Gordana Throws Francis a Vinyl Body Block

Bob Comes back to Life

Francis Vale


The Road to High End Damascus has many forks. Sometimes you get lucky, and catch an express ride. Other times, you have to get there one slow, short ride at a time. Digital Compact Disc, with its Perfect Sound Forever, was supposed to have been the Bullet Train straight into downtown. Hey, I fell for it. I bought my ticket, and came within inches of dumping my entire collection of vinyl. Were it not for my wife Gordana, who threw a whole body block across the trash chute, my many years of LPs would have long since been recycled into Mr. Potato Heads or some other plastic nonsense. So, the old vinyl sat, sleeping grooved dreams, stored away in boxes in the back of the closet.

Then came the Great Awakening in the form of Brian Tucker of Pro Audio, who came to Boston bearing, Mirabile dictu! an all carbon fiber turntable, tone arm, and phono cartridge. This remarkable space age material ensemble comes from the UK-based Wilson Benesch.

Within minutes, we had up and running the Wilson Benesch ACT2 player, and its Hybrid cartridge. Perhaps most amazing is the look and feel of the Wilson Benesch carbon fiber tone arm. Looking like some sleek, glossy scaled animal, the tone arm exudes an organic vitality. You want to caress it, and maybe even give it a name -- but nothing cute, though.

Of course, to give the Wilson Benesch the full acoustic isolation treatment, we just had to put this gorgeous rig on top of D.J. Casser Enterprises' Shelf (review forthcoming), which in turn sat on top of three of his already-proven-amazing Black Diamond Racing Cones.

But what to play first? Perhaps presciently, Mobile Fidelity had already supplied an answer. MoFi issues its releases on both gold-covered CDs, as well as on 200 grams of High Definition vinyl. And both playback mediums are manufactured via MoFi's remarkable GAIN System. We had a collection of MoFi CDs and LPs in for review. So here was the perfect opportunity to do a real time AB comparison between two different sources, playing the same material, created from the same master tape, and using the same recording process.

First, a glittery MoFi CD was slipped into the Rat Shack 3400 (also sitting on three of Casser's Cones), which in turn is connected via an Ensemble Digiflux 75 coax cable into an Enlightened Audio Designs 1000 Series II DAC. This MoFi CD was the recent reissue of "Ella and Louis Again UDCD (2-651). The album comes on two mono discs. These recording sessions from August, 1957, had Fitzgerald and Armstrong backed up by the Oscar Peterson Trio (with Louis Bellson in lieu of Buddy Rich).

Next, onto the Wilson Benesch rig, we placed a piece of virgin MoFi vinyl. We carefully timed the start of identical tracks on both the CD and LP, and away we went, with one person standing by the Cary SLP-90L Preamp to flip the source switch. (The Cary's glowing tubes were also now corseted and cooled via Ensemble Tube Socks II, again thanks to Tucker.) The analog Preamp being used with the Wilson Benesch cartridge is Ensemble's Phonomaster, whose sleek Swiss-made chrome chassis is a perfect match for the equally-chromed and slick looking Cary unit.

The first track we listened to was Louis singing "Let's Do it (Let's Fall in Love)". Quickly, we flip back and forth between the CD and LP. And then, and then, oh my God! It's true! All that stuff we had dismissed as so much high end drivel about vinyl being superior to CDs is true! No, No, No. This cannot be! What happened to our Perfect Sound Forever that Sony and Philips had promised us! One more cherished belief down the tubes. Perfect Sound Forever suddenly joined Nixon's "I did not tell a lie". Damn. Yet one more reason to be cynical about the Meaning of Life.

But this time, at least, it was a fair trade off. For there, singing in front of us, real as life, 3D himself, a full, round sound floating in true VR space, was Louis. Not a paper cutout Louis, but a Real Louis, singin' about bees doin' it, oysters doin' it, and Boston Baked Beans doin' it. Oh wow. Now back to the CD. Heretofore, Gordana and I had really enjoyed this disc. Ignorance is indeed bliss. The CD was still excellent mind you, but it just wasn't Louis on that Gold shiny thing. It was facsimile Louis.

No. Louis was busy fallin' in love on the Wilson Benesch/vinyl system with a veritable bestiary of amazing creatures. But on the CD, he was merely smitten with them. And then, up came "Stompin at The Savoy", with Ella taking the lead. But what's this? The music suddenly kicks into high gear, and the bass playing driving along Satchmo's horn and Ella's voice is amazingly true! The Hsu HRSW12V subwoofer backing up our Apogee Caliper Signatures has found some kind of newfangled religion. We have to back off the level on the Hsu. How can this be? We thought CD bass was supposed to kick LP bass butt. But now we have to turn down the bass? And the LP bass wasn't some flabby, bloated thing. The Wilson Benesch combo was belting out tight, tuneful low notes. Another marketing lie hits the dust!

Oh man, we are rapidly hitting sensory overload. Ella and Louis are hanging out in our living room, nearly forty years after they laid down these licks. And so it goes, track after track, in the CD vs. LP comparison. MoFi's Ella andLouis reissue is a gem, be it on CD or LP; but the Wilson Benesch/vinyl system forever altered Gordana's and mine perception of audio playback.

After Brian left, we kept at it. In particular, MoFi has another CD/LP reissue of the Oscar Peterson trio that we both really like. This time, Oscar is not in the background, but way out in front, hammering the ivories in tuneful simpatico with Milton Jackson on vibes. This MoFi reissue of the September, 1961, recording of "Very Tall" is wonderful. And also again, before Messieurs Wilson and Benesch raced into Boston with their carbon fiber rig, Gordana and I had listened to this MoFi CD (UDCD 655) a number of times, all the while marveling at the virtuosity of Milt and Oscar as they jammed away.

But once the MoFi LP was put on, and AB'd with the CD, boom! No contest! One cut, in particular, "The Work Song" by Nat Adderly, stuck out. This song has a sudden, quick hammering unison of piano, vibes and drums at its beginning. Ed Thigpen's drumming provides a perfect rhythmic foundation to Oscar and Milton. And then, just as quickly, it all dies down, leaving a series of vibe/piano overtones.

On the CD, everything is clear, but the thrust of the opening, and especially the decay of the piano/vibes, hangs like a shimmering knife. On the LP, this opening energy is more direct, and packs a much greater emotional wallop. But more importantly, the notes now linger in the air not as crystal sharp edges, but as glistening, shimmering echoes. In sum, the piano and vibes are much more 'real.'

Likewise, the LP bass in "Work Song" defied all expectations. The CD bass, while focused and tight, just was not as musical as its vinyl "Very Tall" counterpart. At last, the recording winds down to the mellow "Reunion Blues." Once more, the LP captures more of the relaxed pace of the tune. It's just more Real.

What is going on here? Why does it all sound so Real on LP, and not on CD? Is it the LP? Is it the Wilson Benesch/Ensemble rig? Is it both? I suspect that even without the remarkable Wilson Benesch carbon fiber gear, the LP would sound More Real. But Real or less real, this MoFi recording of Very Tall is another must have.

To drive home this point once and for all about Real or Not Real (What is this, Velveteen Rabbit II?), I put on another MoFi Reissue, "Catch A Fire" by Bob Marley and the Wailers. Now I must admit, when I first heard Bob et al on the MoFi CD (UDCD 654), I (as well as Gordana) was less than blown away. I liked the music OK, but there was no emotional connection. Whereas the Wilson Benesch/vinyl system seemed to have this eerie power of reincarnating musicians in our living room, I figured if Bob was to come alive again, this was his best shot.

So on went the MoFi LP version. Oh boy! Jamaican vinyl VooDoom suddenly went to work as long dead spirits came back to life. On the Anadisc 200, songs like "Stir it Up" and "400 Years", and Concrete Jungle' were no longer just some catchy words sung to a driving reggae beat. They were now words of protest, songs of emotional anguish, and of longing for a better life. "Catch A Fire" gained an immediate, right to the solar plexus, impact. On its CD counterpart, everything, once again, was crystal clear. But it had no ear to the heart immediacy. But on the LP? Suffice to say, Bob has now gone from being played hardly at all to, Hey! Where did you put that album?

Listening to Marley on the Wilson Benesch/analog rig, it quickly became clear why he emerged as a spokesman for not only his people's longings, but for so many others as well, in so many other parts of the world.

This Marley recording, for me, maybe best summarizes the magic that vinyl has suddenly brought back into our life. When dormant, long ago recorded emotions can be reawakened so vividly, so suddenly, it is time to sit up and take notice.

I wonder if Gordana will toss me another body block if, this time, it's the CD collection I try to throw out? Somehow, I think not.

Copyright 1996, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

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