Getting to the Bottom of Things

Written by Bill Leebens

I recently had the opportunity to spend an afternoon listening to records with a reviewer. In addition to an absolutely ridiculous record collection, he had an extraordinarily-resolving system. If I had to guesstimate the total retail price of all the gear, I’d say it was about $600,000. The reviewer was quick to point out that while he did buy the gear at industry-accommodation pricing, he did buy it all. It wasn’t loaned gear.

The one piece of equipment that was in for review was the cartridge, which retails for about $10,500. That’s a lot of money for a small, easily-damaged thingie, but there are carts that cost far more, and don’t sound as good. The cartridge was in an arm that retails for $40,000 or so—again, a lot of money. The turntable? Oh, about $150,000.

The point is not how pricey the gear is: every one of these playback components set new standards of performance. We discussed the ways in which each of these components was superior to others that had come before, and how the combination was capable of extracting previously-unheard details from records the reviewer had listened to for 50 or 60 years.

“It’s insane! Here’s a medium that’s over a hundred years old, and we’re still learning just how good it can be. We’re finding details we’ve never heard before, things that were embedded in the pressing that we never knew were there. And it might still get even better,” said the reviewer.

We struggled to come up with a parallel in any other field. I’ve given it additional thought since then, and all I’ve come up with is this—and it’s still not exactly the same:

Imagine that you had a camera that took pictures—film or digital, it doesn’t matter. Assume that however you view the images from that camera, what you see is at the limits of resolution.

Years go by, and you keep the negatives/files stored away. Then a new device appears—a scanner, enlarger, whatever. Just for fun, you pull out those old pictures, and suddenly you discover details in the images that you didn’t know were there. You clearly see faces that had previously appeared blurred; you can even see wrinkles and tiny scars and blemishes on those faces.

The improvement is so startling that you check to make sure someone hasn’t switched the images on you —but no, they’re the ones you stashed away, years ago.

The details that are now readily-apparent were always there, in latent form, irretrievable. And now, you can retrieve them. The punchline is that you didn’t really know how good your images were. Beyond that: they may be even better than you can now see. There may still be details that are irretrievable with current technology. Who knows what’s left to be extracted?

In that case, as with LPs, the question is, how much is left? How much information is still there, waiting for improvements in technology to draw out that raw data?

Here’s another puzzlement: as the playback gear has improved, surface noise has been reduced, and wear from previous use/abuse is less obvious. What happened to the dictum of “the more you hear, the more bad stuff you’ll hear”? And yet, the more precise the tracing of the groove, the more forgiving it seems to be of groove insults caused by previous ham-handed playback issues.

I can’t come up with an explanation for that. I suppose that more-sophisticated stylus profiles allow more careful tracing of the groove, but wouldn’t it also mean they’d be more likely to fall into the potholes gouged out by that old record player with the nickel taped on to the tonearm?

As MRIs, scanning electron microscopy, and as-yet unnamed imaging techniques continue to improve with resolution down to the molecular level, what will the limit be? And who thought that 36+ years after CDs were introduced, we’d still be getting more and more out of the venerable LP?

What will be the limit there?

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