I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to records over the past few weeks; on a recently acquired Music Hall MMF-9 turntable and on my nearly 20 year old Yamaha PF-800 turntable. I thought now would be a good time to update my analog front end. I do not listen to records very often (typically 5 to 10 hours a month), but when I do, I want a satisfying experience. Since analog playback is an occasional diversion, I am not interested in or willing to pay in the multiple tens of thousands of $ for a “decent” analog setup. Fortunately, I don’t have to, but a turntable “update” is going to be more costly than anticipated.
Some Historical Reference
I started my adventure as an audio hobbyist in 1985. This was around the beginning of the digital playback era. My primary source has always been digital. However, I never envisioned a day when I would “abandon” vinyl records because I have too many that I know will never be transcribed into the CD or SACD format. Besides, even if they were, sad experience has taught me that I might not be pleased with the digital transfer. On the other hand, If I could magically acquire high quality digital versions of all my records, I would sell my turntables and associated paraphernalia and never look back. I absolutely do not like dealing with the maintenance and setup issues with turntables and records.
I purchased the Yamaha PF-800 turntable brand new in September of 1986, which makes it almost 20 years that I have owned it. The 1986 MSRP of the PF-800 was $500. In an earlier post, I mentioned that the PF-800 was nearly 17 years old. I had confused the purchase date of this PF-800 with another one that I purchased used in 1999. I acquired another PF-800 because I really liked its design and performance and Yamaha had discontinued it. I was worried about parts availability in case mine broke. My concerns were unwarranted. In nearly 20 years, I have only had to replace the belt twice and refill the silicon oil in the cueing damping mechanism once. Parts are still available from Yamaha. After the second PF-800 sat unused for a few years, I sold it on eBay for way more than I paid for it when I noticed that they were in high demand (you know how they do on eBay). In 2001, after the original PF-800 had been with me for 15 years, I purchased another used PF-800 on eBay. I thought that mine might die suddenly and I did not want to be caught unprepared. I still have the second used PF-800. I thoroughly tested it when I received it and put it in a closet, where it has remained to this day.
I performed three modifications on the original PF-800: replacement of the tone arm wires, replacement of the stock captive 18 gauge power cord with a captive 14 gauge power cord, and replacement of the captive RCA cables with Cardas GRFA-S RCA jacks. When I was discussing turntable modifications with a Yamaha repair technician, he advised against replacing the tonearm wire because it was specifically selected to work with the PF-800’s unique twin pipe tonearm design. He said that I might hear some difference or apparent “improvement” with low resolution gear, but that apparent improvement would diminish as I used gear with more resolving power. Indeed, I do have higher resolution gear than I did twenty years ago. I decided to put the original tonearm wire back in and test Mr. Yamaha’s theory. He was right. The original wire really is better. Live, tweak, and learn.
Over the years, I have used a variety of cartridges with the PF-800. It is currently fitted with a Yamaha MC-705 moving coil cartridge ($200), which is discontinued and which was only sold in the European and Asian markets. It has a moderate level of resolving power commensurate with its cost. There are several user reviews of the PF-800 and of the MC-705 on the Internet. The only audio magazine review of the PF-800 that I know of is one in the March 1985 issue of High Fidelity.
The PF-800’s 1986 MSRP of $500, adjusted for inflation, equates to $908 in 2006 dollars. The MC-705’s 1986 MSRP of $200 equates to $363 in 2006 dollars . The PF-800 currently sells in the $225 to $325 range on eBay in the US and in the $900 to $1100 range in Europe. Interesting discrepancy isn’t it? The MSRP of the Music Hall MMF-9 turntable/Maestro cartridge package is $1699. This is a third more expensive than the $1271 adjusted 2006 MSRP of the PF-800/MC-705 package.
As is common with many moving coil cartridges (budget and high-end), the MC-705 has a slightly “tipped-up” treble. It is not harsh sounding. It is more like the treble control being turned up just a little bit. The bass and midrange of the MC-705 is excellent. My goals for upgrading my analog source (turntable, cartridge, and phono preamp) were:
1. A quiet, neutral sounding phono preamp of no more than $1000 MSRP.
2. A quiet, neutral sounding turntable with a spring suspension, belt drive, and non-captive RCA interconnects of no more than $1500 MSRP.
3. A moving coil cartridge with a neutral, detailed, and balanced presentation throughout the frequency spectrum of no more than $500 MSRP.
4. Getting rid of the faint hum from the turntable. It is not audible on music playback, but I want it gone anyway.
5. Reasonable price to performance ratio.
Clearly, I am not seeking state of the art analog playback. My investment in vinyl and amount of time spent listening to records does not justify a state of the art or near state of the art analog source. I just want to be “OK”. (For now.)
After two years of careful research and careful listening, the Music Hall MMF-9 turntable with a Goldring Maestro cartridge was the leading candidate for turntable/cartridge combination and the PS Audio GCPH was the top candidate for phono preamp. The Maestro cartridge is a modified version of the Goldring Eroica H (high output) moving coil cartridge. The Maestro has a better stylus and tracks better than the Eoica. The result is a more focused soundstage and more clarity. Specifications for the Yamaha PF-800 and the Music Hall MMF-9 turntable are attached.
My Adcom GFP-750 preamp does not have a phono stage. A Sony TA-E90ES preamp that has a well regarded phono stage was used as a phono preamp. The reason why I did not replace the GFP-750 with the TA-E90ES was that the Adcom is more neutral in its overall sound character whereas the TA-E90ES is just a bit on the “warm” side of neutral at the frequency extremes. Also, the GFP-750 has some features (balance control, phase reversal, switching to mono, passive mode (non-amplified)) that the TA-N90ES lacks.
I first replaced only the TA-E90ES preamp with the GCPH phono preamp, putting it between the PF-800/MC-705 and the GFP-750. I immediately heard the following differences: I was hearing more details in the music and the hum was gone when music was not playing. When I say the hum was gone, I don’t mean gone as in significantly diminished, I mean completely disappeared. I turned the volume controls of both the GCPH and the GFP-750 to maximum and put my ear right next to the speaker. Still no hum.
Listening notes were made with the PF-800/MC-705/GCPH combination and then it was replaced with the Music Hall MMF-9/Maestro combination. With the MMF-9/Maestro, I was immediately struck by the increase in detail throughout the frequency range, clarity, and soundstaging. The sound was perfectly balanced. No one frequency area (treble, midrange, bass) stood out. The only disappointment was the return of the hum. It was lower than with the Yamaha/TA-E90ES setup, but it was noticeable with no music playing.
Next, I put the Maestro cartridge in the Yamaha PF-800. This is when the magic began. The hum has disappeared again, replaced by an inky black, dead silent background. The PF-800/Maestro setup was quieter and had more solid imaging than the MMF-9/Maestro combination. Looks like I could save a few bucks. Instead of a new turntable/cartridge/phono pre setup, I only needed to get a new cartridge and phono pre, which is exactly what I did. I could sense the Yamaha smirking as I boxed up the MMF-9/Maestro for return. I immediately ordered a Maestro cartridge (MSRP $550).
I realize that I am going to have to do three to four times the cost of the PF-800/Maestro package to get any significant improvement (MSRP, not actual cost to me). In addition to higher cost, most of today’s high performance turntables lack some of the Yamaha’s nice ergonomic features and design features such as:
1. An oil-damped and accurate cueing mechanism that raises and lowers the tonearm without any lateral drift whatsoever.
2. An adjustable optical lift sensor-when the tonearm reaches a preset postion at the end of a record, a solenoid is activated that raises the tonearm and shuts off the motor.
3. Fine tuning pitch control.
4. Excellent vibration isolation. The PF-800 uses a double-float, spring loaded plinth suspension system. The plinth (platter base) is hung from three springs tuned to 4 Hz. I can pound my fist on the shelf the turntable is sitting on and the turntable won't skip.
With all that said, my renewed enjoyment of vinyl has me thinking about getting a better turntable/tonearm/cartridge/phono preamp. Maybe a nice Oracle or Clearaudio deck. Maybe (hopefully) this is just a silly phase I'm going through and I'll stop before I end up spending a small fortune on a "record player". ;)