|Linn Sondek LP12 Turntable|
|Home Theater Audio Sources Vinyl/LP|
|Written by Bryan Southard|
|Sunday, 01 August 2004|
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Spinning LPs in a High-Resolution Digital World
As a kid, I would take my $5 per week allowance and march it directly to the local record store to purchase the latest releases on vinyl. At the time, they cost a scant $4 and some change. I would ride my bike home and load them up on my parents’ old stereo console (at least, I think it was stereo – I am not sure). This trusty player tended to track poorly, so we would put a quarter on the cartridge headshell to keep the records from skipping. As you can imagine, this did little more than inflict irreversible damage to the grooves of the record. Of course, it was impossible to tell on this poor player, but I later realized that much of my collection was worn beyond repair. As the ‘80s ushered in the new digital era, I replaced much of my old worn vinyl with CDs and now DVD-Audio and SACD material. The virtues of vinyl never drifted far, as I often found myself in front of the fantastic-sounding record playback systems of friends and colleagues. I resisted adding a record playback system to my reference AV setup for several reasons. Firstly, I have been lucky to have owned and referenced the very best CD and DVD players this industry has to offer, players such as the ultimate CD player, the Linn SONDEK CD12 and Sonic Frontiers Processor 3/Transport 3 combo, as well as the Meridian 598 that I am currently referencing. These players offered me uncompromised sound and convenience. And, unlike many of my friends, I had for the most part dusted my old record collection in the mid-‘80s. It was too late to start collecting vinyl, right? Wrong. There are dozens of used record stores local to me that have great quality, new and used records that are downright cheap. Also, I am finding copies of records that I love that were never made available on CD and likely never will be. In a recent trip to the record store, I purchased classics like “Tommy” for $1.95. I purchased records from Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent and other ‘70s material, all for under $2 each. Some were real gems that I had all but forgotten about due to lack of availability. Collecting used records is easier than ever and extremely rewarding. I now make weekly trips to several local record stores and am beginning to amass a substantial and incredibly rewarding collection that is costing me little.
Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti was viewed by many in its time as the greatest and most refined and influential Led Zeppelin album. Following the footsteps of the first five Zeppelin albums that clearly solidified their place as the greatest rock band of all time, this recording has more musical creativity than virtually every rock album since, combined. I cued up my Classis Records 200-gram reissue copy and went to side one of the first of the two-record set to the rock classic “Rover.” I first took the opportunity to reacquaint myself with the CD version before evaluating the vinyl version. The CD version has always been slightly thin-sounding and lacks the warmth of the better recordings today but nevertheless provided a rich, detailed sound. When listening to the vinyl version, there were distinct differences. The drum intro had more musical depth. Bonham’s drums had a more natural “pop” and ensuing decay. It didn’t have more detail – in fact, it tended to seem a bit more compressed – but overall, it sounded considerably more like they did when I witnessed them live. Page’s guitar sounds very synthetic on CD, yet it has a warm timbre and extremely palpable presence on vinyl, as it was intended to have. It made me want to go purchase a ‘57 Les Paul to try to capture some of Page’s magic. Clearly the vinyl version played through the Linn LP12 was more enjoyable, realistic and sounded more like it was intended to originally than when played through the impressive Meridian 598. I must also note that the Meridian 598 is one of the best-sounding CD systems that I have heard, only bettered by a select couple of players today.
Another great example of vinyl improvement came from the 1979 Ronnie Montrose offering, Gamma 1 (Elektra). The number one is an important number in the career of Ronnie Montrose because the first release from each band he created was clearly the best, including his fist release with Sammy Hagar titled Montrose, his Warner Bros. Presents release with his second band and the impressive Gamma 1 offering. In the song “I’m Alive,” the vinyl version transformed the keys in the intro from synthesized garbage to a real-sounding instrument. From the time that I received the Linn LP12, I found that there were more and more recordings that I simply no longer wanted to listen to on CD, yearning for the better and more natural vinyl sound. There are some annoyances in vinyl that you don’t find in CDs, such as popping and static caused by poor pressings and worn records, yet they tend to blend in, and your brain has a way of eliminating them much like someone who lives near a freeway no longer hears cars. Perhaps I am conditioned to this sound having grown up with records or perhaps I am turning a deaf ear to it in favor for the better more palpable sound. This was never an issue for me whatsoever.
The intro to the tune “Razor King” was not only improved on vinyl but made its way from being a CD that I broke out every two years as a nostalgia piece to become a go-to reference rock recording. The Linn LP12 makes this and many LPs truly more enjoyable and rewarding.
Let’s move along and get to some mind-blowing recordings. As a lifetime music enthusiast and someone who has been on a quest for the best possible reproduction since the early age of 13, when it was recommended that I grab a copy of Soulville from the Ben Webster Quintet (Verve Records), I obliged in anxious anticipation. From the time the stylus hit the vinyl, I was in complete disbelief at what I was hearing. I was treated to the greatest audiophile listening session I have ever experienced, bar none. It was so good, I could hardly contain myself. The Linn LP12 milked a sound from this record that was eerily true to life. Okay, this is a worn-out phrase, yet this recording brought the quintet into my room without the slightest stretch of my imagination. The sound of Webster’s tenor sax was so real that it was scary. From the sound of escaping air to the incredible attack and ensuing decay, the LP12’s rendering of this recording left every CD player that I have yet heard in the dust. Piano is in my eyes the hardest instrument to accurately reproduce, yet the strike of the keys was so impactful and delicious-sounding that my heart skipped a beat. Not having the opportunity to hear live grand piano very often, I was treated to a private showing from the incomparable Oscar Peterson in my own home. This is musical reproduction at its very, very best. I am afraid to say “It can’t get any better than this” because it seems to always get better, yet this recording via the Linn LP12 is as close to the music as I have ever been or ever imagine being.
Throughout the audition, I took every opportunity to compare LPs to the CD versions of the same release. This gave me a good gauge of the pros and cons of both formats. One such comparison is from one of the greatest bluesman of all times, Muddy Waters, and his monumental release Folk Singer (Classic Records). I have long referenced the CD version for its pureness and superb recording quality. I loaded up the CD and 200-gram LP, giving myself the ability to switch between the two with a push of a button. The CD provided a small amount more information, most notably in the room decay. However, in typical fashion, the LP was more palpable and natural. The CD had good soundstage depth, but it was less detailed as it traveled rearward. There was less sense of infinity than with the CD. Most people who visited me and heard this demo selected the LP12 reproduction over the Meridian-reproduced CD. For me, it was unmistakably better on LP. Regardless of the pros and cons of both, the LP sounded realer – simple as that. I found myself wanting to listen longer and did so with much greater satisfaction. CDs can often sound more dynamic and have better control. Bass can tend to be more immediate and with improved dynamic range. Yet I always felt closer to the band and had a greater emotional connection with vinyl. This told me a many things. Music reproduction has taken a path that has led to more and more information. Bits are increasing, as is the sampling rate, making more information available. Those who argue for CDs all have great points. However, as a musician myself, I have learned that the sum is always greater than the individual notes. The LP12 allows you to recognize the sum more clearly and focus on what truly makes music special, what it does to us on the inside. I found myself reinvigorated and more excited about my music than I have been in years.