To serious audiophiles, Michael Fremer really needs no introduction. He has long been a distinguished high performance audio reviewer for several decades and enjoys a lengthy stint as a senior contributing editor at Stereophile magazine. His passion for Vinyl playback is unparalleled and his monthly column at Stereophile, Analog Corner, is among its most popular. But that is just scratching the surface; no pun intended. Fremer has produced a highly regarded, some would say indispensable DVD, 21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-Up along with It's a Vinyl World After All. He also runs Musicangle.com , a fantastic site chock full of hard hitting LP and CD reviews plus industry news. Michael was gracious enough to answer some questions for our readers here at Audio Video Revolution.
AVRev: Your taste in music is extremely varied and wonderful. Do you often find yourself with not enough time to listen to all the music you would like too?
MF: I don't have enough time to listen to what I would like to listen to. I have thousands of un-played LPs and CDs that I vow to get to "some day." The problem for a reviewer is the need to reference certain familiar discs. I am obliged to review ten new ones for my website monthly and I'm behind there. I can't do this day and night. I need a break. Late at night, I go downstairs and tell myself I'm going to play something I want to hear, not what I'm required to play. Then I stop reviewing and just enjoy listening. It's my favorite time. I can start that at 11PM and at 3AM I'm relaxed and ready to actually go to sleep! That's the pleasure part of this hobby that everyone involved understands---except for the hand-wringers who sit there worrying that it's not good enough or could be better. It always can, but I used to get just as much pleasure listening to my Hafler DH 101/DH-200, Spica TC-50 system using a Denon direct drive AC motor turntable with a Lustre GST-1 arm and Dynavector Ruby cartridge as I do with what I've got now. Of course now is much better! But more pleasurable? Not really. Equally pleasurable.
A few years ago I was given more than 7000 classical albums by the guy who sits next to me at Avery Fisher Hall. I've gotten through maybe 200 of those. I was alerted to 4000 albums in boxes in NYC a few Labor Day weekends ago. I was told the next day they'd be "landfill" so at 11PM I took the seats out of my wife's minivan and drove into Manhattan. The company had left, I'd drank too much wine and eaten too many ribs but I was okay to drive. I came back with 1000 incredible records...all classical, many audiophile collectibles, mostly imports and many unplayed and still sealed. It was amazing! I left 3000 and emailed everyone I know when I got back. The next morning they were all gone and the dumpster they were next to hadn't been picked up so I know I saved them! I bought a Sooloos and now I listen to more of the CDs I own....I just let them "swim" which is like Apple's "shuffle" mode and I'm discovering all of this great stuff that I have. However, I still can't actually sit down and pay attention to a CD. That lasts about 5 minutes...with a record I can sit and listen straight through, one after the next...maybe I'm allergic to CDs.
AVRev: Have you recently heard any speakers,components, or accessories that you don't currently own that made you sit up and say, "breakthrough product"?
MF: There are very few breakthrough products at this point but there are some. However, it's mostly finding really good ones at lower price points or products that do things really well in some ways that have not before been done that well before. I just reviewed some speakers that set a new standard for box silence. I mean, there's nothing from them. So the backgrounds are jet black. They stop on a dime and don't contribute "warmth" or any other kind of coloration, particularly at the lower frequencies. And the resolution of low level information and micro-dynamics is exceptional....definitely a "breakthrough", but very expensive and they're not perfect. But then no audio product is.... I also think the Orofon A90 cartridge I reviewed last year, or maybe it's two by now, is a breakthrough in many ways with its laser melt body. It's the most tonally neutral, non-resonant cartridge I've yet heard and at $4600 or so, not the most expensive. I heard it up against a very expensive Kondo from Japan ($10,000) and thought it was more tonally and harmonically accurate....I hope the technology can be brought to lower prices cartridges...
AVRev: As one of the world's foremost experts on Vinyl production and playback, what would you say to those who say that LP's require for more time, attention, expense, calibration, and dedication compared to a high quality digital source?
MF: In the set up phase, yes. But once setup, it takes not much more time to put on the turntable and play. Frozen food is faster and more convenient than fresh too! But taste wise? No comparison! BTW: it's now possible to set up every cartridge parameter using instrumentation and that includes VTA/SRA and azimuth. It's like the Popeil Showtime rotisserie: "SET IT AND FORGET IT!" People who think you have to change VTA/SRA for every record or even for different thickness records are absolutely and positively wrong. Most of the time when you change VTA you're really hearing a change in azimuth due to the offset angle of the headshell. The azimuth changes as you lower and raise the back of the arm and tiny azimuth changes make bigger sonic differences than VTA/SRA changes IF you have the SRA set to 92 degrees. That's the magic number. Forget about VTA.
It's SRA that counts. There's research done in the '80s that proves that. The stylus rake angle is far more critical than VTA. In any case, the variability of stylus/cantilever placement is much larger than manufacturers care to admit. They buy these assemblies from outside vendors and there's a ±2 degree variation sometimes so you can set the VTA according to the recommended setting but the SRA can be degrees off and it's way more important. By using a digital USB microscope and some included software (or something else I'm going to cover soon) you can get the SRA to exactly 92 degrees and leave it there. Different thickness records will not change the angle sufficiently to make a sonic difference. The problems come when you've not got it set to begin with! The SRA must be above 90 degrees because that's how every cutting stylus is set. It has to be above perpendicular to allow the cut lacquer thread to be evacuated.... in any case once you're set up correctly you can stop "fiddling" and just play records.
And BTW: RECORD DEMAGNETIZATION WORKS. It makes a big difference. Not subtle at all! I had Furutech send one to Roy Halee, who recorded all of Paul Simon's great records and all of the S&G albums plus Byrds, Spoonful and much more. He's a big vinyl fan...doesn't like CDs...and he was skeptical. But after one day he emailed to say "it's changed my life!" I've demoed this for professionals repeatedly and they all hear it and say it makes a big difference....anyone reading this would hear it. I have reviewed very expensive SACD players and yes, SACD is a huge step up from CDs IMO as are high rez files downloaded from sites like HDtracks.com. Recently I compared for some non-audiophiles the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant recording "Raising Sand" on 96/24 download versus the double LP. Everyone said the vinyl sounded "real" and the file sounded very good...