Sunday, June 29, 2008

Turntable Update

Short update I should have done ages ago. Yadda yadda. I couldn't afford to get a new turntable, so I decided to stick with the one I've got for now. For now, as in "the next month or so, depending on the cash."

Anyway, I have a new phono cartridge, the Denon DL-160, a terrific Moving Coil cart with loads of bass and warm, smooth tones. It's a terrific upgrade. I'll need to get an acrylic platter for the Debut III, since that stupid steel platter is a big no-no. Sigh. But I couldn't afford the platter yet, so that's coming this Friday. Hopefully. Really sucks to not have any money, eh?

Also, I've noticed that the prices on all the turntables are going up by $50-$100. Nice. Now the cost of upgrading is reaching a cool thousand, just for all the trimmings. Great.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Pimp My Turntable Baby!

Alright, fine. I'm keeping the turntable.

I was planning to get rid of my current turntable, the Pro-Ject Debut III, in favor of something higher up the food chain. Pro-Ject's RM5 was the big contender, since Needle Doctor has been selling them at a clearance price of $500. That's a pretty good steal for a mid-level table. Too bad I can't afford to spend the cash. Well, I could, but that would be a bit reckless and leave me nearly broke the day I get my paycheck.

So I've decided to suck it in and stick with the current table. I've had a love-hate relationship with the Debut III. Hopefully some upgrades will improve things. In any case, I can't stand to wait another day listening to it as is.

First thing to change is the phono cartridge. The Debut III us packed with an Ortofon OM-5E cart, which is a chincy little thing, not a lot of fun, and had a nasty habit of bouncing all over my records until it was broken in. Good lord, no wonder they gave it away.

Second thing to change is that platter. Which happens to be made of steel. Great. A metal platter. Just perfect for a turntable, when needle cartridges use magnets. Another smart move by the cheapskates in charge.

I hope this will improve the sound a lot, but I don't know. This is my first cart upgrade, so I'll find out if the audiophiles are talking out of their ears, or if these things really do deliver monster sounds. More to come tomorrow.....

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Metallica - Death Magnetic

Only three more months to go before the haters and whiners find something to dislike about the new Metallica album. But I think they'll at least be happy with the title, right?

Metallica played at Bonnaroo last night and were just fantastic. It's become so easily to take this band for granted, since they've been around for over a quarter century, but it really is amazing to see Metallica in action and at the top of their game. I never thought these guys would still be around, much less be physically able to play their old music. Should we expect any different? This band exists from some parallel universe, where Led Zeppelin never died.

Is there another band in this world that can generate such fierce love and hate? Can any other artist draw heated arguments for even their average albums? I doubt it. Metallica fans are a fickle bunch, far too childish and whiny for my tastes, but their passion is well earned.

Can I also point out just how awesome it is that a rock band of 45-year-olds can rock your world better than kids half their age? I'm still amazed that this long, strange trip is still going on, and as long as Metallica is still alive and angry, I'll always be that same 18-year-old who discovered Ride the Lightning in my college dorm room.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Metallica Vs. The Internet, Round Two

Hmm. Looks like Metallica found themselves in another spat over the internet, this time involving early press previews of their upcoming ninth album. And once again they appear hopelessly out of step and a good decade behind the times. Sigh.

What happened is that a number of press were invited to a listening session of the new Metallica album, which by all accounts is a return to the prog-rock thash style of ...And Justice For All, multiple time signatures, endless riffs and segments, yadda yadda. If that's your favorite Metallica period, chances are you'll be in the clouds. And the early media reports have been very positive; at least, it's all positive for now. I remember the "metal" and music press heaping glowing praise on all of the band's CD's, only to throw childish tantrums later down the road. But what do you expect from heavy metal in 2008? The genre's been creatively dead since the early '90s, and it's been a cartoonish fanboy joke ever since.

Ah, who am I kidding? Heavy metal has almost always been a cartoonish fanboy joke. That's why we designate the term "hard rock" for the heavy bands we respect. See: Led Zeppelin, The Who, Deep Purple, and, yeah, Metallica.

Anyway, I'm rambling. The music press came away happy and starting blogging as soon as they could. Then Metallica's management swooped in and tried to shut everyone up, and pushed to have the blog posts removed from their sites. Another triumph for the dying music industry, kids.

Fortunately, there's a happy ending to this story. Metallica has today reversed itself, claiming innocence in the matter ("it's all management's fault"), and encouraging the media to write, write, write away. Some of us cynics would call that damage control, but not me, no. I wouldn't think of it.

That's just the sort of thing an aging rock band like Metallica needs right now. They're still carrying the stain of the Napster saga and came away looking like a pack of greedy, obsolete dinosaurs, caught hopelessly behind the times. Now this. This is why you need to emerge from your rock star mansion more than once every five years. Sigh, again.

As to the album itself, I should mention that it's expected to be ten songs and run around 75 minutes in length. All but one are in the long, epic, eight, nine minutes. So, unless there are any surprises, the 5-disk vinyl album will contain two songs on each side.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Is Metallica Really Dropping Five LPs?

Questions only abound the new Metallica album, only questions. What happened with this album? Is it finished now? Why did it take so long to complete? Why should it take two years to make a studio album, when all reports are that it's going to be a retro retread of their 1980's thrash sound? Is there still any band chemsitry five years after the implosion documented by Some Kind of Monster? Is the creativity still there? Has the band finally run out of ideas? Have they simply grown too old, too comfortable, to even care anymore? Has Metallica finally become a touring nostalgia act. Have they finally become the Rolling Stones?

Questions, questions. Yet no answers. Until I read a small line on their website, promising a vinyl album release containing five LPs. My mind races at the thought of some enormous surprise, another grand explosion of music, another pair of double albums just like in the '90s. Metallica has been releasing, essentially, double albums ever since ...And Justice For All.

I have to admit, there's a certain romanticism to the idea of Metallica swooping down the valley - shocking a music world that has long since left them for dead, for parody, for the state fair circuit with all their other 1980s peers - and unveiling a quintupple album. C'mon, admit it. Even if you've hated Metallica for years, this idea would rock.

But is it really going to happen? I don't know. My cynicism says no, we're just going to get another standard-length album, which for Metallica means somewhere around 75 minutes of music and a dozen songs. Am I spoiled to want more? To expect more? From a band that only bothers with studio recordings once every five years?

Still....I'll be crossing my fingers and hoping that Metallica ain't finished yet. They need to do something big, something grand. This album will decide whether they continue to stay relevent or not.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The New Metallica Album - 5 LP's

I've re-written this post about half a dozen times, without ever finding the right way to break this, and find myself going nowhere. This is something that would spark an hourlong discussion in person, but I'll save that for another post. For now, we'll just get to basics.

I checked Metallica's official website devoted to their upcoming studio album. You know, the one that's been in development for a year and a half. A waiting time that long for a band this experienced is never a good sign, at least to my eyes, so I've feared that middle age has finally creeped up on my old favorite rock band from years ago. It happens to everyone. Part of life. Sigh.

So I checked the "Mission Metallica" site in search of any new developments. There was nothing new, beyond a lot of placeholders and promises. I did find one interesting page, however, and I'm frankly surprised that this has flown under the radar.

The release page includes the different formats the album will be released in, which includes CD, digital download, and vinyl LP. It's the vinyl part that grabbed my attention, since I'm a vinyl junkie. So here's the shocker.

The new Metallica album will be pressed on 180-gram vinyl. It will be packed onto five LPs.

It's going to be five records, kids. That's one-two-three-four-five.

It took me a little while to reel that all in. Let me give you the score. All of Metallica's studio albums since Justice have been double LPs. This includes all their 1990's albums which nearly broke the time barrier of CD. Still two records. The new studio album is going to be five.

Good lord. No wonder Metallica has taken so damned long. This is a nice shocker, kids. Do you have any idea what this means? This is comparable to the Load/Reload albums from the mid-'90s, in terms of length. We're talking two or maybe three hours of music.

Chew on that one for a while. Album comes out in September.

Monday, June 09, 2008

I Should Probably Just Come Out and Admit It

I really am not happy with my turntable. There. I've finally admitted it, after long sighs, endless dancing around, and way too much rationalizing. I really am trying to like my Project Debut III. But I don't. So there.

I've read that this is a common response, especially from vinyl record junkies. You buy a table, only to see that regret set in far sooner than you hoped for. If only I saved up a little more. If only I waited. Maybe it's one of those things you just have to learn the hard way. But I really should have waited another week or two before grabbing another record player.

Skip the niceties. I don't like this table. It's cheap. It has no options for upgrading or tweaking. The packaged cartridge is a joke. I'm glad that I could improve the sound by cutting down on vibrations and moving the speakers around. But there's no color to the music. It looks like water in my mind. Watery shadows, but no color.

So that's my advice for all of you. I'm through with being diplomatic. I want everyone to discover the joys of analog music on records, but it's going to cost you. The Vinyl Anachronist was right all along, kids. $500 is the entry fee to play this game.

I'm hoping that with my next paycheck, on June 20, I can get another table. I'll be looking to sell the Debut to someone looking for an entry-level plug-and-play machine. Maybe I'll get a couple hundred for it. But whatever I find, it better be good. I'm tired of going home with these stopgap measures. I want a REAL turntable, one that lasts for years. I may just have to save up a few more weeks for that Rega table. If so, then so be it. Ya get whatcha pay fer.

This is Gonna Be a Blowout

All of my earlier fears of a repeat of the 2000 and 2004 elections are hereby revoked. This is not the same Democratic candidate. This race won't even be close. I realize that the Republicans most likely don't want to win this one, and are throroughly on the ropes after the disastrous Bush/Cheney era, but still, there won't be any way to spin the losses come November. We're going to see Democratic wins across the board.

As always, take the latest Gallup polls with a grain of salt. These are only snapshots of the current moment, and you should know by now how swiftly politics can change. But I remain optimistic about Obama winning the White House, and winning it handily. We've got all the momentum, and all the energy, and all the ideas. The other side has to defend the worst President in American history. The Torture President. The Permanent War President. That's one hell of a legacy to defend.

So that's my take on things right now. I'm calling this race a blowout. I realize that at age 35, I'm still a bit young to make these sort of pronouncements, but John McCain is easily the worst Presidential candidate of my lifetime. And Barack Obama may just be the best. I think we're finally seeing the fruits of all our hard work, building up the netroots, building our communities, growing our many social and political movements. The 2006 midterms saw the first fruits of our labor, and the momentum is going to carry through to 2008. We're witnessing something that happens only once every 40 years - a paradigm shift in American politics.

I would't say just yet that the paradigm shift automatically means a return to the Progressive Golden Age. I don't expect this to be the second coming of JFK or FDR. It will be different, just as our world is different in the new century. But I am certain that America's love affair with the Conservative Movement has ended. The thrill is gone, and has been for many years, if the truth were known. The only thing that ever really propped up Bush was 9/11. And we all see where that got us.

Let's not rest on our laurels, kids. We've got a lot of work to do. Let's all do our part.

President Barack Obama

Oh, yes, a little bit late with the congratulations, but thank goodness the primaries are finally over. Now the hard part of the campaign is done, and we're one giant step closer to President Barack Obama. Don't you just like the way that sounds? Can you imagine a bigger shift from Preznit Stupid to Obama? It's just like instantly snapping from Son of Sam to Dr. King.

Oh, please please please, somebody keep Bush and Cheney out of trouble until January. You just know they're going to bomb Iran on their way out the door. Just give Stupid some pills and booze and leave him alone. Get him a Nintendo or some coloring books, anything. Just don't let them wreck the globe before they leave. November can't come soon enough, folks.

Black Sabbath Vol. 4

I've been lucky enough to hear several versions of Black Sabbath Vol. 4. The first one I bought was the Earmark reissue, with the nice clear vinyl. The sound was pretty good for me, and I enjoyed it more than either the standard CD or the Black Box. Unfortunately, the Earmarks are all digital, and the inferiority really shows when you listen to the album in analog.

My second Vol. 4 is the 180 gram NEMS reissue. I have no idea where this album comes from, but the NEMS pressings for Vol. 4 and Paranoid are regularly stocked at the Uptown Cheapo in Minneapolis. I've yet to learn just who is responsible for this, whether it's even new or just some old stock pulled from a forgotten warehouse someplace. In any event, that doesn't matter, because this version completely kicks ass.

The NEMS 180g of Vol 4 is one of my favorite sounding records. The guitars just growl, the drums kick and thump all over your walls, the dynamics are terrific, and of course there's that mysterious tape echo that follows guitar riffs. The album cover is orange, instead of the usual yellow, and I think that sums up its sound. It's more colorful, darker, heavier. It has more grit and texture.

I've been bragging about this pressing as long as I've owned it. You really should give it a try and see what it does for you. If the vaunted Vertigo originals are better than this, I would really be amazed.Needless to say, poor Earmark just gets shattered to pieces in mere seconds. Ditto for all the digital versions. And I think that's also the case for the '70s WB pressing as well.

I did pick up a WB Vol 4, and it was nice to have a gatefold sleeve (NEMS has none), but the sound is more mellow, a little bit more watered down. It's in keeping with the other WB Sabbath albums I've heard (although Sabotage for some reason is far better sounding than the others). Here's my personal theory for why this is, and I'll throw it out there so you can debate it.

Vol. 4 was the first time Sabbath was completely in charge of the production. It was in keeping with the move to California and the expansion of their sound. They were really working to expand and grow, and especially put more effort into the production. But it's pretty clear that Tommy Iommi and crew don't have much experience behind the soundboard. They commit what I expect is a rookie mistake - the sound of the album isn't properly equalized.

I'm not sure if that's the right term, but I mean that the finished album has to balance its sound across all the songs, so it's all on an even level. That didn't happen here. The volume levels of the songs, the guitars especially, vary from track to track. St. Vitus' Dance is the perfect example. Or maybe F/X would be another...I'm sure Sabbath took a lot of flack for this at the time, but funny enough, I think this unbalanced sound is one of Vol. 4's greatest strengths. It gives a real dynamic style to the sound. It shows that an album can be greatly varied in tone and volume, even if they're all guitar rock songs. For me, this is a great revelation, because of its influence on my favorite music period of my lifetime - the Seattle grunge rock scene.

To my ears, Vol. 4 is one of the cornerstones of the Seattle sound. Master of Reality would be the other. I suppose Neil Young would fit in as well. But the heavy swampy sound from Alice in Chains, Mudhoney, Nirvana, and Soundgarden is all taken from here. That wonderful '90s obsession with guitar tones, so varied and wild and free, owes its very existence to this Black Sabbath album. At least, that's my take.

Listening to the WB version of Vol. 4 seems to confirm this theory. To my ears, it sounds as though the Americans tried to balance out the volume and tones across the tracks, and it does sound more even as a whole unit. If that's your definition of a good sounding rock album, then you'd be happy. But I think the crazy anarchic spirit of the original recordings is compromised. Why do the American record labels always insist on making edits and changes to these classic albums? They always tried to "improve" those old records, and the results were so often the same.

Anyway, that's my take on Black Sabbath Vol. 4.

Pro-Ject Debut Esprit

Now this is a real groovy turntable, kids.

Now if this were the Debut model that was available in the US, then Pro-Ject would really be cookin'. The Debut Esprit adds a couple cosmetic changes, but they're changes for the better. Notice that acrylic platter, which is a great change from the Debut III's steel platter. The folks at Needle Doctor advice their Debut owners to save up for an acrylic platter, which runs around $100. This is a much smarter move, making it standard.
You should also notice that nice red polish on the table. I really love these glossy colors on the Debut tables. I'm amazed that this sort of thing isn't standard on more turntables. Especially for an entry-level machine, this is the perfect hook to rein in those new vinyl junkies. That platter just makes things even better.
I just wanted to show this off because, well, it's just so damned cool. Unfortunately, it's only available in the UK and Europe. If Project and Sumiko (the American distributor) were smart, they'd jump on this model, and make this the standard entry-level turntable. If you could keep the price in the $300-$350 range, you'd have a fantastic deal.
As far as I'm aware, the only real competition at this price range is the Rega P1, and that's a fairly new entry into this contest. I think the lower-end market is wide open at this point. The vinyl revival is bringing thousands of new fans and listeners every week. Many of them are teenagers or college students, kids who don't have endless piles of money to burn. This isn't the hi-fi realm, where $500 or $1,000 means nothing to the dedicated fan. But you've limited yourself exclusively to the luxury market. There's a whole generation of kids just waiting to get on the magic analog bus and take the ride.
I'm telling you, vinyl addicts, if Debut Esprit was the table I could have bought, I'd be perfectly happy with it. Just add a quality cartridge, and never complain again. The flat black wood of the Debut III (and the P1, for that matter) is just dull, dull, dullsville. The Esprit is all panache.
Now for the bad news. You knew there had to be a catch, right? The price for the Debut Esprit is 224.95 British Pounds. Thanks to the legacy of the President Stupid, the boy-king, Caligula-wannabe, the US Dollar has fallen to such levels that the cost of importing this does $443.00 sound? If we were still in the year 2000, this table would be a steal. Now you have yet another reason to punish the Republicans at the polls in November.
Until then...someone at Sumiko needs to get the ball rolling, and fast.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Hunting for Turntables - Some Pro-Ject Tables

Alright, now it's Pro-Ject's turn. Last post saw a number of high quality turntables from Rega, the veritable gold standard in hi-fi audio. Now let's take a look at some of the Project tables that have been seriously tempting me.

Again, just to recap: I bought a Project Debut III roughly three months ago. It was a dramatic upgrade from my first turntable, a humble little $99 portable from Newmark. That was a thrill for me, and essential at the time, since my room had no room whatsoever for a real stereo system. But after a while it became obvious that the poor little Newmark didn't have the serious chops to compete. So I hunted down a stereo, scoring a vintage 1977 Marantz 2235B stereo receiver, and a nice pair of RCA speakers.
To complete the package, I rushed out - a little too fast, I realized, but I am a music junkie - and returned with the table recommended to me by the fine folks at Needle Doctor. That was the Project Debut III. At $300, it represents the entry-level price for anyone who seriously wants to get into vinyl records.

I should probably point out that there are many cheap turntables available at big-box retailers like Best Buy, usually available for $150 or less. Don't touch those. Don't lay a finger on any of them. No! Bad dog! No soup for you! Those are cheap, all-plastic junkers that aren't worth five bucks at a rummage sale. In fact, you're guaranteed to find something better at any given rummage, really, you'd be surprised at the gems you'll find that some other soul foolishly tossed away. But let's deal with new tables for now, eh?

Back to Pro-Ject. The Debut III is a fine table, and it's a good entry-level machine, a pick-up-and-play table that requires no fuss from the user. The only real upgrade you'd need would be a better needle cartridge, but this is true of any table that comes pre-equipped. It's just like the pack-in games to most videogame consoles. It's just like Altered Beast. You're going to want to chuck that bad boy out and score Sonic. Dig?

So, here to illustrate, a photo of the Debut III, and its twin, a $329 model that comes with a colored finish. These come in many different colors, including blue, white, brown, and red. The red really looks cool. I mean, come on. Every Project table should come with a colored piano finish. Tell me that wouldn't impress your girlfriends or boyfriends.

For me, though, I've caught the tinkering bug, and I'm craving to have something higher up the food chain, something that will last for a while and provide at least a couple options for upgrades and tweaks. At the very least, I want a better tone arm, and a table that can handle far tougher carts. I'm thinking of the carts priced around $500 - you know, the ones the hi-fi press calls, "entry level." Are these people insane? I know how much money writers make. Who are these middle-aged geeks fooling? You just try telling your wife that you want $500 for a needle cartridge so you can hear the floor squeaks on those Beatles records. Yeah, you just try that.

Ahem. I'm just cranky 'cause I don't have that kind of money.

Here's the next table in the lineup above the Debut. It's called the Xpression III, and sells for $599. Fortunately, the US distributors like Needle Doctor (located right here in Dinkytown, yay!) keeps this in stock. They just sold their demo copy several weeks ago for $500, in fact. Wish I had my money saved up for that.

Now, one thing that really bugs me about the turntables of the 2000's is that they look....well, dull. They're nerds. They have no style, no panache. It's all about the design, design, design. That's all fine and good, but most of these tables look the same, either covered in black medium-density-fiberwood (aka MDF, which I thought was a party drug from the '90s), or in a clear acrylic. So it's either black or white, or shades of grey. I really miss the wood frames from the classic '70s tables. I miss wood paneling. I don't care what anyone says. I'll have my rec room decked out in wood paneling and loud carpets - we'll party like it's 1969!

This is why I dig the color finish on those $329 Debuts so much. And that's why I'm really digging Xpression III. As you can see, the table (or plinth...who comes up with these lame-ass names?) has a shiny black piano finish, just glossy and cool. The platter on my Debut is metal; this platter is clear acrylic. Oooh! I'm already planning to sneak in a small blue Christmas light to the back, so the table can glow in the dark. Tell me that's not groovy cool.

More improvements follow. The tonearm, a crucial element of any turntable, is a glossy carbon fiber....and, again, you can see why I'm itching to upgrade. My humble little Debut is looking poorer and poorer. This carbon-fiber arm enables much better sound and allows for much pricier, more powerful carts, especially those exotic "moving coil" carts. The Debut is pretty much limited to "moving magnet" carts, and certain ones at that.

The feet at the bottom are now aluminum cones, which is a standard with tables these days. Everyone tries to limit outside vibrations and interference, so you'll see all audio parts with spiky cones at the feet. It's also stylish, it adds a veneer of cool....I wonder if I could polish them and bring out a shine? Maybe I'll have to pull out a can of gold spray paint for that. I've created some of my best artwork with gold spray paint.

More innovations? The interconnect cables, which are hardwired to my Debut III, are now connected to RCA plugs in the back. That's a nice improvement; even the legendary Rega P3 doesn't allow that. I'll let you argue amongst yourselves whether this means a great improvement in sound quality or a little, but these are the sort of things vinyl junkies (vinyl records, you perv) live for. Even a small improvement in performance is worth taking. So that means another trip to Radio Shack for some Monster Cables, right? Ugh, this hobby is expensive.

In any event, you can now understand my feelings for wanting to upgrade. I do feel guilty for knocking the Debut III. It's a nice table, I really enjoy it. I'm sure a good cart - maybe the Ortofon Red or Blue 2M, which look great - would make it shine. But there are so many areas for improvement, and if I don't pursue them now, I'll go nuts wondering what might have been. This is probably a good test to see how devoted to records you are. Feel happy with wherever you choose to stay. You'll be happier that way.

So that's Xpression III. Here's a look at the next table in line, the RM 5, or RPM 5 as it's known in the UK and Europe. RM5 sells for $650, but without any cartridge (XIII does have a cart), which means I have to factor that into my budget on day one. This is the rule from here on out, kids, so keep that in mind. At this point in the game, your budget has to grow to at least $1,000. If you're not willing to invest that amount, then get off the train now. Lucky you. I really envy you kids.

I wouldn't be mentioning the RM5, since there's the XIII just below, and a number of Project tables just above at $999. But pleasant surprises abound. Needle Doctor has announced the sale of the final 30 RM5 tables in the US, and they are selling them for $500. Five hundred? Now this changes things. To my mind, five hundred is a solid investment. That's a table I can hold onto for many years.

So what's the difference between these two machines? Apart from the tonearm, which is slightly longer on RM5, the only difference I've noticed is its appearance. You can see for yourself. The familiar block table is replaced with something far more compact...really just big enough to hold the platter itself and the tonearm. It's very small. Reminds me of the Sega Dreamcast, which is just about the best compliment I can muster.

Also, we can see the same piano black finish to the table, which is terrific. I like that look. I like it a lot, and I'm glad that Project has put the extra work into their style. They're still upstarts compared to the mighty Rega, so every bit helps. I root for underdogs, always have. The competition is a good thing, especially us.

That platter is a bit different. It's a sandwich of MDF, painted silver. I've no idea if an acrylic platter could be attached, but it does look very nice. I could always spray paint it, or use some acrylic paints - go all Woodstock for personal style. That clamp on the top is a nice touch, and probably does help the sound.

Beyond that? Hard to say. Owners love this table, it has a small if devoted following, but little word online as to its performance. I've really had to dig around the internet to learn anything. But this is true of most turntables. RM5 is one step above the XIII, so we should expect them to be mostly the same. Any major difference in sound quality? I've heard yes, but I'm not so sure.

Then again, at $500, this is a steal. Any way you slice it, this is a great deal for a brand-new turntable. I just hope there's one available when my next paycheck comes in two weeks. Cross your fingers, kids. We'll see how this little story progresses over the next fortnight. Stay tuned....

Hunting for Turntables - Some Rega Tables

Let me tell you kids, the vinyl record is a demanding lover. She's a girl you have to take out and paint the town red all the time. But if you love her right, she will reward you...nicely. But, good heavens, is it expensive. Say what you will on the battle between CD and LP, but I'll give digital music its due - digital is a hell of a lot cheaper.

My current turntable is a Pro-Ject Debut III, a $300 entry-level turntable that's perfect for anyone wanting to dip their toes into the water. If you used to own vinyl records way back in your teenage years, or if you're newly curious about what these big 'ol vinyl albums are about, the Debut III is a good place to start.

Funny enough, for $329 you can have a Debut with a colored table, painted with an attractive shiny gloss. Red is the most popular - duh - and that's one of those things that immediately made me wonder to myself, "why didn't I grab one of those?" My basic black is drab and lifeless in comparison. I really wish the glossy paints were available on more turntable models.

Ah, well. By all rights I should be perfectly happy with my table, but a number of cheap-to-free tweaks - speaker placement; sandwich pucks made of cork, foam, and vinyl tiles; custom platter mats - have dramatically improved my sound. Now that I see what a few novel tweaks can do, I've become, well...edgy. How much better can the sound become on the more expensive tables? Just how much am I missing out on? Naturally, this is never something I can just let go of, and it becomes a gnawing obsession. Which means it's time to start hunting for an upgrade.

The cruel hoax of this hobby is that, for a little more money, there's always something better. There's always going to be another rung on that ladder, if you only saved another $100, another $200. And that's not just the table; it also means the needle cartridge, the platter, the tonearm, interconnect cables, yadda yadda. You see how this sorry game never ends, right? If you have the knack for tinkering, stay the hell away from turntables. You'll never make it out alive.

So, since I'm going to need any number of weeks to save up the money (depending on whenever I get that $600 bribery check from our politicians), let's look at a few contenders from the mid-priced range. "Mid-range," meaning, of course, somewhere under $1,500. It's a good thing I don't own any credit cards.

So let's look at some turntables, shall we?

Let's start off with the name brand most dropped by audiophiles and vinyl junkies: Rega. Rega's tables are always praised endlessly, especially their tonearm, which is something of a gold standard in the industry. At least, that's what I've read. Rega fans are among the most fiercely devoted audio fans around (although Technics freaks are a pretty groovy bunch).

This is one of the newer Rega models, and is also their entry-level table - the P1. Available for $350, it's the direct rival to my ProJect Debut III. I have to admit, I am curious to find out just how these two tables compare. Who comes out on top? Are they evenly matched? Reviews from various magazines and websites are pretty divided, which really surprised me. I wonder if much of the praise leveled at the Rega P1 is due to brand loyalty.

Interestingly, both tables are packaged with the same cartridge, an Ortofon OM-5E, so at least you've got an even match. At $50 cheaper, you're in a better position to equip your Debut III with a better cartridge (change the cartridge, please change the cartridge). Beyond that, I wouldn't advice spending money to pimp out these tables. They're both entry-level players, and they're really just meant for that. A quality budget cart is all you'll need.

Now here's the next serious player - the P3-24. Priced at $895, this is where Rega built its sterling reputation. Keep in mind that the price does not include cartridge. That's extra, and for a table like this, you're capable of spending $500 for a top-notch cart. Isn't this an insane hobby? All this money to play those Led Zeppelin songs you've already memorized and burned into your brain a thousand times over.

Ah, well, such is life. Most audiophiles will immediately pounce on P3-24 as the must-buy table. They'll point to the legendary RB300 tonearm, they'll point to the sterling sound quality pouring out of your speakers. Then they'll play the Rega trump card: upgradability. Rega players are a hacker's paradise. Everything can be tweaked, altered or upgraded. Dedicated fans will eventually switch the glass platter for acrylic, pay several hundred more for a metal sub-platter, talk of rewiring the tonearm, if not upgrading it entirely, and so on and so on.

If you like the idea of hacking your turntable - that is, if you're a car junkie - then you're in heaven. Me? I do like the idea of tweaking here and there, but at some point I just want to forget about the damned machine and just play records. I'd much rather scour Ebay for a vintage Vertigo pressing of Black Sabbath's Master of Reality.

I'll keep my eyes open, in case a used model appears. Still....pricey, pricey.

Moving up one level further, we find Rega's P5 table. It retails for $1,395. What?! Are you freaking kidding me?! Am I the only audiophile who isn't loaded? Okay, considering the prices on the two remaining Rega tables, the R7 at $2,695 and the R9 at $4,995....P5 seems like a real deal.

The big selling point with P5 is something called a TT-PSU, which is an external engine. It's standard on the top two models, but for this table, it's extra. This is a major upgrade, since the name of the game when it comes to turntables is vibration. Cutting out vibrations from your room, from your speakers, from the engine itself - all of these are factors. And the higher-level tables remove the engine from the rest of the table entirely. This is really where you end up in the top-tier of music players.

This is why I keep that $3.20 sticker on my copy of Led Zeppelin IV. It also helps that I have no money to speak of.

So...I'm sure the Rega fans will heap their praises, and good for them. Project is a little newer, so perhaps their fans haven't built up as large a following yet. Certainly the cottage industry for spare parts and extras is tiled heavily in Rega's favor. But, again, this is largely built on how much you want to tweak your table...and how much cash you've got on hand.

I'll close this off before it gets too long. I really don't intend this to be some online buyers' guide. You should only trust your hi-fi dealer or friends who have direct experience. My notions and opinions are all second-hand, at best. I wish I could sit down someplace and just listen to all these tables. I'm sure you'll have an opinion or two of your own.