Analog Corner #71

Maybe Phil Spector was right. The legendary record producer was (and probably still is) a mono fan. Brian Wilson is said to have originally mixed the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds in mono because that's the way he heard it, due to a childhood hearing problem, but Spector's reasons were aesthetic, not medical. He simply preferred the way his complex, grandiose productions sounded when wedged into a single channel.

My current monomania is due to the arrival of Scan-Tech's new mono Lyra Helikon phono cartridge—a brilliant stroke on Scan-Tech's part. First of all, since the last "Recommended Components" was published, in April, the Helikon's price has dropped $500 for the mono or stereo version. Not that the new price of $1995 is going to have you investing in a mono Helikon for a lark, but if you have a significant collection of mono LPs, it could be the single best investment you'll make in your stereo—er, mono system this year, and probably the next.

The mono Helikon is tipped with a 3 by 70µ line-contact stylus that rides higher in the groove than does the stereo version's Ogura PA. The grooves are clearer and cleaner above the ground-level vinyl smog, and since mono groove modulations are strictly lateral, nothing's lost. The cartridge's two coils are wound parallel to each other instead of orthogonally at 45° to the plane of the record, as they would be in a stereo cartridge. The same former is used, oriented as a square instead of as a diamond. This doesn't sound like much of a difference on the page, but...what a difference!

In Case You Missed It
In case you missed my original review ("Analog Corner," August 2000), the Helikon is a one-piece design made of aircraft-grade alloy. The generator is integral to the body; the rear of the cantilever assembly is fitted into a tiny machined hollow in the back of the body and anchored with a bolt assembly. The bolt acts as a mechanical ground, reducing or eliminating reflected vibrations, which instead dissipate as heat in the body. Most cartridges consist of a complete generator assembly that is then enclosed by the body.

The generator assembly features dual-layer coils wound from "six-nines" (99.9999% pure) copper onto a chemically purified iron former. Instead of the usual pole-piece assembly, the Helikon uses a pair of disc magnets: one fore, one aft of the coil assembly. Scan-Tech claims the Helikon's close-to-the-coils magnet configuration provides greater focus of magnetic flux and more efficient energy transfer. By reducing the amount of conductive material around the coils and magnetic gap, Scan-Tech claims to have diminished distortion-producing stray eddy currents. The cantilever is a solid boron pipe.

The mono Helikon's output is 350µV at 3.54cm/s, zero to peak, 45°, Lyra's standard measurement parameter (or 500µV at the more commonly used 5cm/s, zero to peak, 45°), which makes the Helikon a medium-output moving-coil cartridge easily able to drive most MC and some moving-magnet phono stages. Its medium-compliance suspension (12 compliance units) and medium mass (8gm) make the Helikon compatible with most current tonearms.

With the stereo Helikon mounted on the latest Triplanar tonearm, the Mk.VI (currently under review), the mono Helikon took a ride on the Graham 2.0 arm. (The Graham's 2.2 bearing upgrade arrived mid-audition, but I'll wait on that until I can reduce the number of system variables to get a clearer idea of its impact.) With the Graham plugged into Naim's Stageline phono section and the Triplanar into the Hovland HP-100 preamp (I later reversed the pairings), it was clear, despite the variables involved, that the mono Helikon needed serious breaking-in. The new cartridge sounded sluggish and clogged, so I repeatedly played a clean old mono LP I didn't care about, while forcing myself to listen to stacks of new CDs. Don't think this job is all fun and games.

But once the mono Helikon was ready, it was all fun. I'd forgotten how many great mono LPs I have, but once I heard them properly played back, I understood why I'd neglected them before. I had both Helikons playing simultaneously, and even though the Hovland preamp has a Mono button, the difference between the cartridges' sounds was enormous. The stereo cart delivered far more surface noise and grit—and the stereo Helikon is one of the quietest cartridges you'll hear, thanks to its Ogura PA line-contact stylus. Mono LPs sounded thin on top and lacking in body weight overall. And while the mono "soundstage" was solidly centered and didn't shift position, the actual musical images had a watery, physical uncertainty about them.

I switched to the mono cartridge and pretty quickly began to wonder about the need for stereo, especially with pan-potted pop and rock mixes consisting of single tracks of mono information made to congeal by adding a studio-created reverberant field. Same with early Blue Note and Atlantic "left/right" jazz recordings. That kind of spread, with everything placed at far stage left or right, is nothing but a distraction. Obviously, classical music and live recordings, whether in front of an audience or in the studio, are better suited for stereo, just as they are for multichannel productions—as long as the recording technique is really stereo and not pan-potted mono.

It takes a great deal more care and finesse to place everything neatly into a single point. The Beatles and George Martin lavished lots of attention on their mono mixes, even beyond Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. I pulled out an original mono UK Parlophone copy of The Beatles (the "White Album"), which had sounded in only so-so shape last time I'd played it. With the mono Helikon it was almost noise-free, and sounded so vivid and rich. I heard elements I'd never heard before, which isn't really surprising—it's a totally different mix and a far better one, with everything musically tucked in place neatly and orderly, row after row from front to back. The first time I heard "Back in the U.S.S.R." played back properly in mono, I didn't want to hear it in stereo again. Just hearing that jet plane not panned across the stage but nicked deftly into musical time and space, I knew which mix meant the most to Martin and the Beatles. All four sides worked better in mono.

I began appreciating how much depth mono mixes can exhibit, and how the more adept mixers were able to layer images of instruments in neatly organized rows. There's as much to "look at" in mono as there is in stereo, and often minus the distraction of arbitrary lateral placement. Somehow, in well-done mono mixes of familiar stereo recordings, the instruments are still all there, but the musical relationships and the logic of those arrangements seem to make much more sense. That was the biggest revelation I had while listening to properly reproduced mono pop and rock recordings with the Lyra Helikon mono.

It was if all I'd ever heard had been quad rock mixes. Now, hearing the original stereo mixes for the first time, I suddenly realized how much more coherent and musically satisfying the consolidated two-channel editions were. Hearing mono reproduced correctly for the first time created the same sensation. I suppose you could glean all of this with a stereo cartridge, with or without a mono switch on your preamp, but to my ears, the sensation a mono cartridge created with mono LPs was one of coherent wholeness—sort of like removing jitter from digital. (I said "sort of.")

My UK mono pressing of the Rolling Stones' Out of Our Heads (London LL3429) was absolutely stunning, especially the bass. If you think you've just caught me in a mistake because London Stones LPs were pressed in the US, you haven't. For some reason, some early Stones American London jackets contained UK-pressed "London ffrr" records. They fetch big bucks and are worth it for the sound, but I got one from a dealer for $5 who obviously didn't know what he had.

I began remembering mono albums I hadn't played in years—like an original white-label promo of Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, and an original of the famous Audio Fidelity Louis Armstrong LP that Classic recently reissued in stereo. The mono is equally sensational, but in a different way. Armstrong is equally in the room, but bigger and more vivid. The first albums from the Doors and Love, Louis Prima's Capitol LPs, Miles Davis' Carnegie Hall concert, Speakers Corner's reissue of Cannonball Adderley in the Land of Hi-Fi and both editions of Davis' Live at the Blackhawk, the first Buffalo Springfield album, the Who's A Quick One on British Reaction, the Rascals' Collaboration, the first Byrds album, Simon and Garfunkel's Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, Mingus' The Clown, Roy Orbison on Monument, and Mickey Katz on Capitol. Classic's mono reissue of Jimi Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love? Spectacular! Castle's mono reissue of the Kinks' Arthur? A revelation!

I sat and listened to these mostly passed-over mono albums long into many nights, amazed by how they'd sat on the shelves, forgotten until the mono Helikon arrived. Then, as if on cue, Sundazed's new all-analog, 180gm mono edition of Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home appeared, along with monos of Otis Redding's Otis Blue and Dictionary of Soul. Are you kidding me?

What a great idea Scan-Tech had! It's time other cartridge manufacturers issued mono cartridges, and for the reissue labels to not be afraid of mono recordings. Unfortunately, if your tonearm doesn't allow for quick changes of headshells, armtubes, or entire arms, having a mono cartridge might not be practical. But there's a world of great recordings to reissue and used mono LPs to be had.

I'll stop foaming at the mouth now—I just remembered there's a tag sale that I should have gone to this morning.

I'm Back
Good score! How about Von Karajan's 1962 Beethoven symphonies cycle on Deutsche Grammophon in a boxed set of five reel-to-reel tapes (7½ips) for a buck a reel? Looks like the guy played only the Fifth. I got a Reader's Digest/RCA Festival of Light Classical Music boxed set in mint condition for $10 (recorded in the UK by Kenneth Wilkinson), some cool Pablos, a two-LP Yusef Lateef live set (recorded by Wally Heider at Keystone Korner in San Francisco), plus Johnny and the Hurricanes' Stormsville on Warwick, in mint condition (book value more than $150!). Hello, eBay! Good stuff is still out there! Okay, back to work...

Naim Stageline phono preamplifier
I was talking with Naim America's Chris Koster on the phone about Naim's CD5 CD player (reviewed in April) when he asked if I'd like to give a listen to Naim's Stageline phono section. Of course I would. The Stageline is designed to get its juice from a Naim preamplifier. I didn't have one, so Koster sent along Naim's Hi-Cap power supply, which can also be used to upgrade the internal power supplies built into other Naim products. Naim is big on power supplies; if you've heard the sonic improvements they make in Naim gear, you know why.

The Stageline is available for MM or MC use but not both. The MC edition I got (approximately 65dB gain) came loaded at 470 ohms, which is Naim's MC default load. You can change the loading, but it requires unsoldering resistors, and because Naim is big on dealer setup, the procedure has not been made easy. I left the Stageline factory-loaded and went into the audition without knowing the price of the Stageline/Hi-Cap combo.

As with Camelot Technology's outstanding Lancelot Pro phono section that I reviewed last October, the Hi-Cap is at least four times the size of the Stageline itself. Maybe these guys are on to something; the AC-powered Naim Stageline sounded remarkably similar to the rechargeable, battery-powered Lancelot Pro, though the Naim bettered the Lancelot where you'd expect it to: rhythm and pacing. That's a Naim specialty, and the Stageline has it in spades.

But there was a great deal more musical goodness to be had with the Stageline/Hi-Cap combo: I played Patricia Barber's excellent Nightclub (Premonition/Blue Note 90749, 180gm vinyl), a set of standards showcasing Barber's first-class interpretive abilities that was recorded not in a nightclub, but in a Chicago studio. I remembered there being a bit more chill in the air around her vocals, particularly on sibilants, than on her previous albums, even through the rich Clearaudio Insider cartridge through the Hovland phono section, so I thought Nightclub would be a good test of the Stageline's transient cleanliness.

The Stageline sailed through side 2 with a combination of pristine transient articulation and convincing vocal three-dimensionality. Barber's piano sounded really fine, with none of the thin, clangy sound you sometimes get with solid-state phono sections. When I switched back to the Hovland's transformer/tubed phono section, there was more midbass richness and a slightly more relaxed, laid-back feel, but the sound suffered a bit rhythmically. The Naim had that rhythm and pacing thing down. And it was dead silent.

I preferred Classic's stupendous 45rpm edition of Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge Over Troubled Water through the Naim, but only marginally, and particularly for the stunning three-dimensionality and detailed, clean transient articulation of Garfunkel's vocals. The Naim's bass performance was exceptionally tight, deep, and well-focused. Playing Classic's 45rpm edition of Jascha Heifetz's performance of Bruch's Scottish Fantasy, the Hovland's greater harmonic richness won out, but without a direct comparison, the Naim's rendition was ultra-detailed yet silky-smooth in the mids.

Obviously, you should listen to any phono stage before you buy it, or get it with a full return option. But I could live with the Stageline/Hi-Cap combo happily ever after—not just because of the individual strengths I've noted, but because of its holistic approach to reproducing music. The Stageline/Hi-Cap was one of the most musically convincing phono sections I've heard. And the price? $375 without power supply. Add the Hi-Cap and the total is $1550. Add a FlatCap supply and it's only $900. The Stageline and the rechargeable, battery-powered Camelot Round Table are the two best values I've heard in phono preamps so far.

Pictures at an Exhibition
Turntables as works of art are nothing new—consider the Oracle Delphi, still stunning 20 years after its debut. The Michell Gyrodec is another beauty. The list goes on.

Recently I received an e-mail from Hemant Jha, an architect, industrial designer, and audiophile who has come up with a pair of absolutely exquisite-looking turntables that, in addition to having been designed for good sound, are works of art. They will be displayed as such (ie, no sound) at the Yale University Art Gallery in an exhibition, Contemporary Design, that was scheduled to run through May at the Swartwout Building, Gallery 309, Chapel Street at York, in New Haven, Connecticut. Jha's design résumé also includes a loudspeaker stand, a CD transport, a light fixture, and a fountain pen, and he was a cartoonist before he became an architect. As we all know, it's important for audiophiles to have a sense of humor.

A Phono Section with a Twist
When you consider what B&K gives you for $698, their Phono 10 has to be considered a bargain: a switchable MM/MC phono section with 0dB/–10dB pushbutton gain adjustment (though you have to go inside to switch between MM and MC), adjustable resistive and capacitive loading via circuit-board–mounted sockets, a remote on/off trigger, and high build quality. There are polypropylene film capacitors (with a claimed accuracy of ±0.2dB) in the RIAA section, 1% metal-film resistors in the active circuit, discrete pre-driver circuitry, direct-coupled output, and a low-noise toroidal transformer. The A/D section features a 24-bit/96kHz chip running at 16/44. The Phono 10 is also available without A/D for $498.

While its styling indicates that the Phono 10 was designed for use with B&K A/V products that don't include built-in phono sections, I thought it might be interesting to give it a spin in my two-channel system. Forgetting about its A/D capabilities for a moment, the B&K did all right as a standalone phono section. It was quiet and had superb bass definition, but other than that it was merely competent, with a somewhat dry and undernourished midband and clean but not exactly inspirational highs. I could live with the tonal balance in such a low-priced product, but after I'd listened to the Naim Stageline, the 10's rhythm and pacing just didn't cut it. I switched between the Naim and B&K while listening to Classic's 45rpm boxed set of the Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival 1972, and where the Naim lifted and separated, the B&K sagged a bit.

Okay, so the B&K Phono 10 isn't the Wonderbra of phono sections. What about for making CD-Rs from your vinyl?

If you have a cheap CD burner, you can keep it and add the Phono 10. While it didn't better the A/D built into the $1600 Marantz DR17 (I'll spare you the comparisons between recordings made with the Marantz's and the B&K's A/Ds—trust me, I did about a dozen), it certainly will perk up the detail-robbing, energy-sucking, harmonics-dulling performance you get from most low-priced burners when recording from analog. Your other choice would be to use a standalone A/D converter, such as MSB's Pro, with your phono section.

I recommend the Phono 10 with A/D to folks with LP collections and inexpensive CD burners who want to archive their vinyl and be done with it. As a standalone phono section, it's competent but uninspiring; as an A/D, it's better than what you'll find in most CD burners, if not up there with what most serious archivists would want (upsampling, etc.). It also would be a good addition to a home-theater receiver in need of a phono input—especially one that automatically digitizes analog inputs.

And Finally...
The direct-to-disc (D2D) LPs from Groove Note have arrived. I'd hoped to review them for you here along with Analogue Productions' new D2Ds, but I'm out of space, so that will have to wait till next time.

My nomination for the best LP packaging so far in 2001 is Matador's reissue of the Soft Boys' (Robyn Hitchcock) 1980 classic, Underwater Moonlight. This three-LP, triple-gatefold set includes a bonus 45rpm single, a poster, and a full-sized color booklet. Highly recommended for lovers of Hitchcock and post-psychedelic "new wave" rock. Funny, tuneful, and rocking!

Meanwhile, if you want to see a really cool flick with a very minor but enjoyable vinyl subplot, try Thick as Thieves, with Alec Baldwin and Rebecca De Mornay (the best-known actors of this film's superb ensemble cast). It's a stylish and funny film noir from 1998 filled with witty, believable dialogue and plenty of non-gratuitous violence. A short scene in a used-record store will have you howling—and knowing that the screenwriter is a vinyl junkie. Just be prepared for the most offensive violence, which is at the beginning: an old Pickering V-15 on a cheap '70s Technics turntable dropping into the groove of a vintage jazz album. Ouch.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Otis Redding, Otis Blue, Sundazed 180gm mono LP
2) Bob Dylan, Bringing It All Back Home, Sundazed 180gm mono LP
3) Knoxville Girls, In a Paper Suit, In the Red LP
4) Small Faces, BBC Sessions, Strange Fruit LP
5) The Soft Boys, Underwater Moonlight, Matador LPs (3)
6) Tortoise, Standards, Thrill Jockey LP

7) Jimmy Smith, The Cat, Speakers Corner LP
8) Arab Strap, Philophobia, Chemikal Underground LPs (2)
9) Harold Land Quartet, Promised Land, Audiophoric gold CD
10) Low+Dirty Three, In the Fishtank, Konkurrent CD

Eskisi's picture

This was obviously written before Phil Spector was convicted of murder. It was that event which made me wonder what must have been so famous about him. Having listened to his “top” tracks and read about his sound “layering,” I have to say, what a mess! Turns out his sound only aimed at filling the entire — and very narrow — audio spectrum of AM radio to make songs stand out and that was it.

Not only is that mono but also he seems to have had no interest in realistic presentation. After FM and stereo became mainstream, his star faded. I would not put too much stock in his preference for mono.

BillK's picture

Ignoring for the moment the fact that I honestly believe Phil Spector is innocent and had his lawyer not passed away his case would have ended differently, I also feel that Spector was a genius.

I have long been a huge fan of his "Wall of Sound" productions and I am one of those who think that the work he did on the Beatles' "Let it Be" album is the reason the only Beatles song I actually like is the Spector-produced "The Long and Winding Road" - the chorus, strings and production being what makes that song for me.

BSonmor's picture

Spector was innocent of that “murder” if you bothered to do some research, you would see that (we are expected to believe he shot a woman in the mouth wearing all white and he only had microscopic droplets of blood on him and no gunshot residue). That aside, what he did in the early 1960’s laid the groundwork for the productions of Brian Wilson, Shadow Morton, Jan Berry, Billy Sherrill, Jim Steinman and countless other producers of some of the greatest pop/rock, hell even country, of all time. His influence is immeasurable. Be My Baby, Walking In The Rain, You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling, River Deep, Mountain High, Black Pearl and many more sound as fresh and great today as they did when they were released. How foolish of you to write such a dismissive comment about one of the greatest writers and producers of all time.

Tom Graves's picture

I thought I was the only person in the world who knew this movie. I have it on DVD -- had to really hunt to find a copy. It's funny and the type of thriller I really love. And the record store scenes indeed are really hilarious, especially to collectors. Not only do you have good taste in music and gear, but films too. You must visit Memphis.

CJB's picture

"The first time I heard "Back in the U.S.S.R." played back properly in mono, I didn't want to hear it in stereo again."

I feel this way about the mono version of Revolver, as well as all other mono reissues I've bought lately, pop, jazz, or classical, and I don't have a mono cartridge. Good mono mix is superior to stereo, in my opinion.