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Robert Brook | Published on 3/29/2024

For as long as I can remember I've been drawn to recorded music and its reproduction. My father brought home a Japanese receiver, turntable, reel to reel and a pair of speakers from his military service in Taiwan. Thanks to him, we had music with reasonably good sound in our home throughout my childhood.

In junior high, after my parents split and my mom and my sister and I moved to Florida, we were suddenly without a stereo. For my 12th birthday, Mom bought me an all in one record player / amp do-hicky-thingy that even then I could tell sounded god-awful. It wasn't long before I'd worn her down enough to buy me a proper receiver and turntable.

At Cal Berkeley in the late 80s, I made a great friend with many similar interests, audio and music among them. He scoffed at the fat black Denon integrated amp I bought my sophomore year, enlightened me to the advantages of separates, and then enlisted me to join him for visits to the Berkeley brick and mortars that thrived back in the day.

Then I bought an Adcom GFA 535 and an entry level NAD preamplifier to go with a pair of Spica speakers and whatever CD player I had at the time. It was an absurd set-up to have in a shared dorm room, but who cared? I had the coolest stereo on campus and ambitions for making it even better. After all, I had to keep up with my buddy, who already had a tube preamp, a pair of KEF speakers and his own bedroom in an off-campus apartment to listen to them in.

One winter break, while home in Miami, I offered to help my new step-father buy a stereo for our home. The audio shop had a used J.A. Michell Transcriptor Hydraulic Reference turntable that no one seemed interested in, and I convinced my mother to buy it for me. With sound quality at about a "6" but cool factor topping out at "11," I now had the raddest stereo at Cal.

Of course, my friend was not to be outdone. Inside of a year later he had a VPI HW-19 Jr. that smoked my Transcriptor. When I moved to San Francisco in 1992 I bought a Jr. of my own, adding it to the Conrad Johnson MV52 and PV11 electronics I now had, along with the Celestion SL6s speakers I'd traded my Spica's up for a couple of years earlier. It was a system that would, as it turned out, remain unchanged for the better part of 2 decades.

So began a long period of hibernation during my years as an audio enthusiast, a phenomenon I find many other audioguys often enter into and, in many cases, never emerge from. We get married, we have children (although my wife and I never did), and our priorities change. Nothing wrong with that. In fact, it's one less giant headache we have going forward, not to mention one less drain on our incomes.

But about 10 years ago, emerge I did, dusting off my beloved SL6s's and trading them in for a pair of Paradigm Prestige 75f floorstanders. For the first time ever I had a stereo that made a drum kit actually sound like a drum kit. Who knew? Moreover, the person who sold me the speakers taught me something about records that, strangely enough, I had never understood before. I was aware, of course, that there were different versions of records out there, quite a few in some cases. But it had never occurred to me that some of these versions sounded better than others, some of them much better.

After that day, I endeavored to find the best sounding copy of every record I could. That was also the day I went from being an audioguy to a bona-fide audiophile.

This began a seismic shift in my relationship to audio. Up to that day, if I wanted a particular album on vinyl, I would simply buy whatever copy was available, new or used, down at my local record store. After that day, I endeavored to find the best sounding copy of every record I could. That was also the day I went from being an audioguy to a bona-fide audiophile. One record at a time, I began tracking down better sounding copies of my favorite titles. And as I did, I began upgrading the rest of my system in order to play them better.

I bought a used, suped up HW-19 that had an Aries platter and bearing and an upgraded suspension. It came with a sweet Graham 2.0 tonearm and Benz Ruby 3H cartridge. Then I upgraded my preamplifier from the Conrad Johnson PV11 to their ET3, followed shortly thereafter by their CJ LP70S amplifier. Then I added Transparent cabling throughout my system. Suddenly, before I even knew it, I'd taken what seemed then like a HUGE leap forward with my system.

Meanwhile, my near constant googling of "the best vinyl pressing" of this or that title led me to Better Records. I began reading Tom Port's blog, The Skeptical Audiophile, and soon bought my first Hot Stamper, an import pressing of David Bowie's Diamond Dogs. Reading post after post, I dove ever deeper into Tom's unconventional views on record collecting and analog audio. Digesting his ideas, I became increasingly convinced of the merits of his approach. This was a different way to do audio than I had ever considered before! I couldn't stop thinking about it. I had to learn more.

Then one day I was having a conversation with one of the owners of the audio store where I'd bought all my gear, and I told him I'd been reading a blog in which the author (Tom) recommended adjusting the VTA for each and every record. I asked him what he thought about that, and his response was one I'll never forget. "Robert, tell me this. If you had a Porsche, would you adjust the tire pressure every time you went out to drive it?" I was forced to admit that, no, I would not do that (or at least I didn't think I would). But what I could not admit to him was this - not only was I willing to adjust the height of my tonearm for each and every record I played, I was also willing, however obsessive it might be, to do a whole heck of a lot of other time consuming and nit picky things if it meant I could find better sounding records to play and get each and every one to sound their best. That's when I knew my time as his customer was about over. I'd been doing business with the same guys for more than half my life, and I was understandably reluctant to jeopardize our relationship. But I knew this path was one I needed to follow. At least, it was if I were to ever get any sleep at night. I wasn't a good customer for them anymore. I wanted more than they could give me. In fact, I wanted more from audio, period.

When the Ruby 3H cart that came with my HW-19 fell apart a few months later, I found myself in a poor financial position to buy a new one. I decided to try to have it repaired, which turned out to be impractical, so I bought a different, less expensive cartridge from another seller. This meant that for the first time ever, I was without the support I'd come to rely on for cartridge installs all those years. I was on my own and nervous as hell about it (but a little excited too!).

Installing that cartridge was a catalyst for a period of growth in audio that has exceeded any and all of the expectations I ever had for this hobby.

I gathered myself, did a bunch of research on installs and got the darn thing on. It wasn't easy, but it was rewarding. And liberating! I wasn't dependent on the shop guys anymore. I had officially cut the audio apron strings, and now had the most essential skill, however underdeveloped, any analog audiophile needs to find their way forward in the wacky, relentlessly fascinating hobby.

And find my way forward, I did. Installing that cartridge was a catalyst for a period of growth in audio that has exceeded any and all of the expectations I ever had for this hobby. I went on to change every single component and wire in my system, pressing on until I could hear all the things on my records that I hadn't been able to hear before.

The eventual outcome was hearing records come to life in ways I hadn't imagined was possible, and this has helped me understand something about audio that has truly inspired me and that I've grown passionate about sharing. Analog, it turns out, is not just an alternative way to consume music. It is THE way if you want to discover what's possible in audio and hear your favorite music sound its best. I'm as close to convinced as a person can be that we cannot hear recorded music sound any more live, nor more alive, than we can with a great record that's played back right.

Analog is also a way out of the many pitfalls that we audiophiles are prey to. The hamster wheel of endless upgrading, our compulsion to keep up with the Joneses, the fetishization of our gear, and our inability to turn the substantial investment we've made into the sound of actual live music playing in our listening rooms. These are all places I was stuck, and I believe many if not most other audiophiles are stuck in these places too. Analog, or at least analog done right, liberated me from these pitfalls. Those magic grooves in my records? They showed me the way out of the runout grooves of this nutty hobby.

How? You may ask. First, I found the right records to serve as emissaries for the music I love. Second, I made these records the driving force behind how I trained my ears and built my system. Doing these two things, first and foremost, combined with a little help from someone who's done it this way, that is the formula I've found for outsized success in audio.

That success has been exceedingly rewarding. I'm sure I'm not the only audiophile who's wondered if all the crazy things we audiophiles do are really worth the effort, or even half the effort. But when you finally play a jazz record and swear you were right there in the room with Miles and Coltrane, or you hear an orchestral piece where the strings are as rosiny and sweet sounding as you'd heard them at S.F. Symphony a night earlier, and the trumpet at the very back of the hall sounds so clear, present and achingly musical, your heart swells, you'll stop wondering. Or when you hear a Pink Floyd record sound so big and powerful, so present and shockingly real, you're afraid it might darn well level your house, let me tell you my friend, you'll not only know it was worth the effort you put into it, you'll know it's worth whatever you have to do to hear it that way again.

I invite you to join me as I explore more of the details of this approach to audio, much of which I've already written extensively about on my website. It's an unconventional approach for sure, and it's, admittedly, not for everybody. But for those with the curiosity, resources, willingness, and perhaps most importantly, fierce desire to hear what's actually on the records they play, I promise you this - it WILL yield results. And if you're interested in coming to hear my system and some of the records I've used to build it with, feel free to reach out to me and set up an appointment for a listening session at my home in Marin City. I've had several people now come and hear my system, then go home and immediately start changing theirs. At the very least, you're unlikely to hear a system like it anywhere else.

In the meantime, consider reading The Skeptical Audiophile and some of what I've written at The Broken Record. Learn a bit more about what myself and a handful of others have done to build systems and record collections in this new way. And stay tuned for the next installment, where I'll get into more of the details of this approach and share some of the benefits I've enjoyed doing audio this way.

Until then, thanks for reading!

Best wishes,
Robert Brook