Friday, 17 October 2014

TEST: Archimago's LP Needle Drop Blind Test.

Hello everyone. Welcome to another "blind" test! Unlike the previous High Bitrate MP3 Test last year and the more recent 24-Bit vs. 16-Bit Test, this one is much more subjective and essentially for fun :-). Not that previous tests weren't fun, but the results of this one is more for the experience of having tried (that's at least part of the fun of this hobby I hope!)...

This time, we're looking at vinyl "needle drops"; digitized output from turntable setups. You can download the test file here: 
Login: LP 
Test: test
Download the file "Archimago's LP" (~125MB).

Alternate download site (thanks again Ingemar):'s LP

Within the ZIP file, you will find 3 sample FLAC files - A, B, and C. Each is a high-resolution 24/96 audio recording of 2 minutes, 2 seconds duration. I trust this is a long enough sample to evaluate the sound quality.

Each file was created with the same LP; a 2012 180gm remaster of Paul Simon's "Graceland", specifically the last track on side 1 - "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes" (Matrix / Runout (Side A): 88691914721-A RE1 20315.1(3) STERLING RKS) so there's maximal inner groove distortion potentially. This LP is completely "virgin", purchased new about a month before I did these recordings and never been played before these samples. The LP looked clean and about as perfect (eg. no warps, dents, fill defects, scuffs, scratches...) as can be. I used an air blower to remove any obvious surface dust. It was NOT washed prior to playback since I did not want to inadvertently add anything (nor can I say I removed any potential deep embedded dust from the factory).

The recordings were done in the following order with the following systems:

1. Roksan TMS (first generation), SME309 magnesium tonearm, Ortofon Cadenza Black cartridge fed into a Whest PhonoStage.20 preamp. Audio output was through a pair of shielded 6' RCA cables plugged into the preamp (no balanced XLR on the Whest). Total cost for this setup should easily exceed $5000 on the used market.

Took a shot right after the vinyl needle drop was done...

2. My own stock Technics SL-1200 M3D turntable. Denon DL-110 cartridge fed into the Emotiva XSP-1 preamp (Gen1). This cartridge is a high-output moving coil (HOMC, 1.6mV) so the preamp was set at standard MM load and 47kohm load. Output recorded off 6' of MonoPrice balanced XLR cables. Total cost of this would be <$2000 considering the Technics was bought used. The Denon DL-110 costs about $150-$200 new shipped.

3. My own stock Technics SL-1200 M3D turntable. Shure M97xE cartridge fed into the same Emotive XSP-1 preamp (Gen1). This is a standard moving magnet cartridge with 4mV output. Again, 47kohm setting used on the preamp. Output recorded off 6' MonoPrice XLR cable. Slightly less expensive than (2) above with the Shure cartridge <$100. Again, total cost of this system would be <$2000.

Technics setup calibrated using Baerwald geometry and SME tonearm using the SME-supplied protractor (Stevenson?). Vertical Tracking Force optimized with digital scale (Ortofon = 2.3g, Denon = 1.8g, Shure = 1.25g dynamic stabilizer disengaged). Azimuth set to perpendicular by visualization using a mirror protractor. I tried to optimize the "stylus rake angle" to something like 92-degrees (I honestly believe it makes no sense to spend too much time or effort on this unless extremely misaligned; vinyl thickness differences and mild but common surface unevenness will easily affect this):

eg. Denon DL-110 stylus on vinyl. Photo taken with Nikon D800 using Tamron SP 90mm/2.8 macro lens at f8, manual focus on small tripod. Angles estimated & measured on screen with MB-Ruler.
Analogue-to-Digital conversion was done with the Creative E-MU 0404USB device at 24/96 using Audacity to record. I can confirm with A/B switching while playing the digital file off a Squeezebox Transporter and the Technics turntable playing at the same time that the sound is essentially identical when volume matched.

For consistency, the digital files were:
1. Trimmed to ~2'02" in length.
2. First second essentially silenced to provide the same "lead in".
3. Last 2 seconds faded out to silence.
4. All file volumes RMS normalized to -18.87dB. Note that there are a few clipped samples due to unanticipated dynamics of this recording but should not impede evaluation.
5. All samples compressed to FLAC lossless and tagged.
6. Randomized to Sample A / B / C.

Other than the above there was no other processing done to the files. Nothing like noise reduction or ClickRepair for example.

As you can see from the DR meter log file (foo_dr.txt from foobar2000 plug-in) in this ZIP file, the music has a good dynamic range of 14dB. (Excellent LP remaster!)

Your task:

1. Listen to the 3 tracks in native 24/96. Which sample did you think was the best? Which did you think was the worst? (It's OK to also feel there's no preference or even if you notice a difference, think that it would make no difference to musical enjoyment.)

2. How much difference did you hear? Although the cost differential is much more between the Roksan vs. Technics setups, suppose your system sounded like the "worst" sample, would you spend $1000 to upgrade it to sound like the "best" sample?

3. Go and fill out my simple survey. All 7 questions are mandatory and I will have to delete responses that have not been filled out correctly. Should take <5 minutes. Please also let me know which computer/DAC and what headphones/speakers used. Also whether you used something like the Foobar ABX tool for evaluation.

As usual, thanks to all who try this out! It's not often that one gets to hear turntable setups side-by-side and this was about as "controlled" as I could find a way to do this to get a taste of what disparate gear could sound like. As usual, although this test is more subjective than previous tests, make sure to listen and not just look at waveforms in an audio editor, also, I think it's better not to discuss one's results until after the test is complete so as not to influence others.

I'm going to run the survey until November 30th - I'll be overseas for a bit so in case there are issues, please leave a note in the comments section if you run into any difficulties. Have fun with this!

Best regards,

Disclaimer: I believe this test conforms to the spirit of "fair use" for copyrighted material for the purpose of education and research. The author derives no financial benefit from conducting this survey.


  1. I thought this could be of relevance/interest regarding the DR ratings.

    1. True, while I think vinyl rips inherently will magnify the DR compared to the source CD/hi-res PCM, just as a measure of the digital rip is OK.

  2. Archimago,

    Great track choice, I have an LP rip of this made on a Nottingham Analogue Spacedeck and Ortofon Rohmann; plus on CD I have 'Negotiations And Love Songs 1971-1986' which includes 'Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes'

    And I really like Paul Simon... :-)

    Do you have 'The Paul Simon Song Book' if not you should, it has a very interesting version of 'The Sound Of Silence' pre S & G.

    1. Hi Stephen, thanks for the tip! I've seen 'The Paul Simon Song Book' at the local used album store but never picked it up... I'll keep an eye for it next time I visit :-)

  3. Thanks for this - very interesting. Am very curious to see the results :)

  4. Hi Archimago, nice blog.
    For this test I fail to understand how a really good setup could distinguish itself, as all the recordings have gone through the same bottleneck of the limited ADC of the emu0404 in the end?

    1. Why would a 24/96 ADC be a bottleneck?

      You do know vinyl tops out at about 11 bits...

    2. Fair point about the EMU being a limiting factor. Stephen - 24/96 doesn't automatically mean good enough quality for accurately capturing all the audible differences.

      PS - Track A is corrupted in the zip file??

    3. Simon, you might find this useful.

    4. What sample-rate / bit depth / file format would you say would be needed to 'capture' the magic of vinyl ?

      When analysing the 3 files I found SUBSTANTIAL differences between all 3 files.
      So to me it seems the EMU had no problems capturing those substantial electrical, yet small audible differences.
      This time, however, I listened FIRST and then analysed the files (for the fun of it)

      Track A worked fine for me but used the alternate download.