The last time I bought a turntable was this weekend.
Forty one years ago.
My parents told me I could buy the stereo of my dreams as a college graduation present, but having the traveling gene I declined, until I ended up in Los Angeles going to law school and took them up on their offer. Actually, I spent more time listening to music than studying, but that’s another story. I bought a Sansui integrated amp with 110 watts a channel and a pair of JBL L100’s, the only thing was my turntable was not up to the task, the Dual 1218 I’d bought while at Middlebury to preserve my vinyl. That’s what they don’t tell you, if you want it to sound good you cannot use one of those cheapie turntables, you cannot touch the grooves, you’ve got to respect your records.
And most people way back when did not.
But that Dual 1218 had a speed problem. So I went back to Pacific Stereo and dropped some cash on a Panasonic SL-1300. Most people know the 1200. Well, the 1200 was fully manual, the 1300 was fully automatic, and therefore more expensive. In other words the SL-1300 would drop the needle on your records all by its lonesome, and return to home base when it was all done. And this Panasonic turntable stood me well for decades, until it was eclipsed by CDs and then MP3s and streaming. I still occasionally use it, but when Micah Sheveloff offered an EAT B-Sharp turntable, I took him up on his offer.
Now the first question was whether I wanted help setting it up. I vacillated, said no and then yes, depending upon the information coming in in e-mail. I thought I could do it myself, and ultimately they said I could do it myself, so today I tackled the project. It took all afternoon. And stunningly, IT WORKS!
It’s weird to be jetted back to the past. It’s so familiar, but deep in your memory bank. First and foremost you’ve got to clear a space. My rack is totally full. What do I punt? I ultimately decided to put my Polk XM tuner in storage. And then I had to disconnect the Panasonic. And you forget the rat’s nest of wires, the ground wire screwed to the amplifier. And it’s dark and crowded and making room for my new turntable was effort enough.
And then I tackled assembly.
You used to dream of upgrading your stereo system. I did not do it the way most people did. I sacrificed completeness for quality. In other words, I lived for a year without an FM tuner so I could get a powerful enough amplifier. When I added FM, I bought the best unit Yamaha made, and then ultimately a Nakamichi 582 for cassettes. Funny how those machines were so expensive and nearly worthless these days, but vinyl lives on.
And I kept mine. All of it.
So the first thing is to take the new turntable out of the box. I decided to set it up on the kitchen table, where there was the most light. But the damn thing wouldn’t stand up straight. That’s when I realized it was sans feet. I found none in the box, but the manual said they were in there. I ultimately found them ensconced in a piece of foam.
Then I had to install the platter. Well, three of them. It all went together seamlessly, but I could not screw on the record clamp. And I didn’t want to force it, but it made no sense. And I’m getting frustrated when I wonder…could I have installed the sub-platter upside down?
That turned out to be true.
So I took the thing apart, installed the sub-platter correctly, then the main platter and the felt platter, and then the record clamp would screw on and it was time to balance the tonearm, i.e. set the vertical tracking force.
They included a manual gauge, but also sent me a digital gauge, which I could not make work. I reversed the batteries and it went on. But I could not get the weight right. That’s when I realized it wasn’t set to grams, I had to change from ounces to grams, and then it worked. And it was stunning how precise it was as I was manually turning the counterweight, a blend of yesterday and today.
And the unit came with an Ortofon 2M Blue cartridge, so I didn’t have to set azimuth and all the other arcanities of Stanton and Shures way back when.
But when it came time to set skating force…
The wire was broken.
I couldn’t quit. Couldn’t ask for help. I wanted to figure it out. Turns out they included two additional wires so I went about installing one, after losing both, spending nearly half an hour looking for them before I found them on the floor, imagine looking for four inches of fishing line…GOOD LUCK!
And now I’m marveling at what a Rube Goldberg contraption a turntable is. Usually our technology is hidden, we push a button and it just works, we’re not used to mechanical devices, never mind their less than perfect tolerances. We were glad to get rid of records, not only because of turntables, but the vinyl itself. There was no such thing as a perfect record, they were all warped or skipped. And even if your turntable was dialed in perfectly, there were the inherent limitations in the vinyl format and the issue of needle angle which that old Garrard tried to conquer, but with so much friction the audiophiles pooh-poohed it.
But if something’s recorded analog and reproduced analog, there’s a special sound and…
Don’t buy one of those USB turntables. The sound is horrific. If you’re gonna play, play for real, buy good stuff, but it’s expensive. And inconvenient. Which is why stereo is now a hobby. Used to be for everybody, now mostly it’s for males with too much money pursuing a sound the musicians themselves often cannot hear, they certainly don’t own systems of similar quality.
The B-Sharp turntable is fully manual. Which means, once again, you’ve got to lift the needle onto the record and pick it back up after a side has played. But it does have a tonearm lifter, so you can drop the needle where you want it, but…
You’ve got to turn the table off to remove the clamp and record. And after placing a new record upon the felt you’ve got to screw the clamp back down, turn the table back on, and then drop the needle. This is the opposite of Alexa.
Forget those kids buying vinyl as souvenirs, many of whom don’t even own a turntable, or if they do, it’s a piece of crap.
Forget the digital recordings transferred to vinyl. Best if the original is analog, i.e. tape.
Which means you’re gonna go back to your old records. Or new pressings thereof. And that’s an experience unto itself. You scroll through the old discs and remember when you bought them, what you were doing, who you hung with, and when you drop the needle…
I really didn’t expect the B-Sharp to work. I’ve assembled a ton of audio gear, but this was the biggest challenge I’ve ever had, I haven’t gone on a journey like this since assembling a barbeque grill with nearly no instructions twelve and a half years ago. The truth is the person who bought it should have had it assembled at Home Depot. And if you buy one of these B-Sharps it will come with an installer, but you won’t get the sense of accomplishment I had. After plugging its cables into my phono pre-amp, screwing its ground to my amp, firing up said amp, turning on the table, dropping the needle and hearing…
Chipmunks. It turned out I had the belt on the wrong groove of the drive pulley, so I had to pull the whole thing apart once again, but when I got it right, VOILA!
It’s hard to describe vinyl. The way it pulls you through the speakers. You’re not just listening, you’re involved. Humans make this music, and suddenly the organ sounds like someone is inside the speaker playing it, the guitars occupy space and the singer is singing to you.
Not that every record is a revelation. I put on Aerosmith’s “Rocks” and it was strangely distant. Maybe it was a bad pressing. This is not digital, which can be replicated with no loss a zillion times.
But then I dropped the needle on Bob Dylan’s “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” from “Bringing It All Back Home” and my jaw dropped. It was so intimate, it was like he was RIGHT THERE!
And since then I’ve been experimenting. “Physical Graffiti” was glorious, not only in sound, but packaging. With the windows in the cover.
Right now I’m playing Santana’s “Abraxas.” Carlos’s guitar has got that richness we heard at the Fillmore, only this time it’s in my home. That’s what we used to do, save all our money so we could buy the best stereo to get closer to the music, when it wasn’t just entertainment, but life itself.
The B-Sharp is not cheap. In fact, it’s $1,595.
Then again, I just employed the
and that Panasonic SL-1300 which was $300 back in ’76, would cost $1,300.51 today, which is almost the same price as the B-Sharp. We expect our devices to drop in price, but when they’re built by humans, in this case in Czech Republic, they cost.
So this isn’t an item for everyone. Unfortunately, too many people who own one will be enthralled with their gear more than the music, but if you came over to my house and dropped the needle on one of these records…
You’d be wowed.