Theater Review: Henry IV Part 2, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Update: the two Henry IV plays are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as part of the Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon series. (, Amazon UK)

Following the brilliant Henry IV, Part 1 at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, I saw Part 2 a few nights ago. I’ve always preferred Part 1 as a play, and in this production, it’s clear which part stands out.

Henry IV Part 1 is a big play, with big themes and scenes. There is the boisterous tavern scene, the thrilling battle, and the intrigue in between. Part 2 came off as a small play, with a lot of small scenes, and little connection between them.

In Part 1, we see the relationship between prince Hal and Falstaff, and we especially see the foreshadowing of what will happen once Hal becomes king Henry V. In the riotous scene at the tavern in Eastcheap, where Falstaff and Hal take turns pretending to be Henry IV, Hal’s father, the prince shows, in just a few words, that he will eventually turn his back on Falstaff. This is the key moment of Part 2, at the very end of the play, showing that this story is much less about the title character – Henry IV – than it is about Faltsaff and the future Henry V.


There’s a lot to get through, however, before reaching that point, and this RSC production is excellent in some ways, but mediocre in others. There are a number of set-pieces, in the tavern at Eastcheap, with Falstaff and others, and with Justice Shallow, an old friend of Falstaff’s, who the latter visits to find some soldiers. There is much comedy in this play, but it’s not as successful as in Part 1 At times, I was wondering if someone else had written parts of it, as the language is as coarse as Dekker and Middleton’s The Roaring Girl, which I saw recently. Sure, this is Shakespeare, but for some reason, it just doesn’t gel that way Part 1 does.

There are some powerful scenes, though. One is where Hal comes to the bedside of his dying father, and, thinking him dead, takes his crown and leaves the room. When Henry IV awakens, he finds the crown missing, and the subsequent scene, with Henry IV lamenting his son’s seemingly swift self-crowning, and Hal explaining his gesture to the king, is very moving.


The minor characters show great talent, in spite of the less brilliant story than in Part 1. In both parts, Paola Dionisotti is excellent as Mistress Quickly, though I had trouble understanding her accent at times; Joshua Richards is wonderful as Bardolf, in spite of his limited role in the play; and Oliver Ford Davies was luminous as Justice Shallow, a character I’ve always felt to be thin and uninteresting.


In the end, the play comes down to those few lines where Hal, now Henry V, renounces his past life of carousing, and with it, his friendship with Falstaff:

My king! my Jove! I speak to thee, my heart!

I know thee not, old man: fall to thy prayers;
How ill white hairs become a fool and jester!
I have long dream’d of such a kind of man,
So surfeit-swell’d, so old, and so profane;
But, being awaked, I do despise my dream.
Make less thy body hence, and more thy grace;
Leave gormandizing; know the grave doth gape
For thee thrice wider than for other men.
Reply not to me with a fool-born jest:
Presume not that I am the thing I was;
For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,
That I have turn’d away my former self;
So will I those that kept me company.
When thou dost hear I am as I have been,
Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast,
The tutor and the feeder of my riots:
Till then, I banish thee, on pain of death,
As I have done the rest of my misleaders,
Not to come near our person by ten mile.
For competence of life I will allow you,
That lack of means enforce you not to evils:
And, as we hear you do reform yourselves,
We will, according to your strengths and qualities,
Give you advancement. Be it your charge, my lord,
To see perform’d the tenour of our word.
Set on.

Falstaff is unshaken, thinking that Henry is just pretending to criticize him, and says, “I shall be sent for soon at night.”

This is not to be, and Falstaff is adrift.


The entire play comes together at this moment, but I didn’t feel that this production gave this scene very much emotion. Something about the scene made it seem inconsequential. It had no gravitas; there were only a few characters on stage – Falstaff and his friends, and Henry and a small retinue – and it seemed small compared to its importance.

This production had an interesting beginning. The part of Rumour, who speaks a prologue, is played by Antony Byrne, who also plays Pistol. He begins by making an announcement asking people to turn off their cellphones and digital watches. Then says, “Turn off your phones. And open your ears.” He then comes on stage in jeans and a Rolling Stones t-shirt, and starts speaking the prologue, but is stopped briefly by a ring on his iPhone. He replies to a text, then takes a selfie, and speaks the rest of the prologue, while hashtags, such as #openyourears, are projected on the stage and the scrim. This was a delightfully modern way to open the play, and it worked very well.

On the other hand, the epilogue was cut. It’s not important to the story, but it does set out what would happen in the follow-up, Henry V. The play ended here with Falstaff’s young page coming out into the middle of the stage, then the lights cutting out. I felt that ending made no sense.

All in all, it was an agreeable night, but, as expected, much less so than Part 1. If you can see both, you should; if not, see Part 1, which is a memorable production and features a brilliant Falstaff.

DVD/Blu-Ray Review: Daniel Barenboim Plays the Complete Beethoven Sonatas

Beethoven_sonatas_2066424Buy from: | Amazon UK | Amazon FR | Amazon DE

Classical DVDs and Blu-Rays come in several varieties. There are the filmed concerts, now commonplace, which are created to provide content to the few “arts” TV channels around the world, then sold on disc to music fans. Some of these are operas, and some are just films of orchestras, ensembles or soloists performing in concert halls. There are also the, now less common, films of artists playing in grand rooms and halls in chateaus or other stately buildings.

What do we really expect from them? They can’t replace the concert experience, no matter how good your DVD/Blu-Ray player and audio system. At best, just like CDs, they provide a record of a performance, but in a way that documents a specific artist’s expressions and emotions. Many of them are simply films of concerts, with little advantage over audio-only versions. Operas are an exception, since there’s the staging and the costumes, and, in some cases, inventive camera-work that will get you much closer to the action than if you were in the audience – just as theatre broadcast to cinemas gives you a totally different view of a play than you would see from the cheap seats, or even the front row.

I’ve seen a lot of DVDs and Blu-Rays, and I’ve been riveted by some, bored by others, and greatly surprised by a handful. I very much like the medium, because they let me approach music differently. However, there are only a handful of optical discs that I’ve watched more than a couple of times. A classical DVD or Blu-Ray needs to have something special to stay on the top of my pile.

There’s an intensely visual performance of Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call time which is entrancing and creatively staged. There’s a film of Purcell’s Fairy Queen which I spin every now and then. And there’s this luminous set of Beethoven’s piano sonatas performed by Daniel Barenboim in a series of recitals in Berlin in 2005. (The latter is also available on CD from Decca, as part of Barenboim’s recent “Beethoven for All” series.)

The latter are probably the films that I watch the most. Not only do I appreciate the subtly inventive camera work, but the performances are excellent. Each program – there are eight in all – provides a selection of the sonatas. Watching these films helped me gain a much deeper understanding of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and a better appreciation of Barenboim as an interpreter of them.

So, when I heard that EuroArts was releasing a “new” set of Daniel Barenboim performing these works, I was very excited. These were recorded in 1983 and 1984 in four different “palaces” and castles, showing Barenboim at what one might call his middle period. His first recording of the Beethoven sonatas on disc, in his mid-twenties, bore the impetuousness of youth. His later interpretations, such as the mid-1980s cycle for DG, show wisdom acquired through experience. These films are from that period, and catch Barenboim at a stage where he had been playing these works for decades. His performances here are polished and refined, though lacking the sparkle of the 2005 live recordings. Barenboim is generally expressionless as he performs, and, while he gets a bit animated at times, his face betrays very little.

The filming is unadventurous. Edits are conservative, there are lots of long shots, and not many showing Barenboim’s dazzling finger-work. There is much attention to the surroundings; the buildings are merely the setting for the music, however, and shouldn’t be more than that. There are some very long static shots, which are very different from today’s MTV-influenced videos.

This leads me back to the original question: what does one expect from a film like this? It’s got great music – more than 11 hours of it -, an excellent performer, and is a visual record of that performer in his element. But he’s really in a studio – albeit a grandiose one – without the spontaneity of the stage, and in many ways it’s similar to a film of someone in a recording studio. No one will watch 11+ hours of Beethoven, or even the 200 minutes or more on each disc (Blu-Ray), in a single sitting. Unlike CDs, which have the convenient length of about an hour, optical discs require more of a time commitment. You can dip into them at any point to hear a favorite sonata but then you will end up not hearing them all.

Technically, this is another of EuroArts’ Recorded Excellence releases, where the company has scanned old 35mm footage to bring it to today’s audiences. The restoration is as good as possible. Compared to something filmed in HD today, it’s lacking; there’s grain and blur, lighting issues and color saturation problems, but they don’t distract from the performances. The images are judiciously cropped from 4:3 to 16:9, and you don’t really notice the difference. (I have the Blu-Ray version of this set; it is also available on DVD.)

In the end, if you’re a fan of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, and especially of Daniel Barenboim’s performances, you’ll want to own this, as there aren’t many complete sets on film. I prefer the live recitals because they are more spontaneous, and because each one is a programmatic selection of three or four sonatas, rather than them being in number order. If you’re not familiar with Barenboim’s recordings of Beethoven’s piano sonatas, I strongly recommend you give these a listen – on film or CD. This is a fine document of one of the best performers of Beethoven on piano. In a field with a lot of competition, I find his recordings to be among my favorites. Maybe you will too.

This review was originally published on MusicWeb International.

What Are the Best “Focused-Writing” Apps for OS X?

I wrote an article a while ago about The Tools I Use: Writing and Text Apps, discussing the different apps that are part of my writing toolbox.

In my latest Macworld article, I look at several “focused-writing” apps for OS X. “These apps, increasingly popular of late, allow you to write in a focused environment, export your writings to various formats, possibly apply basic styling, and let you print your work.”

I have tested many of these over the years, and, while my choices may not match yours, it’s worth looking at what’s available. I picked several that I like a lot, and it’s safe to say that there’s no shortage of excellent apps in this category for OS X.

Theater Review: The Roaring Girl, by Dekker and Middleton, at the Royal Shakespeare Company

I rarely leave a theater at the intermission, but last night, at The Roaring Girl, performed at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre, my partner and I did just that. After what seemed like an interminable first part, the interval finally came, and we both looked at each other and discussed how bad the play was. We decided that we didn’t need another hour of it, and headed home.

The Roaring Girl, written by Thomas Dekker and Thomas Middleton, around 1607-1610, is, as the RSC says, a “subversive city comedy about the feisty Moll Cutpurse who unmans all who cross her path.” Unfortunately, it’s a bad play, and the current RSC production tries very hard, perhaps too hard, to make it better.

The language is poor, the jokes coarse, and the plot is just too complicated to follow. It has something to do with a rich son who wants to marry someone, whose father doesn’t want the marriage to happen, and after that, I just got lost.

It seemed that, with this bad play, the actors and director tried to make something out of it, and tried too hard. The actors were all over-acting, trying to camp it up and make the bad jokes funny. There were lots of in-jokes about London, which no one laughed at, crude sexual innuendoes, which were just embarrassing, and overall poor timing that made the jokes fall flat.

While Lisa Dillon’s opening of the play – sitting alone in a chair, speaking an introduction – showed her as a potentially interesting interpreter of the “roaring girl,” Moll Cutpurse, once she was on stage with other actors, she tended to go overboard.


Photo by Helen Maybanks, for the RSC.

Set in the Victorian period, with a beautiful set and excellent lighting, the production was visually sumptuous. The choice of music, however, was disturbing. It was loud and overbearing, a combination of rock, jazz and ska, with one scene where Moll comes up from the center of the stage, playing an electric guitar and singing. It was so loud – I was sitting in the third row – that it was annoying.

I’ve only had a couple of experiences in the theater when I couldn’t wait to leave, and this was one of them. (Last year’s Globe Theatre production of Henry VI in York was one of them.) But this Roaring Girl just dragged on. There was one redeeming scene with Mistress Gallipot and her husband, about a letter the former had received and a secret lover, which was delightful. In fact, Lizzie Hopley, as Mistress Gallipot, was the only high point for me in the play. But I had no idea what that scene had to do with the rest of the play; what plot there is is so convoluted, and there are so many characters, that it was too hard to follow.

The Telegraph, in its review, called the play “over-the-top and underwhelming,” saying, “this effortful, strident production proves a botched shot at a play that in more sensitive hands might have yielded richer comic rewards.” I’m not sure that’s the case; it’s just not a good play.

Whats On Stage said, “My overriding impression is of a production that lacks confidence in the source material and so decisions have been taken to ‘improve’ it. On the whole, these decisions only seem to highlight the inherent weaknesses in the script and consequently make for an unsatisfying evening in the theatre.”

And that sums it up well. One goes to the theater hoping to be entertained. The Roaring Girl does not deliver.

(It’s worth noting that there were lots of empty seats in the theater, and looking on the RSC website today, I see that there are plenty of tickets available, even for today’s performance; at the time of this writing, 1:30 pm, about 175 seats. The RSC has been advertising this play a bit to spur sales; during a recent trip to Birmingham, I saw posters for The Roaring Girl in bus stops. It would be unfortunate if this were someone’s first experience seeing a play at the RSC.)

002.pngA friend asked me today a question about iTunes. It’s one I get often. And the answer is, the best iTunes keyboard shortcut™ ever.

He wanted to know how he could find what’s playing in his music library. After tagging a bunch of songs, and moving around in different views, he wasn’t sure what he was listening to. (He could see it in the iTunes LCD, but he wasn’t sure where it was located.)

The best iTunes keyboard shortcut™ takes you to the currently playing track, and highlights it. Just press Command-L (Control-L on Windows). Whether you’re listening to music, watching videos, or listening to iTunes Radio, Command-L transports you instantly to the item that’s playing. (You can also choose Controls > Go to Current Song, if you prefer using menus.)

So memorize that one. If you get lost in your iTunes library, a quick Command-L takes you back where you want to go. There’s only one exception: if you press Command-L while playing music you’ve added to Up Next, iTunes will go to that music in the Music library. If you had added the music from a playlist, iTunes won’t go there.

Note: this doesn’t work with the iTunes Store, so if you’re listening to a song preview in the iTunes Store, pressing Command-L won’t do anything. Unfortunately.

How It Works: Audio Compression

The term “compression” is often a source of confusion when discussing digital music. There are two kinds of compression. The first is the kind used to compress the size of files; this is data compression. There is lossy compression, using with MP3 and AAC files, and lossless compression, used with FLAC and Apple Lossless formats.

But the other kind of compression, dynamic range compression, is the much derided method of limiting the amount of dynamic range in music. The point of dynamic range compression is to make less of a difference between the quietest parts of a piece of music and the loudest parts. Most music is compressed as part of the recording and mastering process, because it does sound a lot better, and keeps you from blowing out your speakers. But over-compressing music makes it sound like crap.

The best way to understand dynamic compression is to look at a couple of audio waveforms. The screenshots below were made using Rogue Amoeba’s Fission audio editor.

Here’s a song which is free on iTunes today. I chose this one because, well, any free pop single is likely to be heavily compressed, and this example shows that I’m not wrong.


You can see two things in this waveform. The first is that the song is almost universally loud; the waves show the loudness. The second thing to notice is that there is a lot of clipping; audio volume that hits the top of the available limit. This is bad. As Wikipedia says:

Music which is clipped experiences amplitude compression, whereby all notes begin to sound equally loud because loud notes are being clipped to the same output level as softer notes.

Excessive compression has led to what is known as the loudness wars. This is when record producers make their songs louder and louder so they stand out against other songs. Generally, the human brain perceives louder music to be better, so additional loudness can make a song more compelling. But, in the end, all this has done is made lots of loud, clipped songs.

Here’s an example of a song which is not compressed. This is Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here:


You can see the difference in two places in this screenshot. In the overall timeline at the top of the window, you can see that the music has a shape; in the first screenshot of the free pop single, it’s just one long mass of sound. And in the actual waveform, you can see that there is modulation, and no clipping, in the Pink Floyd song.

The difference is that you may play your Pink Floyd song at a louder volume, in order to hear the quiet parts of the song, but the louder parts will be, well, loud. In the first song, the entire song is loud, and you’re likely to become fatigued more quickly after listening to music like that.

For good examples of audio that is not compressed – or only very slightly – watch a movie. In general, movie audio is not compressed; this is why the dialog is often too soft, but the special effects are too loud. This is why you often need to adjust the volume for movies with lots of explosions, otherwise your ears hurt. (You may have an AV receiver which has a dynamic range compression feature; if you’ve turned this on, you may not hear such large differences in volume.)

Dynamic range compression isn’t a bad thing; it’s just bad when it’s overdone, as is the case in much popular music today.

When Will Apple Start Selling Lossless Files on the iTunes Store?

Update: I posted this article in January, 2014. Recently, there are new rumors around the possibility that Apple would be selling high-resolution audio files in the iTunes Store. Notwithstanding the fact that high-resolution music is a marketing ploy, I consider it highly unlikely that Apple will sell such files in the near future. This rumor isn’t new; it’s been around since early 2011. Apple requests high-resolution files from record labels in order to correctly create Mastered for iTunes files. Apple’s portable devices simply don’t have enough storage to hold many high-resolution files. However, I do think that Apple will soon begin selling lossless files. Here’s what I wrote a few months ago, with some slight changes to bring the article up to date.

A while ago, I posted an article discussing Why iTunes Doesn’t Support FLAC Files. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback, both in comments to the article and in emails, from people wondering when Apple will start selling lossless files on the iTunes Store. (These are music files that are the exact equivalent as music on CDs, and Apple could use the format that they developed, Apple Lossless, to provide this quality.)

I think Apple will eventually do this, but that they’re in no hurry to do so. The quality of the AAC files that Apple sells (at 256 kbps) is certainly “good enough” for most uses. If you do the kind of test I discuss here, it’s unlikely that you’ll hear a difference. And unless you have very good audio equipment, then you most certainly won’t.

Nevertheless, many music fans (though certainly a minority) want lossless music files. And, just as Apple has pushed its “Mastered for iTunes” files – which, interestingly, are not always better quality than regular AAC files – they could use the sale of lossless files as a marketing tool.

If so, I think they would do so in a way similar to the way they sell video. Currently, you can choose between SD and HD videos for most movies and TV shows you get on the iTunes Store (older shows and movies in SD only don’t offer that choice). And, when you choose HD, you can choose from two qualities. As you can see below, you can choose from levels of HD quality.


I can imagine that iTunes would offer the option to download lossless or lossy files, perhaps with a premium for the former, as they do for HD video (though they have to keep the price below that of CDs, which, of course, are lossless and easy to import into an iTunes library). And there would most likely be an upgrade option for music you’ve already purchased, as they did when they moved from 128 kbps files to 256 kbps.

But I also think that you would have the option of downloading lossy files as well, notably to use with iTunes Match on iOS devices. Because lossless files are much larger, using them would fill up an iOS device very quickly. You can convert lossless files to lossy versions when syncing to an iOS device, but if you download music directly onto an iOS device, you don’t have this option.

While the market is small, the marketing value is large; if Apple were to offer lossless files, they’d be the first major music retailer to do so. (Many labels that sell their music directly offer lossless files, but no large music retailer does.) I can foresee Apple doing this in the next year or two, after they’ve worn out the Mastered for iTunes campaign.

Theater Review: Henry IV Part 1, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Update: the two Henry IV plays are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, as part of the Live from Stratford-Upon-Avon series. (, Amazon UK)

It’s been a while since I saw a Shakespeare play; the last one was Richard II at the RSC, with David Tennant. I was somewhat disappointed in that production: Shakespeare’s history plays aren’t always the most interesting, and the cast, to me, seemed overshadowed by Tennant.

Last night, however, another history play blew me away. Henry IV Part 1, the first of two Henry IV plays, has recently started running at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon, with Antony Sher as Falstaff.

The Henry IV plays are odd. They are the only history plays that contain so much comedy, and the most important character in them is not the named character. In fact, King Henry IV is almost a minor character in part 1. He has the fourth longest part in the play, with 341 lines, after Falstaff (616 lines), Henry Percy, or Hotspur (562 lines), and Henry Prince of Wales, or Hal (551 lines).

Falstaff is clearly at the center of this play, not only in the tavern in Eastcheap, where he is in his element, but also on the battlefield, where he shows his true colors. And he’s the star element in this play: he’s the actor who gets chosen as a draw, and he gets on the poster. In Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (, Amazon UK), Harold Bloom focuses almost entirely on Falstaff. “The two parts of Henry IV do not belong to Hal, but to Falstaff, and even Hotspur, in the first part, is dimmed by Falstaff’s splendor.”

The RSC’s current production, directed by Gregory Doran, shines a light on Falstaff, and highlights the humor of the play, but does not neglect the rivalry between Prince Hal and Hotspur. This rivalry, both between the two and in the mind of Henry IV, is set out in a statement that the king says to the Earl of Westmoreland in the first scene:

O that it could be proved
That some night-tripping fairy had exchanged
In cradle-clothes our children where they lay,
And call’d mine Percy, his Plantagenet!
Then would I have his Harry, and he mine.

Prince Hal is under the influence of Falstaff, and the first time Hal appears onstage – waking up with two young women – Falstaff comes out from under the covers at the foot of the bed. They drink and carouse together, much to the chagrin of the king.


The tie between them is strong, and clear, though one never learns how they met, and why they became so close. Falstaff can be seen as a surrogate father to Prince Harry, and his warmth and affection are apparent. Falstaff is a bumbling, old, fat drunk, but he’s the drunk you want to have by your side. His loyalty is obvious, and he’s a riot to be with. Sher gives Falstaff a voice and character that shines brilliantly from the stage. The set pieces with Falstaff brought the house down: the long scene where he recounts the bungled robbery of some pilgrims, then pretends to be the king, is a delight. The comic timing of the cast is wonderful, and I, like most of the audience, was in stitches.

Contrasted to Falstaff, Alex Hassell’s Prince Hal is stately and upright, yet perfectly conveys the insouciance of youth; at least until later in the play, where he has to take up arms against Harry Percy. He then shows that he has what it takes to become king.

Trevor White, as Harry Percy, or Hotspur, is a seething cauldron of anger and hatred. White walks a fine line; he’s just shy of overdoing his portrayal of this character. But his attitude felt realistic, even his gesticulations of pleasure at being able to fight King Henry’s men. He is loud and boisterous, but his overzealousness works well.


While the scenes with Falstaff are full of laughs, the rest of the play does not lack energy. There are some slow scenes – particularly the first scene with King Henry and Westmoreland, and some of the later scenes that discuss the disputes between the king and Mortimer, Hotspur’s uncle. But the action picks up in the climax, which occurs at Shrewsbury, where a vast battle will decide the fate of the kingdom.


The battle scene is breathtaking: the actors are running back and forth, swinging swords and clashing shields. Sitting right next to the stage, I had to lean back, to keep my distance, as all that metal was flying so close to me. Amidst all this, of course, is Falstaff, who first plays dead, then pretends that it was he who killed Hotspur, not Prince Hal. There is one moment in this scene where Antony Sher shows Falstaff in a nutshell: the rotund man, lying on the ground, has great difficulty getting up, rocking back and forth like a turtle on its shell, much to the delight of the audience.

The staging was inventive, with quick changes from an empty stage to the tavern in Eastcheap, and with a powerful use of lights and music. The pacing of the play was rapid and full of movement, with the exception of a couple of scenes where characters were static.


This production of Henry IV Part 1 is riveting, hilarious, spectacular and a true delight. It’s one of the best I’ve seen at the RSC, and the rousing applause after the performance reflected three wonderful hours of theater. I want to see it again.

Don’t miss this production. It’s playing in Stratford-upon-Avon through September, then in London, and a number of other cities in the UK. It’s also going to be broadcast in cinemas on May 14.

Photos: RSC, Kwame Lestrade.

Do Vinyl Records Sound Better than CDs? (Spoiler: Nope)

I’ve been discussing a number of audiophile myths here on Kirkville, and today I’d like to address another one: the myth that vinyl sounds better than CDs (or downloads). Vinyl sales are booming, reaching the highest levels in more than ten years. To be fair, this isn’t difficult; as long as sales continue to increase, they’ll be higher than any time since the Great Vinyl Decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

People abandoned vinyl for several reasons: CDs were more convenient, less fragile, and sounded better[1]. Turntables were annoying and fragile, and you had to manually change sides of records; with CDs, you can play an entire album without flipping discs.

I grew up with vinyl, and, while I miss the bigger artwork, and the added room for liner notes, that’s all I miss. I don’t miss the clicks and pops of vinyl, or the way that, if you bumped into the turntable, or whatever shelf it was on, you could scratch a record, damaging it permanently. With older, scratched records, sometimes the only way to listen to them was to place a penny on the cartridge to add weight to it. Also, the quality of the plastic used for vinyl records was often poor, meaning that records wore out quickly. Oh, and you had to deal with dust, records that warped if exposed to heat or were stored flat, static electricity that could perturb things, the spindle hole that might be off-center, and wow and flutter that added noise to playback.

But the biggest problem with vinyl is simply that records wear out. Audiophiles tout the higher frequency response of vinyl over CDs, saying that vinyl can play back those frequencies that we can’t hear.[2] First, this is only true with a pristine record, a perfect stylus, and a high-end stereo system; in most cases, vinyl’s frequency range is lower than that of CDs. Bear in mind that needles used to play records are made of diamonds, a very hard substance, and each play of a record wears it out a bit. This wear results in lower frequency response and lower overall fidelity. Stereo separation is poor on vinyl; there is spillover from one channel to the other, which is an inherent weakness of the playback process. And, because of RIAA equalization[3], the sound on a recording is manipulated, both for pressing, to reduce low frequencies, and for playback, to attempt to restore them.

But there’s another problem with vinyl that most people don’t consider. The first grooves on an LP offer 510 mm of vinyl per second, but as you get to the end of a side, there’s only around 200 mm per second; less than half the resolution. This is similar to the difference in tape speeds dropping from, say, 15 ips (inches per second) to 7.5 ips. Anyone who has worked with tapes knows that this speed difference results in much lower fidelity. Back in the LP days, musicians would argue about who got their songs on the beginnings of sides, and the music you listen to on an LP gets lower in quality as you get closer to the center.

Most people, when discussing vinyl, talk about an “analog sound,” saying that vinyl sounds “warmer” or “richer” than digital. It does; because there is less frequency response (poorer reproduction of high frequencies), and more distortion. Just as tube amps may sound “better” because of the distortion they introduce into playback, the same is true for vinyl. That “warmth” you hear is simply the poor quality of the playback; the distortion caused by the analog chain, and its lack of detail.

“But the other part of it is that the experience of listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”[4]

There’s a fetishism around vinyl, it’s about the process of listening. If you take more time to prepare for something, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy it more. If this is what you want, then by all means, go for it; but the sound of vinyl is actually inferior to that of CDs or digital audio.

So this is yet another myth that’s used to market products to people who don’t know better. You may like the idea of vinyl, but my guess is that, if you grew up with vinyl, you are probably aware of its limitations, and don’t want to go back into the past. I find it interesting that many audiophiles prefer a format that provides audio in a lower quality, and with more distortion.

Let me close with a few tidbits from turntable reviews in hi-fi magazines.

Each instrument and voice sat unambiguously in the soundstage with a largeness and roundness at its edges–the opposite of an analytic and etched sound.

Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine sounded brilliant on the Clearaudio Ovation, which lent just enough warmth and body to the sound to humanize this music while not obscuring its drive and pulse, its stops and starts.

the music was a steady stream of sound that quickly became a river, then just a few drops

produced a big, slightly warm orchestral sound. String tone was rich, with a pleasing golden glow. The piano’s lower register was cleanly rendered and remained well defined against the hall’s reverberant field. The upper keyboard sounded supple, with a rich, woody, yet sparkling bite. Image stability and solidity were never in question, and the system’s dynamic punch announced a turntable that seemed in complete control.

And, I’ll finish with another gem from What Hi-Fi?:

Play an album such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Point 5 delivers an energetic sound that combines fluidity, stability and authority brilliantly.

Where most rivals render a sharply etched sound packed with detail, the Point 5 has a more rounded presentation where the leading and trailing edges of notes aren’t overly emphasised, but the bits in between are defined richly.

The result is an immensely likeable presentation that’s big and muscular without suffering from a lack of agility or finesse.

  1. Yes, many early CDs sounded bad, because mastering engineers initially used masters created for LPs, and it took a while for them to, well, master the process for the digital medium.  ↩
  2. See Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.  ↩
  3.  ↩
  4. Pitchfork: Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?  ↩

How Hi-Fi Magazines Write about Cables, Part 9: Banana Plugs

61-GbTPO+oL._SL1500_.jpgI hate connecting speaker wire to speakers and amps. I finally broke down and bought some banana plugs: I bought 24 of them. (, Amazon UK)

With banana plugs, you run your speaker wire in the big hole in the side, after unscrewing the bottom part, then screw it shut to hold the wire firmly. You can then insert the plugs into the speaker terminals, assuming your speakers are compatible with banana plugs.

As you can see, the banana plugs I bought aren’t expensive, but you can spend a few hundred dollars on a pair of them. Remember, for a stereo with two speakers, you need four pairs: one for each end of each speaker cable.

So, I naturally went in search of reviews of these audiophile banana plugs. I was surprised that I didn’t find any. Imagine spending a couple thousand dollars on speaker cables, then putting $2 banana plugs on them. Wouldn’t that ruin the entire system? Apparently not; even in audiophile forums, I don’t see any kind of raving about top-of-the-line banana plugs. (Many expensive audio cables come with banana plugs fitted, but not all.)

So, if the cable is great, it makes a difference. But you may connect an expensive cable to your speakers or amps with cheap banana plugs, and that has no effect? Interesting.

If anyone does find reviews of banana plugs, let me know.