Analog Corner #75

First, the news you've all been waiting for: the name of the winner of the "Send in the funniest caption for this picture and win an autographed copy of Mikey's 1970s comedy album, I Can Take a Joke" contest (see p.44 of the August 2001 Stereophile).

Two readers submitted captions having to do with my not having any pants on, which I found somewhat disturbing. How did they know? One of them, "Who needs a baton to conduct an orchestra? Haven't you noticed I'm not wearing pants?," submitted by Robert Schryer, wins the award for "Best Non-Sequitur, Most Like a Haiku." Unfortunately, there is no prize for that category. Blame cost-cutting on the part of this magazine's former owner emapUSA.

The runner-up, submitted by "Mr. Paintball": "Helloooo? Why do you think I demanded an oversized Michael Fremer nametag? It's to match my oversized EGO!!!"

The winner: "What, I can't conduct and beg at the same time?" Dave Bruce wins because his caption best combines what it looks like I was doing with how I was feeling at the time.

I thank all of the readers who submitted captions, and I assure Dave that if he doesn't like side 1 and most of side 2 of I Can Take a Joke (if he's a Republican and/or supported Nixon, he won't), he'll definitely enjoy the end of side 2, where I do a bit about what you can learn from records without ever playing them. The whole thing was recorded live at the Inman Square Men's Bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1973. And no, it wasn't a gay bar. At least, not back then.

Which reminds me—once when I was on the air at Boston's WBCN-FM in the early 1970s, I extolled the virtues of Peter Frampton. This was when he had a rocking band called Camel, and long before he opened his shirt and blew kisses and his career. Frampton, who happened to be in town, heard the broadcast and called in. I invited him down to the studio, he went on the air with me.

A few weeks later, a woman called in claiming to be Yoko Ono. I told her to come to the station (at the top of the Prudential Building) and check in at the security office on the lower level; the building was closed at night. Sure enough, half an hour later I got a call from security.

"Hey Mike, I got a Yoko Ono here to see you."

"Is she Asian?" I asked the rent-a-cop.

"Hey, with a name like that, she's gotta be!" he replied.

"Just let her up!"

Turned out she wasn't Yoko Ono, but she was nuts—the interview was hilarious. Next day she came back with a knife and tried to stab the program director. Guess who got in trouble?

Enough Stalling
Speaking of Ono, it's been a frustrating few months. First, no equipment I'd requested showed up. Then, all at once, UPS and FedEx descended on me revolving-door style, delivering the Pass XOno phono stage, Music Hall MMF-7 turntable, Final Labs Music 4 phono section with all-vacuum-tube power supply, Phonomena battery-powered phono section, Benz Glider 2 low-output moving-coil cartridge, Ortofon Kontrapunkt MC, Grado low-output (0.5mV) Statement MM, and Naim Supercap power supply, this supposed to take the Naim Stageline phono section to another level of performance. Whew!

So I'm set for a while, but can't report anything to you about these products until next month, or even the month or two after that. As I write this I'm breaking in the phono sections using the Thor Audio Phono-Burn, and some new cables using the Audiodharma Cable Cooker, but more about those next time too.

The $350 Phono-Burn drops a CD player's output level by 50–70dB, then routes it through an inverse RIAA-curve network. Thor supplies a Purist Audio CD, which you use to burn in your entire audio chain, from phono section to loudspeakers. Regular use of such a CD (XLO and Densen make similar discs, while Stereophile's Test CD 3 also has a suitable track), which contains wideband frequency sweeps and other specialized tones, is said to reduce "residual magnetism" as well as prevent capacitors from "forming" around specific and repeated musical frequencies—yet another reason to not listen to the same old crap all the time. I hear some of you; I'm just passing on what's claimed, and what most audiophiles who've tried a burn-in disc will confirm.

Don't want to spend $350? How about $29 or $39? Hagerman Technology ( will sell you their RIAA Filter, built or in kit form. It will perform the inverse RIAA function and drop line-level signals by 40 or 60dB, depending on the output set you choose. Inputs are for 50 or 500 ohm sources. Frequency response is claimed to be accurate to within !X0.25dB from 10Hz to 100kHz, and the network includes a "correctly placed upper 3.18;us corner (50.048kHz) in its transfer function," according to designer Jim Hagerman.

This ultrasonic rolloff has to do with the response of the RIAA curve, which, on the LP cutting side, rolls off the bass and boosts the highs. If the boost were allowed to continue on to infinity, the result might be burnt-out cutter heads because no amplifier has unlimited gain. According to Hagerman, the manual for the Neumann cutting head specifies the 3.18;us corner, so he includes it; the "inverse" RIAA curve is essentially what the cutter head is fed. He also claims that the RIAA network in your preamp (which applies the opposite EQ, of course) should take the corner into account, but that most don't—a subject to be explored another time. Meanwhile, check out—there's interesting stuff there.

Clearaudio Outer Limit turntable ring
Clearaudio, formerly imported by Discovery Cable's Joe DePhillips, is now distributed by Musical Surroundings, but I got this neat product directly from Clearaudio's Peter Suchy, on the final day of Home Entertainment 2001. The heavy, stainless-steel ring fits over your turntable platter, where it acts as a speed-stabilizing flywheel, damps the record, and flattens outer-groove warps. Suchy was apologetic about the $800 price, but the Outer Limit is milled from a disc of solid stainless steel, most of which ends up as waste.

The Outer Limit made an audible difference. I used it on the Final Tool and Simon Yorke turntables and it blackened backgrounds, solidified images, and made them "pop" in three dimensions. The effects weren't subtle and the benefit of flattening was obvious, but the device was a pain to center. Unlike a similar ring marketed by Kenwood in the '80s, the Outer Limit doesn't come with a centering template—at least, I didn't get one. Perhaps it was cut to fit precisely over Clearaudio's own platters. If you use most other 'tables, you'll need to fiddle to center the Outer Limit on each disc; otherwise, the wobble will probably do more harm than good to the stability of your platter's speed. Also, the ring's overhang rubbed against the Simon Yorke's $wO-ring belt, which obviously was not a good thing. For the same reason, I don't think the Outer Limit will be compatible with VPI's TNT, for instance.

If you're considering buying an Outer Limit, check compatibility with your turntable. Because of its weight, I'd use it only with a 'table fitted with a massive platter and/or very powerful motor. A centering template would be a smart addition to the package.

Graham Engineering's 2.2 tonearm upgrade
Bob Graham recently announced the 2.2 upgrade of his 2.0 tonearm. The 2.2 features a new bearing system, small changes to the armwand support block, and a new one-piece mounting base. The physical changes are subtle, but the improvement in sound was a significant step up overall, especially in terms of midbass/midrange fullness and high-frequency smoothness.

Owners of 2.0s need not fret: a $300 kit will give you more than 90% of the upgrade. The kit consists mostly of a new, more substantial bearing configuration, which can be added to the 2.0 by unscrewing the old bearing cap and screwing in the new one. The new cap is brass instead of aluminum, and there are changes in the way the bearing is mounted within the cap.

The arm mount is more massive and will displace more of the damping fluid already in the well, so Graham advises users to let the fluid settle after installation, then unscrew the mount to check the fluid level, using the bearing support much like a car engine's oil dipstick. The fluid level should be half to three-fourths of the way up the square flange. Small changes in the amount of fluid will affect the sound, but Graham—and I, after experimenting with the new bearing—caution you against going crazy with the fluid level.

Speaking of which, Graham claims that his new cobalt-blue silicone fluid offers yet another level of sonic enhancement. I haven't yet received a shipment, but I'm sure it will make it easier to determine the fluid level.

Because replacing the bearing is so simple, and switching between the old and new parts requires no change in the arm's setup (except for the amount of fluid), it was easy to compare the new bearing with the old. The upgrade was significant—about the same degree of improvement as the one that upgraded the 1.5 arm to the 2.0, though this one doesn't require you to buy a new tonearm. The sonic improvements were not subtle. The biggest difference I heard was in the midbass, which was now fleshed out and better integrated with the bass and midrange. Graham claims better bass as well, but in my book, bass doesn't get much better than the 2.0's; I noted little improvement there.

The very top was also sweeter, somewhat less analytical, and, some might say, a bit less strident and unrelenting. The overall effect was the transformation of a very good, highly respected tonearm that still left some listeners cold—for its unyielding top end and slightly thin midbass—into one that sounded far more supple, rich, and inviting while retaining all of transient speed and resolution of inner detail that had already placed it in the top echelon of tonearms. The upgrade also delivered improved soundstage width and depth—probably an outcome of the improved midbass.

The 2.2 upgrade is a no-brainer for 2.0 owners. For the totally obsessed, Graham even includes a "2.2" sticker—"like a license-plate registration sticker," he says—to be placed over the "2.0" badge. You can try peeling off the original badge first, but be careful: "Scratches aren't covered by the warranty," warns Graham. Original 1.5 owners can also upgrade, but, according to Graham, they'll have to also get the 1.5t upgrade (tungsten side weights), and the final results will not be quite as impressive—the main pivot housing on the original arm was lighter, made of aluminum instead of the 2.0/2.2's tungsten alloy.

Graham also recently announced the IC50, a new DIN/RCA cable, which he says better complements the 2.0's newly refined sound. The solid silver wire is specially wound and terminated in a new DIN connector and low-mass RCA plugs. The price will be in the "$650–$700" range.

Mikey, Multimedia Maven
I'm still enjoying the Acoustic Energy AEGO2 multimedia speaker system on my Apple Macintosh G4 (see "Analog Corner," March 2001), and even more so now that I've installed Onkyo's MSE-U33HB USB Digital Audio Processor for Mac. The small, opaque, heavily shielded, iMac-like plastic box includes built-in 1-bit A/D and D/A converters and a discrete-component preamplifier, as well as three convenient front-mounted USB ports that mean the device can also serve as a hub for connecting additional peripherals. Onkyo bundles the MSE-U33HB with BIAS, Inc.'s Peak LE, which allows easy and very convenient CD-quality (or lower) hard-disk recording from analog sources. Peak LE can also read and encode MP3, Shockwave, and RealAudio files. Also included is Rhythmic Circle Fuse, which creates audio-driven light shows on your computer. Heavy.

You can digitize LPs (using a phono section, of course) or cassettes, and there's even a microphone input, but the MSE-U33HB is worth getting just for the improvement in sound. Taking the D/A out of the hostile computer environment makes a difference, as does the quality of the 1-bit D/A and the discrete-component analog output section. The result is warmer, more detailed CD and Internet audio playback, and much improved bass control. My complaints about the AEGO2's tubby bass were partly due to my Mac's internal converters and output circuits. The MSE-U33HB lists for only $199, and I've seen it discounted.

But for some reason the MSE-U33HB does not include digital inputs and outputs, which some might have found useful. They are included in Onkyo's slimline, USB-based SE-U55, which, while compatible with Macs, is bundled with recording software designed for Windows. Mac users can use iTunes or other recording software, including Peak LE, which is available separately. The taller-than-it-is-wide device features analog and digital inputs and outputs (TosLink and coaxial). It also has a headphone jack with level control, and a function selector switch—three audio devices can be connected simultaneously. The SE-U55, too, improved the sound of the AEGO2s. It lists for a piddling $249, and I've seen it discounted as well.

With the Onkyo products I've been having a blast with the G4, digitizing, preserving, and cleaning up cassettes of radio commercials, comedy routines, and other stuff from my past that I have lying around shedding oxide. And Peak LE includes a host of sonic enhancement software that I've only begun to explore.

Decoding those Matrix Codes
Perhaps someone's trying to sell you a "first pressing" of an original UK Beatles album for big bucks. Is it really a first pressing? If so, just how "first" is it? The label and jacket might tell you what you need to know—in the case of Beatles albums, most had yellow/silver/black Parlophone labels with laminated fold-over jackets. But I recently learned how to further decode EMI pressings from the Phonogram mailing list's Richard Foster, and it's helped me become a more informed buyer of used records.

EMI used a code based on "G R A M O P H L T D" (Gramophone, Ltd.), with "G" standing for "1" and "R" standing for "2," up through "D," for "0." These letters, representing stamper numbers, can be found at 3 o'clock in the leadout groove area. If your copy of Revolver has only a "G," it was pressed from the very first stamper made from a given "mother," whose number can be found at 9 o'clock. My first-pressing copy of Revolver (matrix #YEX606-1, also stamped in the leadout area) has a "2" at 9 o'clock and a "PG" at 3 o'clock, meaning it was pressed from stamper 61, made from mother 2, which was created from the first (-1) lacquer. That's a pretty early "first" pressing.

When I was in the UK recently I was offered a "first pressing" of The Beatles, which, in mint condition in stereo, goes for between $l100 and $l200 ($145–$290). The copy was not mint, but decent. However, the guy was asking $l166—pretty steep. When I looked at the "dead wax," I found a three-letter code meaning that, without me even having to know the particular letters, it was from at least stamper 100, and could have been from stamper 999! I seem to remember that side 1 was "POL," or stamper 657! Not too early, and from a high-number mother, though still from lacquer 1. I passed. Later, in another shop (Haggle Vinyl in Islington), I found what looked to be just as clean a copy for only $l60. But the stamper code on side 1 was "LL" (88), generated from mother 1. That one I bought.

EMI pressed LPs for a number of other labels back then, including Island. I went back to my third pressing (orange/blue palm tree) of Nick Drake's Bryter Layter and was amazed to find that side 2 was pressed from stamper 3 of mother 1 of lacquer 2, proving what we already know: Nick Drake never sold many albums when they first came out [See Dan Durchholz's article in the September Stereophile.—Ed.]. He probably sells more now than ever.

And Finally...
When I did the phone interview with Howard Stern last May to publicize Home Entertainment 2001, his friend Vinnie Favale, a programmer at The David Letterman Show, called in to argue with me.

"That guy is crazy!" he screamed. "He doesn't know what he's talking about! In a few years everyone will download everything and there won't be any more records or CDs!"

"Hey Vinnie," I replied, "I'll sit you down in front of a good stereo and play you some records and blow your mind!"

"You're not blowing anything!" Favale retorted, à la Stern.

Later, I called him. He agreed to meet me at the midtown showroom of Innovative Audio (the high-end store closest to Favale's office). I brought along various LPs and CDs of his favorites, including The Beatles, and after five minutes' listening he said, "I'm gonna be sick." He'd heard how much better the LPs sounded—even when we compared DCC's gold CD of Van Halen through first-class digital to the 180gm LP on a Linn LP12. He heard the spaciousness of the LP and the far superior cymbal sound.

Minds were made to be blown.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Butterfield Blues Band, East-West, Sundazed 180gm LP
2) Stephen Stills, Stephen Stills, Atlantic/Classic 180gm LP
3) Shellac, 1000 Hurts, Shellac of N.A. 180gm LP
4) HIM, New Features, Fat Cat/Bubblecore LPs (2)
5) Holly Cole, Temptation, [original label?]/Classic 180gm LPs (2)
6) Louis Armstrong Meets Oscar Peterson, [original label?]/Speakers Corner 180gm LP
7) Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Impulse!/Speakers Corner 180gm LP
8) Mike Bloomfield, I'm Cutting Out: Lost Recordings 1964–1966, Sundazed 180gm LP
9) Henry Mancini, Charade (original soundtrack), RCA/JVC XRCD CD
10) Debussy, Images for Orchestra, Munch/BSO, RCA Living Stereo/JVC XRCD CD

JoeESP9's picture

I thoroughly enjoyed this column.

Jim Tavegia's picture

you could have limited runs pressed very affordably. Oh, wait, never mind.

cgh's picture

Better title would have been " Can I Put My Comedy Inside You?"