Analog Corner #121

Heart Attack on a Plate
Sundazed Music’s Bob Irwin was angry—and not because the corned beef at the Carnegie Deli was fatty (a given). A bunch of grizzled industry veterans, among them John Atkinson, AudioQuest’s Joe Harley, and David Chesky, were gathered for the annual pre–Home Entertainment Show high-cholesterol blowout organized by Ken Kessler at the famous New York eatery, and Irwin was explaining what the nice folks at Universal Music Group (UMG) had just done to him.

“Is this for publication?” I asked.

“You betcha!” Irwin responded with gusto (Since then Mr. Irwin has moved to Nashville and I assume has "buried the hatchet" with UMG).

For the past 15 years, Sundazed, based in Coxsackie, New York, has been churning out a musically eclectic mix of reissues on CD and LP, aided on the vinyl side by the company’s close proximity to the UMG-owned UNI pressing plant in Gloversville, New York. Thanks to Irwin’s dogged pursuit of high-quality vinyl, he’d pushed, prodded, and cajoled UNI into becoming a first-class purveyor of 180gm black biscuits. As Irwin and cohort Tim Livingston explained during our artery-clogging meal, it was sometimes hit or miss, the plant operators often not knowing exactly what they were doing—especially in the early days. Irwin would receive a test pressing, give it a listen, then report back, “Whatever you did that time, keep doing it!” or “Don’t ever do that again!”

Over time, UNI’s plating and pressing acumen grew to where the 180gm LPs they made—at very reasonable cost—rivaled the best available. Business grew for the factory, one of the last large employers in depressed Gloversville, as other companies were drawn to the plant for their vinyl pressing needs.

Then, late last winter, UMG decided to shut UNI down, even though, by all accounts, the factory was making money. These days, it’s all about the short-term corporate bottom line. Shut it down, sell the assets, take the payroll off the balance sheet, and guess what? Better short-term bottom line!

“Do you wanna know what they did to me?” Irwin fumed. “When I negotiated a per-unit price for manufacturing, it included the cost of plating and the cost of the record itself. I own the metal parts stored at the factory. These SOBs called me when they announced the shutdown and asked me if I wanted my metal parts [plated lacquers, mothers, and stampers]. Of course I did.

“ ‘Well, it’s going to cost you,’ they responded. ‘But I own them!’ ‘Either you pay what we’re asking or we’re going to destroy them.’ ”

So, Irwin told us, he was forced to fork over a large sum of money (he described it as “a small fortune”) to get back what he’d already paid for and owned. When he contacted his lawyer about legal release, he was told, “Do you want to pay them [x] dollars to get your stampers, or fight them in court and pay me twice as much—which is what it will cost to fight them and win the case—to prove a point?”

Irwin would have to pay an amount that, for an indie label, isn’t exactly chump change. As of the day I write this, other charges are pending for the return of certain items stored at the UNI plant and subject to negotiation. Not on the table will be Sundazed’s Warners metal masters (Love, Van Dyke Parks, The Stooges, etc.). Sundazed owns these, but despite Irwin’s expressed willingness to buy them back, UNI inadvertently scrapped them. Irwin retained control of the mothers and stampers and can press records in the short term, but once those parts wear out, he’ll have to start over again and cut new lacquers.

Bob Irwin is a perfectionist. For him, mastering a record is no simple matter of putting up a tape and cutting a lacquer. He went through months of painstaking hell and dozens of lacquers trying to match the on-the-fly mastering moves made for the original pressing of Love’s classic Forever Changes album, for instance. He’s not looking forward to going through that again.

Meanwhile, Irwin checked around and found out that the major labels got all of their masters and parts back, no questions asked. Why? Probably because they have teams of attorneys at the ready and the resources to fight back. UMG was very particular about which companies it would steamroll: small, defenseless indie labels.

But that wasn’t the only call Irwin had received from UMG that he told us about during the Carnegie Deli dinner. UNI had discovered a stash of extra Sundazed record labels. These had not yet been paid for and belonged to UMG, but the company had no use for them; given the 15-year relationship with Sundazed, what would have been the big deal about just letting Sundazed have them? But again, UMG set Sundazed a price, a deadline, and an ultimatum: Buy them or they’ll be destroyed. Because the cost of reprinting was greater than what UMG was asking, Sundazed chose to accept, but when a Sundazed employee called—well within UMG’s deadline—to close the deal, she was told that the labels had already been destroyed.

According to Irwin, UMG’s 180gm presses have been bought by and shipped to United Record Pressing in Nashville, Tennessee. Fortunately, Sundazed already had a great relationship with United: all of the label’s 7" 45rpms are pressed there and have been for years. Sundazed’s 180gm LPs will now be made there as well, pressed on the same machines formerly located in Gloversville. Irwin and I made plans to fly down and visit the United plant sometime in June. Hopefully, by the time you read this, we’ll have been there.

On with the Show!

Vintage Thorens Reference Turntable
The Home Entertainment 2005 Show was an odd mix of products and companies. It’s expensive to produce a show in New York City, and consequently expensive to exhibit. Many of the major players in high-performance audio stayed away, but many upstarts chose to play, hoping to get noticed by consumers and the press. The infusion of new and, in some cases, young talent and capital into a supposedly fading industry gave many veterans a much-needed shot of optimism.

The home theater side was equally underrepresented. New Jersey–based Samsung mounted a big display of new products, but Panasonic, Toshiba, and other locally based companies stayed home, as did Sony. Thomson (RCA) was there, as were Yamaha and computer maker Hewlett-Packard, the latter making a big push for “convergence.” Speaking of which, Peter Tribeman’s Internet-only Outlaw Audio produced an impressive home theater demo, but in the corner of the room demoed the company’s new RR 2150 two-channel receiver ($599), complete with a moving-magnet/moving-coil phono preamp that Tribeman said was hardly an afterthought. To back up his contention, they spun black discs on a Pro-Ject turntable that I was pressed into service to set up before the show began. XM Satellite was there, but Sirius was a no-show.

Only one major local retailer, Sound by Singer, chose to participate. Innovative, Lyric, CSA, and the rest were missing and missed. Smaller dealers, such as In Living Stereo and Rhapsody Audio, did make the effort.

The press turnout at HE2005—612 journalists from around the globe were registered— was excellent. The official attendance figure was 13,000 consumers, along with 2500 members of the trade; most exhibitors with whom I spoke were quite satisfied with the quantity and especially the quality of the turnout.

I spent all of the press day being the Show mouthpiece, escorting television and radio crews around the Hilton New York, and so missed many of the press events, including Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab’s master-tape demo featuring legendary recording engineer Marc Aubort.

I didn’t expect to find much that was new since the Consumer Electronics Show, in January, but I was pleasantly surprised by a few developments, including a new, lower-cost turntable from Brinkmann. The new Oasis ($6800) is the company’s first direct-drive design, the details of which are best left to a review. The handsome-looking ’table features a conventional-looking square wooden plinth. Build quality and fit’n’finish appear to be equal to that of the more expensive Brinkmanns.

Importer Lawrence Blair told me that my review of the Brinkmann Balance in this column last May had helped push sales of over two dozen units—a surprisingly high number, given the $14,850 price of the basic ’table without tonearm (add $3650 for the arm, $3100 for a tubed power supply, and $2400 for a Harmonic Resolution Systems isolation base). The news that one review can so motivate that many audiophiles to invest in such an expensive product (many without ever actually hearing it) left me humbled and somewhat uncomfortable. On the other hand, wielding such influence comes only after years of sharing what I hope are strong, mostly unequivocal opinions with readers. Obviously, having them validated to the point where such a level of trust develops is gratifying, to say the least! I hope all you new Balance owners are enjoying your ’tables. I hope to join you soon.

Aaudio Imports (correct spelling) presented the New York debut of the Einstein line from Germany, which I’d admired on every trip to the now-defunct Frankfurt show, which was held at the picturesque Kampinski Hotel. Eventually, I hope to give a listen to Einstein’s The Turntable’s Choice MC phono preamp ($4950). Also of great interest in the Aaudio room was an extensive line of record-cleaning solutions from Audiotop Products of Switzerland. Vinyl1 ($157/liter) is the company’s detergent-based cleaning fluid designed for vacuum machines. Vinyl2 is a post-cleaning friction reducer ($125/50ml), while Stylus ($89/10ml) cleans guess what? There’s even TQI, a special product for cleaning the Clearaudio-Souther tonearm’s quartz rods. Audiotop also makes contact and CD cleaners. I hope to get samples of these products. If I can figure out some way to conduct a meaningful shoot-out between record-cleaning solutions, I will do so, but for now I’m not sure it’s possible—at least in terms of how well a particular solution cleans. However, hearing if and how a solution sounds should be possible; in my experience, cleaning even a clean record with a particular solution can often change the sound.

Speaking of shoot-outs, John Atkinson’s “Great Debate” with online audio skeptic Arnie Krueger (Krueger passed away early May, 2018) was easily the most unpleasant and uncomfortable experience I’ve had since Zell Miller’s out-of-body speech at last year’s GOP convention. Krueger’s main point seemed to be that Stereophile’s reviews are “invalid” because we don’t do double-blind ABX tests, though he failed to back up his contention. [An MP3 recording of the debate is available on the Stereophile website.

After the session I attempted to engage Krueger in conversation, but I could not finish a sentence without him interrupting and cutting me off. When I told him how rude he was to not let me finish my thought, his answer was that because he knew what I was going to say, he wasn’t really being rude. When I tried to bring up the double-blind amplifier challenge I’d made to David Clark, and how I had joined attendees in taking Clark’s test at an Audio Engineering Society convention in Los Angeles and got five out of five identifications correct (JA got four of five) but was declared a “lucky coin” and my results were tossed out, he cut me off again, telling me that he’d heard Clark’s version of the story and that it wasn’t really a test but a “demo.”

There’s no winning with these people, but there’s a great deal of losing. Thanks to folks like Krueger, his associate Tom Nousaine of (the old) Sound & Vision magazine, and the rest of their crowd, the fun has been suffocated out of what should be a joyous hobby for tens of thousands of audio enthusiasts. (I was sucked into that dreary sonic dead end myself for a few years in the early 1970s.)

Many readers stopped me in the crowded halls to tell me to check out the Sound Engineering SE 1F turntable. Turns out it’s made by Bob Benn, the Nashville-based gentleman who made the outer ring for the platter of my Simon Yorke ’table a few years ago (he’s since passed away). The SE 1F is distributed by High Water Sound’s Jeff Catalano, whom I’d met years earlier when reviewing the AudioNote Kondo cartridge and step-up transformer. The SE 1F is a formidable-looking, space-consuming assembly of brass and wood featuring a high-mass platter, a flywheel, a totally independent arm pod, an outboard DC motor, and both a spindle record weight and a platter ring. It sat on a Silent Running Audio isolation platform. According to Bob Benn, the ’table, motor, flywheel, platter ring, record weight, SRA platform, arm pod, and SE-1 motor umbilical will sell for $12,500. A second arm pod will be available as an option, and most likely the ’table will be available as a “basic” model, with both record weights, motor umbilical, and isolation platform available as options.

DaVinci Audio Labs Grandezza Tonearm and Turntable
High Water also imports the impressive looking, Swiss-made DaVinci Audio Labs Grandezza tonearm, available in 9", 10", and 12" editions ($6000, $6200, and $6400, respectively). The arm features ruby bearings made by a watchmaker, and an armtube of grenadilla wood (denser than ebony), sourced from a clarinet maker. The arm uses a standard SME mount and what appears to be a Rega-sourced cueing mechanism, but is otherwise an elegant-looking, ruggedly built, custom design that comes in an equally elegant wooden box. This is a tonearm that any analog-loving audiophile would lust for, or at least lust to audition.

Musical Surroundings introduced one new Clearaudio turntable and two new Clearaudio turntable packages at HE2005. The Ambient ’table ($4350) includes a Satisfy Direct Wire tonearm with carbon-fiber armtube, and a two-piece ’table featuring a plinth made of multiple layers of dense wood sandwiched between two layers of aluminum. The similarly constructed outboard motor housing includes a Clearaudio Smart Synchro speed controller. The platter, made of 40mm-thick GS acrylic, rests on an inverted ceramic ball bearing. The ’table without arm sells for $3500.

Clearaudio’s package of Champion Magnum and Satisfy Direct Wire ($3500) features a 70mm-thick GS acrylic platter, acrylic plinth, high-mass stainless-steel feet, an outboard motor, and the carbon-fiber-tubed Satisfy Direct Wire, while the new Champion Deluxe/Satisfy Direct Wire combo costs a very reasonable $2000. The new Emotion/Satisfy Direct Wire combo ($995) features special high-mass aluminum feet and a Direct Wire arm (cartridge pins to RCA plugs).

Audio Turntable, the new importer of the ELP laser turntable, made a big splash with a Halcro–Manley–Joseph Audio playback system that showed off both the ELP’s strong suits (zero tracking and tracing distortion) and its weak one (dirt and groove information are read with equal fidelity). Clean records sounded impressive, and the always-crowded room demonstrated high audiophile interest in the laser tracker, despite its +$13,000 price tag.

Speaking of high prices, Continuum Audio Lab’s high-tech, retro-looking Caliburn turntable and Cobra tonearm, fitted with a Mysonic cartridge, made astonishing sounds in association with Lamm electronics and Peak Consult loudspeakers. I kept returning to the room, but only because the ’table, which was supposed to go from HE2005 directly to my listening room for review, had been damaged by Customs (were they looking for Weapons of Analog Destruction?). While the Continuum boys were able to get the ’table up and running, they were uncomfortable delivering it for review in its damaged state, so the review will be delayed for a while. Apparently, every analog reviewer in the world but me has begged for an exclusive on this turntable, and I’m getting it first. I like that.

Unless I missed something, that was all the analog news at HE2005, though of course other turntable brands, such as VPI, Avid, and Music Hall, were represented. A consumer show is an opportunity to show the public that analog is alive and well, so it was unfortunate that such brands as Rega, Kuzma, Pro-Ject, and many others were not represented. At a Frankfurt show one year, one of the many thriving German audio magazines hosted a room full of turntables in which shoot-outs were held hourly. Too bad the US can’t support such a display at a consumer trade show (not to mention a healthier environment for audio magazines).

Judging by the vinyl sales at the show, analog is stronger than ever in the digital era. Acoustic Sounds, Elusive Disc, and Music Direct schlepped large inventories of vinyl to HE2005 and went home with much lighter loads. I appreciated the pickings at Music Direct most because they had a good selection of nonaudiophile rock and jazz vinyl, such as The Arcade Fire’s haunting Funeral, Kathleen Edwards’ Back to Me, and a great Albert Ayler compilation, Holy Ghost, on Revenant. I picked up a bunch of new LPs there—not that I really needed any more.

Finally, there was my annual “Analog Clinic,” held this year on Sunday at 10am. We had an almost full house despite the less than convenient time slot, and I spent the hour setting up a Hadcock arm on a Nottingham Audio Horizon SE turntable, which I’m sure would have made an excellent combo. I say “would have” because I never got to try it out. In fact, to save time, I went through the motions more than I did an actual setup, but because the Hadcock arm is so configurable, I think I was able to show everyone how to adjust every tonearm setup parameter. I suggested that first-timers in the crowd buy an inexpensive Grado cartridge and set that up before attempting more costly models. “You’d be surprised,” I told them, “how good those budget Grados can sound properly set up.” Thanks to Greg Nivens and the Show staff for supplying a great video system that let everyone in the audience see what I was doing.

See you all at Home Entertainment 2006!

Jenn's picture

Good golly but that's a blast from the past! I wasted WAY too much "debating" him on the old I mean WAY too much time. Disagreeing about audio matters is one thing, but he would get real real nasty and personal, and I caught him in one lie after another. JA will remember this. Anyway, thanks for that memory, and for making me remember how much I miss Carnegie Deli!

DrWatson's picture

It was a very sad day when Carnegie Deli closed. I teared up when Stage deli, a couple of blocks away closed, a few years earlier. It was devastating when NYC lost Carnegie. :(