Strictly Vinyl at KJ West One London

Strictly Vinyl

Dynamic Headroom paid a visit to the fantastic KJ West One high-end hi-fi shop in London for their “Strictly Vinyl” event.  This was an informal gathering of hi-fi and music lovers who came to listen to a talk by Touraj Moghaddam from Vertere Acoustics and Miles Showell from Abbey Road Studios.  The evening focussed on the vinyl record format by highlighting the production process, the benefits over digital and mastering.

The system

This is the kind of hi-fi that the majority of us can only ever aspire to.  The turntable was a Vertere Acoustics RG-1 Reference Groove (£12,500) with a Vertere Acoustics Reference Tonearm (£20,000) and an Audio Technica ART-1000 cartridge (£4100).  The phono stage was an FM Acoustics FM-122 MkII Phono Linearizer (£12,000).  A Vertere Platform-1 rack completed the system, which has a kind of “soft bounce” like car suspension in order to provide isolation.

Vertere Acoustics RG-1 Reference Groove

A Naim Statement preamplifier / power amplifier combination provided amplification duties. The Naim NAC S1 preamplifier costs £61,700 while the NAP S1 mono power amplifiers cost £53,000 each.

Naim Statement

A pair of three-way Magico M3 floorstanding speakers (£63,000) stood either side.  Mains, interconnect and speaker cabling was provided by Vertere Acoustics too.

Magico M3 speakers

Total system price is upwards of £220,000!  Thats a small house.

Vinyl production process

Touraj from Vertere began the talk about vinyl by reminding everyone just how popular vinyl is right now.  Vinyl pressing plants have approximately three months worth of back log to get through and are running night and day.  The vinyl resurgence shows no signs of abating yet.

Touraj then went on to describe the vinyl production process.  Studio sessions are recorded onto a Master tape and then cut onto acetate (a.k.a the Master Disc).  An acetate is a piece of aluminium covered with vinyl.  Only one side of the acetate is cut which means a double-sided vinyl album requires two acetates.

The acetate is used to create a Master Plate which is a piece of metal that is the reverse of the acetate.  In other words, where the acetate has dips & grooves the Master Plate has spikes and ridges (like a mould).   From the Master Plate, another metal plate is created called the Stamper. The Stamper is used to create the vinyl records that we listen to at home.

The new Stamper creates some Test Pressings – the name given to the first few pressings.  The artist and record label listen to the test pressing to ensure they are happy with it.

Worth the investment

The process of recording sound onto a vinyl disc was invented in 1930 (source) and the technology is pretty much the same now, with some improvements made over time.  Despite its age, vinyl still has a lot to give.  Upgrading your hi-fi equipment means you can eek more and more performance out of the format.  See the system outlined above to see just how far you can go.  People would not go to the trouble of spending so much on playing back a record if it wasn’t getting results.

Digital done right

Touraj went on to explain that when digital is done right it can be good.  However, a recording studio is the only place that this happens.  This is down to software (from a company called Prism) and extremely high precision clocks that synchronise all stages of digital audio conversion.  You don’t get the right level of precision at home no matter how expensive your DAC is.

He went on to explain that high-resolution audio is an improvement over CD but is still flawed.  Think about what digital audio looks like it is a series of “dots” that make up a square wave form.  The natural state of music is not a square wave form.  High-resolution audio adds more “dots” thereby increasing precision.  However, the ultimate goal of digital audio is to have a high enough resolution to replicate an analogue signal – so why not just use analogue to start with?

Many DACs that we use at home don’t really do a good job of converting very high resolution material, i.e. anything above 24-bit 96kHz.  Many DACs struggle with the conversion process at high sample rates and end up introducing distortion.  This means the gains you have from extra resolution is lost due to the distortion – effectively you are worse off.  This is all dependent on the DAC, but just because it can handle 24/192 does not mean it will do a good job of it.

What Touraj said was convincing.  However, I have read other people saying they can prove digital is as good as analogue through mathematical theory and that seems pretty convincing too!  I’ll be honest and say that most of the mathematics goes over my head (Nyquist theory I get, the rest no).

What is a fact is that CDs & MP3s suffer from over-compression whereas vinyl does not.  That factor alone makes vinyl music sound better.  I listen to both digital music (CD quality via streaming) and vinyl.  They both have their merits and I plan to use my ears to decide.  You should do to.

Mastering for vinyl

Miles Showell began talking for the second half of the session about his experiences of mastering music for vinyl records.  Miles works as mastering engineer for the legendary Abbey Road Studios in London and his works include Marvin Gaye and Amy Winehouse among many others.

As a music lover himself, Miles is not a fan of the brick wall style of limiting which is used for CD.  This is done because it is what record labels ask for; louder = better in their mind.

Many albums are being re-released on vinyl nowadays.  Miles addressed questions about whether original vinyl releases are better or worse than new releases. The short answer is “it depends”.  The most important factor in deciding this is the quality of the source material.  Original studio sessions are recorded onto tape which can wear out or become stretched after too many plays.

Modern day technology is much more sophisticated than technology from 30+ years ago so an engineer like Miles has better tools at his finger tips.  So, theoretically, the newest recording should always be the best.

Another important factor is the skills of the mastering technician himself.  Newly mastered albums can sound worse than the originals simply because bad decisions were made during the process.

None of which really helps us as the consumer.

More images from the night

Thank you to KJ West One for putting on the event it was very informative, I learned a lot.  The hi-fi system sounded amazing on the night, putting on a good advertisement for the vinyl format.

 

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