Here was the plan. Even as heavy as the VSEI Level 5+ Sony 777 SACD player is, it was easier to move around than it was to bring lots of turntables to my house. So off I set to listen to, and where possible, compare the Level 5+ player to the best vinyl rigs I had heard.
First was a trip to San Francisco to spend a day with Matt at Pitch Perfect Audio. If you are in the SF Bay Area, you should make the effort to go there. I have never been made to feel more comfortable, or treated better by any retailer of any product. I met Matt before I became a reviewer, and he has never treated me any differently.
At Pitch Perfect, I would be able to hear my Level 5+ SACD player over the best Shindo amps and preamps powering the Latour field coil speakers. This in itself is a very special treat. The Latours are without a doubt the finest speakers I have ever heard. I was going to be able to compare my player against the Shindo Garrard 301 turntable in that system. I don’t know if it’s the best turntable in the world, but in that system, it created the finest recorded music I’ve ever heard.
So Matt patiently set up my player in the system. We had prearranged for me to bring SACDs that he had LPs of to compare. I won’t give you a blow by blow account; but I just want to say the vinyl was almost always better, though the Level 5+ player held its own; maybe better to the extent than even I had hoped. On the best SACD I know of, the Verve 60th anniversary addition of Ella and Louie, I even thought I preferred the SACD. But, in the end, the drive and aliveness of the Garrard won out. Still, I went home quite pleased at how my little player had held its head high.
Then I made a trip to visit George of deHavilland. He had a beautiful and modern belt driven table he had personally built. And I must say that, again, I had a very gracious host. George even grilled organic burgers. Again, the vinyl was better, but the competitions were much closer this time. The bass was better on the Sony, it also imaged a little better; but again the turntable was more alive-sounding.
The last trip I’ll tell you about was over to Warren’s place to hear his modded Thorens 124 with Dynavector arm and Decca’s best cartridge. This time, I didn’t take my player because Warren is the tech who installs the VSEI Level 5+ mod for the west coast. My surprise was that he didn’t have his SACD player there. We listened to vinyl for a long time and I was very pleased with the sound. The Decca had all the transparency I remembered, as well as that incredible bass I had never heard from any other analogue system.
What stole the show at Warren’s, though, were the little Ikonoklast speakers. They may not be Latours, but in a small room with the right equipment they sure held their own. Well, this isn’t an article about speakers, so let’s get back to vinyl. After these trips and others, at first I felt good about not having vinyl; but I kept remembering I had taken the best eight or ten SACDs I had and not any redbook, and still every time the LPs were more alive, even if they didn’t trash my player.
Then I got Warren’s Ikonoklast speakers in to review, and at the same time went and spent a day at Matt’s, listening to the Solovox speakers. I discovered that both of these crossover-less speakers were very intolerant of Redbook CDs. They both sounded great on SACDs, but it was with vinyl that they came into their own. For me, this was the straw that broke my back. I had to have a vinyl rig, but which one?
At this point, I reverted back to becoming a consumer and not a reviewer or columnist. I knew which one I wanted: the Shindo Garrard; but it was way out of my price range. I have to admit I’m not much of a “do it yourselfer” kind of guy, and I just didn’t have enough courage to buy a used Garrard on eBay to build up as I go. In fact, when I was honest with myself, I realized I want a table that could just be set up and left alone and would make great music.
So I did the same thing I used to do when Becky and I used to show dogs and we wanted to purchase a new pup. I got on the phone and called people I trusted. I read all the show reports and reviews. Then I came to what some that knew me thought was a strange decision. I purchased a Clearaudio Ambient table. It seemed that Clearaudio had a reputation with some of the SET gang of being a great table for detail, but just a little on the analytical side of things. Yet, others I trusted said these people had never heard the Ambience with its wood plinth.
The dealmaker for me was that Musical Surroundings, Clearaudio’s distributor, was less than thirty minutes from my house, and they would set it up for me. Garth Leerer, president of Musical Surroundings, even took the time to pick the cartridge to match my Shindo Monbrison’s moving coil section. He suggested I try the new Benz Ebony L. So over to Oakland I went, and Tom Prowda, Garth’s technical guru, took the time to set it all up. He helped me understand how it all needed to be setup at my house. So home I headed with my new Ambient table, the Satisfy Carbonfiber arm, and the Benz L cartridge.
So my journey has taken me back to vinyl land and I’ll share all about that next month in a column and a review; but for now let me just tell you I’m having the time of my audio life with all the two-dollar records I’ve been buying.
HOLD THE PRESS! Someone must have read last month’s column, because right now I’m sitting here listening to the latest version of the Decca Phono Cartridge, the $5,295 London Reference. I can’t wait to share with you how wonderful this cartridge is.
So until next month, keep bopin’ and I’ll keep buying LPs.
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