Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Is It In My Head? (Or, Inner Groove Distortion)

About two years ago, I upgraded my old turntable for a brand new Rega. Now I’m no audiophile, believe me, and I’d never heard of the Rega brand until ten years ago, when I finally said goodbye to the stereo I’d been using since college and stepped up a notch. It was the dawning of the new millennia. I had been fairly successful in my trading career and, maybe, just maybe, I could treat myself to some nicer equipment. Someone told me about ProMusica, a high end shop in Lincoln Park and off I went. Setting a budget of $5000, I told the audio men what I wanted: a turntable, a single CD player (no multi-CD magazine for me, I don’t listen to music that way), an amp and speakers. They turned me on to Rega, the best bang for the buck they said. I took them at their word, and their word was good. My records sounded completely new. Wait, was that piano part always there in “She’s a Woman?” Who knew?

When we moved to Cooperstown, I luckily found Rich Brkich at Signature Sound (www.sigsound.com) in Liverpool. It’s a pretty big schlep from here to there, but Rich has been my go-to guy. And when I was ready to trade up, he gave me good advice. But when I played my first platters, there was something amiss. I thought I heard my records take a turn for the aural worst as each side drew to a close. Was there a muddiness there, or was I hearing things?
It wouldn’t always be there, but different albums have different time lengths and the fat black blank space encroaches further away from the hole. (That sounds faintly pornographic). Maybe it was in my head. Then I read about inner groove distortion, and I was falling into an abyss. Oh no! Listening to records was not a pure joy anymore. No good! I finally brought my turntable in to Rich. He tested it in ways known only to men of his skill, involving test records and such. There was something wrong with the factory installed cartridge. Vindicated at last!
I was without my turntable for over a month, as I waited for word from up North. It was a lonely time, only made worse by my insatiable desire to buy records, even though I had no way to play them. I bought a small pile of early rock reissues from Norton Records. I can tell you that Johnny Burnette’s Rock ‘n Roll Trio album, all 180 grams of thick black vinyl surrounding a beautiful Coral label, was calling out to me from its spot on the floor by my left leg. Stop! I will play you some day. I promise. Karen found some old Jan and Dean and Frankie Avalon albums at a garage sale. And I bought limited edition National Record Store Day releases. Plus the Mancini soundtrack to Hatari! for a buck.

Always looking for little ways to improve my sound, I bought a Herbie’s mat that sat in its cardboard box, awaiting its new home. What is that, you ask? It’s a mat, made by one Herbie fellow, which is supposed to hold the record fast to the platter and do other things I’m not quite sure about. I finally got word from Rich that his distributor agreed that the cartridge was defective from the get-go and offered to replace my SuperElys 2 for free, or give me a half price Exact2, a huge improvement (according to Rich. I have no idea what any of it means). I went with the latter and, with that, my turntable was returned home.
Problem solved, records sound great. But, as is my nature, I’ve moved on to another issue. Can’t be happy for too long, right? I buy a lot of records, some new, most used. Sure, I could buy one $30 remastered classic on 180 gram virgin vinyl, but, you know what, I’d rather buy 30 albums I never heard in something less than pristine condition. Quantity beats quality on this one. Disc Doctor is my preferred solution for cleaning those finger smudges, dust and miscellaneous bleccch that adhere to many neglected discs.

Two record junkie friends of mine recommended I buy the VPI 16.5 record cleaning machine. It’s a workhorse of a machine that vacuums up the offending filth. What you do, according to the experts, is soap up the record with Disc Doctor, put it on the VPI, and let the sucking begin. Then a rinse, another suck (talk about faintly pornographic), and, voila! your soiled discs have never sounded as good.

But I’m still unsure. Do I buy this $550 machine? What do you think?