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Going vinyl

When I was a kid, my big brother used to sell me his LPs. Not so much that I could have them and keep them — he’d do that, of course, as he had the record player. But for a modest fee, the records would be “mine”.

I’m still trying to work out why I thought that this was a good idea.

At some point, I actually had enough allowance saved and I went off to Kemp Mill Records and bought my first album. It was Boston’s Don’t Look Back. I vaguely remember being psyched about this album being released, but I think the thing that most motivated me was that, unlike all it’s siblings, this one would be staying in my room. I loved that LP. The crinkle of the cellophane wrapper coming off and the sharp, acrid smell of the fresh vinyl are things that have stuck with me through the years, even though the album itself seems to have vanished. No great loss as this follow up to Boston’s amazing debut more or less sucked, but I do occasionally wonder if my brother somehow, at some point, made off with it. He’s sneaky like that.

My current vinyl playback rig is a Pro-Ject 9.1 that I bought from Walter at Underwood HiFi last year. This table, ($1800 new) was soon replaced in the Pro-Ject lineup by the 9.2, which probably explains why Walter was so hot to get rid of it.

Regardless, it’s a great table. It’s got a big acrylic platter, separated & isolated motor “pod”, and a 9″ carbon fiber tonearm with a Sumiko Blackbird cartridge mounted on it. Its very clean looking, almost Swedish, just showing a deep almost-black charcoal color of the plinth and the milky frosting on the acrylic.

Honestly, I bought this table on a whim whose origin still remains unclear. But I can say this, it’s this table that got me back into vinyl. Since getting it, I’ve also managed to acquire about 150 albums. It’s just shocking how many people of my generation, and more interestingly, my parents’, still have cabinets and closets stuffed full of vinyl that hasn’t seen a stylus in over a decade. I’ve been very generous with my offers to clean out those closets — we all have to do our parts — and viola, instant record collection.

But why go vinyl now? I already have a pretty high-end digital playback system, with a tweaked out Mac, a super USB-S/PDIF converter all fronting a Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha DAC. Playback via my DAC is extraordinary, and regularly beats out the (admittedly, now aging) $17k Accuphase DP-85.

Well, there’s something about vinyl that’s just special. It may well be my fascination with things nostalgic — I’m a tube guy, after all — but the sheer mechanics of putting needle to record is just … satisfying. It doesn’t hurt that the sound of the vinyl rig is easily on par with the DAC rig that cost 3x as much.

There are two tables that I’ve come to love (and lust after) since my recent rediscovery of vinyl. The first is the TW Acustic Raven One. It’s a $6500 belt-driven turntable, much like the Pro-Ject 9.1, but with a motor assembly that sits within an integrated, but still isolated, plinth. The platter is a vinyl-like compound called Delrin, and the motor is something Thomas Woschnick (he’s the “TW” in TW Acustic) has designed himself. He’s very proud of his motors, and he readily says that it’s these together with a custom made pulley (made from of material he won’t talk about), all refined with meticulous (dare I say, German) engineering that creates one of the most elegant and almost-reasonable priced turntables found in the super-hi-end.

I’ve met Thomas twice now, at CAF and at RMAF. Each time, he’s allowed me to bend his ear for an hour just to chat about his designs, his thoughts on the high-end, and what it is that I as a relative newcomer to the world of hi-fi vinyl should be looking for. I’ve got to dig up that writeup. It’s around here somewhere.

The other table I’ve grown quite fond of is the Dr. Feickert Blackbird. I’m not sure what it is, but for me at least, the Germans really seem to be bringing it with respect to vinyl. The Blackbird is relatively new to Dr Feickert’s product line, and sports a dual-pulley motor system in an integrated, multi-layered and massively damped, plinth. Aside from being a terrific performer, with solid control, drive and build-quality, the Blackbird sports some really nice ergonomics — all kinds of setup assistance is actually built in to the table, including positioning of the tonearm, the overhang of the cartridge, and more. It’s silly. And it’s built like a tank. Usually, knocking on the plinth of a turntable actively playing a record is like playing with fire — but in the case of the Blackbird, it was completely anticlimactic as absolutely nothing happened. Cool!

I’m finishing up the preliminary review of the Blackbird now, so stay tuned for more on that score.

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Another interesting thing I’ve found recently on the vinyl front: TTWeights. I found them circuitously when following a vague reference to a cheaper, more effective “ring clamp”, along the lines of what VPI was selling. Seems that Larry and the gang over there have been very busy, and just this past RMAF, announced a suite of turntables: the GEM ($6200), the GEM Ultra ($9k), the Onyx ($15k) and the Christine ($45k). All sport some version of direct drive, which is quite a step away from the belt-drives I’ve been investigating till now. A brief search of the forums turned up a rather bewildering amount of discussion on the benefits and challenges of using such a drive mechanism, specifically, overcoming the potential for rumble from the drive system. While I haven’t had the pleasure of having one of these beauties actually in house, I can say preliminarily that the way around such challenges is superior engineering and superb manufacturing — Larry runs the business using the same gear he uses to make aircraft parts. Well, okay then. When I met Larry at RMAF this year, he was very kind to spend some time with me crawling all over his tables and pointing out various design features. He also spent an equal amount of time carefully and tactfully debunking many of the myths around direct-drive systems. Let’s put it this way, not only was he very convincing, his tables looked and sounded spectacular. More soon on that front, hopefully.

TTWeights Gem

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About Scot Hull (979 Articles)

Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.