Taking a break from the marvellous conversations sparked by recent interactive posts, I want to catch up on events in the audiophile department. I am also going to post some more records shortly, but LJC will be back with more polls and interactive questions, don’t worry. Earlier posts remain open if you want to add to those, you are welcome. I have had some terrific suggestions. Thinking of suggestions, when I was playing in a band many years ago someone came up to us and asked: Do you do requests? Sure, I said, what would you like us to do? Why don’t you hurry up and get off the stage!
It’s my blog, and we are going to have a little variety.
Live music versus recorded live music
One of the highlights of the National Audio Show the other week was an interesting presentation by a sound engineer of the difference between live music and a recording of live music. An acoustic guitarist played, following which we listened to a recording of what we had just heard – a Nagra 24/196 digital recorder, played back through an audio monitor system, of course. It was with some relief I thought the musician playing sounded better than the digital recording, but it was a close-run thing. If anything the digital playback sounded fuller and richer than the real thing – hi fi added qualities. A lot attention is given to these qualities by hi fi enthusiasts, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if some of the visitors actually preferred the digital replay, a better experience than reality. It was a useful reminder not everyone is looking for the same thing.
“Music, not hi fi” requires very good hi fi
What I am looking for is always the time machine experience, being transported back to the moment of recording and playing, presence of musicians in the room, not listening to hi fi noting the bass floor or the absence of distortion in the upper register, but following the artists musical intent, the individual skill and artistry in improvisation, the responsiveness of the musicians to each other, and the ability to track four or five different instruments simultaneously. At least I don’t have to think about what the words mean, as I have no singers on vinyl (my loss, I am sure). At times in the past the hi fi has got in the way, but as you find your way up the upgrade path, you reach a point with the right balance of the right equipment, the hi fi steps aside, offering something very close to the real thing.
It all starts with a good recording
You need a well-engineered recording that is a good pressing to start with, by which I mean vintage vinyl. Whether the music and musicians are any good is entirely a matter of your personal taste. There are people out there with just Dark Side of the Moon on their record shelf. The vinyl source is what it is, but the equipment which reads that source is highly variable in its performance, its ability to retrieve information from the groove and to hand it all over to the amplification department in good order. Vintage records are not matched by vintage hi fi.
A balancing act
The vinyl interface is a balancing act: you need a good turntable, an equally good cartridge, and an equally good tone-arm. Since the cartridge and turntable upgrades, the tone arm has long been a weak point in my system. You also probably have weak points in your system, even if you don’t think about it.
The SME V tone arm
I’d like to introduce the new arrival chez LJC, the long-awaited arrival of a tonearm worthy of the Dynavector TKR cartridge and the Avid Volvere Sequel turntable, the classic SME V tone arm. In SME’s own words, this British precision engineering company set out to do what I would have wanted them to do:
“…the challenge is to design and build a pick-up arm which, unlike others in existence, would make no detectable sound contribution of its own. Series V sound has an almost startling dynamic range and neutrality. It escapes the ‘LP’ sound and demonstrates that structural resonances in pick-up arms are responsible for much that makes vinyl records readily discernible from master tapes.
What’s more, it looks good, and functions beautifully. Its expense is not small, but not unlike that of the Dynavector TKR, being half the cost of one copy of Blue Note Mobley 1568.
The SME tonearm takes a grip in the music in the groove like nothing I have experienced in the last five years of upgrades. Music comes to life in a way that will bring tears to your eyes, effortless in perfection in dynamic range, rhythm and timing, much-loved records emerge with new beauty.
Functionally, the SME’s precision engineering renders every action smooth, secure and a pleasure to execute. Smooth damping ensures near perfect cueing, the lift stays lifted until you want it to drop.
The Dynavector cartridge is held secure and rigid to allow its profile stylus to do its job with ruthless efficiency – tracking every nuance cut into the vinyl by the stamper/mother/master, an effortlessly fast response to multi-tonal complexity, attack and decay, resulting in frightening realism. The sound image is firm and confident. Well engineered records simply burst into life.
The beast is very difficult to capture photographically in use, so any equipment fetishists might appreciate the “official” slightly clinical rendition:
I am conscious not everyone visiting LJC is a hifi enthusiast. Many are just passionate about the music, however it is delivered. To me the Hi Fi is a means to an end, not an end in itself (which it is for some of the people I chatted with at the National Audio Show the other week, who live and breathe Hi Fi). However if you would like to experience the closest to “being there”, the nearest available experience to the LJC Time Machine, the key is vintage vinyl, and equipment that can retrieve it and serve it up for you, “as though you were there”
The replacement of the Origin Live Encounter by the SME V has allowed every other component to shine. It still has limitations, for example the Van den Hull interconnect cable can be improved on, as can the arm wiring itself. The quest for performance improvement has no stopping point. Things can always get better. Don’t you want better?
In the listening department I look forward to becoming reacquainted with many musical old friends in the coming Winter months. And of course new friends, some of which I secured in just the last few days from a North London record shop which had just acquired a fine jazz collection. More to come…
No financial inducements unfortunately, just simple customer satisfaction: My thanks to West London-based Infidelity Hi Fi, of Hampton Wick, Surrey, for supply and fitting the SME V arm, set-up by maestro Derek Jenkins.
For anyone interested in statistics, this is LJC’s 500th post, and looking forward to crossing the half million page view mark, which is tantalisingly close. I do wonder why I do this blog sometimes. The glib answer is “attention seeking”. Perhaps, we all like a little attention. What I really like is the conversations between different posters, and the amount of advice and recommendations I would not get any other way.