Vinyl Sessions, Round 1, Part 1: On the Dark Side

What a time we had. What a time our ears had. As I'd mentioned in my Track One editorial in the July/August S&V, longtime friend of the mag and CE industry vet Micah Sheveloff and I have been planning to do monthly vinyl-listening sessions for some time now. After a few reschedules (ok, it was much more than just a "few" - and mainly at my continually sheepish request), LP Day #1 was finally set in stone for Friday, June 29. Since Micah has such a killer system, I thought it worth the 205-mile roundtrip for me to saddle up the SUV and zip on up to his backyard in good ol' CT.

Arrival time was @11:15. Micah greeted me wearing a classic Car Stereo Review Caravan t-shirt from our infamous '99 tour (ask me about it someday), I had on a Tragically Hip ballcap and a tie-dye Dark Side of the Moon tee that I got at a Roger Waters show I saw at PNC Bank Arts Center in NJ last fall.

After perusing Micah's massive array of safely stored LPs (a toast to the Dream, Watson!), I got the lowdown on his system. Here's how it breaks down:

Benz-Micro cartridge
VPI turntable
VPI record Vacuum
Sumiko Premier MMT tonearm
Straightwire LSI tonearm cable
Vinylsystem_2 AudioQuest carbon-fiber record brush (shown in action in Micah's hand)
Conrad-Johnson PV-5 preamplifier
Krell FPB 200 amplifier
Thiel CS2.4 loudspeakers (I'm leaning on one of them above; "I own 20-year-old CS3.5's, but I got these speakers for use in our sessions," sez Micah)
Alpha-Core Goertz interconnects and speaker wire
NAD M55 multi-format digital-disc player (CD, DVD-V, DVD-A, SACD, MP3)
Tascam CD recorder (Micah again: "I like to make mix CDs from my LPs for the car")

Excellent. THIS is how you listen to music in two channels.

Vinyldark_side_2 And then we got down to it. Our first aural entrant seemed quite logical: Pink Floyd's seminal 1973 masterpiece, The Dark Side of the Moon. Micah already had Mobile Fidelity's original master LP from 1979 on hand, and I supplied the 30th anniversary 180-gram virgin vinyl version. For comparison, I also brought the redbook CD with the 1994 remaster, MoFi's hard-to-find 1990 CD, the 20th anniversary CD, and the SACD from 2003.

I chose "Time" as the focus track. It has a number of dynamic elements - the ticking clocks that charge the intro, Nick Mason's percussion synth work during the first 2 minutes, David Gilmour's ever-shifting solo, the "Breathe" reprise. We got our ears wet with the MoFi vinyl, which, due to its age, did crackle and pop occasionally during quieter passages. But it was a good start. Next came the 30th-anniv vinyl, which was truly virginal - I hadn't played it until we were ready to listen. (Sure, I had already OPENED it to look at the posters and postcards and all that, but…) Instantly we recognized a lower noise floor, a wider image field, more character in Gilmour's vocals, a clear distinction between the ticking antique clocks, and a better overall attack.

The disparities were stark when we went to the CDs. Things were generally brighter and more compressed on the redbook disc (don't tell me you're surprised). And there was a tonal balance disparity evident on the MoFi CD. After doing a few vinyl–CD A-B's, Micah noted, "this is why people like vinyl better," and I had to agree. We both concurred that the SACD stereo mix was the best of the disc lot, but that's a hollow victory at best.

I asked Micah for further post-session comments after he had some more time to think about what we heard, and he emailed me the following: "Even after years of listening to music, I admit that I was surprised at how much resolution was lost switching from LP to any of the digital sources. The entire tone of the signal changes, the dimensionality nearly evaporates, and much of the detail is lost, especially subtle changes in dynamics, such as reverb decay and vocal inflection. Additionally, the bass extension and uniformity from the lower midrange on down was far superior when listening to the turntable. The top 15% or so of the frequency range, which tended to smear noticeably in digital playback, was more gentle and realistic on LP."

…and that's the opening salvo. In Part 2, I'll discuss what we discovered while listening to Dire Straits' Brothers in Arms, which was widely hailed in 1985 as the one album that truly ushered in the digital age. Also, we'll dissect vinyl offerings from John Mellencamp, Rush, and the Beatles (though some of that may spill over to Part 3). -Mike Mettler