By Modest I. Predlozheniye
“If you knew you could play your favorite album or the most valuable record in your collection and have it sound more beautiful than you have ever heard before with more fidelity and more realism, would you want to hear it? Of course you would. Now…would you listen to it knowing that the needle used to extract that level of performance was simultaneously destroying the grooves and that you could never listen to that album again?”
Late autumn usually finds me gallivanting around the United Kingdom and looking for great deals on old British hi-fi equipment. I also have cousins in London and an old business partner in Cardiff, and in addition, I give a mechanical design and engineering lecture at the Amh Ulchach University in the Scottish Highlands every November. That means that each fall I have the entire isle of Great Britain covered adequately enough before the snowstorms from the North Sea start rolling in one after another. It is one of my favorite places in the world and it is also one of my favorite times of the year.
When I deliver my annual lecture to the bright young lights at Amh Ulchach, I often throw out questions concerning some of the newer ideas I see in high-end audio. In the last few years, I have talked mostly about the latest digital trends because it seems that is where all the excitement is these days. Even though digital technologies are not often germane to the subject of mechanical and electrical engineering, many of these students are already knowledgeable audiophiles as well as lovers of both music and gadgets. When you walk down the corridors of the dormitory at MacMankee Hall and peer into each room you will almost start to believe that Ivor Tiefenbrun is moonlighting as the Tooth Fairy and is exchanging bicuspids for old restored Sondeks.
This year I wanted to ask the students attending my lecture a question that had to do specifically with analog playback. I asked the question that I posted above.
After a few seconds of silence I scanned the room and quickly categorized the facial responses of the students into three distinct camps. The first group of students were what I would call The Polite Group, and they acted as if they were seriously considering every possible aspect of the question. These were the students, of course, who did not wish to be called on so they looked toward the ceiling with their chins cradled in their hands and struck their most convincing pose. Next was The Practical Group, whose expressions hinted that long-playing records don’t exactly grow on Fortingall yews. I could tell that a sizable chunk of the Practicals were trying their best not to scream out, “Whut, throw out a perfectly good record ye dobber? Yer bum’s out tha windae!”
The final group consisted of The Thoughtful Group, the students who were truly considering the concept of a singular and final listen to a cherished LP. Because of the light that suddenly appeared in their young, impressionable eyes after I asked my question, I decided to open up the floor for discussion. The two committed groups made their points with a tentative civility while the third faction nodded in agreement at every comment made. Once the discussion had run its course (with absolutely no one changing their position on the topic), I informed them that I had just listened to a new phono cartridge, right here in Scotland, that accomplished what I had just proposed. I then told the shocked and intrigued young engineers that through a series of discussions with its designer, my old engineer friend Dr. Farquar Kentigern MacBhreatnaich, I had faced that conundrum head-on and came out a very changed man.
Dr. Mac, as I call him, had summoned me to his workshop on a very small island on a very small lake (or loch, as the Scots say) less than 100 kilometers from the campus at Amh Ulchach. My old friend wanted me to listen to his newly developed cartridge which he had named the Spoltaire. I have to admit that it’s a very dashing name, reminiscent of the Jordanaires who used to sing with Elvis Presley. The boat ride over to the island was somewhat treacherous, as it was a cold and rainy Scotland afternoon, but I was dressed appropriately. Dr. Mac, a burly ginger fellow, met me at the small stone porch in front of his lab and to my delight he had the fireplace going and had just opened a rare bottle of 35-year-old Glenghniomhaid.
As we warmed up in front of the hearth, he motioned to the rest of the work space which resembled a comfortable listening room belonging to a well-heeled Scottish audiophile. The walls were lined with old tapestries and wooden shelves filled with plenty of hand-bound books. I could sit down in any of a number of richly upholstered leather chairs. I could see no test bench, nor did I notice shelves littered with various odd bits and parts needed for manufacturing. I noticed one thing out of the ordinary, however…his record collection.
At first glance I could sense something unusual about the LPs lined up on the deep wooden shelving. After a moment of intense scrutiny, I figured it out. Instead of a normal collection of different LPs, the collection was mostly comprised of multiple copies of the same titles. His record collection resembled one of those wonderful discoveries in the back of some warehouse where hundreds and hundreds of copies of some lost classic or another are recovered and then auctioned off for a small fortune.
“I am so glad you have decided to visit me, Modest,” he told me in his trademark clear and surprisingly civilized tone. “What I am about to show you will change the way people listen to records!”
My first reaction to that statement was one of skepticism, obviously, since we’ve seen many advancements in audio over the last few decades that fail to live up to such overblown marketing talk. But Dr. Mac is a very serious man, and when he tells me about a technical breakthrough I tend to give him the benefit of the doubt. We brought our Scotch glasses to the other side of the warm, inviting room and sat down on front of his system that included a pair of beautiful old Linn Saras, a rack full of Linn electronics and, of course, an LP-12. I was familiar with every single piece of his system save for one. On the end of his Ittok, I noticed a distinctly non-Linn cartridge that resembled an old Denon 103 that had been hastily modified to reflect some sort of Scottish theme.
“That is the pattern of the MacBhreatnaich clan,” he said as I peered closely at the pickup. “Whatever design you desire, I can reproduce it…as long as it is listed in the Scottish Register of Tartans.”
Dr. Mac went on with the entire story of the Spoltair, and how he first came up with the idea. “I had an old London Decca cartridge that I truly loved. There was only one problem with it. If I tried to align the cartridge by ear, I could achieve a wonderful and beautiful tone that no other phono cartridge could match. Unfortunately, that recalcitrant little needle would scratch up my records after just one play! When I used proper tools to carefully align the cartridge according to the manufacturer’s directions, the sound would not be nearly as musical.”
“Yes,” I replied, “those old Deccas could be troublesome and yet magical!”
“Agreed,” he replied, pouring another Glenghniomhaid for the both of us. It was a smooth and peaty Islay and nearly as thick as cough syrup. I loved it. “I was bothered by this, so I started investigating different stylus profiles and made an important discovery using some of my less valuable records from Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond and the Boston Pops. I found that the ideal stylus profile isn’t a complex geometric shape that fits precisely into the groove, but one that plows through grooves like Sherman’s March. Do you know Sherman’s March?”
“But of course!”
“It’s hard to find a Scot who does, but that’s another story. I usually have to use a Battle of Stirling analogy but that’s not quite apt.”
We both laughed as we tipped our glasses.
“I thought that the ideal stylus profile was one that could expand in the groove and detect every bit of information. Unfortunately, it was difficult to achieve that sort of performance without laying waste to the LP. And then suddenly it hit me. Who cares about the LP?”
I furrowed my brow. “Record collectors?”
He threw up his hands in disgust. “Ugh, record collectors. Those doaty baws. They buy a record and leave it sealed for decades thinking that one day someone’s going to hand them a million pounds for it. They’re not real music lovers. They don’t want to make the sacrifice to hear music at its most glorious!”
I nodded in agreement. My attention returned to the Spoltair, its beautiful emerald and yellow pastels reflected in the glossy top plate of the Sondek. At that moment Dr. Mac sprang up from his chair and walked over to his record collection. He grabbed a copy of a rare Christy Moore album, one I did not know. He retrieved it, of course, from a solid block of the same exact pressing. “It’s a rare bootleg,” he explained, “captured at Christy’s home when he was properly sozzled.”
He lowered the needle onto the pristine vinyl and I immediately noticed two things, dear reader. First, surface noise was non-existent. Second, once the needle fell into the groove I noticed that little black curly-cues started springing up from the vinyl and onto the floor. I noticed a small brass spittoon on the floor and noticed that it was half-filled with these liqourice-like shavings. “That’s the grooves being destroyed,” he informed me with a wave of the hand. “Best not to think about it. Just listen.”
It sounded like Christy was in the room with us. No, it was more than that. Christy had popped into the room, sat down between us, punched us each in the arm and poured himself a glass of Glenghniomhaid. He smelled a little of urine and his breath was disgusting. But he played beautiful music, as realistic as any live performance I have heard.
Dr. Mac gave me more details about the Spoltaire without being too revealing about the proprietary ingredients. He does start with Denon 103s (“There’s so many of the bloody things sitting round unused”) and carefully treats the suspension with a viscous liquid that is made from a few unlikely ingredients. “My brother in Assloss, out in Ayrshire, brews a mighty triple stout that is so rich you can stand a paper straw up in it. If you let it sit at the bottom of a pint glass for a few days it gets all gummy. I then scrape it out and mix it with beeswax and a few secret ingredients and I have found that this concoction has remarkable damping qualities.”
This made perfect sense to me, but I knew there was more to the wonderful sound of the Spoltaire than that. “What about the stylus, Dr. Mac?”
“Aye,” he replied, a huge grin spreading upon his heavily-bearded face. “The stylus and cantilever are made from a single solid piece of metal for ultimate coherence. This particular metal is stiff and rigid and not ideal for ordinary pickups, which is what makes this design so different and counter-intuitive. This is the magic!”
I stayed for several more hours, listening to album after album with Dr. Mac. I listened to so many familiar recordings with him such as Dark Side of the Moon, The White Album and even Metal Machine Music. I’ve never heard Lou Reed sound more human and approachable.
By the end of the evening I made arrangements with my Scottish friend to take a Spoltair with me for a proper evaluation back home. He agreed, and said he would even throw in multiple copies of Hot August Night II. What a thrill!
Before I left and headed back to the boat, one more question occurred to me. “Dr. Mac, what do you do with all of the records after you play them? Do you just throw them away?”
“Of course not!” he exclaimed. “I just sell them on eBay. My feedback rating is shite, but I still manage to sell every one of those pooched bastarts.”