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Monday, October 03, 2022

Does the perfect sound exist? Vinyl records rebound in digital music age - Washington Post

The search for the perfect sound

"Vinyl is booming in the digital age. So why does the best way to listen feel just out of reach?

(Ryan Young for The Washington Post)

Tom Port is a 68-year-old man who spends his days in an office park outside Los Angeles where he takes it upon himself to determine which records are the best-sounding in the world. This is a task for which he considers himself uniquely qualified. Port is a true audio iconoclast. He delights in telling you that the slab of vinyl you’re listening to isn’t worthy of his ears and the only thing more pathetic is the audio setup you’re using to listen to it.

Port developed his self-proclaimed skills over decades of scouring used LP bins, gathering up multiple copies of the same album and comparing them side by side — listening sessions he calls “shootouts.” That’s what I’m here today to observe. It’s just one stop on my year-long search for the perfect sound, an attempt to take a lifelong passion for music and find out if I’ve really been hearing it.

“The number of copies of ‘Sgt. Pepper’ I’ve played or ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ are well over 100, maybe close to 200, to find the ones that are really good,” Port says. “I want the best, and that’s exactly what should be driving you. You get this very special record. You may have only five of them in your whole collection. But those five are like a drug. They’re just so beyond anything you’ve ever heard, and you just can’t believe it.”

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Port believes that records are like snowflakes — no two are the same. So many things can impact the pressing, including room temperature, the split second the stampers are pressed onto the hot, vinyl biscuit, and unknown factors no human can understand. You can’t find the best-sounding record by reading the marketing sticker proclaiming the latest advances in audio technology. The only way is to use your ears. So Port and his staff at Better Records sit for hours in a windowless room, unplug the small refrigerator in the back so as not to get any electrical interference, and simply listen.

Speaker wires hang from the ceiling like renegade strands of linguine so as not to cross and cause feedback. Port sits in a chair on one side of the room, its position marked under each leg with blue electrical tape. Sunshine English, a staffer, sits at a VPI turntable outfitted with a Dynavector cartridge. On the menu today, at my request, is jazz trumpeter Kenny Dorham’s 1959 album “Quiet Kenny.” It’s an elegant album that has become a collector’s item. Original copies in top condition regularly sell for more than $1,500. I don’t have one of those, but I’ve brought three copies with me, all of which claim to be on the cutting edge of new audio technology.

The first is from the Electric Recording Co., based in London, which produces roughly a dozen albums each year on vintage equipment painstakingly restored by owner Pete Hutchison. ERC makes just 300 copies of each reissue and charges $376 per album. The stock sells out immediately. Then the records pop up on eBay for as much as $2,000.

English has agreed not to reveal which copy is being played so the shootout can be truly blind. She lowers the needle onto the ERC edition of “Quiet Kenny.” Port groans loudly. “Listen to that bass,” he says. “Blah, blah, blah, blah. Who wants to play a record that sounds like this?”

Next up is a copy pressed by Analogue Productions, the Kansas-based label founded by Chad Kassem. Port says that Kassem “has never made a single good sounding record” since AP’s founding in 1991. (Kassem calls Port a “f---ing loser.”) This blind listen gets better marks, which surprises Port when he’s told it’s an Analogue.

“That’s the best-sounding Analogue Productions record I’ve ever heard,” Port says. “Because it’s not terrible.”

LEFT: Tom Port shows his labeling methods and some of his favorite albums.RIGHT: Tom Port performs a three-step wash of an album. (Ryan Young for The Washington Post)

The third is a test pressing from Tom “Grover” Biery, a former Warner Bros. veteran who is starting a label called Public Domain Recordings. Biery believes records are too expensive and wants to offer a solid-sounding, cheaper alternative to the costly reissues coming out today. Port calls it serviceable but flat. He grumbles that it’s a mono, not a stereo recording.

“It sounds tonally correct,” he says. “But the problem with mono is everybody is in line between me and Sunshine, and they’re all standing one behind the other. Can you really separate out all those musicians when they’re all right in the middle? It’s very difficult. I don’t like it.”

None of these would make the hot stamper cut. (Port defines a hot stamper as a pressing that sounds better than other copies of the same album.) We talk more about ERC and how coveted Hutchison’s records are in the market. He agrees to try song two on the ERC vinyl, but things don’t get better. I suggest that maybe English adjust the arm on the turntable. The vertical tracking angle, or VTA, as he calls it. “Nothing can fix this record,” he shouts back. “It’s junk. And that guy should be ashamed of himself.”

There is something almost charming in Port’s brash refusal to praise anything pressed in the modern era or to consider a digital source. (He won’t even listen to music in his car; the system just can’t compare to that in his shootout room, he says.)

And Port’s take, as rigid as it is, makes a certain amount of sense when you consider the scandal that emerged during the reporting for this story.

Mike Esposito, a Phoenix record store owner and YouTuber, claimed that Mobile Fidelity (MoFi), a reissue record label beloved by analog-only purists, had been misleading its customers and using digital files in the production chain.

The revelation sparked outrage among the label’s devotees and plunged audiophiles into something of an existential crisis. Two customers filed a lawsuit against the Sebastopol, Calif., company after an article was published by The Washington Post.

Experts such as Esposito and Michael Fremer, the dean of audiophile writing, had included some of the now-exposed company’s records on their list of the best-sounding analog albums. Could digital technology have advanced enough to fool even the best of ears?

A trio of acclaimed mastering engineers — Bernie Grundman, Kevin Gray and Ryan K. Smith — told me that an all-analog chain always sounds better than an album with a digital step, but that didn’t seem to settle the debate.

How sharp are your ears? Can you tell the difference between analog and digital?

We recorded different tracks playing from the same set of speakers twice, once as a vinyl record and the other as a digital file.1 Listen below and see if you can tell which is which. We recommend plugging in your best wired headphones and turning the volume up a little.

1We recorded these samples in front of Jonathan Weiss’s $363,000 Oswalds Mill Audio (OMA) speakers in his Brooklyn showroom, using a binaural mic and a stereo mic at 32bit_192kHz. The digital file was streamed through an iFi nano iOne home DAC, which has a Bluetooth codec maxing out at 16bit_48kHz. The audio files have been matched post-production to have the same loudness. (Of course, nothing sounds quite like being there.)

Choose a track:

The Miles Davis Quintet “Oleo”

Neil Young “Out On The Weekend”

The Miles Davis Quintet — “Oleo”

Which sample is the vinyl recording?

It also brought back an exchange I’d had earlier in the summer with Grammy-winning producer T Bone Burnett. He had spent years working with scientists to create a special record that would capture a recording session in a way a normal LP couldn’t, using materials primarily found in space stations. He recruited Bob Dylan to rerecord his first iconic composition, “Blowin’ in the Wind.” Burnett made only one copy of the record. It would be auctioned by Christie’s only weeks after we met in New York for $1.78 million.

After Burnett played me the song, we talked about the process behind the recording. Burnett told me he captured the session on a restored Nagra tape machine as well as a digital recorder. When it came time to put the song on the disc, he chose the digital recording as his source. I asked him whether he worried about the analog crowd. He was unrepentant.

“There was no noise or tape hiss,” he said. “That’s the way we deemed it was best. I don’t have to apologize for it. It’s a great recording.”

Which may lead to the biggest lesson of my quest. Don’t pretend to know everything.

Everybody has that first song they become obsessed with. I was 9 years old when I walked into the Chestnut Hill Mall and bought my first tape, the self-titled debut from the new wave hitmakers, the Cars. I still remember the incredible, distorted crunch of “Good Times Roll” on my rectangular RadioShack tape machine. By 1981, I’d moved on to a Sony Walkman and a couple years later got my first record player. That Panasonic all-in-one could handle LPs, cassettes and tune in to Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40.” By the late ’80s, I had fallen in love with CDs, and a decade later immediately embraced online music. I loved Napster, packed with bootlegs from my favorite artists, and stuffed each successive iPod with as many songs as the hard drive would allow. I never stopped to consider how listening habits changed. I just consumed.

But one day my iPod classic’s battery failed. Instead of trying to resurrect my digital library, I began to move back into records. In 2011, I bought a used Dual 1219 turntable for $150 and restarted the record collection I’d stupidly downsized. I knew very little about which albums to buy and gobbled up $16 reissues from labels like WaxTime and Simply Vinyl. And I never bought old, used records. I believed those hype stickers on the plastic wrap pushing the qualities (180-gram, half-speed remaster!) of the latest pressings. That new record had to be the best ever.

It wasn’t until last year that I began to reassess my own collecting strategy. I also started to notice a shift in the vinyl landscape. So many record reissues were delayed. I asked several artists and publicists why. They told me records weren’t just more popular than at any point in the last few decades, they were selling so well that the biggest entertainment conglomerates — Universal, Sony, Warner Bros. — could not press them fast enough to meet demand.

“My own group can’t even celebrate milestones,” Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson grumbled when I asked about the anniversary of the Roots’ 1996 record “Illadelph Halflife.” “There are but so many pressing plants in the world, and they’re backed up for, like, months.”

The history of recorded sound is largely about progression and abandonment, from Edison’s wax cylinders to shellac 78 rpm records; from vinyl LPs, 8-tracks and cassettes to the compact disc. It was in 1985 that Joseph McLellan, right here in The Post, declared the LP all but dead.

“CDs sound excellent on the average home system, and they continue to sound good, unlike LPs and even tapes no matter how many times you play them,” he wrote. “By 1990, perhaps sooner, CD will be the standard format for recorded music.”

By 2000, CDs had peaked, with global sales of more than 13 billion. More than 2.4 million copies of ’N Sync’s “No Strings Attached” were sold in its first week on sale; only 1 million vinyl albums were sold the entire year. But by 2020, the shiny discs themselves had been declared all but dead as streaming services took hold. This summer, Spotify announced its total monthly users had climbed to 433 million.

But the numbers weren’t what I was after. My search was about sound.

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Perfect sound. What is it exactly? You can measure it, reducing it to frequencies and amplitudes, or you can recognize it as something else. The way your room is set up. Your mood. What you expect and what you’re used to. When I told David Byrne, the author, artist and former Talking Heads frontman about my quest, he told me that nothing compared to that time, as a teenager, he heard Jimi Hendrix on his transistor radio.

“Phones sound better than those things and yet it was a life-changing experience,” he said. “Even crappy sound can be life-changing and can actually move people emotionally and socially.”

By then, I had already visited Jonathan Weiss’s showroom in Brooklyn and listened to records on his $363,000 K3 turntable — a machine built with parts found in the U.S. military’s anti-ballistic missile defense systems, he says. The system played through speakers that stood taller than seven feet; the same set was recently installed for Tom Cruise.

Weiss is both prickly and philosophical. In this space, he’s hosted listening parties for everyone from Blondie to Alicia Keys. He snickered at the idea of my search but not my desire to hear music through those massive speakers.

“There is no such thing as perfect sound,” he says. “But how do you explain what this sound is? It’s like Buddhism, where any real truth, you have to actually experience it somehow. Get a taste of it. Otherwise, you don’t know.”

Talking to musicians about the subject can lead to very different opinions. Chuck D, the rap legend whose booming voice has always defined Public Enemy’s thick productions, didn’t seem impressed when I told him I got chills when I heard Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary” on Weiss’s towering system. He seemed more focused on how I listened: from a specific chair, marked out and measured on the floor, to provide the best possible sonic experience. What I described, he said, sounded like nothing more than a glorified man cave.

“What do you want to do with the sound?” Chuck said. “That’s the biggest question. Like, I want to dance with it. Are you going to sit? Are you going to respond or just chill out and go to sleep? You want to multitask? Oh, I got the perfect sound. Perfect sound for what?”

Neil Young, meanwhile, has long been obsessed with chasing great sound. For years, he’s called out purveyors of low-resolution audio — whether MP3 or Spotify — and tried to upgrade what we stream and download. He also works hard on reissues to use tapes whenever he can, aspiring to an all-analog chain.

He told me about his first encounter with digital technologies in the recording studio.

It was the late 1980s, and Young was in the studio with his longtime collaborators, Crazy Horse, working on what would become the electric classic, “Ragged Glory.” He was excited about the convenience of the newfound technology, which would allow him to cut tracks on a computer. Then he listened to the playback from the first sessions. The digital files were a disaster.

“It hurt my ears,” he says. “Like being hit with a machine gun of ice cubes.”

Years later, Young would stick to tape while also keeping up to date with technology. He even tried his hand at a short-lived high resolution portable music player. (RIP, Pono.) He created an online store packed with high-res files. That didn’t mean he was willing to concede to digital when a preserved analog tape was available.

He explained the difference. “If you’re at Mount Shasta and you see it reflecting in the lake, that is a classic shot,” Young says. “The water is totally still, it’s perfect. But if you took the same thing and took a digital picture of it, it’s a bunch of average squares. The variety is the universality of the sound. All is destroyed.”

CDs were not a crime against sonic nature. Their success as a product did lead to major shifts, though. Suddenly, the technologists, not the music geeks, were in charge. They focused on psychoacoustics, a field that embraces the idea that our ears can mask deficiencies in a recording. What we hear isn’t merely what’s presented but how we interpret it.

A century ago, Thomas Edison’s “tone tests” tapped into this concept. The inventor hosted several recitals to prove the quality of his Diamond Disc records. If you have ever listened to one of those records or a 78, the idea of mistaking it for the real thing — a live singer or performer — would seem absurd. But Edison’s recitals placed a performer and a machine on a darkened stage and accounts stated that the audience could not distinguish the two.

“And you go, wait a minute, we know what these old things sound like,” says Byrne, who wrote about the tests in his book “How Music Works.” “How could people be fooled by this? I think this goes to show that we hear — not just hear but perceive — what we want to perceive. People have seen UFOs and, in the Victorian era, saw fairies. I’m not going to debate whether UFOs are real or not, but there are a lot of things through history that people have heard and seen that are completely imaginary. And sound is like that.”

Which brings us to the lowest point on the sound ladder: the MP3.

The psycho-acousticians knew they could take an original master and throw away enough material to fit it onto portable devices. What was lost in sound quality could be masked by the human ear. The pleasure would come from the portability.

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“So that whole experience of MP3 and other types of compressed audio is what a whole generation born in the ’90s and 2000s grew up with,” says Marc Finer, who was enlisted by Sony to serve as a kind of ambassador for CDs in the 1980s.

In other words, an entire generation learned to embrace the portability and convenience of music at the expense of the sound. And really, who could blame them?

Napster’s arrival opened the floodgates for the “everything should be free” generation and blew up the music industry.

Executives, still drunk on CD revenue, had no idea how to respond to the free flow of sound. They tried to fight the rebels rather than cut deals with them.

“They were slow in so many ways,” says Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America from 1998 to 2003. “There was always this view in the music business that there was nothing a good hit couldn’t fix. And they held on to that notion for six years too long.”

Early this year, Apple ended the iPod era after 21 years and 450 million sold. The death of the digital music player inspired several nostalgic articles, but for me and most others, it had been so long since I’d used my last iPod. By now, I was well into streaming and, specifically, trying to experience high-resolution audio. As I explored, I needed a way to listen to those high-res files. The iPhone’s space-saving sound chip wouldn’t work. I needed a digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, I could plug into my system.

These machines take the math exercise that is a digital signal and turn it into the continuous wave that is analog. Tony Stott, the head of product marketing for the London-based Cambridge Audio, suggested I pick up a CXN V2 DAC (retail $1,299). Then I told him about the larger quest I was on. And how I’d been mocked by Port and some of the other audio guys. They said my search was hopeless, that my system could never sound good enough because I wasn’t willing to clear out enough space for suitably sized speakers.

“What can sometimes happen is that some of the joy of the music is overtaken by the joy of building a system,” Stott said. “But listening to good-quality audio is a bit like owning a Formula One team. It will cost you a million pounds to get around the track in two minutes. It will cost you 10 million pounds to get around the track in a second under two minutes.”

Stott also cautioned me that it wasn’t enough to get a DAC. I also needed to consider the source.

“Rubbish in, rubbish out,” he said. “Not to say that Spotify is rubbish, it has its place, is brilliantly convenient and it’s wonderful for on-the-go in the car, but when you start taking a high-resolution file and feed it into a good digital-to-analog converter, there’s a big lift.”

For me, that lift would be Qobuz, a digital music service founded in France in 2007 and still a very small fraction the size to Spotify.

“In the U.S., we have seven people. Not seven people at the front desk,” says managing director Dan Mackta of his workforce. “Seven people.”

Mackta won’t tell you how many people subscribe to Qobuz. (That number is also but a very small fraction of Spotify’s users.) But for almost a year, I’ve been one of them. There are limitations — no podcasts, for example — which is why I pay $12.99 a month for Qobuz but still subscribe to Spotify.

You don’t need to understand bit rates to get why I’m paying for both services. Just put on the same track — say, the Rolling Stones’ apocalyptic anthem “Gimme Shelter” — on Qobuz and Spotify and you’ll hear a clear difference.

Now how sharp are your ears when it comes to low- and high-resolution digital audio? Can you tell which sample below is higher quality? 2 Don’t forget to plug those wired headphones in if they aren’t already.

2These two versions of “I Feel The Earth Move” are digital files, one a lower quality (16bit_22kHz) MP3 file heard in the earlier days of file sharing, the other a high-resolution (24bit_96kHz) .WAV file from Qobuz. Note that a Bluetooth connection may not support high-resolution streaming.

Carole King — “I Feel The Earth Move”

Which sample is the high-resolution file?

For all its limitations, digital is mostly a known quantity. If you listen to enough new records, you’ll realize why Tom Port’s business is thriving. Old records in excellent condition can cost hundreds. New pressings are miss as much as hit. Some of them are warm and dynamic, others are dull and muddy. There’s no way to know what you’re getting until you throw down $40, rip open the plastic and put that new disc on your turntable. Why does a Hank Mobley reissue mastered by Kevin Gray sound so good when a Chet Baker reissue by the same engineer falls flat?

“That’s one of the big problems with vinyl,” says Bernie Grundman, the 78-year-old mastering engineer whose lengthy career has included working on Carole King’s “Tapestry,” Michael Jackson’s “Thriller,” and Dr. Dre’s “The Chronic” and who now oversees a company booming with reissue jobs. “When we started getting back into vinyl in a big way, I said, ‘Okay, now we’re ready for a lot of headaches.’ ”

Sometimes, the record company won’t deliver the original master tape and he’s stuck with a digital file (the 25th anniversary reissue of the “Buena Vista Social Club”). Sometimes the original tape is damaged (Sonny Rollins’s “Newk’s Time”) and he has to tirelessly patch together sections from old CDs. Then there are the production chain woes.

A great record is always going to sound better than its digital counterpart, but, Grundman says, “to get a really great record is next to impossible.”

LEFT: A framed “Thriller” record with a note signed by Michael Jackson on a wall of records that American audio engineer Bernie Grundman has worked on over the years. RIGHT: American audio engineer Bernie Grundman photographed in his mastering studio. (Damon Casarez for The Washington Post)

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It’s 4:50 a.m. in Taipei, Taiwan, and Danny Lin is waking up to the sound 0f his iPhone alarm. He is 49 and the vice president of an internet browser company, and he lives with his wife and two children in a condo. He also really wants a copy of Yusef Lateef’s “Eastern Sounds.”

An original copy of the saxophonist’s 1961 album will cost hundreds. But Craft Recordings is putting out a special reissue for $100 as part of its “small batch” series. Grundman has mastered this reissue, and it’s also a “one-step,” meaning parts of the production process usually used in the making of a record are eliminated. This is supposed to make the Craft record sound closer than ever to the original session tapes.



5 a.m.


Lin places the record in his cart and enters his credit card information, but poof, the album is no longer there when he tries to finalize the transaction. Sold out. He tries again, with no luck. All 1,000 copies are already gone. Or rather, they’re just available somewhere else now. He checks eBay where he already sees multiple listings for the Lateef record on the auction site, most in the $500 range. Another victory for the flippers.

“That price is crazy,” says Lin. “I’m never going to trust Craft again.”

I know how he feels. Because there is at least one other person who has clicked through and struck out the same way. Me. This is a long way from the ’80s, when I could gobble up used copies of Howlin’ Wolf or the Pretenders for $8.

But then, as CDs grew more popular, the record industry morphed. Pressing machines were destroyed, record plants converted. The only problem is that records didn’t die. They just went into hibernation. And then, when they came back, the infrastructure that enabled record companies to press as many as 350 million records a year during the “Hotel California” era was gone.

“I think about it all the time,” says Josh Bizar, vice president of Music Direct. “How did Led Zeppelin make 4 million copies to introduce their albums to the world when we have trouble making 5,000 of anything?”

The “Eastern Sounds” reissue followed the familiar game plan in this new soundscape. Put out something old and special. Package it in a beautiful box. And promise, through a technical explanation that’s beyond the understanding of most civilians, that this album is “as close as the listener can get to the original recording.”

Then sit back. Craft, for its part, says it made an honest mistake in one part of the process and by the time its next release came out, a reissue of Miles Davis’s “Relaxin’,” pressings were increased from 1,000 to 5,000 copies.

“We really didn’t anticipate it to sell out as quickly as it did,” says Mark Piro, who is a director of artists and repertoire for Craft Recordings, the catalogue division of Concord. “We don’t want people to be left out. That’s not our goal.”

The vinyl boom can be charted pretty easily. In 2008, Radiohead had the No. 1 record on the vinyl charts. “In Rainbows” sold 25,000 copies. That wouldn’t even land in the top 100 of 2021. Just last year, new albums from Adele, Olivia Rodrigo and Taylor Swift sold more than 250,000 vinyl copies each. Then there’s the thriving market of reissues, which range from the slew of sealed records pumped out by major labels to the more particular releases aimed at audiophiles from companies such as Analogue Productions and Intervention Records.

Everybody faces the same challenge. Massive demand, limited supply.

“Physics dictate how many records you can make,” says Billy Fields, who leads commercial vinyl strategy at the Warner Music Group. “It takes basically half a minute to make a record. And then you just back out from there. How many presses do you have working? How many shifts are those presses operating? How efficient are those presses? How many records basically is every press putting out every single day that it’s in operation? And what’s the grand total of that?”

He actually has a number: 170 million records. That’s how many Fields says can be pressed in the world each year. To keep up with demand, the industry would need to produce 350 million. That accounts for indie releases, Beatles and Stones reissues, the latest from Harry Styles. They are for audiophiles with $20,000 turntables in special listening rooms and kids with portable Crosleys. All of a sudden, these records are for everyone.

It wasn’t easy to find Brittany Benton. There are no signs for her pop-up record store, a space found in an industrial building in St. Clair Superior, an east Cleveland neighborhood that’s peppered with vacant homes. I drove around the building twice, parked in a dusty lot and stopped somebody walking to her car with an Ari Lennox record under her arm. Elise Burnett Boyd pointed me down the lot to Dock 5, to a door propped open with a cinder block.

“Just follow the music,” she said.

I could hear the groove of Hall and Oates’s “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do)” and, at the end of a hallway, spotted Benton, 35, wearing a brown hoodie and sitting against the wall as she priced out records.

Benton sold records online through the pandemic, but these days, she’s renting a 25-by-25 section of floor in this 120-year-old factory building for $300 a month. I’m coming to see her because she’s not obsessed with rare pressings and $100 reissues. She’s just selling records.

It also happens to be Record Store Day, which was created in 2007 to gin up excitement around vinyl but has morphed into a flipper’s dream, with dozens of limited editions produced just for this event. Signs or no, by 11 a.m. Benton has had enough business already to earn back her rent. She’s also filled the space with sound. She has a DJ on-site and talks about abiding by the guidelines of the now 14-year-old vinyl holiday. She knows she could make more by putting the limited-edition RSD albums on eBay. She also knows that would be bad form.

“It’s not a record store’s right to be in Record Store Day so much as it’s a privilege,” Benton says. “And if we’re taking part, it’s almost like a pledge that we will respect things. I’m not going to take an album that didn’t sell well and sell it on eBay the next day for 10 times the price. That discourages the everyday person coming in who wants to have access to these records. I’m not trying to hawk or shark records.”

She’s trying to build a community.

Tony Tanori, a 50-year-old bank analyst who had all but abandoned records during the CD era, picks up a stack. He got back into records after a friend told him about a vinyl club that meets once a week at the Winchester Music Tavern in nearby Lakewood, Ohio. He might bring his Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Another guy might throw the Stanley Brothers on the table.

“There is nothing like putting a needle to a vinyl record,” he says.

LEFT: A DJ plays some tunes for customers to enjoy as they are in Brittany’s Record Shop. RIGHT: Cleveland locals search crates and racks, looking for records to add to their collections at Brittany’s Record Shop on Record Store Day. (Amber N. Ford for The Washington Post)

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Over the last year, I’ve learned a lot. I’ve also spent a lot. I replaced my 1970s-era Pioneer SX-737 receiver with a vintage McIntosh 1900 and then sold that to buy a tube amplifier built by Rogue Audio. I turned a restored Thorens TD 125 — and about $2,500 — into a Technics SP-10. I gave my son my Bose speakers and tried Harbeths and then settled on Focal Aria 906s. I’d never invested so much in a stereo, and it sounded excellent to me. Still, when I referenced virtually any element of it to my audiophile sources, they made it clear I had not gone far enough.

Which made me think of something I heard from Andy Zax, the music historian and producer.

We are, he wrote during an email exchange, prisoners of our own expectations. So focused on FOMO and equipment and who says what on which message board that we lose sight of the most important question: How do we have an enjoyable listening experience?

Which brings me back almost to where I started: Michael Fremer.

Things had not gone well between us. For almost a year, the pioneering audiophile writer and I had gotten along swimmingly as we chatted about gear and recordings. He had generously offered me insight and sources. Then I wrote about the MoFi scandal and Mike Esposito, which infuriated Fremer. Those two had been feuding online for months, and the MoFi situation only exacerbated their conflict. Fremer slammed Esposito for spreading a rumor before he could confirm it and then, after the rumor proved correct and the record store owner went to MoFi’s headquarters to talk with the company’s engineers, Fremer took to YouTube to criticize his interviewing skills, calling him a “fanboy” who got “rolled over.” After my MoFi story published, Fremer was furious with me. He peppered me with angry text messages, made a 10-minute YouTube video retort to my piece and called me a liar online.

Fremer, who is 75, has a long history with music, dating back to his time during the 1970s at WBCN, the powerful Boston radio station. He worked as music supervisor of the movie “Tron,” in 1982 and shortly after, focused on writing about audio and specifically fighting for the superiority of vinyl as a format. He was a crucial component of this story, but he wanted nothing to do with me.

“He was one of the only ones waving the analog flag in the cold, sterile digital day,” Chad Kassem told me. “I’ll work on him.”

The next day, a text arrived.

“The only way to move forward is for you to do what I’ve been asking you to do for it seems like years: visit and spend most of a day listening to records here,” Fremer wrote.

So on a Thursday in August, I drove four hours from Boston to the white Colonial Fremer shares with his wife, Sharon, just outside of Newark. Fremer warmly shook my hand and ushered me downstairs.

“This is not an audio salon,” he said as we got settled. “This is a workspace.”

The basement is cramped, packed with records and Fremer’s equipment, which includes Wilson XVX speakers (retail: $329,000) and the turntable he has decided will be his last, a prototype of Weiss’s K3.

I realized quickly that Fremer wasn’t going to mention our conflict. He sat me in a comfortable chair in the center of the room as he pulled out the British pressing of “Rubber Soul” that he bought when he was 19. It’s hard to not to be impressed by the harmonies, Ringo’s snare and Paul’s snaky bass when you’re in front of those $300,000 Wilsons. We listened to an Electric Recording Co. issue of Thelonious Monk’s “Brilliant Corners.” Fremer offered high praise for Hutchison’s work. He also showed me how many inconsistencies this system could expose. He played “In My Room” off a 2015 reissue by Analogue Productions to slam a version released earlier this year by Capitol Records.

“This is an inept mix,” he said of the newer release. “Like mush on the bottom and then there’s that horrible ssss on top.”

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Fremer wanted to focus on MoFi records to show me what he considered the label’s bad sound formula. I wanted to know what it was about my article that upset him so much.

What bothered him most, he said, was that I wrote that MoFi’s secret would not have been revealed without Esposito.

“It would have taken longer, but I was on the case,” Fremer said. “I would have gotten to the bottom of it. That’s what I do.”

Whatever his approach and temperament, when you sit with Fremer listening to music, it’s clear what drives him. He wants to sit in a room as you listen to his favorites — an acetate of the Who’s “Tommy,” a Weavers performance, the British pressing of Elvis Costello’s “Imperial Bedroom” — and luxuriate in the sonic beauty.

“Do you think there is a perfect sound?” I asked as he searched through a pile of records.

He shook his head.

“There are some incredibly great records,” he said. “Great recordings. Perfect? I don’t know what that means, even.”

I reminded him of when we met for the first time. In June, T Bone Burnett threw a listening party in New York City for that special, one-of-a-kind Bob Dylan rerecording of “Blowin’ in the Wind” he was auctioning. I had wondered if there, in that studio, we might find that perfect sound. An idea that Burnett quickly dismissed.

That got Fremer excited. He jumped into the stacks and pulled out a Japanese pressing of a record of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. It features Dylan doing the same song with backing from Joan Baez, the Freedom Singers, Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary.

“Just sit back and relax,” Fremer told me. “Close your eyes, and let the space envelop you.”

Two microphones captured that live performance. The lone instrument was Dylan’s acoustic guitar. The record wasn’t cut at half-speed or on clarity vinyl. It wasn’t part of a limited reissue released at midnight. It was an ordinary record in every way except for what came out of the speakers. You could close your eyes, hear Baez’s voice rising behind Dylan, and have something, perfect or imperfect, you wanted to hear again and again.


A previous version of this story said Music Direct was the parent company of Mobile Fidelity. They have the same owner. The story has been corrected.

About this story

Writing by Geoff Edgers. Research by Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis. Design and development by Joanne Lee. Photo editing by Moira Haney. Video by James Cornsilk and CJ Russo and production by Angela M. Hill. Audio production by Bishop Sand. Editing by David Malitz. Copy editing by Angela Mecca. Project editing by Steven Johnson."

Does the perfect sound exist? Vinyl records rebound in digital music age - Washington Post

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