Monday, April 13, 2009

spin the black circle.

Hey everyone. I just had a superlatively shitty day that involved severe headaches, a massive one-hour clusterfuck of timesheet fail, leaving work early, finding that I wasn’t leaving work early at all (long story), probably having my car hit in a parking lot (another long story), and being surrounded by police cruisers in my parking lot (don’t even ask). The point of this preface is just to say that if it seems like my writing is lazy or not up to snuff, or like I’m phoning it in today, that is why.

Basically, one good thing happened to me. One thing. Okay, so I’m exaggerating. But still. I received a shipment from UPS today. There were three things in this shipment. I am going to write about one of those things. Today, I would like to recommend to you the Audio-Technica AT-PL120 Direct Drive Professional Turntable.

Some background would probably be prudent at this point. For at least the last 10 years, I have been using an Aiwa compact bookshelf system for my home listening needs. It was an all-in-one system – tuner, dual cassette deck, 5-disc CD changer, and a turntable. None of the individual components were really remarkable in any way, but overall it was a solid little system with some decent speakers. Plus, it had a turntable, which was quite uncommon in those days – hipster vinyl fetishizing culture had not emerged yet back then, but since I constantly hung out in an independent record store that dealt in vinyl (R.I.P., Full Circle), I had become enough of a record geek to get really into vinyl.

Anyway, a couple of years ago the CD changer started to go. By this point I was buying things on vinyl whenever I had a chance, so it wasn’t really a big deal. I reserved listening to CDs for the car or, if it was absolutely necessary to listen to a CD at home, I would use the computer. Not the ideal setup, especially when I was used to the sound of vinyl on some fairly big speakers, but I was willing to deal.

When I moved into this apartment a couple of years ago, I tried listening to one of my tMG tapes and found that now the cassette decks had gone to pot. Oh well, I thought, I still had the turntable. Of course, it did sound to me like perhaps the drive mechanism was starting to go in the turntable, as the pitch seemed to increase after a few minutes of play – almost as though the drive on the system took a few minutes to warm up and get itself up to speed. Again, I dealt with it.

When I mentioned the state of my stereo to my parents, my father gave me an old Fisher receiver and cassette deck that he had lying around in the basement, saying that they were good components with a lot of power. I don’t doubt that they were good components in their day, but unfortunately, when I got them home and tried them, I found that the cassette deck had completely died, and the receiver had completely lost sound in the left channel.

At Christmas, my parents gave me some money for the specific purpose of either getting my existing stereo equipment repaired or helping to purchase new equipment. I put the money aside as I tried to decide what my next step would be. As I tried to decide, I purchased yet another cassette deck from Goodwill, testing it at the store first to make sure the machine functioned. It did, so I brought home a Pioneer deck. I finally hooked it up and tied it out last week, when I decided to give a listen to a Franklin Bruno cassette I had recently purchased on eBay. It sounded beautiful for about the first half of side 1. Then, the warble as the drive mechanism began to steadily slow to a halt….

I think as soon as that deck died, I had made my decision. In a rush of depression or mania (I’m still not quite sure which it was, really), I went and pretty much purchased an entirely new stereo system (I am keeping the old speakers for now) component by component, using both the money my parents had given me and leftover tax refund money. Due to availability, user reviews, and price, my system will be a bit of a Frankenstein, with three different manufacturers being represented. But when it is done, it will be glorious.

So all of this brings us up to the actual recommendation – the turntable. There’s a catch, however: the receiver I ordered does not actually arrive until Thursday, thanks to FedExFail. In other words, I have not properly experienced the turntable yet. I have been able to hook up the turntable to the computer and listen through laptop speakers, but, as has already been discussed, NOT THE SAME! But, I can give a conceptual/anticipatory recommendation, anticipating the further recommendation of stereo equipment that is almost sure to appear on this blog at some point this weekend.

I can try to describe to you the graceful sleekness of the tone arm, the gentle bend that looks so unnatural but so zen-like at the same time. I can try to convey to you the tactile pleasure of setting the tone arm balance, which is something that I had never done before, having only ever owned cheap, low-end turntables. I was not even aware of such a thing until today!

I can try to make you understand just what that feeling is when you actually lift the tone arm, transport it over to the spinning grooved platter, and gently let it down onto the disk. It’s almost like a spiritual experience for an agnostic, really. There’s a solemn reverence to it. It feels almost like a ritual. Those first few crackles before the first note sounds? Those are perhaps my favorite sounds in the world.

I can try to make you see the device the way I see it. How skeletal it is. Its leanness – how is something that can look so unsubstantial be so solid and heavy? The cartridge and headstock look to me like components for a scale model of an alien spacecraft. This machine is a wonder of design and style and utilitarianism.

The thing is, I can try to tell you all of this stuff, but in the end I can’t help but fail. This is the kind of stuff you can’t tell somebody. One either already knows it or one don’t, and if one doesn’t already know it, then one never will. All hipster fetishizing aside – there is something almost sacred or holy about pulling out a piece of vinyl, laying it on the platter of the turntable, and lower the stylus into the groove. This is why I’m always tempted to buy vinyl reissues of albums I already own on CD. CDs just feel so cheap and crass and impermanent next to a good record.

Okay, so this post is truly all over the place, so I should really wrap it up. I do want to add that this turntable has tons of additional features, which you can read about on the product page linked above and which I will probably blog about this weekend. Also, I should point out that I have plugged the turntable into the computer to test it out. The line-level output seems a bit loud – I obviously won’t be ripping any of my vinyl for portable listening through the direct input. But, even in this inferior listening situation, I can already hear how superior this turntable is to any that I have ever owned. Before beginning this entry, I listened to side 1 of Grizzly Bear’s Sorry for the Delay, and this blog was written to the tune of the No New York compilation and Cat Stevens’s soundtrack to Harold and Maude (which, for the record, sounds fucking amazing, even on these tiny speakers – such a rick sound!). All this bodes well for the arrival of the receiver and the experience of actually listening to these records on a real stereo system. N.B.: I did not pay $400 for this turntable, as the product page would have you believe. Based on just these results, however, I would be willing to do so.

And just take a look at it. Isn’t it beautiful?


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