Analog Corner #6

(Originally published in Stereophile, December 12th, 1995)

"Stop with analog already. You're writing yourself out of a career." This is what some industry types used to whisper in my ear during the dark days of digital domination. To which I would reply, only somewhat facetiously, "What career?"

"If I can't write about what I really believe in, what I really enjoy, then I'll find something else to do," I'd continue defiantly. "I'm resourceful. I don't really like digital sound, and I can't fake it."

I still feel that way. I respect digital sound, and have high hopes for its improvement, especially with DVD's potential. But given a choice, I go for analog recordings and vinyl playback every time. I'm glad I didn't concede defeat or change my tune to fit the fashion of the time.

I never gave up hope that there were enough people around who heard what I heard to keep the old technology alive. It had happened with tubes and it could happen with vinyl, bleak as the situation was just a few years ago.

Now look: I've got my own "Corner," with +80,000 passersby to cajole. More important, analog has reestablished itself as the preferred recording medium for jazz (two-track analog, no less!) and for much rock. There has been an explosion of vinyl from audiophile and major labels: both reissues and new productions. The truth is, records are back and records are hip. But hip means fashion, and fashion can be fleeting.

What this phenomenon needs is "legs." Unfortunately, while many music lovers—audiophile and non-audiophile alike—are paying lip service to vinyl, the number actually plunking down the cold, hard cash right now is not high enough to make the enterprise much more than a break-even or money-losing one for many of the companies involved. There's a lot of new vinyl out there, but for how long?

I can't think of a more committed vinyl fan than AudioQuest's Joe Harley. He's there at the recording sessions; he hears the pure analog master tapes and the final records and CDs. He'd prefer you to hear the music sounding as close to the master tape as possible. In other words, on vinyl. He just sent me two new outstanding AudioQuest titles—Terry Evans' Puttin' It Down with Ry Cooder and Jim Keltner, and West-Coast string-bender Lloyd Jones' Trouble Monkey—with a note that read, in part, "Alas, only Terry is available on LP. (I swear—if people will only buy them—I will put LPs out. If they don't—I can't!)"

The idea that so-called audiophiles are opting for CDs of Doug MacLeod and Mighty Sam McLain instead of the much better-sounding vinyl is pathetic. Can't get new music on vinyl? Baloney.

See? I'm not afraid of the truth—I just wish some others with whom I've dealt lately felt likewise. Guess what happened after my September "Analog Corner" column—the one criticizing the EIA's coverage of analog (and high-end in general) in its 1995 edition of US Consumer Electronics Industry in Review—hit the newsstand? I got a voicemail message from an EIA official telling me that the industry seminar I was scheduled to host at the January 1996 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas had been canceled.

Understand: I've conducted well-received seminars at both winter and summer CESes for the past few years, including one at last June's Palmer House Specialty Audio gathering. Shortly thereafter an EIA representative called to praise my work and invite me to run one this January.

EIA had already approved my seminar topic of "Home Theater: Hobby or Appliance?" when the seminar was canceled. I called EIA to ask about the cancellation and was assured that it had nothing whatsoever to do with my column.

"Oh, really? So why was the seminar canceled?" I was told that EIA was "refurbishing" its seminar mix because the segment of the consumer electronics industry I cover (high-end audio/Home Theater) isn't that important anymore. Kind of what you were thinking, eh?

I said that, had the seminar topic been vinyl or analog or tube gear, I could perhaps see the point. But the subject was Home Theater, a hot segment of the consumer electronics market—or so I thought. Not so, I was told: Home Theater sales are flat. Gee, if Home Theater sales are flat, high-end must be in the abyss. The future is in plastics, Benjamin. (Oops, wrong fiction.)

Anyway, it seems the seminars will be skewed toward computers and interactive electronics, and away from high-end audio and video. Oh, there would be some of that too, though not with me at the helm—but that was just by coincidence.

The discussion did eventually turn to my September column. I was told that, though I might love records and turntables, they comprise a minuscule market, hardly worth gathering and publishing statistics about. "Do you know how many turntables were sold last year?" I was asked.

"No. How could I? You don't bother to publish the numbers," I shot back.

"Fewer than 300,000," I was told. "That's compared to millions of CD players."

Later in the discussion I brought up the number of times the Digital Compact Cassette and MiniDisc formats were lauded in the yearly booklet. "Those are two basically dead formats, so why was so much attention paid to them?" I asked.

"Dead!?" came the indignant response. "Do you know how many MiniDisc players were sold last year? Over 300,000!"

I'm not making this up.

Just before deadline I received a letter from Gary Shapiro, Group Vice-President, Consumer Electronics Group, containing slightly more conciliatory language: "You're right when you point out that we didn't include statistics on turntable sales in the 1995 edition of In Review—this is important information, which we'll be sure to include next year...." Score one for analog.

Shapiro continues, stating the obvious: "Clearly, for better or worse, we live in an increasingly digital, not analog, world." True enough, and for the most part it is for the better. I don't like using an abacus. But let's at least have the numbers. Shapiro writes: "Home CD-player sales, while down slightly in 1994, still managed to reach 2,771,000 units and $443 million. Turntable sales, on the other hand, were down for the third straight year: 264,191 and $27.6 million."

Of course, as others have pointed out, high-end companies, being private, are not obliged to give numbers, and I doubt that SOTA, VPI, and the other high-end turntable manufacturers have supplied EIA with numbers. From what I gather, their sales are up.

Keep those cards & letters coming!
I appreciate the letters to the editor (October '95, pp.21-23) this column has generated—especially the negative ones. I mean it. I love the fact that a reader found my first column so threatening he thought it an "irrational rant." I can rant with the best of them, and that one wasn't a rant, nor was it irrational. It's just not pleasant having your well-ordered belief system shaken (not stirred).

I also enjoyed the one from the guy who said that he loves records too, but as more and more CDs and fewer and fewer records are issued, the vinyl's value would finally decrease to the point where he wouldn't play records any more and his turntable would end up on a closet shelf. You know, I don't get that. If I prefer the new DCC LP of Pet Sounds, for example, to the company's gold CD, which I do, would it be any different 10,000 CDs, 100 records, and 10 years later? No. I'd still play the vinyl when I wanted to hear Pet Sounds. Wouldn't you?

I even enjoyed the letter from the guy who discovered that LPs ain't as perfect as I said they'd be. Mainly because I never said they were perfect, and also because, he says, playing records is "...a gigantic pain in the ass." So is wiping, but it's worth it!

His comments about unwrapping all the "crap" LPs come packed in had me on the floor. LPs are a breeze compared to new CDs: first you've got to remove the cellophane-like outer layer. I say "like" because it's obviously made out of some new space-age material which cannot be torn with the fingers or teeth. It requires a razor blade. Once you've gotten rid of that, you're faced with one of those laser tabs which you have to pick like a scab to remove, and even then it leaves an ugly, dust-attracting glob of glue. Then you have to peel the white bar-coded tape that seals the jewelbox closed. It's designed to come off in one piece, but you usually end up with five or more sections which are impossible to get started. By the time you get the jewel box opened the music is passé.

I do appreciate his setting the record straight about "Perfect Sound Forever" being an advertising slogan and not a claim by the inventors of CD. In fact, it wasn't even an ad for Sony. It was Technics, I believe.

To the reader who predicted that my comments about the less-than-stellar talent recording for some audiophile labels would piss off some audiophile labels: you got it, bub. There are some folks at some audiophile labels mighty ticked off. But you know what? I wasn't saying that all talent recording for all audiophile labels is third-rate. Only some, and they and their labels know who they are. So do you.

I'm not in this business to make friends, nor am I in it to lose friends. But as I said recently to a manufacturer with whom I'm friendly, "When I sit down to review a piece of gear, whether it's yours or someone else's, my only friend is the reader. If you can't accept that, I'd rather not review the equipment because I value our friendship more than I value writing a review."

And it's nice to know that another reader thinks my contributions to Stereophile "almost" make up for the loss of Corey Greenberg, whose friendship I lost because I dared poke a little fun at him last year (Footnote 1) when I gave him the "Hans Fantel in a Leather Jacket" Mikey Award for some anti–high-end statements he made in Home Theater Technology. Proving that he can dish it out, but he can't take it.

Cartridge hygiene
An advice columnist for another audio magazine (which I shan't capitalize) recently received a query from a reader about the need to demagnetize his cartridge. "Why would you want to do that?" the expert queried. "The output of most cartridges is low to begin with. If you demagnetize it, there'll be even less, or no output whatsoever." I'm paraphrasing, but that was his gist.

Most of us know that moving-coil cartridges require periodic demagnetization. The magnet isn't demagnetized—the coil is, to remove residual magnetization, which can interfere with the clean generation of signal and color the sound. At least that's the theory (Footnote 2).

In practice, I don't know of any serious vinyl enthusiast who hasn't heard an improvement after demagnetizing his/her moving-coil cartridge. The sound takes on an openness and purity that slowly, imperceptibly diminishes as the magnetization builds up over time. Is this phenomenon in doubt?

A few years ago Sumiko introduced the Fluxbuster, a fast, effective cartridge-demagnetization device that, sadly, is no longer available. Immedia is currently importing a new AudioPhysic demagnetizer that works even more effectively (rather than starting and stopping "cold," it ramps up and down at the beginning and end of the demagnetization cycle), and of course costs more ($349.95). Housed in an attractive wooden case, the unit is equipped with a pair of RCA jacks into which you plug your pickup arm leads, an on/off button, and a pair of LEDs, one red, one green.

Shortly after you plug the unit into the wall, the red LED goes off, indicating that the unit is ready. After plugging your arm leads into the unit, you push the button to begin the demagnetization process. The red light goes on, and about 30 seconds later it goes off again, signaling completion. The process can be repeated up to three times.

One helpful hint included in the instructions: put the stylus down onto a record (turntable not spinning) while demagnetizing, so the coils are centered in the magnetic field. The specs list the demagnetization frequency at 33kHz.

Cardas offers cartridge demagnetization in a much lower-tech and lower-cost form: The Cardas Sweep Record, for $16, attacks the problem from the other end. The record contains an already-very-high-frequency sweep tone, which you increase by playing the disc at 45rpm.

According to the instructions, leaving your system on at low to normal volume means the cartridge and the entire audio system get degaussed and the stylus and cantilever get ultrasonically cleaned at the same time. The record also slices, dices, chops, grinds, peels, gives your children a great haircut, and contains a built-in pocket fisherman. The record actually does offer one other feature: blank, flat areas for adjusting anti-skating on pivoted arms, and level on linear trackers.

Does this disc deliver the demagnetization goods? Yes, but for how long I don't know. Ultra-ultra-high frequencies are the first to get sheared off by the stylus. How many plays you get before the benefits are lost I don't know, but Cardas gives you four sweep grooves on each side, so you should get reasonably effective demagnetizing for quite some time. Certainly for 16 bucks worth!

Obviously the expensive AudioPhysic electronic demagnetizer offers more consistent degaussing, but if you can't afford the one that might cost as much as or more than your cartridge, at least you've got a low-cost alternative.

I'm always surprised at the degree to which demagnetizing improves a moving-coil cartridge's sound (following an extended period of use): it sounds more open overall, and smoother and sweeter on top, with less grain and grunge.

Brusha! brusha! brusha!
Stylus cleaning is tricky. If you've ever seen how the cantilever/coil assembly is attached at the back end of most cartridge innards, you think twice before dragging one of those densely packed bristle brushes across the stylus (back to front only, of course!). But you do it anyway because it's the only way. Nonetheless, doing so should never be considered a casual operation. "Gently" is the operative word.

Because of the intense heat generated by the stylus coursing through the grooves, dirt clinging to the tip literally bakes on. It takes more than a brush to get it off. I apply LAST stylus cleaner (System Formula 4) with the built-in applicator brush, followed by a light pass with a bristle brush, and I do it before every side. The cleaner your records, the less this procedure has to accomplish.

What about StyLast? Stylast is a stylus-treatment fluid that The LAST Factory created to cut down on friction and thus heat, as the stylus travels through the groove. I used to use it religiously every play, and over the years I found that I never wore out a stylus: the cartridge damping material gave way first.

But a number of cartridge designers, manufacturers, and importers have cautioned against its use: they claim the substance "migrates" up the cantilever and finds its way into the motor assembly, where it gums up the works and attracts dust, which clogs things up even more. The result is a dulling and slowing down of the sound.

The migration of undocumented and possibly illegal dust (depending on what you smoke while listening to music) is a serious problem which should concern all Americans. It concerns me, so I rarely use StyLast anymore, though I'll bet if you use it sparingly and carefully, just touching the very tip of the cantilever with the applicator brush, you'll avoid messy migration. Analog lovers: What's your experience with StyLast? Write and let us know.

So while some complain about the hassles of analog playback, I don't find it difficult at all: a quick application of LAST stylus cleaner, followed by a careful swipe with a stylus bristle brush, takes but a few seconds before each play. If that's too much work for you, I guess cooking is, too. You deserve TV dinners!

Footnote 1: The Abso!ute Sound, Issue 101, January 1995.

Footnote 2: Moving-magnet cartridges also benefit from demagnetizing—as long as you remove the removable stylus/magnet assembly. In fact, industry folklore has it that Shure introduced a new version of their V15 phono cartridge just about the time the previous version was suffering from magnetic malaise. —JA

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