend got me a new cartridge one Christmas, the much-raved-about Dynavector 10x4 Mk. II high-output moving coil from Japan. It sounded great, and even tracked a little better than the Linn cartridge had. The motor issues were getting pretty bad again, though. I took the thing into one of the local dealers, who said it wasn't the motor at all -- it couldn't possibly be the motor -- but that it was the sophisticated electronic power supply which fed the motor so it wouldn't get faster and slower as the voltage coming out of the wall changed from the fridge kicking in or the big halogen lights going on. This was, he said, a pretty common problem, and a five-minute fix with a five-cent part. He sent it off, and I asked for a tuneup and expert cartridge alignment too. When I got it back -- a couple months later -- it wasn't really fixed. Still did the same stuff, just maybe not as often. And the cartridge didn't track any better. The next Christmas my boyfriend got me a British DC power supply from a company called Origin Live, complete with a new DC motor. The turntable sounded great. For the first time in a couple years, it had stable speed. Pianos didn't sound like they were being played underwater. The only problems were that the new motor made a lot of mechanical noise, and that the arm still had its tracking problems. In addition, it just wasn't giving me any amazing experiences any more -- certainly not enough to justify all the effort and money I'd been pouring in. Pretty much all my CDs sounded better than my records -- something that I knew shouldn't happen from the first couple years I had the LP12.

Around this time I went down to visit a friend in New Jersey. She had a hankering for a stereo, so we went to a Linn dealer on Long Island. She walked home with a $4K system. I chatted with the guy at the shop, and told him about my saga. He said, shit, you got charged double for the motor in Arizona, the labor was a bit high, and that kind of problem could never have been the motor in the first place. Bring it back to us anyway. I sighed and came home. I decided one day after reading on a lot of internet fora about LP12s that I could do a tuneup myself, and possibly do it better than the "professionals" who had served me so -- ahem -- well. So I stripped down the deck and tinkered with the springs for a couple hours. I couldn't get the bounce perfect, but it was a lot better than it was before, and it sounded a little more tuneful. I noticed that one of the three screws into the laminated armboard had been stripped at some point -- probably during one of the many rides the turntable made to one of these awful dealers. This was supposed to make a difference to the sound -- since the tonearm could sort of flop around a little as the cartridge read the groove -- but I didn't have a new, un-stripped armboard to replace it with, and I was getting disenchanted with the whole idea of Linn anyway by this time. I still had Linn speakers, but I was using Naim amplification, an old Linn CD transport (the box that reads the bits off the disc) and a French Micromega Digital-to-Analog Converter. I stopped bothering with records, got some pretty good sounds off of CDs, and got a little less neurotic about it all.

This Christmas, by boyfriend surprised me with a Rega P25 -- another British-made record player, but one which is the antithesis of the Linn in many ways. It has no suspension, apart from some soft rubber feet. Nothing to go out of tune. The arm screws onto the plinth. There's a simple power supply which is supposed to cancel out most motor vibration. The main bearing is virtually indestructible, as are the bearings in its arm, which is supposed to be one of the best values in high end audio. When it arrived, I put the cartridge on it, and hey, it sounded pretty good. It even tracked a little better, a little cleaner. It still wasn't perfect, but it made most of my records more listenable, and I didn't feel like it was damaging them all as I played them. Some stuff even sounded quite a bit better than CD again, although a lot of old records were still shrill and noisy. I started thinking about maybe getting a new cartridge -- Shure made one called the V15VxMR that was supposed to be able to track grooves that no other cartridge could. As time went by, I started listening to vinyl a little less. There wasn't quite enough bass sometimes; things could sound thin and bright. It was still an improvement from before, but not enough to make it all worthwhile.

On one of the hi fi fora I read, someone started a thread asking how a P25 compared to an LP12. I posted my thoughts, and an abbreviated version of my experiences, summing up by saying that I was enjoying the P25 a lot more than the LP12. Someone else, a guy who said he used to work at one of the best Linn dealers in the US, said that no P25 should ever sound better than an LP12, that something was wrong with mine, and that the armboard made a pretty big difference -- and that he had a spare armboard he'd give me for a pittance. I said okay, it's worth a try. While I was waiting for the board to arrive, my boyfriend and I were talking, and he reminded me that he had an old cartridge at his parents' from the cheap Japanese turntable he was using when we met. He thought I could give it a try on the Sondek. I asked him to pick it up on his way home from work one day. He did, and it turned out to be a Shure V15VMR -- the predecessor to the very cartridge I had been thinking about getting. I got excited, until I noticed that the cantilever -- the piece of metal that holds the diamond needle -- had been bent about 35 degrees off vertical at some point. However, I found out that Shure had an exchange program, and would give us a replacement stylus for $50 if we sent this one back. The armboard arrived a couple days later, and I set everything up. Stripping down the turntable was actually pretty easy, now that I started to understand how it all worked. We sat down with some records one evening, and we were blown away. The cartridge was mistracking on one side a little -- from that 35-degree bend -- but on the other side, it was tracking better than I'd ever heard, and much better than the Dynavector ever did. More than that, for the first time, it felt like we were hearing the master tape. We could hear right through the noise and distortion, and we could hear the tiniest details on the record. We cranked it, and Van Morrison materialized and got down with his band. Dolly Parton sang her heart out on Jolene (don't scoff: this is an amazing album, and very pre-commercial Dolly). We could hear tape noise on the master tape. We could hear the size of the room by the reverb. We could hear subtleties in the tempo the drummers were setting, when they sped up and pulled the band along at the ends of verses. We could hear the way Van held onto some notes in his throat a little longer, even while the horns were blatting out behind him. We couldn't help turning the volume up and up. It was amazing, and totally unlike anything I'd ever experienced from a stereo before. We sent the old stylus to Illinois and waited excitedly.

It took a couple weeks to come back. This new stylus is a little off-kilter if you look at it from above, but that's not too uncommon, and easy enough to fix by changing the angle of the cartridge in the tonearm. It sounds amazing. Moving magnet cartridges -- where the magnet part of the tiny motor that makes sound is attached to the cantilever, rather than to the non-moving part of the cartridge, like in my Dynavector -- are supposed to track a little better, since a magnet weighs less than a coil. They're not supposed to give you all the details, the instrumental color, the bass punch, the soundstaging, the pace, rhythm, and timing subtleties, the blah blah blah. Bullshit. This Shure does all that stuff much much better than the Dynavector. And it tracks inner grooves like a champ. Stuff that was unlistenable via the Dynavector is just fine now. Some records still sound awful, but they're a pretty small minority now, and the ones that sound good... Wow. This is the best I've ever heard a stereo sound. This is better than the $20K Linn CD12 through five figures worth of Naim preamp and five figures worth of active ATC speakers I heard in New York. This is better than the full-blown Linn LP12/Ekos tonearm/Lingo power supply/Arkiv cartridge that I heard in Arizona. This is amazing. It's engaging, it's groovy, it makes you want to dance and sing. Surface noise -- dust and minor scratches -- sound like nothing through the Linn now, compared to the Rega, which always made them stand out. Bass is louder and more controlled -- no boomy resonance -- although I think the Rega goes a tiny bit deeper. Everything is fast and sophisticated and delightful.

The other day, I was wading around on the Audio Asylum vinyl forum, and noticed a post where someone talked about not getting much bass through his Rega. One of the responses had a list of suggestions, including making sure the connections from the cartridge to the wires in the tonearm that go to the amp were tight and secure. I thought that was worth checking out, and went to have a look at my Rega. They were quite loose. Ten minutes of work with a pair of needle-nose pliers later, I put a record on. Wow. There's bass now. Even more bass than there is out of the Linn. The Linn is still more controlled, mcuh less noisy, and grooves better, but the Rega is much better than it was -- I could live with it. I have the feeling there's some more suspension work to do on the Linn. I also want to try the Rega's tonearm on it, just for kicks. But for the first time in eight years, I have a turntable that really plays music very well, and makes CDs sound like a dumb idea. And after today, I've got a second turntable that does the same thing. I finally understand why people have raved about the sound of vinyl since CDs were introduced. I have faith that I can learn to do mechanical work with my hands, and that I can trust myself to do it well, much more than I can an arrogant and inept dealer network. My one problem is that I have trouble getting work done. I want to listen to records all day instead.

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