How to Practice Black Magic

Mover Over Harry Potter

Francis Vale

For a long period of time I was counted among the great analog unwashed and came perilously close to dumping my entire LP collection -- and was mercifully stopped at the last minute by a wife far wiser than me. I subsequently learned that for all its power and technical might, the magic performed by CDs, be they the current decades old format or the new super audio CDs like DVD-Audio and SACD, was still no better than that of a cheap audio charlatan. Real audio magic, I finally discovered, is best found in the black vinyl kind —-records.

My audibly retarded discovery may also come as a revelation to more than a few readers, some of who may also have consigned their vinyl and record players to last millennium’s dustbin. It seems that while you and I were being had by those silvery CD tricksters, a sizable hobbyist phenomenon, collectively called high-end audio, was busily busting its technical chops, wringing ever more sonic truth and beauty out of that stuff you (and I almost) sent slithering down the chute.

Those old vinyl records of mine, once properly cleaned up and played on a modern turntable system astonished me in their ability to cast an irresistible musical spell. And the latest generation of vinyl LP's, like the new "super" vinyl formula recordings from Classic Audio are on the next plane of audio reality from the old RCA, Decca, Columbia and other labels of a bygone era. This new breed of vinyl alchemy promises even richer harmonics and a more precise soundstage presentation.

Real life sound is unrepentantly analog, not a string of ones and zeros arriving at your inner ear. No matter how you bit-slice and DVD-dice it that digitized audio is still being rendered unnaturally, which means that an analog record is much closer to reality in terms of how it encodes sonic information. If the medium is the message, then vinyl speaks the recorded Truth as told by the great analog tape masters on which much of it was originally recorded.

I have done a number of A/B comparisons between audiophile grade CDs and new vinyl pressings for my audio gearhead friends, most of who are true digital rules! believers. I used identical recordings produced off the same master tape. With almost every recording, there was a much more "real" performer standing there in front of us with the LP than with the CD.

When confronted with these etheric analogues, my audience’s binary notions were disconcertingly turned upside down. Ultimately, conjuring up a palpably real performer presence is what should be driving our high-end audio quest, not focusing on technology for technology’s sake, a lesson that I also learned. Equally startling, the LP's were as background noise-free as the CDs, which flied squarely in the face of their scratch, tick, pop, and hiss recollections. But once my friends settled down, faces now aglow in the magical analog fire known as vinyl, their next questions were inevitably "what, and how much"?

Some Gear Recommendations

Musical Surroundings,, distributes the German-made Clearaudio turntable line that includes the Master Reference, a visually stunning tour de force done in acrylic and brass ($12,500, phono cartridge sold separately).

Musical Surroundings also offers an integrated, discounted package that consists of the Basis 2001 turntable with RB300 tonearm and Benz-Micro MC-Ruby 2 or Ruby H cartridge. This $5,300 package is the price of a mid-level high-end blessed CD player. However, the gloriously rich analog sound will be anything but middling.

Even a commercially mainstream system, like the Panasonic-made Technics SL-1200MK2 turntable/tonearm ($749) with a Shure V15VxMR cartridge ($400,, will have you entranced and dancing around the room.

Or if you still want something from the high-end gnomes but at a very low price you may want to consider a $989 rig consisting of the Czech-made MMF-7, which comes with turntable, tonearm and Goldring Eroica MC cartridge, available at and elsewhere.

But no matter which system you choose you won’t go wrong.

Copyright 2001, Francis Vale, All Rights Reserved

21st Pub date: November 2001

21st, The VXM Network,