Analog Corner #78

Every fall and spring, Groovy Productions runs a giant record convention at the New Jersey Convention and Expo Center at the Raritan Center in Edison, New Jersey. In 2001, despite September 11 and an unusually warm, sunny day that saw temperatures close to 80°, vinyl fanatics turned out in gratifying numbers. And while attendance was down compared to last year, according to Groovy's organizers, those who came were in a buying mood. I was among them.

I arrived two hours early so that I could pay $15 over the $5 admission charge and shop as the vendors set up. Dealers, too, are collectors—after they set up, they roam the floor, copping primo stuff that, by the time everyone else arrives at the official opening time, is already hidden in bags under their tables. It's worth paying extra to get in early.

The Internet has become the prime outlet for carriage-trade record dealers, so events like this one tend to attract the "Three for $10" dealers. Still, a few Groovy dealers had some rare and expensive records. For me, paying a lot for a rare record is not as much fun as finding it for a few bucks in a pile of junk, so I started at a table marked "$3 for any record."

I thumbed through hundreds of crappy and/or common records. Just as I was about to give up and move on, my fingers landed on an unplayed Columbia six-eye pressing of The Sound of Jazz (CS 8040), which Classic had hoped to reissue until they discovered that the master tape was unusable. It's the superb-sounding studio version (Columbia's long-closed 30th Street venue) of the soundtrack to the legendary 1957 television show of the same name, which featured Count Basie, Billie Holiday, the Jimmy Giuffre Trio, Jimmy Rushing and Mal Waldron, as well as Harry Carney, Roy Eldridge, Freddie Green, Jim Hall, Coleman Hawkins, Milt Hinton, Ben Webster, and Lester Young. Look for it!

I also picked up, just for the hell of it, an original Louis and the Angels (Decca DL 8488), on which Satch covers songs with angels and/or heaven in the titles. At another table, $3 got me a very clean RCA Living Stereo 1S pressing of the Hatari soundtrack (LSP-2559).

I flipped through piles of crap at other tables and breathed lots of dust, but ended up with a promo copy of the Art Ensemble of Chicago's Fanfare for the Warriors (Atlantic SD-1651), a late pressing of Archie Shepp's Four for Trane (Impulse! A-71), an original of Ella Fitzgerald's Ella Swings Lightly (Verve MG VS-64021), a Columbia six-eye of Miles Davis' Jazz Track (CL 1268), a "Blue Note NY USA" pressing of Jimmy Smith's Bucket (BLP 4235), the Ahmad Jamal Trio's At The Pershing (Argo LPS 628), an original yellow-black "Bergenfield NJ" Prestige of Miles' Collectors' Items (LP 7044), Stan Freberg's A Child's Garden of Freberg (Capitol T777), and two yellow MGM original Hank Williams albums, Sing Me a Blue Song (E-3560) and Honky-Tonkin (E-3412). These were all very, very clean, some near mint, and cost $5 each.

For $7 I got: Mingus' Jazz Experiment (Jazztone J1271), a reissue of two Period 10" LPs; an almost pristine Reprise tricolor-label mono of Kinks Kingdom (R-6184); and a mint RCA Living Stereo of Esquivel's Strings Aflame (LSP-1988).

A mere $2 each got me an exceptionally clean tricolor-label mono of the Kinks' Greatest Hits! (Reprise R-6217), the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band's The Doughnut in Granny's Greenhouse (UK Sunset SLS 50210), a mono of the Rolling Stones' Flowers (London LL3509), and a six-eye stereo of Johnny Cash's Columbia Records debut, The Fabulous Johnny Cash (CS 8122).

For $1 each: an original green-label Columbia Masterworks Masterpieces by Ellington (ML 4418) and a two-LP curiosity, A Jazz Salute to Freedom, issued by the 1960s civil-rights group CORE and featuring artists from the Roulette and Roost labels, produced and annotated by George Avakian—who included a gem of a story about Harry Belafonte singing for 20 weeks at The Royal Roost, backed by Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell, and Max Roach.

Finally, I paid 75 cents for Sonny Fortune's Awaking LP (Horizon), and, at the other end of the scale, $10 for an absolutely mint second pressing—the desirable one—of Jimi Hendrix's Electric Ladyland (Reprise RS 6307). This pressing (all-mustard-colored Reprise label without the "W7" logo) is the one to have: engineer Eddie Kramer told me that when he and Hendrix mixed the album, they included all kinds of out-of-phase material designed to create a surround-sound effect from two speakers—especially in the whirring sound effects at the beginning and end of this two-LP set. When the mastering engineers at Reprise in LA got the tape and put it up on an oscilloscope, they were horrified to see all of the out-of-phase information and, without asking anyone, "fixed" it. When Hendrix and Kramer heard the first pressing (orange/mustard "W7/Reprise" label), they went nuts and demanded it be restored to their original intent for the second pressing. (By the way, Hendrix detested the naked-girls cover of the UK Track edition. The American cover was his concept.)

See all you metro-area East Coasters at the spring Groovy Productions record convention, April 28, 2002!

More Phono Sections

Final Labs Music-4: My honeymoon with the Manley Steelhead phono section is over. Not that I didn't buy it after my review last month, not that I don't love it, and not that it isn't now my reference—it's just that it isn't perfect, nor does it do everything better than every other phono section I've heard.

For instance, take the quirky Final Labs Music-4 from Japan ($3700), which requires an outboard power supply. Final Labs sent both power options: the AC-5 ($2750), which uses vacuum-tube regulation, and the DC-5 ($450). The AC-5 features eight 5U4GB rectifier tubes (included) and a special transformer in a cool chromed chassis. (I did a Google search on "5U4GB" and got 366 sites! Who said tubes are dead?) The DC-5 is basically a box in which you install 28 C batteries—preferably manganese, according to FL; they include a set.

Using either power supply (connected via an XLR-terminated umbilicus) is relatively straightforward. You check both positive and negative sides of the supply using the top-mounted voltage meter. If it reads ±18V, you're good to go. While the Music-4 is designed to be used only with moving-coil cartridges, resistive loading is locked in at 560k ohms—ie, basically unloaded—and gain is a marginal 40dB. Yet the Music-4 is also fitted with a pair of attenuators—for what reason I don't know, given the minimal gain offered. I always found it necessary to max out the attenuators; even then, gain was "just enough" with the 0.45mV Lyra Helikon cartridge.

Switching to a high-output MC (like the Adcom Crosscoil that Garrott Brothers (footnote 1) rebuilt for me) resulted in more than enough gain, but at the great expense of the very qualities this phono section absolutely excels at: transparency, purity, speed, detail, and delicacy.

To hear what the Music-4 does best, you need to go with a moderate-gain low output MC like the Helikon. Then you get just enough (or barely enough, or maybe not quite enough) gain for it to deliver the most delicately drawn, non-mechanical, yet perfectly focused, almost effervescent sonic picture ever to tickle your tympanic nerve. Well, mine, anyway. Talk about "floating a soundstage." This one floated so freely that I listened enraptured, almost fearing that if I didn't sandbag it, it would just float away.

I thought the Manley Steelhead was speedy, and it is, but the Music-4—especially with its battery power supply—managed to draw an ultra-pure musical image, wash it away and leave no residue, then draw another, all with an exceptional freedom from the mechanicalness and sonic overhang that seemed to define the reproduction of music. Every other phono stage I've heard, tubed or solid-state, sounds somewhat "electronic" by comparison. The Music-4 obliterated the distinction between tubes and solid-state.

Unfortunately, similar to the problems of mini-watt single-ended-triode tube amps—problems their devotees find easy to ignore—the Music-4 doesn't have enough gain to help the rest of the system deliver other important aspects of reproduced sound, such as large-scale dynamic swings and realistic SPLs. At least, that was the case in my system.

Perhaps mated with Final's other gear—a preamp, a 10Wpc stereo amplifier, and a 103dB-efficient horn-loaded speaker—the Music-4 can overcome its limited MC gain. I just don't think 40dB is enough for a low-output MC cartridge, but I'm sure the designer will disagree.

If you stick to listening to what the Music-4 does best and ignore its weaknesses, you'll be in for a magical, "transporting" listening experience. While bass dynamics were limited, within the Music-4's reproductive scale the bass extension was more than adequate, and the overall LF performance was rhythmically, tonally, and texturally stunning—as was the ultra-fast, etch-free transient response on top.

What accounts for the Music-4's purity and speed? The accompanying literature claims hand-wired, "high-speed" circuitry that uses no high-capacity (above 0.2µF) capacitors. When I popped off the bottom plate, I found densely packed three-dimensional component placement.

With its eight-tube or 28-battery power supply, limited gain, wide-open loading, and high cost ($4150 or $6450, depending on power supply), the Music-4 will appeal to a select group of analog devotees. I'm glad I spent time with it—despite its limitations, it points phono-section design in a promising direction. If its gain could be increased and its purity, speed, and transparency retained, the Music-4 might be a killer. Even in its current state, it will find some takers among Stereophile readers, but not me.

Naim Stageline with SuperCap power supply: Naim's $350 Stageline phono section, available in moving-magnet and moving-coil versions, with Naim's $900 HiCap power supply (total cost: $1250), was reviewed in the June 2001 "Analog Corner." Recently, Naim sent me their $4450 SuperCap power supply so I could hear the Stageline in its supreme iteration, which costs a grand total of $4800.

Everything that was fabulous about the 65dB MC Stageline with HiCap repeated itself with the SuperCap, only more emphatically. The Stageline's strong suit with either power supply was a beguiling combination of tube-like warmth and inner detail resolution, image solidity, and rhythmic certainty. There was no glare, grain, etch, edge, or hardness unless it was on the recording, and even then, the Stageline didn't shine a light on recording problems.

The biggest differences I heard from upgrading the power supply were improvements in dynamic performance, bass extension, and control. The Stageline with SuperCap had a better grip on the musical comings and goings than with the HiCap, which was pretty much in control to begin with. With either power supply, the Stageline was a phono section I could just sit back, relax, and enjoy, mostly because it created a coherent musical and sonic picture cut from whole cloth.

The Stageline's overall tonal picture remained on the warm side, which reflected more favorably on timpani, toms, French horns, and male voices than on snare drum, cymbals, or trumpets. The latter lost some natural edge, crackle, and bite, though not enough to make the music sound dull or muted. If you prefer lots of air, fast transients, and soundstage width, you'll probably look elsewhere anyway. Nor will the Stageline be your choice if you want flexibility in resistive loading, gain, and capacitance—its loading resistors are soldered in, and Naim prefers that dealers make any changes. (Mine came loaded at Naim's default setting of 470 ohms.)

But for those looking for a moderately priced ($1250 with HiCap) phono section they can set and forget, it's hard to beat the Naim Stageline. Adding the SuperCap did improve the performance—but upped the price to $4800. It's a move I'd make if I owned an all-Naim system, in which the SuperCap could power other Naim devices. But if I were willing to pay $4800 for a standalone phono stage, I'd opt for the Pass Labs Xono, for "only" $4450.

Pass Labs Xono: Pass Labs' original $2500 Aleph Ono single-box phono stage, designed by Wayne Colburn, was "easily Class A" in my book (Stereophile, January 1999). But extended listening did reveal some deficiencies, including soft bass and a somewhat threadbare midrange. The new, snazzy-looking two-box version, the Xono, retains the original's basic design, ultra-high 76dB gain (internal jumpers allow you do decrease the gain by 4, 10, or 14dB), balanced and single-ended outputs, and complete resistive and capacitive loading flexibility via internal DIP switches.

The second box is the new outboard power supply. Its oversized toroidal transformer, in combination with separate rectifiers and capacitors for each channel, delivers 85V DC peak–peak. I won't describe the rest of the power supply; for that, see Pass's website, www.passlabs.com. (For other aspects of the design, see my original review.)

The rest of the circuit is a refined version of the original Aleph Ono, with a new circuit layout designed to lower noise, shorten the signal path, and reduce the length of connecting wires. Critical parts were upgraded when their replacements yielded better sound.

And that's what I experienced when I listened to the Xono, one of the most accomplished-sounding phono sections I've heard. It was easily the quietest—music emerged from serenely black backgrounds, with the most minute recorded details revealed. The bass was now firmed up nicely, and the midband was fleshed out beyond the original Aleph Ono's somewhat "skeletal" feeling. The soundstage width was CinemaScopic, and instrumental separation and three-dimensionality were unsurpassed in my experience.

I found Pass Labs' factory gain setting of 76dB way too high for even the low-output Helikon. The Xono sounded much more delicate and refined with its jumpers set for 66dB gain, and there was still more than adequate gain 4dB below that. Because the Xono was so uncolored, extended, and resolving, I preferred the Helikon loaded down to 100 ohms, though the cartridge's manufacturer suggests starting with 47k ohms.

As with the Manley Steelhead, the Xono's loading and gain flexibility let me optimize performance for any cartridge I threw at it, MC or MM, if not quite as conveniently. As all gain is accomplished electronically, there is no step-up transformer in the MC input. (For more details of how this is accomplished, see my January 1999 review of the Aleph Ono.)

When I finished optimizing the setup—including positioning the power supply as far from the main box and other sensitive gear as the Xono's umbilicus allowed—I found that the Xono's ultra-low noise floor, transparency, resolution of detail, ambience retrieval, and tonal neutrality were absolutely Class A, and among the best I've heard from any phono section.

Whether you like that level of analytical neutrality, or want something with a bit more warmth and harmonic depth (eg, with vacuum tubes), is a matter of taste and of the various colorations inherent in the rest of your system. (On the opposite and equally attractive side of the fence is the Audio Research Reference Phono section that I wrote about in February 2000.) But no matter where your sonic predilections lie, listening to great recordings—especially live ones—through the Pass Labs Xono will be an overwhelming experience.

Musical Surroundings Phonomena with optional battery power supply: For $600, Musical Surroundings' compact MM/MC Phonomena, attractively designed by Michael Yee, offers an impressive array of features: discrete transistors instead of IC op-amps, six "coarse" gain settings (40, 44, 46, 50, 56, and 60dB) and seven "fine" ones in between those, as well as hundreds of resistive loading settings (from 30 ohms to 100k ohms), all selectable via internally mounted DIP switches. You can also choose between 200pF and 300pF capacitive loading, for MM use. A standard wall-wart transformer supplies 12V AC (600mA) to the Phonomena, which is designed to remain on at all times.

Writing about budget gear like this is tricky. You don't want to dampen the spirits of those who shop at this price because it's all they can afford by harping on the inevitable deficiencies of such equipment, but you don't want to leave anyone with the mistaken idea that you can get it all, or even close to it all, for $600. So, having recently spent a great deal of time listening to expensive, exotic stabs at the state of the art, I sensibly lowered my expectations before listening to the Phonomena, still hoping I'd be pleasantly surprised—that I'd be hearing a product that came uncomfortably close to one that costs a lot more.

Once optimized for gain and loading, the stock Phonomena, like any well-designed, low-priced phono section, offered a reasonably satisfying amount of the main event while glossing over the subtle spatial, harmonic, and textural details that make music sound alive. It didn't commit any gross errors, and its strengths and weaknesses were well-balanced overall, and that's what's most important. But after extended listening, my overriding musical impression was of a cardboardy and uninvolving aftertaste compared to the high-priced spreads. (The same criticism can be made about the Lehmann Black Cube, which I also like at this price.)

Taken on its own terms, the Phonomena offered a slightly subdued, somewhat soft and opaque tonal balance with only moderately well-developed harmonic overtones. That was offset to a great degree by reasonably fast and clean transient response, which added some snap and excitement. And the bass extension, rhythm, and clarity were very good. The overall presentation was thus a good balance of the bright, thin, grainy sound found at one end of the low-cost spectrum, and the soft, warmed-over, mushy sound found at the other.

The downside of the transient snap was that vocal sibilants were sometimes exaggerated and jumped forward, though not in a spitty way. Massed strings had a tendency to become congested and a bit unpleasant on crescendos. There was a properly proportioned though compact and slightly flattened soundstage, with not much in the way of reverberant context or back-of-hall detail. Through extended listening, my first impression of "Hey, this isn't too bad" was gradually replaced by that slight sense of cardboardiness, and of a restriction of the liquidity and flow of live music.

Overall, though, the $600 Phonomena struck a good balance, offering detail without sounding wiry and thin, and some warmth without going soft, lifeless, and boring. And it was quiet. The Lehmann Black Cube has a similar sound with a different combination of strengths and weaknesses; between the two, it's a toss-up.

Adding Phonomena's battery pack doubles its price to $1200, and while it doesn't double the performance, the pack makes a major improvement, especially in terms of liquidity and overall musical flow. With the battery replacing the wall wart, I found I could sit and listen without distraction for far longer. The pack replaced the cardboardy quality with a relaxed musical flow. Transients were cleaner and less gritty, and focus improved.

The battery pack isolates the Phonomena from the AC, but you can still listen to music through the pack} even when it's not charged, though then I heard less of a sonic benefit. Within the pack's Phonomena-sized chassis are two eight-cell NiMH battery packs; after the initial 10-hour charge, the pack lets you run the Phonomena in pure battery mode for three hours.

DC power noticeably upped the Phonomena's performance, but for another $50 you can get the Naim Stageline with HiCap power supply—a far more refined-sounding product altogether. Just be sure you're ready to deal with the fixed gain, the less convenient loading, and Naim's DIN-type output jack, which limits your choice of off-the-shelf interconnect.

For $995, you should also consider Camelot Technologies' battery-powered Lancelot Pro (see Stereophile, October 2000). Thanks to a change of resistor, the Pro's MC gain is up 10dB, to 54dB. The Lancelot features dual-mono design with separate circuit boards for each channel, dip switches for gain and capacitance, and resistor sockets for loading. Resistors of 10, 43, and 47.5k ohms are supplied, but you can choose whatever value you wish.

I compared the Lancelot Pro and the Phonomena/battery pack combo, and even though it uses op-amps, I thought the Lancelot Pro was more coherent, more refined, and easier to listen to. My original enthusiasm for it continues.

Sidebar: In Heavy Rotation

1) Garbage, beautifulgarbage, Interscope CD
2) The 13th Floor Elevators, The Psychedelic Sounds of, Get Back 180gm LP
3) The 13th Floor Elevators, Easter Everywhere, Get Back 180gm LP
4) Miles Davis, Kind of Blue, Columbia/Classic Quiex SV 180gm LP
5) Led Zeppelin, Presence, Atlantic/Classic Quiex SV 180gm LP
6) The Guess Who, Shakin' All Over!, RCA/Sundazed 180gm LPs (2)
7) Various artists, Roots Music: An American Journey, Rounder CDs (4)
8) Suzanne Vega, Songs in Red and Gray, A&M CD
9) Don Byron, You Are #6: More Music for Six Musicians, Blue Note CD
10) The Kinks, Greatest Hits!, Reprise original-label (tricolor) mono LP


Footnote 1: Not the actual Garrott brothers, who are long gone, but some very talented guys who bought the company. More about them in a future column.

COMMENTS
foxhall's picture

This is off-topic from the column but I've always wondered when the term "vinyl" became ubiquitous? I was in high school when the CD became commonplace so I just remember my father using the term "records" but never "vinyl."

I'm guessing you've covered this numerous times but I must have missed it.

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