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The Audio Circular - No. 14 in a Series of Parallel Narratives

04-19-2015 | By Gary L Beard | Issue 78

A couple of years ago, I promised Positive Feedback readers that I'd tackle a few topics on which I was less than proficient. As an audiophile and audio writer, I've learned an amazing amount in the past 15 years, yet I am inexperienced in a few subsets of high-end audio. And even though I've been listening to records since I was old enough to lower the tonearm of my parents Magnavox console, vinyl is definitely one area where I need to learn the rules.

I still have nightmares about the Ray Conniff Singers.

A Little History

Most people my age grew up spinning 45s and LPs, but instead of handling them with care, we laid them on top of one another, often forgetting to put them back in their sleeves and on occasion, even tossed them around like Frisbees. I have played thousands of records over the past 50 years without having so much as a remedial education on the care and feeding of a vinyl system. Oh, I thought I knew something about playing records, but dropping a needle on Side A doesn't make you a vinyl expert any more than taking pictures makes you a photographer. I commonly missed the need to replace the stylus until it was so far gone that cherished records were damaged forever. As I got older, learned wisdom prevailed and I finally realized the need to take care of my records, which of course included the de rigueur purchase of a Discwasher system to clean my LP's (I still use it 35 years later) and special sleeves sold by record stores like Karma, that were supposed to protect our beloved albums. I was a budding audiophile even then, but I didn't have a clue about how to properly set up a turntable, I just wanted to rock out and party. And at that, I was very good…

And the Black Plastic Circle is Not Just Unbroken, but Unscratched!

Today turntables and records are a new dual…er, deal. Vinyl is once again a presence, if not a force, in the lives of many music lovers. Our beloved audiophile recording companies and retailers have not just survived, but thrived. The local record shops in my own backyard have nearly as many records as CDs and even mainstream retailers seem to be leaning toward the idea that vinyl may not be purely hipster or audiophile space. I was in a local record store recently and witnessed a young girl, twelve years old perhaps, shopping for new records with her mom. How cool is that!

 If it is true that everything old becomes new again, then the next decade could well be awesome for the music and audio industries!

Operation Black Plastic Pancake

Earlier this year, I had yet another vinyl chloride acetate epiphany. After relocating my audio system and retooling its general set-up, I heard tangible evidence of the much debated sonic-supremacy some say LPs enjoy. Each record I played sounded better than I had ever heard it, yet the only real modifications I had made were a new location, perhaps a little more attention to perfect leveling, and a basic maple platform with some rubber isolation pads underneath. It was obvious to me that I had not done enough in the past to site and isolate my Music Hall MMF-9. What little I'd done this time made such a significant and positive difference in sound quality that I was flatly shocked.

While not an incessant tweaker, I had certainly worked hard on setting up my table before but without nearly the success I now enjoy. It's true that many major building-blocks of my system--speakers, amplification and linestage--have changed within the last two years, and with my focus squarely on digital, perhaps I never fully noticed their impact on vinyl playback. It is probable that my new gear is a substantial contributing factor, but isolation from external vibration had such an immediate impact, that I went a bit further and added DIY squash ball isolation under the butcher block platform in place of the rubber isolators. This easily improved the overall sound yet again. Now, when I cue up a fine and quiet recording, the sound is mesmerizing and I enjoy listening to the LP version as much, and perhaps more, than the same recording in digital format.


Be a Record Playa

A major selling point of the Music Hall MMF-9 is its "plug & play" set-up. Heck, I didn't have to do anything except assemble basic parts, level, and throw on a record. I won't be stupid enough to say the 9 is more than a high-value entry into the world of high-end vinyl playback, and I never thought I needed more than it offered until lately. But because I sold off much of my record collection after the promise of Perfect Sound Forever, the number of playable/lovable records I own is only in the upper hundreds rather than thousands. Such a small catalog of recordings quickly steered me away from the idea of upgrading to more sophisticated table and squarely toward getting better sound from the gear I now own. Yes, I'd love to have a shiny new audio-toy, but for now, the MMF-9 turntable is all I need...

Or is it?

Focusing on Improvement

While making sure the 9 is isolated from noise and footfalls is one thing, improving the table/system itself is quite another. After coming to terms with both my wallet and what I would like to improve upon, I decided the best course of action is to add a few key vinyl accessories: A new platter mat, perhaps a new belt, a basic record cleaning system, and something I have been desiring for a long time, a tonearm lifter! (That damn run-out does nasty shit when you "fall asleep.") I consider those purchases reasonable and warranted for spinning an occasional stamped pancake of shiny black plastic. But wouldn't 'ya know, just when I thought it was safe to pull out my credit card, my audio-nuttiness kicked in and I made the decision to purchase a new cartridge too. Not that the stock Goldring is a worn out, poor performer; no, not at all, it has hundreds of hours of warmly lit-from-within life left to enjoy. But I want to experience an even higher level of playback; as high as prudence and piggybank reason is practical to place on a sub $2k turntable/tonearm combo.

Don't Put the Cart before the Horse!

I was so excited, I almost made a decision to buy a new cartridge before I was really ready. At least I was bright enough to grab the reins and whoa before trying to mate the cart(ridge) with the horse. After asking the most basic of questions and reading up on the subject, I found out you can't just strap any ol' chunk of metal with a diamond to the end of an extruded tube and have it sound amazing. I tapped into the knowledge of a couple of experienced high-end vinyl lovers, PF Senior Assistant Editors Myles Astor and Greg Weaver, and soon realized one very sobering fact: I had no idea how to select a cartridge or set it up. I'm not talking sound preference, or even setting VTA, VTF and Azimuth; I'm referring to the mechanical and electrical requirements that match cartridges, arms, tables and phono stages so they work well together. Because the MMF-9 came with the fine Goldring cartridge pre-installed, buzzwords like mass, compliance and loading were never particularly noteworthy to me. Well, they are now! While I don't have a firm grasp quite yet, I now understand the need to learn a lot more than I know, if only to ensure I can correctly mount a new high-end cartridge on the Project 9c tonearm.

Phase one of Operation Black Plastic Pancake has begun.

With a little help from my PF compadres, I have made a semi-informed choice for a new cartridge. That selection will be disclosed in due time. As of now, it is still weeks away from arrival. In the meantime, I plan to buy those few accessories as well as get my hands a little dirty attending Michael Fremer's vinyl set-up seminar at AXPONA in late April. That should strike a little fear in the inverted bearing heart of my TT!

I look forward to completing Phase One soon. Stay tuned for Phase Two…