Many audiophile traditionalists spin tales of a time when fans of music huddled around the warm glow of tubes and spinning vinyl to pay homage to their favorite albums. Lovingly placed together in basements and man caves around the world, its no doubt these moments in time contained far more emphasis on community and sharing than the current state we find ourselves in. It’s easy to draw lines to how the advent of iPod and the evolution of personal listening has concentrated most consumption of music to small white buds and train commutes. If pressed for an answer, I would have to guess the number of audiophiles under the age of 50 who have intentionally gotten together to listen to their favorite songs (without video) in the past year is near close to zero, especially if we happen to forgo the mainstream hipster movement for a second and focus solely on self-identifying audiophiles.
Eager to relive these old glory days long gone by outside the audio show circuit of handshakes and sales pitches, we decided to setup a listening party of our own to partake to the dated technology of needles, tonearms and phono preamps. A major contributor to this curiosity was the recent injection of MoFi’s Original Master Recordings™ into my critical listening set list. An easy A/B of their SACD’s to even Tidal’s lossless streaming service proved to inherently contain more depth and natural decay than the convenient counterparts. Interest = sparked. How would the vinyl reproductions sound? Regardless of where your belief system stands for discernable SQ contributions, I think most will agree that going back to the original recordings and recapturing the information with the latest technology and A/D gear (like MoFi’s Gain 2™ system) only makes sense given the leaps and bounds nearly everything digital has seen in the past few decades. Also for your consideration, the new Andrew Jones ELAC UB-5 bookshelf ($500/pair). The current darling of the budget realm, the 3-way loudspeaker with a concentric driver has wowed critics across the board. Its also worth mentioning that it is quite a bit easier to lug around than a 100 lb. floorstander. The turntable source was to be provided by the host. The $99 Audio-Technica AT-LP60 he owned wasn’t the most extravagant piece of the rig we ended up with, but it had a fresh needle and sounded pretty good all things considered.
The two amps chosen were one budget option (REGA Brio-R, $1k) and something mildly more expansive (the Calyx Integrated, $2.5k). During a decent burn in process before the event, it was brought to my attention that the 50 watt REGA might pose a small hurdle for the 4 ohm ELAC. Noted at the bottom of the Brio’s user manual sits a peculiar phrasing. “The Brio-R is capable of driving all normal Hi-Fi loudspeakers, Rega recommends using loudspeakers with a nominal impedance of 8Ω. It is possible to run speakers as low as 4Ω however such units may cause the case to exceed 40° C above the ambient temperature.” The execution with the 85 dB-sensitive UB5 didn’t prove to raise the case temperature in any direction other than “slightly warm”, but low-end control did appear to suffer slightly under the burden compared to the 100w Calyx paired with an Oppo BDP-105 and MoFi SACDs as a source. After prepping the new pair of ELACs with IsoTek’s High Resolution Full System Enhancer CD to hedge any burn-in issues, everything headed down to the venue to join the rest of the temporary musical family. Wiring was generously loaned by Alex Sventitsky of WyWires in the form of the Platinum Series speaker cables (8ft) and Silver Series interconnects (4ft). Visitors to the party all had varying degrees of familiarity with high fidelity listening, but all had a severe interest. Some participants had backgrounds that crossed paths with the professional side of audio quite often and getting everyone on the same page in terms of how/what to listen for took surprisingly little time. Aside from just sitting back and absorbing a good time a few interesting topics could be buffed out from the opportunity we found ourselves in. How does the REGA stand up to the CTA? Also, how does MoFi’s vinyl stand up to a Tidal stream? I will be first to state that the tactics employed here were quite far from the most scientific of processes, but who could overlook the opportunity to get some immediate group feedback to go along with one’s own personal observations?
First up was The Cars GAIN 2™ Ultra Analog 180g LP, fresh out of the sleeve. Running the AT-LP60 into the Brio-r’s input 1 (internal phonostage), The debut track of Good Times Roll jumped out clear as a bell from the starting gate with little to no clicks or pops to speak of. The ELACs retained their stellar performance from the earlier prep burn in sessions and unprompted clichés of “there is no subwoofer?” erupted almost immediately. In a larger room the flabbiness in the bass from the REGA was a little harder to detect and the analog feed through the internal phono pre was supremely relaxed, rich and incredibly easy to listen to. Moving over to the pricier Calyx Integrated pushed the bass further down and perhaps a little forward, but lost slice of the tonal density in the mids that we were hearing from the Brio. The highs were affected as well, resting atop the range on a seat that felt like it had been recently scrubbed clean. While the mids of the REGA were no doubt appealing, the subtle agreement from the group was that the benefits rendered from CTA were just able to edge out the overall appeal of the happy-go-lucky Brio. It seems, at least as a quick glance on paper, that the 50 watts from the CTA came in handy during the playback process with the ELACs even though many elements along the way could have contributed to the overall outcome.
Having rough conclusions settled on the amplifier, the next order of business was a vinyl to digital comparison. Using an Apple TV as a streamer, Tidal tracks were pumped into the CTA in order to get a closer comparison to CD-quality digital for a track-to-track A/B. The first subject of observation was the classic 90’s throwback Say It Ain’t So by Weezer. An excellent recording of this track is available on Weezer (The Blue Album) from MoFi in a GAIN 2™ Ultra Analog 180g LP. The Original Master Recording™ version held a firm sense musicality and solid focus overall. There was a slight variance in the bass presence from the Tidal stream to the analog creation, but neither seemed adamantly more correct than the other. The stream may have pushed a slightly thinner sound in that southern region, but never felt pulled back on its own. The fuller bass from the OMR also wasn’t bloated, but still controlled and even more textured in its small step forward. Even though River Cuomo’s voice may not have held the same take on richness that the Brio-R’s preamp allowed, the tonal breadth of the vinyl recording via the Calyx could still win over listener’s hearts given the chance.
The preferences from the group this time around were slightly more divided. A few constituents preferred the stream out of the gate. The hand raising appeared as a slight nod from a few listeners who didn’t have as much exposure to the media type. Those with more experience with the spinning black disc strongly preferred the vinyl option. This could boil down to several influences but it at least touches on how preference can play into what sounds ideal for any individual and casts a halo effect that further blurs the line for any products claiming to be “the best”. Could digitnados with more exposure to vinyl become converts? Do our expectations and tenure with either media type contribute to a personal bias? One could only speculate from this small sample, perhaps that is a listening session for another time.
For those with an interest in digital consumption, I highly recommend Mofi’s SACD collection. Comparisons to Tidal’s stream were a much closer match in their collective digital playground and allowed for a clear impression where the SACD came out on top in regular fashion.
So what were the takeaways from this grand experiment? 1. Simply put, the ELACs can wow a crowd driven with 100 watts, but can certainly be part of budget system and still sound great. 2. The Rega Brio-R has a no-fuss phono stage that brings out some solid mid-tones for analog lovers. 3. MoFi is on to something. Going back to original tapes and recapturing the sound with better gear has a tendency more often than not to push a better tonal structure along with more body across the board.