My Analogue Journey Part I

My Analogue Journey

Six years ago I set out on a journey to discover, learn and enjoy the best that vinyl music playback had to offer. The goal was both personal and professional: I wanted to experience and write about vinyl music listening at its highest level. Over the course of this journey I heard a significant amount of excellent sounding music. I’m sharing the story of my personal analogue odyssey now because it’s possible the voyage has reached its conclusion: it’s possible I have pieced together a set of components that when combined reach a level of performance that brings my pursuit of vinyl bliss to a pause.

The journey itself wasn’t always smooth, however. The road was often bumpy, full of obstacles and barriers. But it was a road worth traveling and, I feel, a story worth sharing. Like the components in a good analogue audio system, the parts of the story are intertwined, relating to each other in a way that is crucial to the end result.  What follows is Part I in a series that documents my experience searching for great analogue audio.

Part I: Setting out to somewhere

When I started out in search of vinyl bliss I didn’t really envision the trip having a conclusion. At the time I had already spent fifteen years working with and writing about digital audio and multi-channel surround sound. Although not an expert in the field the way that, say, mastering engineer Robert Ludwig or designers Daniel Weiss and Ed Meitner are, I could easily navigate my way around sample rates, bit depths, dither, and disc playback vs. server systems. I developed a vocabulary for communicating about digital audio that was both comfortable and assured. I was aware, however, that my curiosity and passion for Hi-Fi lay within the sphere of analogue audio and vinyl music playback. I knew this because when I sat down to listen to music, free of the burden of professional obligation, I would choose vinyl.

When I began my journey I set out to experience analogue music playback at the level that I had been reading about in articles by Harry Pearson, Michael Fremer, Mark Mickelson and others. I didn’t want to take a direct path to the top by spending a barrel of money on a Brinkmann, SME, Clearaudio or other statement turntable, however. I wanted to explore, learn and write about what I heard. I wanted to move gradually and to cherish each step, sharing my discoveries along the way.

 Writer’s Block

As a reviewer and hi-fi columnist, I found making the transition from digital audio to analogue and vinyl difficult. Even though I had developed a number of contacts over the course of more than a decade of Hi-fi writing, when I started searching for components and reaching out to suppliers for vinyl products to explore, I discovered that the world of high-end analogue can be a closed shop that gravitates toward familiar voices. I’ve always tried to be polite, courteous and understanding when contacting manufacturers and distributors about possible writing projects, but I received some pretty derogatory responses in return. As I hit numerous roadblocks I wondered how an industry can grow if new and (relatively) young voices are not able to contribute.

Although disheartened by the obstacles I encountered in those early days, I received encouragement from both my long-time mentor and editor at The Inner Ear, Ernie Fisher, and another fellow Canadian analogue audio enthusiast, David Beetles of Hammertone Audio (Global distributor for Allnic Audio). Both Fisher and Beetles felt that if I was persistent I would succeed, and with their support I remained determined to see the project through. I wondered if I needed to approach things from another angle, so I decided to take writing off the table for a while and to just concentrate on listening.

Over the course of about a year, instead of pursing writing projects, I instead focused on simply hearing good vinyl music systems. Rather than ask for equipment to be sent to me, I made time to travel to where I knew great analogue audio could be heard. I visited other audio enthusiasts, friendly Hi-Fi retailers and met with some esoteric Canadian manufacturers who all had a passion for vinyl music. By traveling to see others, I got to spend time listening to some excellent analogue systems that had been built with care, all designed to suit individual taste. The character of sound I heard was diverse and rewarding. I started to understand the way different components in an analogue audio system interact and how systems can be shaped to achieve different and unique sonic effects. In my travels I made a number of friends who I remain close with today. I learned that many people were either on, or had already taken, the same path I was headed down. I found that the journey of discovery is a major part of the enjoyment of analogue audio and that nostalgia for something previously heard can be as important as what’s playing in the moment.

 The Writing Starts

Though I wasn’t worried about writing for a time, the concept of documenting my experiences remained an important part of my journey. In my Hi-Fi hobby, writing has always provided focus.  Putting words down for others to read tests and challenges both my own biases and the validity of what I feel I have discovered. I can’t merely write that I liked something. In order to warrant a reader’s time there needs to be more. Good audio writing also isn’t just a technical document; it should have passion and honesty mixed in with comprehensive research. As much as I enjoyed listening with others and meeting like-minded audio hobbyists, I still wanted to write, as I felt that the challenge of writing was really how I would learn.

Eventually patience and persistence paid off. A few doors began to open and products slowly became available for closer inspection. Mark Baker at Origin Live in the U.K. was the first manufacturer to express interest in having me write about his products. I think Baker looked at a few of my previous reviews before agreeing to send over a turntable and tonearm, but he never did ask about my analogue background. We spoke of my goals for the articles and he was happy to participate, willing to provide both products and insight whenever I asked.

This led to my first turntable and tonearm review, published in The Inner Ear. The Origin Live Calypso turntable and Encounter Mk3C tonearm was a wonderful combination that I was proud to explore. Of the pair I wrote with the Calypso turntable and Encounter MK3c tonearm, Origin Live has produced an outstanding analogue combination that offers exceptional vinyl playback for a very reasonable price.”

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While researching technical details for the Origin Live table and arm article I ended up having multiple conversations with Baker where we discussed the products, his company’s philosophy and various aspects of what makes for quality vinyl playback. His insight aided my understanding of Origin Live’s products, but also advanced my education into turntable and tonearm set-up.

After reading the first article I assume Baker was pleased with my assessment, as he offered to send along one of his higher end tonearms as a point of comparison. About a year later the Conqueror Mk3C tonearm arrived for additional coverage. While I certainly liked the original Calypso and Encounter combination, the new Conqueror tonearm was a major step up on overall sonic performance. Of it I wrote: I must admit the Conqueror has surprised me. I expected to hear a good arm, and perhaps an improvement from what I heard with the original Origin Live pairing. However I didn’t expect to hear great — the Conqueror MK3c is a great tonearm. It’s products like this one that keep me enthusiastic about my Hi-Fi hobby. 

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Looking back, I don’t know why I had the chutzpah to state that the Conqueror MK3c is a great tonearm, as at the time I really didn’t have a lot of experience on which to base my comparison. I probably meant to say that the sound I heard with the Conqueror MK3c was great. That would be a more honest statement. But I thought then, and I still do today, that the Origin Live turntables and tonearms, designed by a committed analogue audio enthusiast in Mark Baker, offer exceptional performance and value. My time with them provided an excellent first step in my education.

 Gathering Pace

Once the Origin Live writing work was complete, more steps soon followed. They didn’t always lead to writing projects – I’ve yet to write a review on a second turntable– but my listening room slowly became filled with analogue audio components. I was able to learn more about the nuances of fine tonearm and cartridge set up, I experimented with phono-amplifier options including cartridge loading, gain optimization and equalization curves, while also becoming more familiar with the strengths and differences between solid-state and valve phono amplifiers.

After a few patient years, my commitment had started to pay off. Between sample equipment in my home and my numerous vinyl audio visits, I was able to hear analogue equipment from a significant number of manufacturers including SME, Origin Live, J.A. Mitchell, Kronos Audio, Brinkmann, Rega, Pro-Ject, Clearaudio, Nottingham, Graham, Tri-Planar, Durand, Dynavector, Koetsu, Shelter, Tom Evans Audio Design, Allnic Audio, Nagra Audio, Esoteric Audio Research, Simaudio, Aesthethix, Wyetech labs.

A few notable systems from this time stood out from the crowd and deserve acknowledgment. For the money the Origin Live combination remains one of the best systems I’ve come across. The Origin Live products are very well engineered but are not in the stratosphere price-wise as other tables with the same production quality level are. While they don’t offer entry-level analogue components at the price-point that Rega and Pro-Ject do, Origin Live provides an affordable entry into true Hi-End audio performance.

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The Kronos Audio Statement turntable from Louis Desjardins in Montreal, Canada is probably the best sounding current production model turntable I’ve heard. The first time I experienced Kronos was in the fall of 2012, at the TAVES Hi-Fi event in Toronto (featured in enjoythemusic.com’s TAVES2012 coverage). Mounted on the Statement turntable was a Tri-Planar 10.5 tonearm and a Dynavector XV1s cartridge (a combination with which I have since become very familiar), which fed into a Zesto Audio Andros PS1 phono amplifier and Leto preamplifier, an Accustic Arts amplifier and ASW Magadis loudspeakers.

At the TAVES2012 event I spent about an hour with Desjardins, listening to music and discussing the intricacies of his dual-platter design, its speed accuracy and its stability. From this visit I knew immediately that Kronos was a company to watch. More recently, I’ve been able to experience the Kronos turntable in greater detail when visiting Mark Jones of Audio by Mark Jones, who represents Kronos here in Ontario, Canada. A complex piece of audio engineering, the Kronos Statement turntable is not for the faint of wallet, but it is a magnificent design that plays music effortlessly and accurately.

Perhaps the most impactful system I discovered on my journey, however, was a Jean Nantais Reference Lenco 75 turntable, which I heard during a visit with audio electronics designer Roger Hebert of Wyetech Labs.

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Through my longtime affiliation with Ernie Fisher and The Inner Ear I am quite familiar with Wyetech Labs electronics, and have likely heard every piece of equipment Herbert’s designed in the last 20 years. While his is an esoteric brand, Herbert is a true artisan and his valve amplification products are some of the finest I’ve experienced.

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Knowing of his passion for analogue audio, I arranged for my wife Natalie and I to visit Herbert at his home in Ottawa, Canada back in February of 2011. The visit was a chance to hear both Wyetech Labs equipment and the Nantais Reference Lenco turntable. Mated with a Dynvector 507 MK II tonearm and a Benz Micro Ebony TR phono cartridge, the Nantais Reference Lenco turntable feed into a prototype Wyetech Labs Ruby phono amplifier, a Jade line-stage, Topaz 211C stereo amplifier and finally a pair of Zu Audio loudspeakers.

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Herbert’s system was breathtaking. The sound was dynamic and detailed, with an organic nuance that was captivating. It was easily one of the best experiences listening to vinyl I’ve had. Obviously aided by the incredibly high quality Wyetech Labs electronics, my day listening to the Jean Nantais Reference Lenco offered a window into the type of sound that one could achieve with restored vintage, idler drive turntables.

The writing for the second instalment in this series, titled Part II: A Vintage Turntable Project is well underway. It documents my discovery of vintage turntables, as well as the decision to design and construct my own idler drive turntable. I didn’t do the work myself, however. There is a whole world of experts who are passionate about the sound of analogue from the tables of yesteryear. I look forward to sharing my discoveries with you soon.

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