This morning, I polished my turntable with Speed Wax, from Tirox, which makes cleaning and maintenance products for motorcycles. Speed Wax smells like vanilla and, when buffed off with a microfiber cloth, leaves a wonderful, streak-free shine.
Yes, I polish my turntable. I’m proud of the thing. I smile at it. We understand each other.
As I’d wager most audiophiles do, I have a different relationship with each piece of gear in my system. My hard-case Bryston 4B3 is descended from tough-guy pro-audio gear and doesn’t need much attention -- I know it’s got my back. My Sonic Frontiers SFL-2 preamp is an old girl, and I have to coddle her. The top is never screwed on -- I never know when I’ll have to dig out another 6922 tube to replace one that’s gone Chernobyl. My Focus Audio FP60 BE speakers also like polishing -- God forbid their ebony veneers ever dry out.
But my turntable -- I feel I have to get my nose really in there, and use cotton swabs to get to those hard-to-reach nooks. With its five moving parts and utter lack of artifice, it’s a humane, understandable component that demands interaction.
When it comes down to it, we live and interact in an analog world. Humans evolved learning to use tools with, at most, two moving parts. Through our prehistory, the spear (no moving parts) was the method by which we secured food. Then the bow and arrow (two moving parts) revolutionized hunting and increased our reach. The wheel and axle bestowed mobility and an ever-expanding territory.
Then came the turntable. Think of this: Edison developed his recording cylinder -- the precursor to the record -- in 1888. Marconi debuted the wireless telegraph in 1901. So there were records before there was radio. On an instinctive, genetic level, we can understand the analog turntable: a stone rubs against plastic, and the resulting vibrations make music. It’s a purely physical transaction. We can also get the general idea of how radio works. Some sort of waves that we can’t see in the air represent music. CDs were a touch more problematic. Something about ones and zeros that get jazzed up by a laser and turned into music? But no matter. We could hold a CD in the hand, and we were told that the music was on there in some form, which meant that it was kinda like a record. It was all good.
But the world is changing so fast. The CD is as dead as Bonnie and Clyde (who?). Now, if we want music, we have to download those ones and zeros and store them on our computers or phones, then squeeze them through a DAC. Or -- if you’re younger than 30 -- you simply stream music. How odd a concept -- how utterly counterintuitive. No one is actually broadcasting this music. It exists only for the moment. Packets of ones and zeros, bounced off satellites, all taking different pathways to their destination. Push a button, and somewhere a computer starts spitting out those data packets, sunflower seeds spat out at nearly the speed of light. You’ve probably read a number of articles explaining how it all works, but even in layman’s terms, it’s a dizzying concept.
For over 125 years, people have been buying, collecting, and listening to records. For a while we were wamboozled by the CD, and it looked as if the LP was destined for history’s dusty attic. But now the CD is sputtering out, and there’s no longer anything to hold. The music lover looks into the abyss and sees only TCP/IP packets staring unblinkingly back. No wonder music lovers are turning their gaze back to LPs.
It’s not surprising. The CD was a storage medium. You could back data up on it. Burn a big-ass Excel spreadsheet to a CD-R and mail it to a client. It was so horribly mundane. The packaging sucked, the discs felt cheap. It was a vile format, but for a while, it was all we music lovers had.
Records are older than the oldest person now alive. In some ways they’re part of our racial memory. Even young kids who were born long after the ascendancy of the CD seem to instinctively comprehend that LPs are something special. There’s a warmth -- in a physical sense -- about the cardboard covers and the textured plastic. The artwork and lyrics are rendered in a sensible, logical, imperial size: a foot wide! a foot tall! The king’s foot! What a wonderful measurement!
Hoo-boy, the tide has turned. LPs are back in the mainstream, and there’s tons of equipment on which to play them. And those LPs sound great! Given the primitive mechanism by which the medium functions, you could be forgiven if you expected an LP to sound, at best, like a poorly tuned AM radio. But the sound quality of the LP need make no apologies. No way am I going to let myself get sucked into the quagmire of LP vs. digital sound. Let’s just say that I much prefer the sound of LPs, as do a number of audiophiles of my acquaintance. For whatever reason, to us, LPs sound more warm and three-dimensional. They sound human.
My turntable is one of the tools with which I interface with my LPs. If you’ve read my review of the Pro-Ject RPM 10 Carbon turntable -- still in my listening room as I write this -- you know that I need to fall in love with a turntable. It’s my partner in my listening experience. We play our music together. I touch it, work with it, and it rewards me.
All well and good. But I hear you ask: “What did you buy this month, Thorpe?”
I’ve just received a batch of Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab reissues of those crazy late 1960s and early ’70s Miles Davis sessions for Columbia Records -- In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew, and the nutty On the Corner, all cut at 33 1/3rpm. Also, E.S.P., Sorcerer, and Nefertiti, each album self-indulgently pressed on two 45rpm discs. The sound quality at either speed is superb -- dead silent, totally flat pressings, with detail that trails off into infinity and bass that reaches the earth’s core. I compared the MoFi Bitches Brew with my Columbia “360 Sound” pressing and it wasn’t even close. Brew is a dense album that manages to hold its silence close to its chest -- just the utter lack of surface noise on the MoFi let me hear so much deeper into the intent of the music that it wasn’t funny.
The 45rpm sides are of course much shorter, and necessitate more frequent trips to my ’table to flip discs, but the more densely packed information jumps out at me. It really does feel as if MoFi is smooshing the cream pie of the master tape in my face. I can’t imagine how these albums could sound any better.
The music on these albums is Davis’s most ambitious, and wasn’t thoroughly understood when it was first released. I recall my father buying the eight-track of On the Corner, and his horror as he listened to it for the first time. “He’s gone mad,” he said. “It’s the drugs.”
My father may have been correct on both points, but it was a glorious madness.
Don’t miss these albums. Every Mobile Fidelity pressing is a limited edition -- they won’t be around forever.
. . . Jason Thorpe