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Positive Feedback ISSUE 4
december/january 2003


The Return of the Licorice Pizza
by Gary L. Beard


Where Dinosaurs Roam

I have been a serious music lover for most of my forty-seven years and, unlike many Positive Feedback Online readers, my love affair began with black plastic pancakes that revolved at 45 rpm. I had stacks of ‘em, mostly by the great British bands—The Beatles (still have ‘em), The Rolling Stones (broke ‘em), and The Animals (ate ‘em)—as well as one-hit wonders of the day like "Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport" and "The Bird is the Word." It wasn’t long before the quest began to include a few LPs: Let it Bleed, The Kinks’ Greatest Hits, and of course the well-loved soundtrack to Mary Poppins (yes, I’m kidding). I’ve owned a number of "turntables" over the years: a Sears fold-down, a Fashion Fair el-cheapo, a 1973 lo-fi Garrard changer, and a used 1971 B&O. My last new turntable was a 1978 Technics SL-1600 direct drive with an Acutex M315III cartridge, followed by an Empire MDR-9 cartridge that I still own, rendered useless by a busted stylus. I used the SL-1600 faithfully until the bad stylus and Perfect Sound Forever retired the old girl in the early 90s. Records were dinosaurs, after all—relics of another time, and so old fashioned.

In 2001, after having assembled a pretty fair-sounding high performance system (and reading all the Vinyl Rules! posts on the net), I decided it was time to bring Technics Rex out of the closet for another brush with the Jurassic period. I purchased a Creek OBH-8-SE phono stage and a Grado Z+ cartridge and, armed with a small amount of turntable knowledge, set the Technics spinning once again. The sound was a revelation of sorts. I had forgotten that records actually contained something other than noise. The bottom-feeding Grado sounded pretty good on T Rex, and the little Creek was an able performer—without any trace, I might add, of the RFI problems of which many have complained. The sound was not too detailed, but it was smooth as butter, and the setup made something old new again. Vinyl had returned to my listening room, for good.

It’s The Music, Stupid

While my old rig wouldn’t make anyone jump for joy, it couldn’t hurt anyone either. I dug out my old records (ah, record, don’t you just love the sound of that word?), and played a few each week. It was nice to revisit the stuff that I didn’t sell off in the Great American Dumb-Ass Record Divestiture of the previous fifteen years (more on that later). I theorized that since I wasn’t really into vinyl, having the ability to play my record collection with some degree of competency was enough. After all, most of my LPs were so mistreated from the days of wine and bozos that they were hardly worth more than a cursory spin. Curiously enough, after some time spent grousing about the work involved in playing records, I realized I rather enjoyed listening to the odd album (ah album, don’t you just love...) that was still in good shape. During this re-awakening, I learned of a local music store, All Ears, which has an excellent collection of LPs, so I made a pilgrimage across town to check the place out. It felt very familiar. Flipping through the covers and trying not to sneeze from the dust, I saw many titles I had sold just a few years earlier. Once again I found myself in the tantalizing situation of again buying something I loved (70s rock on LP) because I once sold it to buy something I hated (70s rock on CD). Another of my Great Truths of Audio reared its ugly head. Man, what a bummer! Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed my first visit, and bought a couple of 33 1/3s to take home. (I felt bad for this guy Charlie—the owner—dealing in a dead format and all. I mean, how’s he supposed to feed his kids? I thought, "What the hell, make him feel special," so I pulled out a few sawbucks to buy a couple of oldies, just for novelty. It’s not like I was gonna get hooked or something. After all, vinyl’s not a drug….) Like I said, a re-awakening.

Oh Come, All Ye Faithful Vinyl-Heads

A short time after The Re-Awakening, while visiting the home of importer/exporter friend, Art Vandelay (okay, okay! I was just seeing if you were paying attention—he’s really an importer/dealer, and his code name is "B"), I listened to my first-ever high end turntable, a very nice Kuzma Stabi S. I was awestruck by how fantastic it sounded playing audiophile records. I never gave any serious thought to buying one, as I figured there was no way my old records could ever sound that good. I own a great CD player, and just wanted to listen to music, and that was enough–or so I thought. The same dealer friend who showed me the shining light of LP playback with the Kuzma, is also a Music Hall dealer. When he told me he had a MMF-5 that needed breaking in for use as a demo unit, I quickly raised my hand and shouted, "Me! Me! Pick me!" Soon I was setting up my first turntable in twenty-four years. I had that warm, fuzzy Christmastime feeling that I only get when Santa Claus comes sliding down our chimney. Of course, you all know what happens then—after burning his backside on the gas log, he jumps to his feet, only to trip over the wife’s’ ten gazillion Longenberger baskets—oh, the joy of the holidays!

I had some trouble with the setup of the MMF-5. The instructions were not quite as good as they could be, but at least I didn’t have any parts left, as is usually the case when I put together something at Christmas. After some trial and error, I got the 5 up and running. The sound was altogether different than that of my T Rex. "Detailed and extended" were my first thoughts—almost CD-like, but in a good way. I finally saw the potential of my own LPs, even ones that had been through the scratch and dent sale. I liked the sound of the MMF-5 very much, and while I never quite got it dialed in well enough to sound great, it gave me the impetus to act on my newfound love of my old records. I didn’t want to give it back, but B said I had to, damn it!

Now I had gone and done it—I had decided I had to have a better turntable. Based on the many glowing reviews and my own needs and wants—ease of use, price, overall value, and of course, sound—I made the decision to buy a Music Hall MMF-7. I also wanted a bit more refinement from my phono stage, and luckily I found a gem of a George Wright WPP100C tube phono stage that fit the bill. The MMF-7/WPP100C setup, along with the Wright step-up transformer, makes glorious sound in my listening room. Not having a wealth of experience with vinyl, I can only say that I am amazed at how good it sounds playing some pretty badly worn records. It is very easy to set up, tracks well, and is nice looking, too. There was no setup info, and I don’t care for the dustcover hinges, but hey, many more expensive tables don’t even have hinges. (In my best Spanish accent, "Hinges? We don’t need no stinking hinges!") Its warm and inviting sound is well documented in many reviews, and I can only add that while I would enjoy a bit more extension and detail, the 7 can hardly be faulted at the price.

I seem to have embraced the smaller manufacturers with most of my gear—First Sound, Berning, Merlin, and now George Wright. The little wunderkind known as the Wright Sound WPP100C (and the matching MC step-up transformer) is one of a kind. Its copper preamp and industrial black power supply chassis are full of glowing tubes that make beautiful music. I don’t particularly care for the in-one-end-out-the-other hook up arrangement, as it makes placement somewhat problematic in my rack. And due to size constraints that make markings impractical, the individual left and right gain pots can only be balanced by trial and error. It’s an ugly duckling, but when this bird gets a good signal, it spreads its wings and soars with the music. The Wright’s sound is slightly warm and very natural. It is also clear, extended, full of tonal color, and very dynamic. The WPP100C lives up to its lofty billing. I continue to be amazed at the beautiful sound I am getting from my analog front end, all purchased on a strict budget.

Eek, there’s an album in my listening room!

I have been playing my old records incessantly since the new gear arrived. Some are damaged beyond playability from abuse and bad equipment, but ah, the sound! I have heard all the arguments about how vinyl sounds better than CD. Now I can finally understand that assertion. In my case, a very well recorded LP in excellent condition sounds at least as good as anything I have ever heard. It sounds different than a well-recorded CD, but not necessarily better. And unlike years gone by, I have learned to listen through minor surface noise and those annoying clicks and pops. A total lack of background noise turns out to be only part of what makes good audio into music, while the sound of so many early CDs stunk to high heaven. Even some of my oldest classical LPs sound wonderful.

I have been on an LP buying binge for the last couple of months, and I have picked up many great titles: Ricky Lee Jones’ excellent first album, Tull’s Benefit, and the Herb Alpert record with the creamy girl on the cover (gotta love those LP covers!). I’ve also bought a few Classic Records Led Zep titles, and a pristine Linda Ronstadt Heart Like a Wheel. I have rediscovered some great music that I sold in the dark days of the GADRD (see above), like Deep Purple’s Machine Head, and Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s fantastic Brain Salad Surgery. I have played one of my favorite albums of all time, Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy, at least ten times and loved every minute, and I have broadened my horizons with a number of classical and jazz titles (thanks to David Canfield). My CD player has gone cold for the moment, but it will not be left unused for long, as it will always have its place in my listening room too. For now however, Vinyl Rules! The music’s back to stay.