Analog Corner #62

What's June without a hi-fi show? With Stereophile's exhibition put on hold for 2000 while emapUSA sorts out future possibilities—Manhattan in May 2001 is the most probable place and date—I flashed on High End 1996 in Frankfurt, Germany, a June show I'd attended and reported on in this column. German audiophiles were still heavily into vinyl back then, so why not hit High End 2000?

Sure enough, the show is still held at the Kempinski Hotel, outside Frankfurt; and sure enough, German audiophiles are still into vinyl—and still seem far more intense about audio than are Americans. I guess you could say Germans are more intense, period, but it was refreshing to attend a consumer show where the demographics appeared to be all over the map. There were plenty of young people, a healthy smattering of elderly, and turntables all over the place—makes and models you've probably never heard of or seen.

For a relatively small country, Germany has a big audio industry. While I don't have sales figures, and can't tell you whether the trends are moving up or down, one indication is the proliferation of magazines: five big, sumptuously produced publications and a few small ones. Most prominent are Audio, Image Hi-Fi, Stereoplay, Audiophile, and HiFi & Records. It would be worth learning to read German just to be able to devour these mags, all of which can be found on mainstream German newsstands. But even if you can't read German, mags like Image Hi-Fi and HiFi & Records are worth perusing for the stunning photos and layouts alone.

Such an impressive print lineup shows you how sad the situation is here, where, currently, there's Stereophile and a few small audio magazines. We continue to reap the bitter harvest of decades of "it all sounds the same," and of mind-numbing passivity in the face of same among many in the industry who should have spoken up sooner.

Not so in Germany, where there's enough interest in audio—without video augmentation—to support full lines of equipment you won't find imported to America, such as Fischer and Fischer, Audio Agile, and T+A Audio (I'm not making that last one up). But because my agreement with Stereophiles German correspondent Markus Sauer was that I would stick to analog, I'll get off of his toes and let him cover the rest of the show elsewhere in this issue.

Analog at High End 2000
Ortofon's vintage 309i 12" tonearm (DM 4500, footnote 1) with its original antique-looking SPU integrated cartridge/headshell, is back in production. It has a loyal following in Germany, but I doubt the American market would support it. One was mounted on Loricraft's facsimile edition of Garrard's classic 501 turntable, which is driven by an idler wheel. Dirk Sommer, the astute editor of Image HiFi, reviewed the 309i, along with Ortofon's SPU Royal N and GM cartridges, in the January/February issue of that magazine. But don't ask me what he thought—ich spreche Deutsch nicht.

Analog oldsters will remember the precision, Swiss-made Breuer Dynamics tonearm, also once again in production. I spotted the Type 8 (first-place winner of Image HiFi's Millennium Award for tonearms) on a Brinkman Balance turntable. The Brinkmans were among the most impressive-looking designs I saw at the show, in terms of both mechanical design and build quality. I'd love to hear one in my system. Speaking of arm resurrections, the British Hadcock is also back in production.

It was one thing to walk into a room and find an interesting new turntable I'd never heard of—like the seemingly shockproof, electric-blue Fuchs, which sells for DM 17,000 with unipivot arm (DM 5300 for the arm, DM 12,000 for the turntable), but in some rooms I found brands I'd never heard of—like Acoustic Solid, which showed a whole line of 'tables including the Solid Machine Small, the Solid Machine, the Solid One, the Solid Round, and the Solid One to One. Like the Brinkmans, the Solids appeared to be unique, well-engineered designs, not just plinths fitted with bearings and slabs of machined acrylic.

Another company showing sophisticated-looking analog products was Pluto Audio, founded in 1974. Pluto displayed three "handcrafted" turntables—the 10A, 11A, and 12A (DM 11,800)—and three tonearms: the 5A Special (DM 8000), 7A Special, and 9A Special. No acrylic here, either. Pluto 'tables make use of titanium, stainless steel, and other metals, as well as Kevlar and ceramics.

I have no idea how German audio critics rate Transrotor, which probably exhibited the most extensive lineup of turntables at the show, but after inspecting most of them—including the Leonardo RT (DM 2666 with Rega arm and Goldring cartridge), the Galileo Klar (DM 3300), the Aquila Gold (DM 14,000), the Pianta SL80 (DM 14,650 with SME 3500 or 3012 arm) and S (DM 7795 with SME 3009), the multi-motor Quintessence (DM 55,000), and the Fat Bob (DM 7300)—it seemed to me that "looking cool" had been the main design rationale. Lots of gleaming chrome and acrylic arranged in various thicknesses and layouts, but compared to my reactions to some of the more intensely engineered 'tables I saw, I walked away from the Transrotor room unimpressed...but starry-eyed.

A few German brands are imported Stateside, including Amazon (by Audio Advancement) and, of course, Clearaudio (by Discovery Audio), both of whom were at the show. Amazon likes unipivots: they showed with both the Danish Mörch and American Immedia RPM-2 tonearms. Amazons feature sophisticated motor drives, including an option for battery-powered operation. Clearaudio's room contained turntables familiar to many Americans. Debuting at the show was the Champion, a 'table that begins life as a simple polished acrylic plinth/thin acrylic platter design with an outboard motor and Rega RB250 arm, and is upgradeable to a dual-plinth affair with a much heavier, taller platter, stainless-steel standoffs, and, of course, a higher price. No doubt this 'table will find its way to America.

Clearaudio also introduced a prototype of a unique if somewhat unwieldy vacuum record-cleaning machine. The spinning LP is lowered into a fluid bath where it is automatically brushed on both sides, lifted out, then dried on both sides—all in about a minute. The concept was really attractive; I hope the finished product will be quieter, more compact, and better built.

Another cleaning machine, far smaller and more conventional, was being put through its paces at the Blue Danube Records booth. The hand-built machine operates much like a VPI HW-17, with a fluid reservoir and pump, a bidirectional platter, a fluid applicator wand, and a velvet-lined suction tube, but the Blue Danube refines a few of the 17's rough spots. The gear-driven platter is quiet and of ultra-high torque (it's unstoppable), and the label-wide record holddown clamp includes a rubber surround that prevents cleaning fluid from accidentally spilling onto the label—a very good idea. The design of the suction tube/housing interface makes changing tubes for records of different diameters really easy. With the VPI, you have to change everything. This convenient, well-thought-out, high-quality cleaning machine is sold factory-direct for $1000, only from Blue Danube Records, a giant used-record store ( located in Tulin, Austria, on the Danube near Vienna.

According to owner Christian Bierbaumer, Blue Danube has 10 rooms and two floors of audiophile-quality records—more than 250,000 in all—in a clean, well-organized environment. He told me that 30,000 LPs arrive every month from around the world, and that I'd need three days to thumb through everything. The store also sells used audio gear. The RCA amps used by Wilma Cozart Fine are there, along with walls of vintage gear. Record collectors from around the world visit the store, Bierbaumer told me as I pored over the few dozen boxes filled with vinyl treasures (many from America, including an impressive cache of vintage Mercurys) he'd schlepped to Frankfurt from his store. Of course, I bought a few.

Despite the overload of homegrown turntables, many models from around the world are imported into Germany, including Basis, Spotheim SPJ, Avid, Simon Yorke, Thorens, Immedia (which showed a new, RCA-jack-out update of its RPM-2 arm, so you can choose your own phono interconnect), and Pierre Lurné's Audiomeca designs, the Romance and the J1/SL5 linear tracker. I ran into the guys from Roksan, who promised a review sample of a brand-new 'table they're about to introduce.

But there were still more German turntables on display, including the Symphonic Line, the Clear Light Audio, the Audio Analog Rotation T1, and the Audio Agile Blue Moon and Verve. In fact, vinyl remains so highly regarded in Germany that the used market is very thin; there are few used-vinyl shops compared, say, to the UK. Apparently, most collectors didn't unload their LPs when CDs were introduced, and of course in the East, CDs never were introduced. Who said Communism was all bad? (Save your right-wing ink—I'm joking.)

A few columns ago I reported on the Kingston Dub Plate lathe for cutting your own LPs. There's another home cutting lathe coming soon: the Vestax VRX 2000 Vinyl Recorder, which looked like a neat product, though the actual cutting head was not on the machine.

On Saturday I ventured off-site to a local dealer to see and hear the new Scan-Tech–built Connoisseur 4 line-level preamplifier and separate phono section, as well as a prototype of the brand-new Audio Physic Avanti loudspeaker. The two Connoisseur units, housed in handsome wood enclosures, share a common outboard power supply. You can buy one with power supply and add the second later. The design, by Petr Mares and Jonathan Carr, features a white paper's worth of innovations that are best left to the review (which I hope will happen toward the end of the year). The exact price has yet to be announced, but it will probably be around $16,000 for either box and the power supply, and another $9000 for the second box, bringing to $25,000 the total cost for line stage, phono stage, and power supply.

As for Audio Physic's new Avanti, it features a pair of 8" woofers, and a pair of metal-cone midrange drivers with aluminum phase plugs, and a ring radiator tweeter, all of which are built into an absolutely stunning and incredibly complex curved-back enclosure. Audio Physic sources its cabinets from the same Scandinavian outfit that supplies B&W and many other speaker companies. You don't think most of these speaker guys—even the biggest names—do their own woodwork, do you? Sonus Faber does, of course (footnote 2), but look at the prices! Then again, look at the woodwork!

Though the new Avanti is a far more substantial design than the model it replaces, the price will drop from $10,000 to around $8000 when it's introduced here sometime this fall—thanks in part to the strong dollar. Unfortunately, the dealer's room was pretty awful and the CD player was too, though the few LPs we heard, played on an Amazon/Mörch/Lyra Parnassus D.C.t combo, sounded quite vivid and spacious—in the Audio Physic tradition.

Best sound at this show? Well, the Avantgarde horns sounded more coherent (especially the horn–cone woofer integration) and less colored than I've ever heard them at a show, but the two best rooms I heard were those of Chord and Einstein. I stayed in each for well over an hour, playing the two compilation CD-Rs I'd brought along: one made from the Rockport/van den Hul Colibri/ARC Reference Phono/Ref 2 preamp combo, the other with the same chain but substituting the Lyra Helikon cartridge. In most rooms, heads turned and jaws dropped as listeners demanded to know on what equipment I had made those discs.

The superb-sounding Chord room featured the Micromega data CD transport, Chord DSP1500 pulse-array DAC, CPA3200 preamp, 1400B 450Wpc monoblocks, and the Wilson-Benesch Act II loudspeakers. My young host, while a fan of '60s music, had never heard much of it on vinyl. I wish I had a picture of his face as he listened to an original British Parlophone pressing of the Beatles' "Mother Nature's Son" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide (Except Me and My Monkey)," a Decca ffss rendering of the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," a lacquer of the Who's "Baba O'Riley," and a white-label promo of Van Morrison's "Domino." The guy was stunned into analog submission. I was thoroughly captivated by the Chord system's grip on the music.

My custom CDs elicited the same response in the Einstein room through Einstein's The Last Record Player (a CD player), The Tube preamp, and a pair of Final Cut OTL monoblocks driving a pair of Odeon Tosca loudspeakers. The last so captivated me that I'm getting a pair for review soon. This system flat-out rocked and was probably my favorite at the show...though the Chord/W-B was close behind.

In the Gradient/GamuT room I compared the CD of "Boy in the Bubble," from Paul Simon's Graceland, with the CD-R cut from the Rockport. Not even close! Of course, the CD dates from 1986, when A/D conversion was basically an exercise in noise pollution. Meanwhile, the Gradient Revolutions, which feature open-baffle dipolar bass, proved their design merit by producing some of the finest bass I heard at the show, and in the smallest hotel room.

Finally, some of the most fun I had in Germany was in Stereoplay magazine's large demo room, which featured the Sharp SM-SX100 digital amp. The German reviewer was as impressed as I had been by the sound of the amp, and after the demo and speech—in German, so I didn't understand a word—I went up to him to say that my review of the Sharp was about to appear, in the July 2000 Stereophile.

"No! Zet iss impussible!" he cried. "Nut zis! Vee heff ze verld eggsglusive!"

"I guess not," I told him. "My review will be in print in a few weeks."

Accepting the unacceptable, he looked at me. "Vell, you didn't review zis one! Zis unit is special!"

Oy, audiophiles...they're the same, all around the world.

Three Great Gadgets
With an installed base of who knows (Roy Gandy, that's who) how many tens of thousands, the decision to market Rega accessories and upgrades is a natural. And given that Rega tonearms come with a base that does not include adjustable VTA, there are a number of aftermarket devices for adjusting VTA on Rega arms, including those from VPI and J.A. Michell. Basis makes one too, but the newest one, the Easy Riser, from Incognito in the UK (distributed in the US by Rega importer Lauerman Audio Imports), is easily the best and most convenient. It's also only $50.

A tonearm is actually more rigid and better locked in place with an Easy Riser than without. To install the ER, remove the locking nut, unscrew the cable-strain relief, pull out the arm, and screw the threaded ER onto the arm's mounting shaft. The Easy Riser is so thin that, even with it screwed on, the mounting shaft still fits through the plinth hole. The fit is now tighter, however, and thus more secure, and the arm mount now sits in a threaded shaft.

To raise the arm, you loosen the locking nut under the plinth and rotate the hex-shaped top plate. The adapter even includes a stick-on gauge that lets you know how high you've raised the arm. The only problem: either the new P3's plinth is thicker, or the latest version of the RB300 arm has a shorter threaded shaft; when you raise the arm even a few millimeters, the bottom of the threaded shaft disappears up into the hole and there's no way to use the lock nut. Fortunately, Lauerman Audio Imports includes a special nut that reaches up into the hole to grab and lock the end of the shaft. If you're a Rega owner wishing you could easily adjust VTA without having to hack up your plinth, you now can, for $50. There's also help on the way for that Grado/Rega hum problem...but more about that next time.

Apex, the American importer and distributor of Verdier turntables, sent along the Verdier Gyrascope (sic), a dramatic-looking $500 cylindrical aluminum record weight that doubles as a strobe light. Place it on the spindle one way and it's a weight. Turn it over and two series of holes drilled around the cylinder's circumference glow yellow, thanks to embedded LEDs and a built-in battery. The holes are spaced to create 45rpm and 331/3rpm strobes: when the platter rotates at speed, the lights "stop." A fun toy, a greater conversation piece than the Magic Eight Ball, and it really works.

From The Cartridge Man in the UK, maker of that reasonably priced electronic stylus gauge, comes the Cartridge Man Digital Level Gauge. It, too, slips over the spindle hole: You level your turntable until the horizontal and vertical digital readouts both show "0." You can use it to level anything, but it works particularly well on turntables. Price: about $300. Distributed in the UK by Moth Group.

Finally, there's a new, much more effective Townshend Seismic Sink, called the 3D Sink because it works horizontally and vertically. The 15" by 19" model is good up to 40 lbs, which should be sufficient for most CD players, preamps, and some turntables. The 18" by 22" model is good for 53 lbs, and the heavy-duty 15" by 19" version supports up to 175 lbs. In case you're unfamiliar: Seismic Sink isolation platforms are supported by air bladders. They're quite effective under electronics (especially tube gear), CD players, and turntables.

I tried a standard 3D Sink under the Michell Gyrodec, which is itself suspended (via springs), and didn't like the results: There was a loss of focus and solidity. But under the Music Hall MMF-5, which has isolating elastomers, and under the new Rega P3 (the replacement for the Planar 3), the improvements were noticeable: better overall focus and tighter bass. I also thought I heard an improvement with a 3D Sink under my Marantz DR-17 CD burner, but it wasn't as clear-cut an improvement. Unfortunately, my reference Ayre K-1 preamp and the Audio Research Reference phono stage and Reference 2 line stage are so tall that, in my racks, there was no room under them for Sinks.

I'd promised a phono-stage shoot-out for this column, but High End 2000 got in the way, and it's just as well—a few new phono stages have arrived in the interim, which should make competition even keener. What did the 3D Sinks do for these slimmer phono stages? Next time...

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Yo La Tengo, And then nothing turned itself inside out, Matador 150gm LPs (2)
2) The Byrds, Sanctuary: Rarities and Alternate Takes, Sundazed 180gm LP
3) Gene Clark, With the Gosdin Brothers, Sundazed 180gm reissue LP
4) Louis Armstrong, Satchmo Plays King Oliver, Classic 180gm reissue LP
5) Johnny Coles Quartet, The Warm Sound, Classic 180gm reissue LP
6) Carla Bley/Steve Swallow, Are We There Yet?, WATT/ECM CD
7) Tom Lehrer, The Remains Of, Rhino CDs (3)
8) David Chesky, The Agnostic, Chesky CD
9) Blonde Redhead, Melody of Certain Damaged Lemons, Touch and Go CD
10) Free, Songs of Yesterday, imported [label?] CDs (5)

Footnote 1: Throughout this report, halve the amounts in Deutschmarks for the approximate value in $ US.

Footnote 2: As does Thiel.—John Atkinson