Editorial By Robert Harley
This issue marks the third consecutive year in which we've devoted most of the magazine to vinyl playback, and it looks like it's become an annual tradition. The decision to publish our first analog-themed issue in 2007 seemed like a leap of faith, but it met with overwhelmingly positive response from readers. That issue also sold extremely well on the newsstand, with many of the newsstand buyers presumably only peripherally familiar with
The Absolute Sound.
Although vinyl seemed to be enjoying an upswing in late 2006 when the issue was planned, that was nothing compared to the last three-and-a-half years. The flood of new LP releases has been staggering, both from audiophile companies creating lavish reissues as well as from mainstream record companies who see vinyl as a way to reach a coveted and relatively tiny demographic - the more serious music lover willing to pay for music rather than to steal it. LPs have an additional appeal to traditional record companies and artists: LPs can't be file-shared. Artists like the LP because their work is presented to a fully attentive listener who probably listens to the whole record, or at least a whole side of a record, through a home stereo system. This scenario is contrasted with the listener who plays MP3 files through cheap earbuds while engaged in some other activity. If I were an artist, I would much prefer my audience to listen to my work on LP.
Doug Sax, the great mastering engineer and father of the modern direct-to-disc LP (and of stereo direct-to-disc recording), mothballed his vinyl cutting lathes more than ten years ago. As he says in Neil Gader's interview with him this issue, he couldn't give away Sheffield direct-to-disc LPs in the late 1980s. That's an amazing statement given that today many of those Sheffield titles are collector's items commanding top dollar for used copies. But just last year, Sax brought the lathes out of retirement and is back in the LP-cutting business.
It's likely that the LP will outlast the CD. By this I mean that after the last CD is replicated, LP presses will still be running. It's an astonishing turn of events, but one predicted in 1984 by Linn Founder Ivor Tiefenbrun. He saw CD as an interim format until high-resolution digital replaced it and the LP. With limited availability of high-resolution digital, the LP is still our best choice for enjoying a wide range of music that hasn't been corrupted by 44.1kHz/16-bit PCM encoding.
I recently had an experience that drove home vinyl's stunning sound quality. I had been listening to the Vandersteen Model 7 loudspeakers in my new room for about five weeks before I got a turntable. With a great digital source (a dCS Puccini), the Vandersteens sounded fabulous - clearly a breakthrough in many respects. But dropping into my system a Basis Inspiration turntable, Air Tight PC-1 Supreme cartridge, and Aesthetix Rhea Signature phonostage took the system to an entirely different level of performance. It wasn't just a quantitative difference of greater low-level detail, more realistic timbre, and increased soundstage three-dimensionality, but rather a qualitative one. LPs simply sounded vastly more natural and involving. Of course, I've had this experience before, but it struck me that the better the playback system and the better the analog front-end, the greater the chasm between analog and digital. The aphorism "Digital sounds great - if you never listen to analog" never rang more true.
There's never been a better time to get into analog (or get back into analog). The number of new turntables, cartridges, phonostages, and LP accessories coming to market is astounding. What's more, today's analog products offer tremendous value; budget components now routinely outperform the expensive units of just ten years ago. And today's cutting-edge analog gear extracts more information from the grooves than anyone had previously thought possible.
If you have not heard LPs for a long time, or have never heard a good LP playback system (this is for our younger readers), I implore you to experience the musicality and immersive experience that analog routinely delivers. We hope that the equipment reports in this special analog issue will put you on the road to musical nirvana.
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