One of the joys of the Internets is that all the things you have ever said, anywhere, about anything, are all right there to haunt you. Forever. All my once-favorite, now forgotten, punching bags can come for a visit years later and just sit on comments I no longer remember and, if asked, would probably vehemently disavow.
Like this one: “I don’t get analog tape.”
I forget where I wrote that, and no, this gap shouldn’t be taken as a license to go digging. But here’s the thing. Analog is cool. Here’s another thing. Tape can sound fantastic.
No, it doesn’t have to sound fantastic or anything like that. There’s nothing inherently superior about the format over, say, vinyl. But I have heard, over the last year since United Home Audio’s Greg Beron took a club to my thick skull, no less than a dozen rooms at various venues, all playing some near-master tapes and to say that the sound quality was “excellent” is to rival the British in how much understatement can be loaded into a single word.
Here’s my issue. I have serious philosophical problems with paying several hundred dollars for a single album. It’s really no more complicated than that — tape is expensive. It’s the most expensive way to hear your music, and to me, that’s just absurd. Sure, yes, you can buy all your tracks from Amazon or iTunes if all you wanted was cheap. Good means getting a $8 CD.Very good can mean ferreting out the $12 remastered version. Excellent means a $15 SACD or maybe a $20 vinyl LP. Some say — I don’t, but some do — that moving past this “generic” level requires you to go get yourself some of the fancy new issue/re-issue $30 LPs you can get from Acoustic Sounds, some super-duper SACD release, or best of all, a 45-rpm reissue, like those that Chad Kassem over at Analog Productions is making serious waves over. But these start at $50! $50 for an album is a lot of dough — but $250? Yikes! Run for the hills!
It’s probably not surprising that there’s another way to think about these things.
A very fine turntable can be had for $400. The Pro-Ject Carbon comes with a tonearm and cartridge, so you’re pretty much ready to go, and you can start playing all your super-expensive 45-rpm records right away and have yourself a ball.
And when you’re ready, you can upgrade that turntable, arm and/or cartridge. This, folks, is where the rabbit-hole starts. Take the blue pill, and somewhere along that path, you may find that your $15k turntable with the $5k tonearm and $4k cartridge just really isn’t doing it for you anymore and what you really need is a $27k turntable, a $12k tonearm and a $15k cartridge.
Suddenly, $250 for an album doesn’t seem like such a big deal anymore. Especially if you can avoid all that.
The argument for analog tape can run this way. I’m sure you know that most of the very best analog tape machines simply aren’t made new anymore. The stuff you’re most likely to see at an audio show, say, are modded refurb units of discontinued lines from yesterday’s mainstream audio brands. These units are cobbled together, the crappy bits discarded, the motors upgraded, the tape-heads completely reworked, the caps replaced, a new PSU crammed in, and the next thing you know (ta da!), you have a stunningly accurate playback machine. And best of all, comparing the price tag of this top-end custom analog tape machine to a top-end vinyl playback rig will require you to remove trailing zeros from the price tag. Yes, by comparison to the rarefied and esoteric world of audiophile vinyl playback, analog’s other white meat can seem downright cheap.
As the guys over at Affordable$$Audio keep reminding me, “cheap” is relative. Okay, “reminding” may be a bit gentle, but the point is well taken. So, buyer beware, analog tape isn’t for the faint of … wallet. That said, should you get bit hard by the analog bug, tape may well turn out to be the cheaper of the two paths.
And as far as paths worth exploring … well, I’m certainly curious. The quality of the tapes that you can get is pretty much mind-blowing. One off from masters? Check. No weird pressing issues, encoder/decoder deterioration? Check. Never having to worry about VTA, SRA and azimuth? Check! So, for those of you believing that sources are the most important link in your chain, that fervently worship at the altar of truly superior source material, that are relentlessly inspired to push your audio experience as high up the ladder as you can go, for those that just love the “fiddly-bits” in audio’s high-end, well, as much as it pains me to have to publicly change my mind, analog tape might have to find a place in that short list.
Enter United Home Audio.
Greg was showing off his top of the line $14,500 United Home Audio UHA-Q Series Phase9PB deck. I’ve written about these decks before — shown here at Newport in a new, very schwanky all-white skin — but for those curious, pricing for a UHA-Q deck starts around $7,000. Check ’em out — I plan to.
While I’m at it, Greg sent me this up to date list of sites that sell reel-to-reel tapes:
From one end of the playback chain to another, leaping in a single bound, brings us to Von Schweikert. The $25,000/pair of the new VR-44s shown here are actually “active”, in that the there’s a 300w amp in each cabinet driving the two woofers. Want to use your own amps? A non-active version is available for $22,000. For some reason, there’s still not a lot of info online about this speaker (it debuted at RMAF last year, so maybe availability just started or something), but it’s big, authoritative, and refined-sounding.
Jolida electronics filled out the rest of the rack. An $1,100 Jolida Fusion preamplifier and a $3,300 JD-1000P “Limited Edition” amplifier provided the power. The JD-1000P LE is all new, and part of a “brand new sound” that Jolida rolled out in 2011. Here’s Greg talking about the new amp:
The Limited Edition amp is basically a JD1000P in a new chassis that has a more rounded smooth seamless look, more modern I guess. It also has special circuit modifications engineered by Jolida’s Vice President Jerred Dunkerson assisted with listening feedback by Jolida’s President Mike Allen and my humble self. It incorporates new types and values of resistors, capacitors, and a secret treatment of output tube circuitry that required about 25 different trials of electronic part values and types. This all occurred over a three-month period and was comprised of many long listening sessions, lots of trial and error when you are looking for a certain sound. Mike and I are quite critical and outspoken so Mr. Dunkerson probably wished he never started the project especially when the cussing and drunken brawls ensued. However in the end there was a design objective and a price objective, the price was not to exceed $3500. It finally landed at $3300 and we all three like the sound, all is good.
Also new in the rack is the prototype of the Jolida Fusion DAC/Transport, which should come in around $2,300. Again, from Greg:
There is no final info yet on the DAC / Transport, however the first production run should be here this year. Here is what little I know so far.
- It will have a built-in transport for the disc users.
- It will have 3 other digital inputs switchable, USB, Coax, Toslink
- The new Burr Brown 1794 chipset 24×192, also with galvanic isolation, very cool.
- Six vacuum tube output 12ax7, 12at7, 12au7, per channel in a fully balanced output design.
- Both XLR and RCA out with a possible coax and toslink output as well.