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Shaded Dog Days

I have a little black Halloween cat. He is 10 years old and as feisty as ever, but as luck would have it, he loves my dogs. He stares at them in fascination as they play. I?m glad they get along because I must have dozens of dogs. Shaded dogs.

I?m referring to the shaded image of Nipper on the RCA LP logo, that cute little Jack Russell terrier who stares into a gramophone. The most valuable shaded dogs are RCA Living Stereo LPs pressed in the late 1950s. When in good condition, they?re worth a fortune. Audiophiles say they?re the best-sounding records ever made.

The patron saint of the shaded dog is Michael Hobson of Classic Records. He remastered the Living Stereo LPs with rebuilt vacuum-tube mastering gear and reissued them on virgin vinyl. Thanks to Mike, I know exactly how sweet, smooth, and authentically musical a shaded dog can sound. I also have a few vintage dogs in poor condition that I bought as artifacts. They don?t sound as clean as the reissues but somehow they still make me feel the presence of greatness.

I began collecting vinyl only around 1970, so the original dogs eluded me. Even so, I have two turntables, both of which are hooked up, and vinyl stored in every room of my apartment except kitchen and bath. Over the years I?ve thrown out 95 percent of my VHS cassettes, 90 percent of my books, a quarter of my CDs, and all but a couple of my Beta cassettes and laserdiscs?but only 10 percent of my LPs, and even that was painful.

My LP collection kept growing long after the format had supposedly died. In fact, the advent of the CD enabled me to buy hundreds of used records for $2-3 per disc at the Tower Annex in Manhattan. Many were blown out by radio stations and I suspect that more than a few came from people who died of old age or AIDS.

There was a time when I thought $7 for a new release was highway robbery. Yet just last week, while chatting with a friend who runs a secondhand bookstore, I watched in fascination as a 25-year-old guy paid him $30 for a battered copy of Pink Floyd?s Dark Side of the Moon. When I play that album nowadays, I usually turn to the SACD surround mix, but the LP still has a certain something.

Anyone getting into vinyl is stumbling into a civil war that?s raged in the audio press for the past 20 years. There are two kinds of audio critic. Representing the mainstream is Sound & Vision, formerly Stereo Review,whose editors have always maintained that the CD improved over the LP thanks to its compactness, durability, and lack of surface noise. Without the CD, we would never have arrived at the iPod.

Taking the opposing viewpoint are Stereophile and other high-end stalwarts who devoutly maintain that listeners took a tragic wrong turn when the CD supplanted the LP. They believe one generation has forgotten how to listen and the next one never learned. Incidentally, I?m on speaking terms with both camps, and before they jump all over me, I freely acknowledge that these summaries of their positions are brief and inadequate.

Because these people have literally staked their careers on their vinyl verdicts, impartial information on the subject is hard to come by. In their mythic listening rooms, either the LP can do no wrong, or it was long ago ejected as a guest who?d stayed too long.

Vinyl has remained indispensable in my listening life but I don?t believe in whitewashing the black disc. LPs and 45s have some serious drawbacks even if you?re not naive enough to pay thirty bucks for a beat-up copy of Dark Side of the Moon.

Getting the best out of vinyl requires a tricky alignment of the planets. Everything has to go right from the microphone to the mixing console to the mastering lathe to the pressing plant to the stylus to the cartridge to the turntable to the phono preamp to the power amp to the speakers to the room to your ears. One slip anywhere along the way compromises the whole experience. You could say the same of CDs, of course, but the vinyl experience is decidedly more dependent on the mastering and pressing of discs and the way you care for them.

One thing diehard analog enthusiasts will never tell you is that the music industry?s greed and incompetence undermined the LP long before the CD did. By the mid-1970s the quality of the average pressing had degenerated severely and surface noise was a constant torment to record buyers. People began buying audiocassettes instead and tapes elbowed records as the bestselling music format.

Pressing plants were turning out discs that were thin, warped, and so sharp-edged that they sliced through their innersleeves. Adulterated and recycled vinyl increased surface noise. Discs being rushed through factories were too rapidly cooled, leaving crystalline deposits in the grooves that audibly degraded the signal and added crunching noise. Brand-new records fresh out of their jackets sounded like they?d been collecting dust for years. The shaded dog lost his bark.

In desperation, American music lovers bought British, European, and Japanese pressings simply to get a competently manufactured disc. That?s why imported Beatles LPs sell for astonishing sums. The American versions sound as though they?d been pressed on cow pies.

Running two turntables is worth it for me because I?ve been collecting LPs for a long time, managed to find some good ones, and am compulsive enough to clean them thoroughly under a bright light. Some have survived hundreds of plays and still sound beautiful. However, if I didn?t already have a large and carefully tended library, I might not bother with vinyl.

LPs of albums new and old are still being pressed?and even reviewed, at musicangle.com. But if you really want to get into analog, get Uncle Melvin to remember you in his will. Then replace his blood-pressure medication with a placebo. He was always a nasty old man anyway. The neighbors will be glad to see the last of his grey ponytail.

Contrary to myth, a good turntable doesn?t cost thousands. If you?re in the market, Music Hall has an excellent line of reasonably priced Czech-made turntables that come pre-mounted with good cartridges. My favorite budget cartridge is the Shure M97xE, easy to find on Amazon. It errs on the warm and mellow side; if you want more detail, try Audio-Technica. If your receiver doesn?t have a phono input, the NAD PP-2 will bridge the gap. For a more high-end approach, buy your turntable, cartridge, and phono preamp from Linn. Don?t forget the Discwasher.

For the record, no pun intended, my main system includes a six-year-old Rega Planar 25 belt-drive manual turntable with the Shure cartridge and NAD phono preamp mentioned above. My secondary turntable is a 22-year-old Luxman PD-289 direct-drive automatic and you can?t buy one for love or money. I wore out two other machines. They were outlasted by the records played on them.

LPs and CDs have inherently different sounds. The CD delivers a flat frequency response but cuts off everything below 20 cycles and above 20,000. Only my cat or your (unshaded) dog could hear the missing high frequencies but audiophiles maintain that they exert a subtle effect as part of the harmonic architecture of sound. The LP rolls off gently at both ends and plateaus in the midrange. If we were machines with flat hearing, that might be a disadvantage, but since human hearing is irregular and midrange-centered, it?s actually an advantage.

Noise is the other major difference between the two formats. In the CD, quantizing noise is integrated directly into the signal. It can be shifted, shaped, and massaged but not eliminated. Those of us with extensive analog listening experience often find CDs harsh, alienating, sterile, or just boring. MP3s are, if anything, worse. In contrast, the LP?s pops and clicks, if kept below a certain level, are easy to tune out?partly because they?re separate from the recorded signal, and partly because that Great Circuit Designer in the Sky has endowed our brains with superb error correction.

The smartest thing I?ve ever heard anyone say about vinyl came in a private conversation with Mike Hobson when we were spinning records in his loft. It doesn?t just sound different??it feels different,? he said.

What are you willing to do to feel good?

In my case, the answer is: Put the second turntable on my desk. It feeds an ancient 50-watt-per channel Onix OA-21S amp that maintains an all-analog signal path from the phono input to my ears. The speakers are nothing special?just a pair of JBL Control1Xtremes that I picked up for 75 bucks. In my one concession to modernity, a teeny Pinnacle SubSonic subwoofer is nestled beneath the wastepaper basket, making this a 2.1-channel system.

I put this system together out of spare components because I wanted to listen to music off my hard drive. But MP3s were uninvolving and I drifted back to CDs. Then CDs became uninvolving and I drifted back to LPs. Now I?ve returned to where I began my listening life, and believe me, it?s great to be home.

Those dogs can really bark.

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Mark Fleischmann is the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.