You are reading the older HTML site

Positive Feedback ISSUE 24
march/april 2006


Ten Years Gone - A Long Awaited Return to Vinyl Playback
by Tom Gibbs


About ten years ago, I was forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life. For a host of reasons, I sold my analog-based big rig and replaced it with a home-theater-oriented system that was less than one-tenth its value. Gone were the Magneplanars, Classe monoblock amps and preamp, high-end CD transport and outboard DAC, and my prized Linn turntable and cartridge. I also sold most of my LPs, holding onto fifty or so treasured titles that I considered irreplaceable despite the fact that the prospects of playing them again seemed remote. My musical life seemed to be pretty much over, and I spent precious little time listening to anything that remotely resembled music.

The intervening years found me facing a variety of financial challenges, including my wife's ongoing battle with cancer and putting my daughter through a prohibitively expensive private college. Still, life has been pretty good, and I have managed to weather all this without having to file for bankruptcy—yet. I've also taken a much less elitist approach to music listening. While I still dream about winning the lottery and filling a palace with expensive electronics, I've become much more firmly rooted in reality. Over the years, with thrifty shopping at second-hand audio salons, I've managed to rebuild my system in piecemeal fashion, including SACD playback. And while my listening is still essentially home-theater-based, I've managed to add the option of higher-resolution multi-channel and two-channel listening. My current setup doesn't hold a candle to my former system, but I've become comfortable with its ability to deliver satisfying, realistic multi-channel and two-channel music.

SACD fundamentally changed my approach to listening to music. There are some incredibly well-recorded SACDs, and the opportunity to listen to classic performances like the three-channel Mercury and Living Stereo discs has been a revelation. And while the SACD situation has gotten a little murky over the last year or so, enough new music was coming out to keep me happy with a digitally-based music system for a long time, at least until my wife surprised me with an early birthday present—a new turntable!

I guess she was paying attention when I told her about the offers I'd received from Classic Records and Sundazed of review copies of recent LP releases. And while I was concerned at first about how the turntable would interface with my system, I needn't have worried. It has been a slam dunk, and the LPs have slammed every competing medium. The last six weeks have been miraculous, and have given me an opportunity to compare some recent SACD releases of RCA Living Stereo recordings to their vinyl counterparts. Of the first three LPs I received from Classic Records, two—Respighi's Pines of Rome/Fountains of Rome and Strauss Waltzes—have just been released as multi-channel SACDs, and the third, Stokowski's Rhapsodies, was released on SACD last year.

I have waxed poetic elsewhere about the superb quality of the RCA Living Stereo SACD releases, and we are not likely to see higher-quality incarnations of these recordings in digital-disc format. Whether I listened to them in two or three channels, the experience was revelatory, easily shaming any Red Book CD versions. Most of the discs offer generous playing lengths, and are priced attractively. How does the vinyl compare? It has an undeniably intoxicating allure. Just holding these fabulous 200-gram black beauties transports me to another place and time, long before the record starts playing. The real magic begins when the needle hits the groove. The deja vu I thought I was experiencing a moment before becomes the real thing, and I am transported to the late 50s, on a wintry day in Chicago Orchestra Hall or another, similar destination. The experience is, in a word, incredible. These LPs are miles beyond anything currently available, and take the listening experience to the next level.

First up is the Fritz Reiner/CSO classic, Strauss Waltzes (Classic Records LSC 2500-200). I compared the LP to the BMG-Sony SACD Vienna, which culls four tracks from the LP release: "Vienna Blood," "Roses from the South," "Treasure Waltz," and "Thunder and Lightning Polka." While some may find this often-played repertory schmaltzy, I find it irresistible. I listened first to the stereo layer of the SACD, which sounded superb. On the three-channel layer, the soundstage was spread more evenly and effectively. Everything about the presentation was first rate. The strings had a sweetness that totally belied their digital origin, and climaxes were truly thunderous, especially on the speaker-busting polka. I did a lot of A/B comparisons between the LP and the SACD, and regardless of playback level, the LP offered a superior listening experience. With the exception of being able to listen in three channels, the LP bettered the SACD in every way, and the differences weren't subtle. There was more of everything. The LP had a more defined soundstage and a much more palpable sense of reality. Even in three channels, the SACD couldn't touch it. I heard much more of the recorded acoustic, with huge front-to-back and lateral imaging. I felt like I was in Chicago's Orchestra Hall. Of course, I did hear some groove noise with the LP, but it was not distracting. Listening to the LP was so much more involving that it made me oblivious to the mechanical shortcomings. I found myself getting lost in the music.

Most of this was also true of the Pines of Rome/Fountains of Rome LP (Classic Records LSC 2436-200). I was able to compare not only the recently released SACD (which also features Debussy's La Mer with Reiner and the CSO), but the original 180-gram Classic Records release. Once again, the 200-gram LP ran rings around the SACD in every respect, even when I listened to the SACD's three-channel layer. The 200-gram LP was able to retrieve every last nuance of the performance. It also sounded much more dynamic than the SACD. The sound field extended beyond and behind the speakers in a way the SACD could not match. The biggest surprise to me was the difference between the 180-gram pressing and the 200-gram pressing of the record. My 180-gram LP is one of Classic's earliest releases, and features their first vinyl formulation. I hadn't played it for a very long time, so it was in pristine condition, but it was unquestionably inferior to the 200-gram pressing. It was much noisier, and had somewhat restricted dynamics. About the time I stopped listening to vinyl a decade ago, I noticed that Classic's original vinyl formulation seemed to get noisier with every play. The opposite seems to be true of the 200-gram pressings. The background gets quieter every time I cue one up, and the 200-gram discs are also the clear winners in terms of flatness and trackability. As with the Strauss disc, the 200-gram Respighi LP brought me closer to the music.

I was also able to compare the new 200-gram Quiex LP of Leopold Stokowski's Rhapsodies (Classic Records LSC 2471-200) to both the SACD release (from 2005) and the original Classic Records 180-gram LP. This thoroughly enchanting disc covers the full range of emotion, from the fiery intensity of folk-based melodies from Liszt and Enesco to the lyrical joyfulness of Smetana's Moldau and Bartered Bride overture. The 200-gram LP again trounced the others in terms of listening pleasure, and once again I was truly dismayed to hear how bad my original Classic pressing sounded compared to the more recent LP. My only caveat with the new Classic releases emerged with this particular record—the gentle, winding intro to the Moldau had a repetitive pop for about the first thirty seconds, which came close to pushing me to my limit. I've received several other 200-gram pressings from Classic recently, and had nary a problem, but this was an unsealed review copy, and may have been mishandled before I got it.

Vinyl isn't without its limitations. Even the 200-gram records are not completely noise free, and compared to digital discs, LPs must be handled rather more gingerly (and cleaned occasionally). The stylus also requires care, and of course, you have to jump up after every side to change the record. Boy, have I gotten lazy after ten years of playing nothing but CDs! But even with the mechanical shortcomings of an acoustic medium, these new LPs from Classic Records offer a level of musicality that is untouched by any other format. Some may find the thirty-dollar asking price prohibitive, but for those who have the wherewithal and the playback equipment, no finer listening experience can be had at any price. While the SACDs offer incredible bang for the buck, the LPs are the real deal, offering unparalleled realism. All of these LPs are very highly recommended.