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  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

It's often fun to see how people get into vinyl records, let alone hunt for those gems that hide deep in a record store. One can have fun and get lost in a store, especially one that allows for beverages and a public turntable to test/experiment with your selections before hitting the check-out counter. Early days, I would too dive in without a plan, but as expected, I would find that I had less time and would need a plan and understanding of what I wanted in my record shelves and on my turntable. Ultimately, I decided to determine my preferences, the sources. I could find them, the reviews/quality write-ups, and match them to my system's capabilities. Introducing a new acronym to the endless number that circles us in life; PSRS: Preferences, Sources, Reviews and System Capabilities.

Preference: This may sound obvious at the start and no one knows your choice better than you. An excellent place to get started is albums and artists you remember or know that move you. After all, the music should elicit an emotional response from the listener; you are not selecting music for an elevator. Let's add a little more to this mix. For example, are you interested in Audiophile-level performance regardless of genre? Are there music genres, instruments, or venues you are learning to appreciate? Are you a collector of rare releases, labels, or producers? This might open up your targets more. For me, it did; I often have a running list of albums/artists I want to collect from specific manufacturers and releases. I am still learning classical music. I enjoy collecting vocals at critical moments in time of the artist's performance; it's a way to experience how their performance started, progressed and peaked, allowing a selection of their performance sweet spot for you. Leonard Cohen is an exciting study from when he was young to later in his career; it's not a study of good, from better to less good. It's the difference in his voice and the maturity of the singing with venue impacts. Leonard Cohen produced his last album knowing he was not long for this planet and you can hear some of that. The same is true of Glenn Campbell. Every artist and their published works, album releases are history lessons.

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I also collect albums that demonstrate outstanding performances that are life-like from a studio or live-on instruments. It's a reference for my system for tuning and checking performance to live events. Yes, I recommend going to live events as often as possible to hear instruments without amplification. One such interesting yet annoying example is Nemanja Radulović, an outstanding violinist with a soft technique as if he conjures the strings to move without touching them. You can only truly hear this during a live performance because I have not found any vinyl release for him and the digital/CDs can be good but nothing like his live performance. Sometime back, I had emailed his manager and encouraged a vinyl release; perhaps it's time to do that again.

Sources: Buying your vinyl has become more accessible and yet more complicated. Sure, you can find the record stores and those are a blast, but it's a challenge at this current time to keep up with the re-releases, many of which can be limited productions and don't make it outside the factory direct via online sales.

Demand is at an all-time high, good for vinyl but challenging to keep track of. When living in and visiting Taiwan, there was a record store with new and used records. They would order everything that came out, evaluate the audio performance of the release, and audition them for customers. It was an excellent service, a one-stop for everything that was released in a month, a direct review of the quality and a chance to check it myself if needed. It also came with recommendations of what I may be interested in, based on past purchases from the store owner himself. Great place in Taipei; check out 'Joy Audio' if you are in Taipei and reading this or have plans to visit someday.

I have not found a way to replicate this yet in the USA, but you can leverage Discogs to get reviews, post what you are looking for, discover new/old buys and have a complete listing of an album's release by country. A few smaller stores in the US keep an active YouTube channel discussing new releases and reviews, such as "The ‘In’ Groove" in Phoenix. I buy records from this store because of the similar process from Taiwan, albeit an all-digital experience.

Sure, you can do eBay, amazon, direct sites from the manufacturers, but I like the seller with some recommendations. Its means they spent some time studying their inventory, understand the quality and stand behind it. This equates to a significant time and expense saving to you, the buyer/collector. The quality of the record is not known until the stylist is engaged with the record, some homework, therefore here is definitely required.

Reviews: Depending on the expense and value of the record, you can look up and search for reviews. Not all releases are created equal. The review writers worth their salt can tell you the difference in the audio performance, why and provide a quantitative ranking of the musicality and audio quality. Often, I have albums of different releases, pressings, and there is a dramatic difference in performance. Re-releases also do not mean better; they can be improved but can also be re-mastered in a way you are not interested in. For example, the low frequency is often increased vs. what was in an original pressing from decades ago. Nevertheless, plenty of reviewers are available today across forums and feedback from owners like you and I spinning those discs with their comments. These can be valuable and helpful to find the proper album, release and pressing to purchase.

Eva Cassidy, a female vocal/folk singer, had releases from US and German pressing companies. The albums had the same source, same producer, just different pressing companies for the records. The difference in performance was significant, but you won't notice this unless you read a qualified reviewer's comments or run into someone like me who brought both and spoke directly to Blix Street Records in Gig Harbor, WA, regarding the future release of Eva's music. They listened and I believe every record that has come to the market went through the German factory. Thank You, Blix Street Records, for the great releases of Eva Cassidy. I have been using the Eva Cassidy Songbird album as a reference for high-frequency vocal checks. Beautiful voice and higher volumes and frequency still sound warm and clear and not bright or harsh.

System Capabilities: Your audio setup does not determine what you collect, but it does determine how it performs. Collect as you wish, just know, for extreme performance, not all systems can reproduce well across genres like classical to a folk singer or jazz band. I learned this early when I found recommendations for classical recordings and I struggled to hear what the reviewers had promised. Initially, I was disappointed until I continued improving the system to produce across various genres. Then at some point, you start to hear more out of albums that the reviewers do not hear. Albums that sounded ok then now sound amazing; it's crazy fun to experience this.

A good example is Chuck Mangione, The Children of Sanchez album; it's very dynamic and complicated for a system. This album was a challenge for years to pull every piece out of it. It is a passionate piece worthy of any collection but requires the system to make it dance and yes, very rewarding.

As always, you are the master of your choices. The same goes when building your vinyl collection and enjoying the hunt and adventure. What's your strategy? How have you built or are building your vinyl collection? It will be interesting to know about your journey and your feedback in the comments section.

Some more references:

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The UHQR Kind of Blue All-Star Panel was a live YouTube event last Saturday. The event for the most part was pre-marketing for the pending re-release of the album 'Kind of Blue' with Miles Davis 33 RPM using the UHQR process by Quality Records. The event had some notable attendees (Michael Fremer, Bernie Grundman, Mike Hobson, Michael Ludwigs and Gary Salstrom) known for their expertise in different areas of audio space and each one provided interesting historical and technical facts about the album including the original recording with a 3-channel tape.

Quality Records used this event to talk about the quality of the UHQR process and I agree they have put some significant work into improved release agents for the vinyl, reducing vibration effects from hydraulic tools on the pressing quality, modification of vintage pressing equipment primarily with sensors like temperature, and adopting the former JVC UHQR process (or similar) for a uniform record thickness from center to edge. If you have one of these hand-pressed UHQR records they are good, darn good!

The point of me writing about this is not the event, it's what the event opens up regarding the adoption of semiconductor processes to the production of vinyl records. This is not a foreign topic, I think Fremer mentioned this a few times including the Rocky Mountain Audio Festival 2019. It’s a topic that has been stuck in my head for years now…."Why not adopt some processes and techniques from the semiconductor industry"?

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Of course, I understand the potential capital costs could be a deterrent, but the potential quality and yield improvements would bode well with $100 records; Yes I said $100 records. The UHQR is a $100+ product, not your $5 used vinyl record or $25 re-release from an unknown manufacturer. The value of high-quality vinyl releases is finding its way into our homes and onto our turntables; the quality of the vinyl sonic signature and the packaging well is an improved audio experience that is increasingly collectible. From a business perspective growing this high-end niche market will provide a better margin source for the manufacturer and build a defendable position in a market with plenty of value-tier vinyl products. It could also act as an insulator if the market softens over time.

So, what could be considered adoptable from the Semiconductor industry that by the way invests an estimated $89B in total R&D annually?

To start with, the 'Clean Room' concept. This has been around for decades and does not require a vinyl record manufacture to run straight to a class 1 specification where a class 10000 would be a great start. The records are commonly produced in what you and I would consider a garage and, in many cases, sharing the same room as the paper or packaging products production. I expect these production rooms to always experience a variation in the temperature, humidity, and airborne particles throughout the day. Temperature, humidity and particle counters can come in handy to keep these in check. A HEPA filter-supported clean room with some modest gowning would provide a significant dust-free environment and controlled humidity/temperature. Modest gowning is a hair cap, gloves, booties (foot covers), tacky mats, semiconductor grade notepaper, a lab coat, maybe a face cover if you have facial hair and for sure no makeup. The benefits: reduced static electricity, more stability in the process from ambient temp variations, reduced inclusions and particles into or on the record, improved yield and ultimately superior audio quality. Keep in mind human hair is about 7o μm thick, dry skin particles can range from .5 μm to 10 μm making these about the same size as the record grooves, 40 μm wide and 40 μm deep. More interesting is paper and hair do not burn until ~450F and the vinyl pressing process is at ~330f which means those particles become inclusions in the vinyl that can interfere with the pressing, the channel and perhaps the resonance of the channel/stylist interaction. This is easy to check; just take a blank record (no grooves) and take it through the process steps and you can measure the surface particles it collects with a surface-scanning laser inspection system.

Next how about a release agent that can be applied to the stampers? The release agent is in the vinyl and allows the stampers and the vinyl record to separate from each other. A little material science may be good here to understand the remaining residue on the vinyl record and the stamper but one could also look at some of the high-end lubricants used on molds like Dicronite. It's an agent that not only allows for a clean mold release but can manage temperatures well above the pressing requirements. It also improves the fluid dynamics of materials to fill out molds and this is one of the challenges with record pressing; ensuring that all the grooves are filled and the record is uniform from the inner to outer edges. Dicronite has been around and can be found at

Finally, there is the stamper quality and expected life. The stampers could be laser imaged at T0 and then again at T10,000 to see the delta and resulting percentage variance or degrade. No guessing here on the quality of the stamper and the ability to provide producers guarantees of quality limits for each stamper and for customers to understand the difference from copy no. 1 to no. 10,001.

In my opinion, if the vinyl manufacturing industry adopts more of the semiconductor know-how, we will for sure see new equipment design, test, facilities and procedures. Let's hope the outcome is a better music experience for the consumer and an advance in analog audio space.

Signing off by sharing these two useful links

1) Nashville's United Record Pressing is the largest pressing facility in North America, churning out up to 60,000 records a day.

2) List of actual vinyl record manufacturers across the globe, visit Total Sonic Media site.

  • Writer's pictureJim Cathey

Updated: May 27, 2021

What I am sharing here is a comparison I had done back in 2014 in Taiwan. Now with this dedicated space, I am posting this again, hoping to hear from fellow audiophiles about their perspectives and observations.

Early in the afternoon in Feb 2014 on a sunny day, the MC2301s arrived and settled into the audio room and yes they were big and very formidable; at a bulky 116lbs each, CDs into two technicians were required to move them into position. All the content was cued and waiting. The analog including Reel to Reel and Vinyl with digital content including hi-res downloads, CDs, and SACDs. After my audiophile friends arrived and the system warmed up we started with the reference system familiarizing ourselves one more time with all the content and sources. My reference system consists of 4, 2 Horizontally Bi-Amped and 2 monoblock, vintage 1960’s MC275 amplifiers feed by a vintage C22 pre-amp.

After calibrating ourselves to the reference system we moved to the MC2301s reconfiguring the speaker wires so that the MC2301s were the only amps in the audio chain. We warmed them up and started with the Reel to Reel, Yarlung Records Smoke & Mirrors, 15ips/CCIR. Immediately you could hear the detail of this beautifully captured recording with the warm tube and detailed sound from the MC2301, but the sound stage depth/width, power, and feel seemed shortened considerably. It was dynamic but skinny and the super tweeters seemed to be sleeping as if there was no data provided at that frequency. We paused the audition and re-checked all the connections. I even called the dealer to check if this was indeed the “broken-in” system I had requested and they confirmed. Alas nothing amiss and we moved to the vinyl source playing Exotic Dances from the Opera by Eiji Oue Minnesota Orchestra. Again the MC2301s demonstrated fast response, with detail, and a warm tube sound but still lacking in providing, comparatively to the reference system, a big window of performance, energy and feel. We went through more vinyl selections but the results were consistently the same; David Roth-Pearl Diver-Bake Sale, Mal Waldron-Left Alone, Peter/Paul/Mary-Ten Years Together-Lemon Tree, Cat Stevens-Tea for the Tillerman-Into White, Sara K- in the Groove- I Can’t Stand the Rain, Chuck Mangione-Children of Sanchez-Lullabye, Esther Ofarim-Esther-Kinderspiele, etc…We then moved to Hi-Restube-like digital Carlos Santa-Shape Shifter-Mr. Szabo and the MC2301 picked up the detail with speed but not the image depth which adds to perceived detail being less. Again not as much power and yes quick and responsive but not the punch I had expected. A smaller window of performance albeit nice with a tube-like sound but not the full rich lush enveloping sound and energy that you can feel and stirs emotion, that’s what comes from the vintage MC275s.

At this point it was time to try a different configuration; both MC2301s were directed to supply just the low end and two MC275s were set up to supply the mid and high. There was an immediate improvement in the mid and high but that’s the MC275s and the base with the MC2301s was starving when compared to the 275’s. We tried a few other configurations but wherever we placed the MC2301s they were lacking in audio quality when compared to the MC275s in the same positions.

I never anticipated this audition result. I was fully prepared to praise the MC2301, purchase them and switch out the MC275s. Even my friends had high expectations from MC2301, then how could this be? Past audition comparisons between MC275s and MC2301s consistently applauded the MC2301 awarding it high marks. I looked back at some of these comparisons and two patterns quickly emerged; the comparisons were typically 1 or 2 MC275s not 4 and not vintage MC275s from the ’60s. This adds some clarity for me since I have auditioned later generations of the MC275 and found them inferior and a bit clinical sounding and I would put the MC2301s on top of those without hesitation. Furthermore, the MC275s in my reference system are not completely standard nor is the C22. Capacitors and resistors have been replaced as needed but more importantly, the tube selection is not stock and has a significant impact on the audio quality. The tube selection is detailed to the tube design, material, factory location and year of production. Lastly, I do believe there is some magic in the materials used back in the day especially in the transformers, no printed circuit boards just point-to-point wiring, and hand-crafted.

As nirvana sounding as the vintage MC275s are I cannot recommend we all head in that direction. The good ones are almost impossible to find, maintaining them is a choir and tube rolling is a constant experiment. If I did not have the MC275s I would seek the MC2301s. I would also encourage McIntosh Labs to look back and reconsider future designs. And if McIntosh reads this write-up with disbelief then I welcome them for an in-person audition of their past at is very best.

I would like to thank Mr. Wu who maintains my vintage equipment here in Taipei; he is truly a master of vintage tube audio gear. My friend Josef who has listened to my non stop insane audio questions for 4 years, JJ at the Stereo Shop in Boise Idaho who made me a believer in Transparent Audio Cables, Steve in Australia who is an encyclopedia of all things audio especially tubes and my wife Robin, yes dear I will have this mess cleaned up before you return :-)

System set-up for testing

MC2301 in action

Good old days with friends in Taipei

Taiwan Reference System Details

4 vintage MC275 amps (1960s) (Horizontal configuration for the mid and high range monoblock mode for base), McIntosh Vintage C22 Pre-Amp custom tube selection and placement, ATC 150 speakers, Lyeco ST-777 super tweeters, McIntosh D100, McIntosh MCD301, MacMini, Audirvana Plus, MMF5.1, Benz Micro Ebony TR cartridge and Bob’s custom SUT, Otari MX5050-BII, Transparent Audio cables, interconnects and power cords, Monitor Acoustics Power filters, and Okki Nokki Record Cleaner.

Tubes in the vintage MC275s are as follows:

1. Power Tubes: GL Re-Issue's KT88's. I have compared NOS to the GL Re-Issues and have visited the factory in Russia that makes the Re-Issues. These have better performance and of course big savings on $$. From my listening tests here the Re-Issues have a faster and punchier bass and extended mid/high range. I have heard similar opinions including those backed by signal measurements.

2. The signal tubes are where the real work is. The current setup is as follows by position:

1- 12AX7 (The first tube and most important): Amprex Bugle Boy 12AX7 long plate D Getter made in Holland at Heerlen. I have tried others including the Telefunken ECC803S and the Bugle Boy adds that lush warm sound while still maintaining clarity without being too bright.

2- 12AU7: Telefunken ECC802S from Ulm Factory

2- 12AT7: Telefunken ECC801S From Ulm Factory

2- 12BH7: RCA 12BH7 Black Long Plate

3. I have not disclosed the tubes selected or configuration in the C22. My kids can tell you after they inherit my system.

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