Armando "A.J." Conti’s Notes: Comparisons with Master Tapes

6 years ago I had an idea to really test the neutrality / truth of a system. This would allow me to then test my turntables, tonearms, and cartridges using a system whose components downstream of the phono stage were highly neutral.

The search began with finding a recorder that was extremely neutral. I thought that a digital recorder with a very high sampling rate would be the easiest way for this project. Having found such a recorder we tested several microphones to find the most neutral. This took several years.

Actual testing of speaking voices, singing voices, drums, guitar, and saxophone began. These recordings helped guide the way toward low distortion speakers, amplifiers, preamps, and allowed us to further test our cables.

At a point in this process it became obvious that a variation of this test could prove the neutrality of any record player component. We merely needed a “final mixdown” mastering deck (“Final mixdown” refers to the two-channel tape that is mixed down from multi-channel tapes, with the mixed down two channel recording representing the “master tape” that will be used to cut the “lacquer” from which stampers will eventually be made, with the stampers literally “stamping” the PVC into an LP record.) Using that deck with a copy of the final master tape, we could compare the copy of the tape to the lacquer that was used to make that tape. In cases where the lacquer might not be available, a high quality copy of the stamped record could be used, knowing that the record will suffer some information loss relative to the lacquer, and resultantly, the tape.

The day finally came where we were able to compare two different titles of master tapes to pressed records. One LP title is a new copy of a 45rpm record, the other title being a 33rpm record. In the first showdowns, with matched peak volume levels between tapes and records, the records and tapes were compared 4 times per session, one title only, with 4 sessions per title performed.

The results could not be hoped to be better in terms of fidelity of the record player. On the 45rpm title, the only discernible difference is some very low level detail, faint instrumental decay and resonance, and a small amount of “effortlessness”. The overall tonality, image placement left to right and back to front, bass depth, dynamics were nearly identical. To put things in perspective, the difference in the area where there was the largest difference would equate to a much smaller difference than the difference between the Vector tonearm and the SuperArm 9. Folks often press me for numbers, and usually I resist, but I would place the difference as 1/8th the difference between the Vector tonearm and the SuperArm 9. One would have to concentrate in a listening session with a very low level of background noise to hear the difference. If I left for 30 minutes, returned, and someone played the test recordings for me while I was blindfolded I certainly would not have known which source was playing.

It is difficult to express my surprise that our top analog equipment has travelled so far since the last time I heard tests such as these, which was in 1997, using a Debut Vac. turntable with Airtangent Reference tonearm and a Koetsu Pro 4a cartridge. The masters easily and demonstrably beat the turntable in those sessions, and I readily admitted it. Who cared? I don’t compete for sales against master tapes and decks. To begin with, almost no source material is available, and some of the $450+ tapes (the going rate) do not even sound very good, so much so that I have to question their provenance.

Due to shortages of parts, the above sessions, which took place on July 15, 2016, through July 17, 2016, were conducted without the use of the Synchro-Wave and Microthin belt. Any owner of those components will attest to the difference that both make.

These represent only our first tests, with some future tests using lacquers instead of final records, which will be a more direct, “fair” test for the turntable. Based on my comparisons between lacquers and stamped (pressed) records I expect that it will become even more difficult to hear a difference between the record and tape.

In the near future we will be inviting guests for some of these comparison tests.

All in all, I end up in a bit of a new world, where making big strides has now proven to be impossible. The only challenges are to bring more of this performance to a lower level. But all doubt, little nagging concerns about details of the sound that we may be missing with our top products, are gone. It is a very strange place to be.

I have obtained two Ampex ATR 102 mastering decks. I have also obtained 2 copies of master tapes and the records.

Well, in a very high res system I get confused in figuring out which is the tape and which is the record. It is that close. Now, the records have to be carefully produced “high end” records, but that’s not cheating… that’s making a fair comparison. And it proves that our stuff at the top end is so dynamic, goes so deep in the bass, that the loss is absolutely minimal from the tape. It is amazing. I [never] ever could have expected that.

Now, going down the line to our smaller tables, there is some more loss, but the tonality, imaging, scaling, is so accurate, so natural, that all one notices is some lower detail and a bit more masking… With our SuperArm and Inspiration, we are right there. If I played the tape, then the record, one time through one cut on a listener’s favorite record he would have an impossible time except identifying through ticks and pops.

This is why Roy Halee, the highly decorated (with those statues…..) recording engineer and producer, said that he heard things that he had not heard since producing the master tape of Graceland, when he went to the Inspiration from a Rockport. Now I understand.

Huge excitement at Basis these days!