Analog Corner #68

In 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick depicted a Pan American Airlines shuttle whizzing space commuters to an orbiting circular station, where they communicated with earthbound loved ones via a Bell Telephone videophone. Pillbox-hatted stewardesses served up vacuum-bagged space gruel sucked from straws.

Kubrick and writer Arthur C. Clarke made some serious mistakes when calculating the future. How could they know that Pan Am, the Rolls-Royce of airlines in the 1960s, would go belly-up? Or that the phone company would get atomized? And I'll bet if you'd asked the guys who dreamed up HAL whether people would still be listening to music on "record players" in 2001, they'd have said "no way." They'd have been wrong on that count too.

Here it is, 2001, and the analog "revival" continues. "As the Tables Turn," an article in the December 10, 2000 issue of the Los Angeles Times Magazine, chronicles some fascinating factoids. The article quotes Alan Ostroff, owner of Go Boy records in Redondo Beach, California: "My used-vinyl sales have tripled." Ostroff claimed that the typical new-generation vinyl buyer is between "14 and 25 years old." He also said that "A record in good shape will sound better than a CD. There's a warmer, more authentic, more lively sound." That' not news, but the demographic cited surely is. There's also a blurb in the article about Mr. G's Stereo & Video service in San Juan Capistrano, which has gone from seeing a turntable in for repairs every six months to two or three a day.

On the other hand, it is with great sadness that I report the closing of Doug Sax's vinyl mastering facility at The Mastering Lab. The famous TML-X and TML-M lathes have reportedly been replaced by DVD-Audio mastering gear. Good luck getting that format off the ground, Doug—not that I'm not pulling for it to succeed. Sax threw the lathes a well-deserved "retirement party."

Gear Shift to the AEGO2
Every so often a product shows up that surprises the hell out me, and while what follows is not the usual "Analog Corner" fare, I just can't contain my enthusiasm for it.

Wired magazine recently asked me to pick three computer speakers for a department they have in which one product in a category is awarded "First Class," one "Business Class," and one "Coach." The editor assigned to the piece had already done some legwork for me and suggested I check out Acoustic Energy's AEGO2 satellite-subwoofer system, which is aimed at the computer crowd. The three-piece package sells for $599 and is imported by Audiophile Systems, which also distributes Arcam and dCS in the US.

I ended up going through a whole stack of three-piece systems before I got to the AE, and for the most part, if you've heard one of these plastic-boxed assemblages, you've heard 'em all. Some, like the ones from Cambridge SoundWorks, can sound surprisingly good...for plastic boxes. A $79 JBL system impressed me, as did a $99 trio from Altec-Lansing that included a downfiring midrange hidden in the base of each satellite. Still, the only really credible, music-making "personal system" I heard before I got to the AE was Eminent Technology's planar magnetic LFT-11 ($499, $599 with amplifier, which I use flanking my computer monitor.

When I unboxed AE's AEGO2, I was disappointed: a pair of tiny metal (zinc alloy) satellites not quite 4" tall and 3" wide, and a 13" by 10" by 7" subwoofer box that also contains the system's amplification. There are three channels of amplification built in, and provisions for a center channel (computer home theater, anyone?), as well as convenient front- and rear-mounted stereo miniplugs.

I've heard dozens of systems like this, and was quite prepared for the usual vague; wimpy sound, but at a higher price. But what poured forth was what I would have to call high-end audio. It wasn't not perfect, but it was way superior to any other small sat-sub system I'd heard—particularly in terms of low coloration, but in every other sonic department as well. This little setup rivaled much bigger systems.

The AEGO2 had an absolutely stunning, detailed, and believable midband, and delivered a soundstage that was surprisingly large, and freed from the constraints of the tiny boxes. The system had genuine dynamics and could play impressively loud with no hint of strain or compression. Images were three-dimensional and nuanced in ways I've never heard from puny systems like this. There was a crystalline clarity without etch or brightness that wowed every visitor to my office. The AEGO2 offered superb detail, depth, ambience—name your audiophile calling card.

This system has the potential to turn a generation of computer geeks into audiophiles. It was so much better than anything the average computer guy or gal has ever heard that they'll probably be bowled over—as might you, despite your having been exposed to the real high-end deal. Think of the AEGO2 as a goodwill ambassador to our world.

It wasn't perfect, of course. The biggest disappointment is a three-position bass-level switch instead of one that's continuously adjustable. In my room, no matter where I placed the subwoofer, there was simply too much bass, even with the switch in the minimum position. (My new Mac G4 doesn't have tone controls.) Even so, the system astounded me. You'll know you're listening to something special when you hear it, and that includes the bass, which is tuneful instead of "one-note."

What's going on here? According to the company's website, the designer is a "slightly eccentric" former Bose engineer, Shuji Yamamoto, who has come up with a unique driver shaped like a piece of Wonder Bread instead of the standard cone. The design is said to reduce standing waves, which perhaps accounts in part for the system's low coloration. The driver is built in Malaysia by FPI (Formosa Prosonic Industries), one of the world's largest OEM speaker manufacturers.

The satellite's patented drive-unit features a special long-throw suspension and a computer-designed anti-resonant diaphragm. To ensure high power-handling capacity, the system features a unique heat-transfer design that pumps air through the coil and magnet assembly. That's why you can crank it. Other tricks are employed to get this kind of performance from such a tiny system, including extensive active equalization to correct for driver-response deviations. The satellites can be positioned to fire directly at the listener for nearfield listening, or angled up to create more spread and diffusion. The subwoofer driver is mounted entirely within the box, which features an oval, front-mounted passive radiator and a tuned port in the rear.

Using the AEGO2, you might actually enjoy listening to music through your computer. But forget the computer—with its built-in, front-mounted volume control, the AEGO2 can function as a credible music system when connected to a CD player—or a turntable and phono section, for that matter.

Back to the Grooves
Rega importer Lauerman Audio Imports has decided to import the Incognito wiring upgrade for the Rega tonearms. VPI has decided to offer the upgrade on the Rega arms it sells with its own tables (VPI also replaces the Rega counterweight assembly). In place of the inexpensive (but admirably low-capacitance) stock wire, which includes two breaks between the cartridge pins and RCA plugs, Incognito provides a straight shot of Cardas Litz wire and Cardas interconnect in a one-piece configuration from the way-better-than-stock cartridge clips to the high-quality RCA plugs. The 3.5' interconnect is also longer than stock.

I had Lauerman send me a rewired Rega RB300 tonearm so I could compare it to the stock arm on the new Rega P3. I put a Lyra Clavis D.C. cartridge on the stock arm and sat down for a listen. Having spent a few weeks with the new Clearaudio Discovery on the Immedia/Yorke combo (see below), I was quite disappointed by what I heard, even as I admired what the P3 did that was fundamentally correct. There was a noticeable lack of transparency: a milky overlay in the mids and upper mids, an overall lack of clarity and focus, and general vagueness to the sonic picture. Delicacy, detail, and air were noticeably lacking in the upper octave. Yet, to the P3's credit, dynamics were very good, as were rhythm and pacing and musical organization.

The P3 is a fine-sounding $750 turntable, but putting the $1900 Lyra cartridge on it is overkill—or so I thought. When I played Classic Records' 45rpm edition of the RCA Living Stereo recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony) with the Lyra in the rewired am, I was shocked. Now the sonic picture was much closer to my reference rig! The congested, milky-sounding midrange and upper midrange were now open and transparent. Veils lifted, as we used to say back in the early '90s. Delicacy, bloom, and air were apparent on top, and the whole sonic picture opened up, relaxed and fleshed-out in ways one normally associates with top-shelf 'tables. The differences between the stock arm and the rewired one were not subtle—even one of those "it all sounds the same" guys would have heard this, whether single-blind, double-blind, or triple sec.

The rewired RB300/P3 didn't plumb the depths reached by the Yorke/Immedia or Yorke/Graham, but its overall performance was far more nuanced and satisfying than I'd ever thought possible from the P3. I'm sorry I didn't have a way to mount the rewired arm on the Yorke—I'm convinced that the RB300 would offer 60–70% of the performance of the best arm you could buy, and with an improved counterweight assembly you could probably get even closer.

The Incognito wiring harness is available from Lauerman Audio Imports for $250. For an additional $45 you can send them your RB250 or RB300 and they'll install the harness, which requires care, soldering, and some mechanical skill. (Steve Lauerman told me that he regularly receives tonearms in the mail from "do it yourself" failures.) Rega's warranty is voided when you disassemble the arm, but Lauerman Audio Imports will pick up the warranty if you have them do the work.

I give this modification my highest recommendation! Add the Incognito Easy Riser VTA adjuster and you have a killer arm for a ridiculously low price. (The English company Origin sells a similar mod for the Rega; you can investigate it online.

A Brand New Heavy: Clearaudio's Discovery moving-coil cartridge
There's a worldwide following for Clearaudio cartridges. Paul Simon's longtime engineer, Roy Halee, swears by the $10,600 Insider Reference, which he uses on his Rockport System III Sirius. Why would a recording engineer who clearly knows better still be listening to the seriously colored, compressed, distorted, and outdated vinyl medium? If he could only hear a master tape, he'd know better. [Ha Ha.] I'd love to get my hands on an Insider Reference, if only to hear exactly what $10k buys you.

But I was more than happy to review Clearaudio's $3400 Discovery model, which is built for American importer Discovery Cable. The Discovery features a custom magnesium body and the same unique design and construction as the other models. The motor features a boron cantilever and a pair of ultra-small-diameter gold coils that are wound directly onto the cantilever and positioned to either side of the pivot point, where they are said to act like a "laboratory balance." The cantilever is positioned between four very strong magnets. Clearaudio claims that the construction helps provide superior mechanical and electrical symmetry, which, among other advantages, results in exceptional channel separation.

The Insider's claimed separation is 45dB—a good 10dB better than most other premium cartridges. (Separation goes down with price.) The channel-separation graph for my sample (one is taken for each sample of the Discovery) showed about 35dB separation at 1kHz—very good, but not exceptional. The same separation is claimed for the $2600 Signature, and is 5dB less than what's claimed for the $4200 Accurate. I wouldn't be too concerned about such stats.

Every so often I get an e-mail from a reader who's heard that Clearaudio cartridges are less "reliable" than some others. While it's true that the sharp angle at which the right-channel pin wires must be turned to get from the coils to the pins, and the use of ultra-fine gold wire for the coil renders the Clearaudios somewhat more fragile, these are not, in my opinion, synonymous with "unreliable." They just mean that you must take greater care—something the instructions emphasize. You're warned not to plug in your tonearm cable without first connecting the ground wire to the preamp or phono stage, which must be left off and unplugged during the procedure. Only after all connections have been made should you plug in and turn on the preamp.

Why such caution? It's possible that, in an ungrounded situation with the power on, an 80V hum could melt the delicate coil wire. Manufacturer and importer advise against degaussing the Clearaudios for the same reason: the voltage applied to the cartridge could melt the wire. Unfortunately, the instructions say nothing about demagnetization.

Like the other Clearaudio cartridges, the Discovery is big and relatively heavy. (The Accurate weighs 12gm; though no weight is given for the Discovery, it probably weighs about the same, compared to 8gm for the Lyra Helikon.) Unlike other Clearaudios, the Discovery's body looks less like a hammerhead, and features a tapped top plate with far greater contact area. While a tapped top plate is more convenient, Clearaudio unfortunately does not use the de facto pitch thread found on other cartridges; you must use the slotted screws used to affix the cartridge to the tubular Plexiglas packaging. According to the importer, this was done to prevent you from using hex-head screws, which can easily be overtightened.

With its 0.65mV output and recommended 47k ohm loading, the Discovery should easily drive all moving-coil phono sections—and you might even try it into a moving-magnet input, if you've got one. Clearaudios are low-compliance cartridges that typically track at 2.5–3gm, and are individually tested for recommended tracking force. My sample's recommended force was 2.0–2.8gm; I settled on 2.5gm. Nor was I worried about tracking at such a high VTF—most research shows that mistracking causes more record damage than heavy (within reason) tracking. Would I prefer to track at less weight? Yes, but those who have spent more time with Clearaudios than I have tell me that excessive groove wear has never been an issue.

The Discovery sounded fabulous out of the tube (it didn't come in a box), and only improved as it broke in. Its textural balance was on the liquid and open side—if you like a crisp or sharp sound, or feel that your system needs some edge, you won't get that from the Discovery. What you'll probably get is a big, generous, voluminous picture that's well-focused but not unnaturally so. For me, the Discovery produced bloom and focus. And while its presentation was liquid, it was thankfully not soft, especially on top. In fact, the Discovery had wonderfully natural transient performance. There was plenty of bite and snap to cymbals, but without dryness or etch.

The tonal balance was suavely rendered, with just a hint of a broad midrange blossom and satisfying extension on both sides. Bass was full-bodied, almost voluptuous, but without losing its form or rhythmic integrity. When a finger plucked a bass string, I could feel the skin flicking the metal. The top end was extended and airy without spotlighting or edge, though I've heard better ambience presentation from a few other cartridges.

Front-to-back imaging was particularly impressive, with instruments at the rear of the orchestra maintaining their weight, body, and three-dimensionality. I've played Classic Records' 45rpm edition of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (Reiner/CSO) so many times that I'm testing the limits of vinyl playback. While I've heard better rear-wall delineation from this record, the Discovery's rendering of the timpani was unsurpassed in terms of texture and physicality. The feel of the mallet hitting the drumhead was particularly striking, as was the suggestion of the drum's shape.

What separates good cartridges from great ones, or good ones from bad ones, is balance, and the Discovery's overall sound was "of a piece." There were no serious omissions or exaggerations, and the overall picture was coherent in every category—yet, as with every transducer, there was a basic character. The Discovery's character was relaxed, with a generous, flowing liquidity—I could hear why lovers of classical music gravitate toward the Clearaudio "sound." But the Discovery was up to hard rock as well. I auditioned test pressings of Classic's Led Zeppelin III and IV, and there was plenty of sizzle and grit when appropriate.

Silky-smooth, harmonically generous, plenty of body, and a big, dramatic picture—the Discovery was a cartridge I could enjoy for the long run. In some ways it reminded me of the EMT TU-3, which I fell in love with last year (February 2000), but the Discovery didn't exaggerate the bass to the same degree, if at all. You might get a bit more drive, speed, and resolution of inner detail elsewhere at this price, but you won't get the midrange ease, liquidity, and harmonic development you'll get with the Discovery. A great cartridge.

Finished Already?
I'm out of space already, so the Garrott Brothers' rebuild of my Accuphase AC-1x cartridge will have to wait. (Yes, the brothers themselves are gone, but the company lives on, making the Garrott Brothers cartridge and offering full retipping service for other brands.) Also on hold—until after next month's report from the 2001 Consumer Electronics Show—are a review of the B&K Phono 10 MC/MM phono section with built-in high-quality A/D converter, and an excruciating comparison of the JPS Labs Kaptovator and the Electra-Glide Fat Boy 2000 Gold premium-priced AC cords. But before I go...

If you're a fan of Crosby, Stills & Nash, you must pick up Classic Records' new 180gm vinyl reissue. It's one of their best. You have never heard how good that recording can sound until you've heard this! As for the new Led Zeps, I compared them to original American pressings and a few different Japanese editions, and while nothing's going to make Led Zeppelin III sound great, Classic's edition is very dynamic and transparent. It's Led Zeppelin IV you'll really want to have. "Stairway to Heaven" sounds good on the other pressings I have, but on the Classic, Plant is in the room.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Gram Parsons, Another Side of This Life: The Lost Recordings, Sundazed 180gm LP
2) Crosby, Stills & Nash, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Classic 180gm LP
3) Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin III, Classic 180gm LP
4) Led Zeppelin, Led Zeppelin IV, Classic 180gm LP
5) Booker T. & the MG's, And Now!, Sundazed 180gm LP
6) Erykah Badu, Mama's Gun, Motown CD
7) Ben Allison and Medicine Wheel, Riding the Nuclear Tiger, Palmetto CD
8) David Bowie, Bowie at the Beeb, limited Japanese edition CDs (3)
9) R.L. Burnside, When I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Fat Possum/Epitaph LP
10) PJ Harvey, Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea, UK Island LP

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