My Analogue Journey Part III

Welcome to the third and final installment of My Analogue Journey. In Part I of this essay I wrote about my passion for analogue audio, outlining my decision to set out on a journey to discover the best that vinyl music had to offer. Part II explored the details of my own vintage turntable project, and the construction of a custom Garrard 401 turntable that would become the base for my future analogue explorations. This third section is about writing, about how the journey itself changed my relationship to the hobby, and it’s about Tri-Planar.

I’ve been working on this series of articles for over a year. When I first sat down to write my ambition for the piece was simpler than what I have ended up producing. The original task was to write a component review of what was then the new Tri-Planar U12 tonearm for the webzine The High Fidelity Report (THFR). The article was to be my first review of a high-end analogue playback component for THFR editors Joey Weiss, Chris Sommovigo and editor-at-large Harry Pearson.

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As I started writing, I was extremely excited to get my words out. I loved everything about the U12 tonearm, from set-up to sound. With the Tri-Planar tonearm I heard a natural, organic wholeness in the music that I had not previously experienced. I’m confident in stating it was amongst the most impactful audio components I have ever spent time with, and I was very enthusiastic about sharing my discoveries in writing.

But in the same week that I began typing, on November 4th, 2014, Harry Pearson passed away. With his loss the momentum I had built up in preparing the article drained away. It had, after all, been through Pearson that the Tri-Planar tonearm had found it’s way to me, and after his passing my enthusiastic tone no longer felt honest.

At the time of his death I had spent two years producing articles for Pearson and his protégé Joey Weiss, first at HPSoundings.com and then later at The High Fidelity Report. Though I never met him in person, Pearson’s support and encouragement for my writing was invaluable to my development as a Hi-Fi journalist. In the wake of his passing it was impossible to ignore that influence. So I stopped working on the Tri-Planar review, and instead wrote a short tribute to Harry Pearson. At the time I wrote the tribute it didn’t feel complete, so I didn’t post it anywhere. But reading it now it feels honest. From late 2014, here are my thoughts on the influence Harry Pearson had on my writing and my passion for audio:

In the spring of 2011, while standing on the steps outside a hospital in northern Toronto during a visit to see my mother, I received a phone call from an unknown number. My mother wasn’t well, the hospital visits a daily routine, and I imagine that my voice was a bit tired and strained as I answered the call. But the identity of the person on the line gave me a certain lift. He introduced himself as Harry Pearson, and asked if I had a few minutes to chat.

Pearson said that he had read an article I’d written on the Bryston BDP1 digital music player (written for The Inner Ear), and was interested in finding out more about Bryston’s digital music server. The topic of conversation may surprise some, as Pearson’s devotion to analogue audio was well known, but we spoke at length about high-resolution audio and the move from compact-disc to server-based playback that was underway within the high-end audio industry.

Pearson said he was interested in digitally recording and archiving his favorite vinyl albums and was curious to know more about music servers and what would be involved in setting up a vinyl archive system. We discussed how the Bryston digital player worked, computer-based recording systems for high quality analogue-to-digital transfer, digital audio file formats, and storage systems.

During the call the prospect of traveling down to Sea Cliff and setting up such a system was raised. I was thrilled with the idea, but at the time I was focused on personal matters related to both my mother’s health and my pending wedding, and wasn’t in a position to offer much more than the ideas we shared on the phone. We agreed to talk again soon, but never did.

 A little over a year later I came across HPSoundings.com, which was then a new audio website set up by Pearson and Joey Weiss, following Pearson’s departure from The Absolute Sound. Curious about the new site, I sent an email to Weiss inquiring as to whether they may be looking for writers. I had been writing on audio at The Inner Ear for over 15 years, but in that time I felt that I hadn’t developed much presence in the U.S., and wondered if an affiliation with Pearson would enhance my profile. Weiss responded to my query with enthusiasm, and we ended up in conversation about what HPsoundings.com intended to be.

At its inception Weiss envisioned the new website as a venue where Pearson would be able to reassert his commanding voice in the audio community. He spoke of a desire for thought-provoking audio journalism of the kind that Pearson was famous for in the early days of TAS – a return, of a sort. The subjects were to be audio equipment, music and culture, and the opinions were to be thoughtful, critical and, most importantly, honest. Weiss envisioned the content to be of the kind that would be published in The New Yorker or the Sunday section of The Times. It was a fledging venture with lofty ambitions, but it showed promise as a venue for the kind of journalism I was attracted to, and Weiss’ enthusiasm was alluring.

Weiss asked if I would be interested in filling a niche for HPSoundings.com by writing on digital audio equipment and high-resolution music. I said yes, and the first article I wrote was a commentary on the second generation Bryston BDP2 digital music player, built around the original article I had written for The Inner Ear that had inspired Pearson’s call to me a year earlier.

While I was confident I could produce quality content on digital audio for the new site, I conveyed my love of vinyl music listening to Weiss, and told him of my ambition to write about high-end analogue audio as well. Weiss assured me that there would be space for such writing at HPSoundings.com. At the time I could think of no better way to push my aims forward. My enthusiasm for Hi-Fi had never been greater.

A year of productive writing and research passed, but unfortunately HPSoundings.com’s time was short-lived. Pearson’s health was in decline, his ability to write with gusto limited, and the venue never lived up to its aspirations. Rather than disappearing, however, Weiss and Pearson teamed up with Chris Sommovigo to create The High Fidelity Report, moving the content from HPSoundings.com onto the new site, while recruiting writers such as Michael Mercer to contribute. Ambition for THFR was similar to HPSoundings.com, but Harry’s role and responsibility would lessen.

I wrote half a dozen articles for HPSoundings.com and The High Fidelity Report, each edited by Pearson, and each one hopefully a bit better than the last. I still recall the excitement I felt after receiving an email from him offering praise for an article I had written about Mastering Engineer Robert Ludwig and the Wilco album The Whole Love. I learned a number of things about both audio and writing from Pearson; some came from reading his writing, and others from his editorial contributions to my work. I’m very proud that Mr. Harry Pearson read my words and helped make them better. Thank you, Harry.

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Harry Pearson Newsday – photo courtesy of Joey Weiss

After finishing the tribute to Pearson I made a few more ill-fated attempts to kick-start the Tri-Planar review. For reasons I didn’t yet understand, each time I started writing the words felt like they were drifting away from me, not accurately representing my experience. I thought I knew what I wanted to say, but I struggled with both the tone of the article and with the traditional audio component review structure in which I was trying to write. With each failed attempt I started to worry that perhaps I didn’t have the requisite experience to fully contextualize my Tri-Planar experience.

Rather than give up entirely I tried to think about a new way to express myself, free of the mechanics and structure found in most typical Hi-Fi reviews. By this time I had already launched myhifilife.com, mostly as a public venue to consolidate the Hi-Fi reviews I had written for various online publications, but also as a location to post personal, more informal musings on audio and music.

One writing idea I had been mulling for myhifilife.com was to share the research I’d done on vintage turntables, and to document both the reasoning and the process behind designing my Garrard 401. As the outline for a vintage turntable article began to take shape, I realized that my vintage turntable project and the failed Tri-Planar review were part of the same story; I couldn’t have had the Tri-Planar experience if I hadn’t had the Garrard experience.

So I began writing my own personal analogue story from the beginning. I knew where the story had started, and now I thought I knew where the story would end. As my words began to make sense I grew confident that what I was writing was worthwhile. The words felt personal. They were focused on my love of music, audio equipment, and the people that have influenced and fueled my passion for Hi-Fi. As the outline for an article started to take shape, the new website seemed the perfect venue to explore my own audio story, and the writing for My Analogue Journey began. I would take a year to write Part I and Part II, but eventually I would return to Tri-Planar.

My Tri-Planar Experience

I spent three years experimenting with different tonearm and cartridge combinations mounted on my Garrard 401 before discovering Tri-Planar. During that time, my base arm was an SME 312s, and for a time I still had the Origin Live Conqueror MK3C. I experimented with phono cartridges from Koetsu, Clearaudio, Dynavector & Shelter and phono amplifiers from Allnic Audio, Tom Evans Audio Design, Esoteric Audio Research, Naim Audio, Simaudio & Nagra with both arms. It’s not an all-encompassing list, but it was enough to advance my analogue audio senses.

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I had great success with some of these components, but also put together some combinations that I found unsatisfying. For example, the SME 312s tonearm worked equally well with two different Dynavector cartridges (XX2 mk2 and XV1s), but I found the performance inconsistent when paired with a Koetsu Urushi Vermillion. On the other hand, the Koetsu cartridge worked very well with the Origin Live tonearm. In general I found the SME arm to be significantly easier to set up and use, but the Origin Live arm was sonically a more consistent performer with the different cartridges used. Some of my findings coincided with basic set-up logic— which is to say they followed ratios of effective mass, compliance and phono amplifier capacitance loading—but nothing beat trial and error to advance my education.

In those years of experimentation, I grew significantly both in terms of experience working with analogue components and in my ability to express myself as a Hi-Fi journalist. I wrote reviews of both the Allnic H1201 phono amplifier and the Nagra VPS phono amplifier of which I’m quite proud. In each case the experimentation, technical research, and listening greatly informed my thoughts on vinyl music playback.

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My introduction to Tri-Planar came via Harry Pearson and Joey Weiss. Both were aware of my curiosity in the company’s new U12 tonearm, and in early 2014 they put me in touch with Tri Mai, owner and chief designer for Tri-Planar tonearms in Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time that Mai and I spoke, the first production model U12 was at Sea Cliff, due for a review by Pearson. Like many manufacturers who had encountered similar circumstances, however, Mai knew that he could be waiting for something that realistically might never come. Mai had nary a complaint, however. He expressed sincere gratitude for the support he had received from Pearson and indicated that he saw him as a mentor to his craft as a tonearm designer. Mai expressed tremendous respect for Pearson’s contributions to the High-End audio industry, while crediting his influence as a significant factor in Tri-Planar’s success. I imagine he would have waited patiently for as long as it would have taken for Pearson to write on his new arm. I also think, however, that both Mai and Weiss saw my interest in writing on the U12 as an opportunity that would serve everyone.

Though our original topic of conversation was the new U12 arm, Mai recommended I try the 10″ Mk. VII arm first, as a way to expand my frame of reference. Since my Gerrard turntable could accommodate both arms I jumped at the opportunity, and arrangements were made to send a Mk. VII in the spring of 2014, with the longer U12 following later that summer.

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When the Mk. VII arrived I was well aware of its history; it has been in production for more than a decade; it received an outstanding review from Pearson in The Absolute Sound (Issue 144, October/November 2003); it has been a Stereophile Class-A rated component since Brian Damkroger’s June 2010 review (Vol.33 No.6); and is still regarded as one of the finest tonearms available today.

From the moment I started working with the arm I knew it was something special. I was impressed by its engineering, that is, the ease of set up and the accuracy of alignment, but I was more impressed by what I heard. Paired with my favorite Dynavector XV1s cartridge on the Garrard 401, and feeding both an Allnic H3000V phono amp and a Nagra VPS phono amp, it was clear early on that this was a new level of sonic performance for me. The most fascinating thing was the way the arm brought music together, creating coherence, wholeness and a natural, organic energy.

I spent the summer with the Mk. VII arm and curiously, in that time I didn’t change the cartridge. Prior to Tri-Planar, my pattern was to swap cartridges frequently, trying as many combinations as I could. But my time listening to the Tri-Planar arm with the XVIs cartridge was so rewarding I stayed with it, figuring I would leave the cartridge swapping until I had the longer U12 arm on hand. As the scheduled summer arrival of the 2nd Tri-Planar arm passed, however, I began to worry that my window of time to write about the U12 was slipping away. With some major life changes coming in early 2015 I needed to complete my Hi-Fi writing projects by the end of the year, and without the arm on hand a Tri-Planar U12 review was quickly becoming unrealistic.

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Then, in mid-October, as I was preparing to set up an analogue audio demonstration at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Toronto for the TAVES 2014 audio and video showcase, the U12 arm arrived. I was participating at TAVES2014 as a way of promoting myhifilife.com, and had negotiated a small corner space within one of Audio by Mark Jones’ two hotel suites. My intention was to display my Garrard turntable in a headphone-based system, and to talk with visitors about my new Hi-Fi blog. Though the timing was tight, I figured the new U12 would be an interesting draw for visitors to the suite, while also provide a strong point of conversation, and I raced to have it ready for demonstration at the show.

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The U12 arm went on to the table just days before TAVES2014, with the mounting of the cartridge occurring in the room. At set-up I thought the arm looked perfect on the table – as if the Layers of Beauty plinth had been designed with 12” Tri-Planar in mind.

My first listen came via a pair of Audeze LCD-X headphones, an Allnic HPA3000 headphone amp, a Nagra VPS phono amp and my own Dynavector XV1s cartridge. In the buildup to the show I had been listening to the other three components at home, but with the U12 arm I couldn’t believe what I heard. It was unbelievably good. Possessing all the strengths of the Mk. VII arm, the U12 managed to produce stronger transient energy (I love strong transient response, especially when listening to something like Radiohead’s In Rainbows), and a deeper layer of harmonic texture in the lower mid-frequencies, which added warmth to the music. It was so good, in fact, that I actually felt a bit overwhelmed, and initially dismissed my observations as subjectively compromised. I figured I was too excited by the start of the TAVES2014 event to believe what I was hearing was really that good.

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Once the show began I wasn’t able to spend much more time listening, but over the course of the weekend I continued to receive positive feedback about my little analogue station. I was a bit disoriented when my space received some unexpected coverage in the Hi-Fi press: Steven Rochlin mentioned the table and arm in his coverage for enjoythemusic.com; and Tim Smith, a writer for both 6moons.com and wallofsound.ca, wrote a glowing commentary in his 6moons.com TAVES show coverage, stating that “this was probably the best sound through headphones I have ever heard in all my life” and that the turntable “rig was world-class in every sense, sound, function and beauty. The stunning Garrard 401 table was sitting in and on a plinth that would be the envy of every ébéniste.

The event went by quickly, but I feel I reached a pinnacle in analogue audio playback at TAVES2014. With my little corner station I believe that I experienced, and shared with others, the best sounding vinyl music system of my life. The U12 arm may have arrived late, but its impact cannot be underestimated. I left the show ready to start sharing my experience, and immediately started working on an outline for a review. I knew that I needed to include the Mk. VII arm in my report as I had spent significantly more with it than with the U12, but I was confident I would find a way to say something new about Tri-Planar, and that I could write about both arms with success. My deadline was tight, but my enthusiasm to write palpable.

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Sadly, it was only a few days later that Pearson would pass away, and with his death my writing stopped. Within a month I was packing for a move to a new house that lacked the space needed for my Garrard turntable, and shortly after that my second child, Nathan, was born. With these major life changes my analogue journey came to an end.

Over the past year, as I found my way through writing this story, I feel I’ve learned that my effort to write about audio is as important as the time I’ve spent listening. Through my attempts to contextualize my experience in writing I’ve learned about my own bias, and about what motivates me to continue on in pursuit of great sounding audio. I’ve also learned that the original journey I set out on seven years ago contained a fundamental flaw.

As I outlined earlier, my original goal was to seek the best that analogue audio has to offer. It was a goal driven pursuit, in which one listening experience would be compared to another in a qualitative sense and rated accordingly. I’m not the only one who’s followed this path, as we see qualitative analysis within High-End audio all the time: Stereophile’s recommended Components list; The Absolute Sound’s annual Editor’s Choice Awards; the Best of Show nominations given out at audio events throughout the year. With my Tri-Planar experience I even thought that maybe I had experienced my own ‘best of’ moment.

The flaw in a goal driven pursuit, however, is that it’s built around a theoretical finish line, and should accordingly, have an end. I understand now that I’m not looking for my audio pursuits to end, nor am I looking for a singular sound within my listening experience that I define all others against. Through my attempt to share this story I’ve learned that I don’t want to compare one moment of listening to another, as there is enjoyment and pleasure to be found in each experience that shouldn’t be limited to, or classified by, its comparative worth. After all, I still want to hear new analogue systems and enjoy new discoveries. I want to be able to appreciate Hi-Fi as a collection of experiences that build upon each other and are enjoyed as events unto themselves.

I liken this new approach to that of wine connoisseurs or sommeliers. While they may one day taste an incredible bottle of wine, that won’t stop them from enjoying, or participating in, the art of tasting. As I turn to a new chapter in My Analogue Journey I look forward to the audio discoveries that await me, and to the enjoyment that comes from participating in the art of listening. I also hope to one day have another analogue story to share.

Post Script

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Tri Mai of Tri-Planar tonearms for his patience and understanding over the course of the two years it’s taken me to produce these words. Without his support I may not ever have started writing My Analogue Journey.

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