What happened was, Lauren said “My friend Leonard from choir has a friend whose husband died, and she’s wondering what to do with his record collection.” I said “If she doesn’t want to try to sell them, I’ll have a look at them.” Then I took off on a business trip. When I got back, Lauren said “You need to bring the records in from the van.” There turned out to be 900. This is the start of a story of musical discovery.
They turn out to be almost all classical, where the exceptions are cheesy-looking pre-Rock pop music. I think this piece will anchor an “LP Log” blog series in which I touch on the LPs’ payloads as I (slowly) work through the vinyl backlog. Also, as the picture below makes clear, I may have to do a bit of furniture shopping because it’s not as though I have enough shelf space for more than a small fraction of these.
Just a couple of weeks before, I’d noticed that the old Linn cartridge on my lovely Simon Yorke “Series 9” had crapped out. I can’t complain, it had served me well and it was at least fifteen years old. So I needed a new one and, since I was staring at 900 probably-not-that-pristine records in the face, something to restore & rejuvenate them.
Record cleaner · A survey of the audiophile press suggests that the cleaners from VPI offer a good price/quality combination. The VPI HW 16.5 looked good but hard to buy in Canada, until I visited eBay, where they seem to appear regularly. It’s at least a decade since I bought anything at eBay; they seem to be getting along without me. I missed out on a couple of auctions but eventually scored, probably paying a little too much, jumping the bid by $50 in the closing seconds.
Cleaning LPs with the machine is just massively cool. First you screw the record down, spin up the turntable, and slather it with cleaning solution (20% isopropyl). Then you hit the vacuum switch and a hollow cylindrical arm with velvety brushes comes down on the disc and sucks the fluid right back in. Two revolutions of the turntable are plenty. It’s pretty remarkable to see an LP go on looking grungy and dim, and come off gleaming.
There are lots of videos on YouTube, but in most of them the actual action shot is embedded in a lengthy “review”. This one is blurry and shaky but gets right to the point.
The guy in the video uses a specialized record-cleaning brush. I didn’t have one in that style, so used a standard super-soft-bristle paintbrush and that works fine.
The cartridge · High-end audio is bloody expensive, and I have never previously purchased a component without listening to it, playing music of my own that I know and love. With the exception of cartridges; dealers are understandably reluctant to keep lots of tiny fragile objects in stock and let customers drop them on their own crappy vinyl. So it was a matter of reading reviews. Boy, are there ever a lot of cartridges out there. One decent survey is the long-running Recommended Components published twice yearly by Stereophile magazine. Check out the Fall-2018 Turntables, Tonearms, and Cartridges section.
Ordering high-end online doesn’t seem to be much of a thing so I got a local retailer, Vancouver’s Hi-Fi Centre, to order it in. The store is really a super pleasant place to visit.
My conversation with the guy there was a little sad. It’s a nice place, they seem to be doing well, but their customers are mostly over 50. I may be among the last generations to care enough about audio quality to do this sort of this stuff. For most people these days, a Sonos or an Amazon Echo or whatever that brings tunes to where they are will do the job. Me, I hope to spend a few more years of evenings sitting up late in a comfy chair with a small adult beverage, spinning the discs and listening, really listening, to them.
After a lot of grinding back and forth and looking for second opinions on the net, I settled on the Dynavector DV-20X2 (low-output option), made (by hand, they say) in Japan. My reasons: The price was within the bounds of sanity. It’s been described as easy to set up. Relative to many other good cartridges, it has relatively high “compliance”, which means it should be easier on the records, most of which are totally irreplaceable. Finally, a couple of reviewers said it did a great job on rock & roll. Yes, I know I have 900 classical records to consider, but I also know where my heart lives. Here it is, in action.
Getting it set up was a major pain in the ass. I couldn’t turn up the original turntable documentation, but fortunately, it’s a major enough issue that there were two different places out on the net that talked through the process. It doesn’t help that I have shaky hands and am at best modestly dextrous. If Simon Yorke comes to read this (he’s retired but I think still living): It’s a great turntable, Simon, but getting the vertical tracking angle right is awful! If Lauren hadn’t helped I never would have managed.
Dusty! · Finally, it was all tightened down and the wires plugged in. For the turntable’s first outing, I put on a pristine copy of Dusty in Memphis that I’d bought but never played after discovering that my cartridge was busted.
Oh. My. God. Should have upgraded the cartridge years ago. If you haven’t heard good vinyl on good hardware I really don’t have any words that I think will convey the experience. I mean, it helps that at that moment in 1969 Dusty had cosmic mojo, fabulous producers, and took on a list of classics. I guess the most famous would be Windmills of Your Mind, but there are plenty more jewels.
Also, it’s a production triumph. The arrangements are cool, the musicians are razor-sharp, and the recording is just slightly on the dirty side of pristine, which is exactly what you want; it really does that thing that vinyl is (in my mind) a little better at than digital — creating the illusion of a bunch of musicians down at that end of the room.
When you knew that it was over, you were suddenly aware
that the autumn leaves were turning to the color of his hair.