Introduction: Hardware and Software
Reprinted from the Spring 04 Issue
It seems like forever since I’ve written anything about vinyl, a long stretch of time having elapsed since I reviewed the Anthem Pre 1p and Rotel RQ 970 BX phono stages in the Summer/Fall 2000 issue. I’m still listening to the Rotel, in fact, and after all the evolution that’s been going on in my analog front end of late I’m still amazed how good this $300 phono stage sounds. No wonder they’ve been swapping hands on Ebay at fairly healthy prices. If you’re looking for an under $1000 phono box you need to check one of these out. At less than $200 on Ebay it’s a screaming deal.
Like any music junkie I’ve been acquiring records, by both ordinary and not so ordinary means. A four month work stint in Vancouver, combined with the most disposable income of them all, per diem, allowed me to acquaint myself with one of the very best record stores I’ve come across in Canada: Zulu Records on West 4th ave.
Good independent stores like Zulu seem to be flourishing despite the overall decline in music retail. With a phenomenal selection of indie rock and small/independant label titles on CD and LP, and an impressive used CD section, it’s no surprise Zulu has attracted a loyal following. Toronto sure could use more places like this.
Seattle has some great independent record stores as well, not to mention a vibrant music culture. On a couple of weekend trips down the coast from Vancouver I found all kinds of great stuff, and lots of vinyl, at both Easy Street Records and Sonic Boom. If what’s going on with California’s Amoeba Music is any indication, stores like these are consolidating what remains of the brick and mortar retail music market, attracting the serious music buyers away from floundering chains like Tower Records (as I write this Tower Records has just filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection). Amoeba, with stores in Berkeley, San Francisco and what they claim is the world’s largest indie record store in Hollywood, did US $50 million in business last year, posting a 50% increase over the previous year. A 60% margin on used CDs is a major part of their successful game plan.
Amoeba’s Hollywood location has quickly become my favorite record store anywhere, and one of my favorite places in town. Phenomenal catalog depth (a claimed 300,000 titles in 30,000 square feet of space), astounding used selection (grouped right along side and sometimes in the same bins as new stuff), huge amounts of new and used vinyl, a staff truly passionate about music, great prices, and on and on. I get a big grin on my face every time I walk in the door. They even publish a quarterly guide, entitled Music We Like, featuring the (often deeply obscure) personal picks of their music-mad staff. Not the last word in Classical selection, but otherwise everything a record store should be and much more.
As for acquiring records by less conventional means, I recently managed to stumble into my second “celebrity vinyl score”. A few years back I ended up on the receiving end of a pile of records being discarded by Canada’s own master of art house horror, David Cronenberg. I came away with a variety of good discs, the most unusual of which was a copy of Debbie Harry’s Rockbird autographed to him by the singer in 1986 (Harry starred in the Cronenberg film Videodrome a few years earlier). This time it was William H. Macy (best known for his brilliant work in Fargo) who was cleaning out his attic and had boxes of vinyl earmarked for the dumpster. His assistant, a friend of mine from film school, let me rescue whatever I wanted before it hit the trash. Discarded records can be hit and miss, so I was pleasantly surprised to pull out some Bob Marley, a bunch of Leo Kottke, Muddy Waters, quite a large amount of Steve Miller, Paul Simon, Rickie Lee Jones, and many more worthwhile discs. Most of them are in really good shape too. You can’t beat vinyl when it comes to unbelievably cheap (or free) software, although Amoeba, bless em’, has quite a few used SACDs and DVD-As already.
As for analog hardware I’ve been steadily working on trying to wring ever more performance from my Rega Planar 3. One of the best things about owning such a popular product, produced in great number over a period of many years, is that more people will inevitably dream up ways of improving it. The exploding tuner market for Honda Civics is a perfect example, modifying Civics beyond recognition a major California pastime. The audio world’s closest equivalent is probably Rega turntables and arms, which can be tweaked, tuned, and modified in a myriad different ways. So far about all I’ve done is slap a Ringmat on the glass platter in place of the stock felt mat (a significant upgrade right there). With an Audio Technical OC9 feeding the aforementioned Rotel phono stage I was getting darn respectable sound, and even better sound more recently with a Clearaudio Aurum Beta S reading the grooves. Over the past year or so, however, I’ve been able to go well beyond respectable sound with a number of new products meant to improve Rega gear specifically, and one to improve turntable performance in general.
(Page Two: Origin Live RB300 Tonearm Modification)