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Back Into Vinyl-Land: Part One

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I’ve been in turntable withdrawal for nearly 20 years. I have a severe love/hate disorder when it comes to turntables. What’s not to love about them? They are the artwork of audio equipment with their beautiful plinths, platters, and suspensions. Some look functional, some like they came out of the future, some so retro, and some just so overdone they kind of overwhelm your senses.

If the turntable is a work of art, then without a doubt the tonearm is the precision, scientific, instruments of the audio world. Well, except for those old cool ones with headshells that looked like snakes. Then, there are all those little adjustments near the pivot. My favorite adjustment was the little weight on fishing line. Then there are the pivots themselves, gimbals and double gimbals, knifes, unipivot, and others I can’t remember right now.

As much as I love turntables, I really hate them. I mean come on, who in their right mind likes setting overhang, VTA, and antiskating. Then there are the four figure cartridges that wear out or get broken. I’ll never forget when a dorm mate in college broke one of my precious Decca’s, and blamed me for owning something so expensive and finicky.

Then, there’s the vinyl itself. I love the covers, the liner notes, and what compares to spinning records? Nothing in my memory. It takes me right back to my youth. Oh me, yet for all the fun there is with vinyl, there are an equal number of aggravation; the nicks, scratches, warps, inner and outer groves to track, and just noisy records in general.

My first real turntable, like many audiophiles’, was a Dual 1219 with a Pickering and then a Stanton cartridge. Then I begin to experiment with cartridges; I didn’t like most moving magnets after I heard better designs. The XLM was pretty good but with a tracking weight around point five; it was just impractical. I discovered moving coils, but the only one that I really liked and could afford was an early Ortofon. Later, I discovered the wonderful Denon 103, and then I fell in love with the Decca London cartridges.

Deccas are neither “moving coil” nor “moving magnet”. They are the only cartridges I know of that have no cantilever in the conventional sense. Other cartridges mount the stylus on the end of a thin, light, metal tube called a cantilever. The short end of the cantilever attaches to either a coil of wire or a magnet. This creates what is known as “cantilever haze.” Once you hear vinyl without this haze it’s hard to go back. The minute I heard the Decca, I knew I had to have one, but you couldn’t put it in a Dual arm they told me.

So the first journey begins as a quest to find an arm and table to use with the Decca. The Decca cartridges of my youth were amazing. I have included some pictures and diagrams. They were clearer and quicker than even the most expensive moving coil. They had the deepest, tightest, and most powerful bass I have ever heard (or that what I remember).

The only problem was they didn’t sound good for very long and no two sounded exactly the same. I remember going to Dallas and listening to a dozen at Hillcrest Hifi and picking out the four best, two for me and two for Gene. Why did we buy two? Well it was quite simple, you needed one to listen to when the other one was on its way back to be retipped. You could extend the time before sending them back by removing the top plate and then using the smallest jeweler’s screwdriver you could find; you could tighten the tiny screws that controlled the tension on the thread that held the stylus in place. After a while though, it just would not track and you had to send it back. To be honest, at it’s best, it wouldn’t track the last track on most records unless you had a Decca tonearm, and that was way out of my price league. Not that the arm was so expensive, but it would mean buying a table without an arm, and that would be expensive.

The best turntable I could afford after buying my first Decca was a poor choice, but it had a better arm for the Decca than the Dual. I purchase a Philips turntable, and begin to save for better. I tried the little Rabco ST 4 table and arm, but that was a disaster. So I saved and finally got my first real turntable.

I couldn’t afford a Panasonic SP 10, but the new mag, something called “The Absolute Sound”, said the big Sony direct drive was nearly as good, so I got it with a SME arm. It was a huge disappointment to discover the SME, as beautiful as it was (I especially liked the little weight hanging on the fishing line), still wasn’t a good match for the Decca’s. I soon discovered there were no real good choices of arms for the Decca but their own arm, and I couldn’t even find a dealer. I gave up and begin to try “Moving Coil” cartridges. I settled on an Ortofon, and then later found the Denon 103.

Then the powers that be told us that direct drive turntables were no good. We had to have a turntable that ran on a rubber band. Guess what. There was one at Hillcrest Hi Fidelity calling out to me; a Transcriptor. Even by today’s standards it was a great, futuristic, and dare I say it, a sexy looking table. It had one problem though: no platter, just a center spindle and five chrome pucks with a little black rubber piece that touch the record. Total contact area with the record could have been two square inches. It never sounded as good as the Sony, even though it had the magic rubber band. Then they told us it took more than a rubber band – it took a floating suspension.

I just had to try one more futuristic looking table. It was a Beogram 4004. It had a straight tracking arm, but you had to use a B&O cartridge. I was infatuated with it for a while, but in the end I missed the Decca’s or at least their poor substitutes, the moving coils. By the way, I did all this between the ages of 18 and 21. I had it bad. I worked at stereo shops, I had other odd jobs, and I ate with friends and rode a bicycle to save on gas. I even managed to pick up another pair of Quad 57s so I could have stacked Quads.

Well, by now Linn had demonstrated that at least their floating, belt drive table sounded better. The problem was by now I had lost a good bit of money trading tables and I had gotten married, so I settle for a Linn look alike, a used Ariston R 80. This was my table for several years. I did save enough Christmas money one year to put a Magnepan arm on it. This was done in able to install one of my Decca’s again. It wasn’t a perfect match, but it was the best so far and I was happy for a couple of more years.

I can’t remember where the money came from, but for my 25th birthday I finally got a Linn. I went all out with a full Linn table, arm, and cartridge, a little Naim amp, preamp, and a pair of the original Linn Kans. Then my job moved me. Guess what, silly me didn’t really check out the new house thoroughly enough. The floor wasn’t a slab and the Linn bounced terribly. I tried everything, but no one could walk while I play records, and at thirty I had two toddlers. So then I tried the first VPI, it didn’t bounce, but it seemed to robbed a lot of life out of the music. Then in 1985, it happened. I found it – a table as good as the Decca Cartridge and twice as frustrating. Who would have thought that was even possible?

It was the Mapleknoll air bearing table and arm. This table sounded so wonderful, but was so frustrating to use. First you had to have a place for that noisy pump. I went with drilling a couple of holes in the floor for the tubing, and putting the pump in the crawl space. Then you had to adjust the platter and arm every time before you used it; I guess because of the humidity, though I admit there has never been an easier way to adjust VTA then simply turning the valve on the air tube to the arm. Eventually, the Mapleknoll drove me insane and I converted to digital. California Audio Labs had just come out with the two-box, tubed player they called the Tempest.

The Tempest was so good I sold the Mapleknoll and all my records to buy it. Selling the records, I regret; but I don’t regret letting go of the Mapleknoll. I lived with the Tempest longer than any other player except for my present VSEI Level 5+ Sony SCD 777ES, which I have had for nearly 7 years.

Lately, turntables have been calling out to me again, and the calling seems to get louder and louder. My dear and patient wife of 31 years says she will divorce me if I buy another turntable. She still remembers the Mapleknoll even though it was nearly 20 years ago. Recently she has given in, and said I could review a few tables, but which ones. I mean I can’t believe how many there are today. So I came up with a plan.

Well fellow loony’s and beatniks “The Plan” comes next month.

Keep bopin’ along the journey until then.

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