An Interview with Michael Fremer 
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Written by Andre Marc   
Monday, 30 August 2010

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...

Fremer Thumbs up

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...


AVRev: In a recent Stereophile letter to the editor, one reader wrote he felt his own high end playback system sounded more "real" as compared to his experience in great seats at Carnegie Hall.   Do you think something has gone wrong when audiophiles start thinking about frequency extension, sound staging, and bloom, terms often used to evaluate domestic playback, while listening to live music?

MF: He must have crappy seats! Live music always sounds better and more real. I have a 20th row subscription to the New York Philharmonic... I go once a month and while Avery Fisher Hall is not a great sounding venue, live always sounds better. That said, if I listen to a piano concerto and I have a great recording of it, when I get home and play it with the lights out late at night it can sound remarkably convincing....but definitely not LIVE! It's ironic that Avery Fisher Hall funded by a vacuum tube amplifier manufacturer sounds like a bad solid state amplifier and the Meyerson Hall where the Dallas Symphony plays, funded by a chipmaker (Texas Instruments) sounds like a great tube amp!


Fremer Carrying TurnTableAVRev: You are one of the few highly respected reviewers that own all your reference gear, eschewing long term loans. I think that is tremendous. Do you think there are any issues with reviewers who don't own any of their own gear, as far as their ability to have good judgment on a products value? Or is comparing similarly priced products and assigning a value not really part of the job?

MF: I've heard arguments in both directions like "well you bought your stuff so you're 'invested in it' and will never say anything is better than what you've bought," but that's ridiculous for many reasons. My favorite "charge" from skeptics is about Stereophile's "Product of the Year" award. We get emails saying "Oh, you just gave them that because they advertise in Stereophile." And when we give it to a company that has never advertised with us, like VPI, they say "Oh, you just gave them the award because you want them to advertise in Stereophile."

As far as "long term loans" versus purchasing, since experienced, long time reviewers can borrow pretty much whatever we want on a "long time loan" basis, we have no reason to hold onto something unless we really think it's that good. But if a manufacturer doesn't want to loan something to a particular reviewer, it can get ugly. I could tell you stories but won't! I feel I should invest in the industry in which I work. I've build up my system over time. The industry accommodation prices we get are very good (not the $1 some idiots claim I pay just so I can say "I've paid") and so I never lose money when I sell something to buy something else. Over time I've been able to move up to a great system! I bought the Continuum turntable. That took 3 years to pay off, aided, appropriately by the success of my two DVDs....I've sold 10,000+ of the first one, which astonishes me and it continues to sell steadily about 100 a month. It's like an annuity. And the feedback is great. Everyone appreciates and enjoys it so it was a win-win situation.

The only products I don't own in my system are some cables and accessories because I keep various sets around, some of which are better fits with certain gear than others and cartridges. I own some but have loaners on others. The job really causes more than normal wear to both cartridges and cables and I think it's fair enough that I don't have to pay for wearing out cartridges or for cables and their repairs (the constant in and out does take a toll). However, I've never broken a cartridge and the Continuum has been battered and abused for 5+ years now and has been completely reliable.

Fremer's collectionI always enjoy reviewing budget gear. I think it's essential to maintain perspective and to give people choices within limited and reasonable budget constraints. I definitely think part of the job is assigning value based up what something's worth physically and what it costs (taking into account profits, expenses, dealer mark-ups, etc.). I really get annoyed by the dipshits who look at a product, figure out what it might cost in terms of parts and then rant that it's a "ripoff" because they can build it for so and so much money. Really? Then do it! It's not that easy. Plus clearly they've never owned a building, or paid the rent, the utilities the employees, their health insurance, the packaging costs, the taxes, etc. that it takes to run a business and make a profit....and so on.

It's unfortunate that the hobby has gotten smaller and economies of scale aren't great so that our products are more expensive relative to mass market stuff---and don't offer the same "value," though value is in the ears on the beholder. I mean we had our entire heating system replaced this week with a state of the art, super efficient one. It costs under $10,000. There are 1 meter lengths of cables that cost more and that's ridiculous....unless you have invested in a really great and expensive system and someone brings over a length and it profoundly improves your system. Then perhaps it's worth it to you. Some systems come alive with a $4K power cord. Other people think that's NUTS. No one is forcing anyone to buy such products but many do because it's the final touch to their great system. Others think such folks are "delusional." Fine, that's their issue.

I don't know why some people, particularly those not even involved in this hobby fetish on this so. I think buying $1000 knives for food preparation is nuts, but the people who are into that don't. Hell, people buy $5000 bottles of wine and after they drink it all they're left with is memories and urine! And then just the memories. But who am I to tell someone that wine wasn't worth $5000? I was in Greece last month to listen to a guy's MILLION DOLLAR SYSTEM. Mine is really good but this guy's made me want to quit the business. The scale was life-size and so convincing...it was amazing! I've heard "Belafonte at Carnegie Hall" since it was first released but there I heard stuff I've never before heard on that record and I mean more than the guy who basically coughs through the first song that I never heard before. I'm talking about musical events....


AVRev: Musicangle.com has just been redesigned and looks great. Do you enjoy reviewing media as much as hardware?


MF: I got into hi-fi to play tunes. I'm not a hardware freak as anyone who knows me, knows. I like it to sound good but I'm not always looking and searching for the next great thing.....they're usually assigned to me unless I find something at CES or Rocky Mountain or a show overseas.... and that's the truth. I don't "churn" gear either. I tend to keep things a long time.... I love running the website but I need another of me to keep up with it!

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Special Thanks to Michael Fremer for taking time to answer our questions.  We strongly urge you check out Michael Fremer 's fantastic music review site, www.musicangle.com .

 






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