Exclusive interview with Michael Fremer

Vinyl and analog with "Mickey" Michael Fremer

An exclusive interview with Michael Fremer. Read on why vinyl and analog never left the homes of some music lovers etc.

How did all started for becoming a Mr. Vinyl?

   I didn't know I was "Mr. Vinyl"! But I've been a record collector and enthusiast since I was three years old. When the compact disc came out I was excited until I heard it. It sounded horrible. When all of the engineers in the room--this was at an AES-- said it sounded 'great', I knew good sound was in trouble and so was vinyl so I started my pro-vinyl campaign. This was in 1983. I wrote letters to newspapers and I wrote articles in Los Angeles music magazines about the coming "digital disaster." I was not an audio journalist at the time. Just a hobbyist. Everything sort of grew from there. It was hardly planned. 

When did you got “hooked” to the music and hi-fi?

Music was in my home growing up. It has always been a necessary part of my life. But only on radios and an old Stromberg-Carlson console. One day in High School, I visited a friend whose father had a real stereo: KLH 5s, a Sherwood receiver and a Dual turntable. I heard bass for the first time....I heard more of course, but it was the first time I heard good sound and I wanted it in my home. 

What made you keep using vinyl replay?

Some people eat peanut butter and can die. Most people can eat it and enjoy it. When I heard digital recordings for the first time--on vinyl-- it made me sick for whatever reason. I was primed to like it from everything I'd read but it sounded wrong to my ears. It made me feel bad. When I heard my favorite analog records on CD for the first time it made me sick too. I hated the sound. My brain rejects it. Don't ask me why but I am not a "Luddite".  I met a violinist for the Vienna Philharmonic recently who is a vinyl fan. He says half the string players in the symphony are. Why? Vinyl better reproduces string tone. 

What was your entry to high-end industry?

In 1986 Harry Pearson of The Absolute Sound, which I used to read cover to cover, asked if any reader was interested in being Pop Music Editor. I'd written some pieces for the Los Angeles magazine "Music Connection" about how bad recorded sound was becoming and also some record reviews. I sent them to him, he liked them and he hired me. It was a part time job that didn't pay much but that was fine with me. The funny thing is, much of what I wrote was based on what I'd learned reading TAS so I was feeding back to HP what he'd taught me. So no wonder he liked what I'd written!

Would you consider yourself as an audiophile?

The term "audiophile" has become pejorative (negative). I got into high quality audio because I am a music lover first, who likes it to sound good. The "gooder" it got the "gooder" I wanted it to sound! We all know that quest, but the driving force is music not gear. I know guys who collect "stuff" and obsess over "stuff". That wouldn't be me, really.

Who were your inspirations and people, that made biggest impact on you (and still are)?

In audio? Well of course Harry Pearson and J. Gordon Holt founders of TAS and Stereophile. As for people in the audio industry of course Henry Kloss, who I was fortunate to have met. And Edgar Villchur both of AR fame and of course Henry went on to KLH. The other pioneers like Avery Fisher, H.H. Scott, and the founders of McIntosh..... all of those originators of the industry were alive and building gear when I was growing up so I have a special affinity for them.

Kindly list your reference audio system.

I want to point out that I OWN my reference system. I don't have "long term loans" on the gear. I am still paying off some of it but it's mine. I have Wilson Alexandria XLF speakers, darTZeel NHB 458 monoblocks and darTZeel preamp. I have a Ypsilon VPS-100 phono preamp and step-up transformers. And of course the Continuum Caliburn turntable, Castellon stand and Cobra tonearm. I also have a Kuzma 4Point mounted on the Caliburn and I own a Graham Phantom II tonearm.  I use a Lyra Atlas, and Ortofon A90 and Anna cartridges and I love the Miyajima Labs ZERO mono cartridge. Also HRS (Harmonic Resolution Systems ) SXR Signature racks. I own a Meridian Music Server (formerly called Sooloos) and a less than stellar DAC but I'm not that concerned with digital playback. Right now I'm reviewing the DCS Vivaldi four box stack so I certainly know what good digital sounds like! As for cables, I like TARA Labs Zero interconnect and Omega Gold speaker cable as well as Wireworld's new Platinum 7. First great cable from Wireworld in a long time IMO. I'm also convinced that Shunyata Triton and Typhon are the most effective power conditioning and distribution system out there and I prefer their top end AC cables too. I've tried plenty. Anyone who doesn't think AC cables make a difference simply hasn't bothered listening.

If you had told me 30 years ago when I had Spica TC-50 speakers and modified Hafler DH 101 preamp and Hafler amplifiers built from kits plus a Denon direct drive motor turntable with Lustre GST-1 tonearm, that some day I'd own the stuff I own now, I'd tell you you were crazy!

Please elaborate more on top of the range cartridges. State of the art cartridges. What makes them so special?

Top carts are too many to list but what separates them from lesser ones include the body material, construction, stylus profile, coil material and the hand-tuning that only the most expensive can have. Low resonance bodies of Titanium and the selective laser melt bodies of the Ortofon A90 and Anna contribute to their great sound quality. Severe profile styli like the Geiger and Ortofon Replicant contribute to the super detail heard from these cartridges. I'm leaving out great ones from Benz, Transfiguration, Koetsu, Sound-Smith etc.....can't name them all....

Please tell us more about your view on proper setup of turntable?

The best way to get that would be to buy my DVD "21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer's Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up" (plug). I do set up seminars all over the world and I show people how to set overhang, zenith angle, anti-skating, SRA/VTA and azimuth. I believe all of this should be done by measuring first listening later. If you use one of the severe styli getting VTA/SRA correct is ESSENTIAL or you'll get Intermodulation Distortion that's easily audible. The correct SRA (stylus rake angle) is 92 degrees for every cartridge and every record, with only a few exceptions. That's two degrees beyond perpendicular for the stylus "contact patch" (the ridges that read the vertical modulations). Virtually every cutter head stylus is set to 92 degrees. Has to be two degrees beyond perpendicular so the just cut lacquer thread and be sucked out the back and safely stored. It's very flammable. Anyone who tells you it's necessary to change VTA/SRA with different thickness records is deluding themselves.

Why do you think vinyl is belowed by many audiophiles?

Easy: it sounds much better.

Would you say that even an entry range cartridge can perform very good with the state of the art tonearm and turntable?

It certainly can sound as good as it's ever going to sound! Some of the difference in the higher priced cartridges is stricter tolerances. If you set up a cheap cartridge using measurements you can get them to sound surprisingly good.

Can you kindly tell us more about your view of “the real sound”

All recordings are "illusions". There is no "absolute sound." Of course there are some GREAT illusions! And many poor ones. Many "audiophile" recordings done with simple but distant miking tend to sound "pure" but dead. This is an art not a religion!

What would be the the ultimate dream turntable design?

I'v seen some secret tonearm designs that I think will take vinyl playback to another level and better performing turntables continue to be manufactured at lower prices. The people making the great records of the 50s and 60s had no idea how good those records really are. It just keeps getting better and better.

With digital revolution do you think that state of the art analog cartridge can be used in ultimate playback?

To my ears analog remains "state of the art" sound—the most lifelike and convincing, while the best digital now sounds very very good.... until you switch back to the turntable.

Best tonearms and turntables on the market in your view?

There are so many.... best cheap is Pro-Ject Carbon. Best expensive? Mine is in limited production so leaving that aside, I like TW Acustics, Brinkmann, AMG, VPI Classic, Kuzma, Acoustic Signature, Avid, Basis (though I'm not a fan of acrylic platters in expensive 'tables), some of the Clearaudios (not their big 'table), Dr. Feickert, Funk, J.A. Michell, Nottingham, Origin Live, SME, Simon Yorke... there are soooo many good ones... can't name them all....

How important is the right cartridge setting for ultimate reproduction?

It is critical. Don't bother with records if you're not willing top get set up correct. When that's accomplished and your records are clean you shouldn't hear that you are playing a record....

It must be great feeling to know, that your writings helped people enjoy the analog music worldwide?

The best part of my job is helping people and getting nice comments from grateful readers. You cannot imagine the pleasure that brings me. Especially from the skeptics who finally break down and buy a turntable after years of digital. Their lives are literally transformed! That's what they say.

Can we hear your thoughts about tubes vs Transistors?

I just wrote a review of the big Lamm ML3 Signature amps and I discuss that in the review. Both are wrong obviously. Neither sounds like real music. But choose your favorite. I don't think one is "better" sounding but we know which is better measuring, not that that's critical. If I went by that, I'd be listening to CDs! I am in the solid state camp right now for amp and preamp but I like a tube in there somewhere so mine is in the phono preamp.

What would you say that sets analog above digital?

A sense of musical flow and harmonic grace. A more believable instrument attack and more generous sustain and for whatever reasons a greater illusion that a live performance is occurring in front of you. Vinyl makes you want to pay attention and do nothing else. Once I start playing records I can stay up all night. With digital I get bored after a short while. I think vinyl is quieter than digital. It's a different kind of quiet that's difficult to explain but when you go from digital to analog there's a sense that an unheard but felt "noise" disappears. When it does, your body relaxes.

Would you say, that ones love for music reflects in his product?

Yes. There are products designed by technocrats and products designed by music lovers and best of all are those designed by people with a firm technological grasp and a love of music. There are too many ridiculous 'contraptions' out there with no basis in science or technology...just fanciful "stuff".

Prices can go quite high within high-end. Where is the border line between luxury and real high-end?

"High Performance" is a much better term because "High End" attaches to a price whereas "High Performance" is about performance not related to price. I thought my Spica, Hafler set up in the '70s was "high performance" though not high prices. I just reviewed Pioneer speakers designed by Andrew Jones of TAD (formerly with KEF). Andrew's $150 3 way towers are definitely high performance but not high price! I bought a pair for my family room home theater system and they are great as is his $79 center channel speaker. These speakers measure remarkably well too considering the cabinet is molded plastic!  "Luxury" is when cost is no object and when you pay for the "jewelry" aspect of the hobby. Gorgeous wood finished, chromed accents, etc. There's nothing wrong with any of that especially if it means wifey will let the stuff in the living room!

There is the high-end and ultra high-end. What is the difference in you view?

"Ultra" is when you spend $150,000 on a turntable or $200,000 on speakers. Or $200,000 on a car. My favorite material possession is the Continuum turntable. Not because of what it cost (I got an industry accommodation price) but because of how it sounds. Every manufacturer who visits immediately hears how exceptional it sounds. BTW: some people are skeptical of how I can afford this stuff even with a discount. So consider this: my first DVD cost $20,000 to produce. I hoped to sell a few thousand at $15.00 wholesale. That would allow me to recoup my investment and make a few bucks. That's all I'd hoped for. I didn't do it for the money. BUT now I've sold 16,000! And they continue to sell. I just ordered another 1000. So do the math and you'll understand how I can afford this stuff...

Are high prices a must for some of the top class products?

Because of the distribution system and the size of the industry, that's unfortunately true. There are no "economies of scale" at the top, no more than there is for automobiles that are essentially hand built. The hi-fi passes through more hands so gets marked up more but there are really no good alternatives unless you're willing to buy directly from hobbyist/manufacturers. You can save money that way but you'll inevitably lose it when you sell to buy something else.

What importance do you think to the use of built in elements in products? Is there a need of exotics parts?

I am not sure what you mean by "built in elements". Need for 'exotic parts'? Some people swear by certain brands of capacitors and resistors for instance that are far more expensive than commercial ones. I sat through a demo at Ypsilon in Greece where designer Demetris Backlavas swapped out but ONE capacitor in a very simple amp circuit he was working on and the sonic difference was ENORMOUS. So yes, I believe the designers who listen through, part by part, get the best results.

Form follow function in high-end audio?

If the goal is performance, yes. If the goal is looks or ease of use, no. then function follows form.

Is classic music the top most test material for state of the art vinyl replay?

I would say acoustic music, whether classical, jazz or folk. I don't see how one can review audio gear and not use well recorded acoustic music. A good mix of symphonic and chamber, jazz vocals and small group is also essential in the mix.

What is your opinion on digital music revolution and the birth of mp3?

I think it caused an emotional breakdown between artist and listener. MP3's value and the value of streaming formats like Spotify, Pandora, MOG etc. is as a means to find out about new music. For that it is fantastic. Then after you hear something you like, you can buy a version that you can actually sit down and listen to!

How to draw the line between, resolution, transparency and musicality when building the system?

Rather than drawing a line, find a good balance. High resolution without "musicality" gives you an analytical sound that's at first exciting and then you stop listening. Fetishing over "musicality" (whatever that means but let's assume like pornography, we know it when we hear it) usually gives you soft, soggy, overly romantic and warm sound that bears little resemblance to live music. Transparency is always good but only in the context of a good balance of the other elements. For example, if you like the fast, transparent, analytical sound of a Soulution amp, try to balance it with a somewhat warm and forgiving speaker. If you go for one that's more analytical, say, like a Magico Q5, which is a great speaker, but on the analytical side IMO. So putting together those two products will probably not give you a good balance of transparency, resolution and musicality....

What is the reference material for your when you listen to new products?

A mix of acoustic, electric, jazz, rock, classical, etc. Always female voices (Ella, Joan Baez, Sandy Denny, Joni Mitchell, etc.) male voices (Johnny Hartman, Mel Tormé, etc.) folk (Incredible String Band, Dylan, Fairport, Richard Thompson, John Renbourn, etc.) classical (symphonic, chamber, some opera, etc.) and the usual rock suspects.

Would you say that master tape quality is possible with cartridge and  turntable?

Very very close. I compared Tape Project 3rd generation tape playback with 45rpm reissue sourced from same master tape and tape won for "smoothness" but record was actually quieter.

Is there a need for a high prices in high-end?

If the hobby grew much larger prices would drop. For instance as turntable sales grew, Pro-Ject was able to produce better and less expensive 'tables. The Carbon for  $399 is MUCH better than the Debut for $399. They could afford the upgrade because they sold so many Debuts!  At the top were products are hand made and in limited production prices will always be very high as with cars. The key here is that if you're smart you can assemble a fantastic system for not that much especially if you're willing to buy used gear.

Who would you say is exactly an audiophile?

I've met them in all shapes, sizes, colors, nationalities,  ethnicities, income brackets, etc. It is NOT a "rich man's hobby" by any means. I once imported a finite-elemente rack to America after seeing one at a show in Frankfurt in the 90s before they had an American importer. I had to pick it up at the freight depot at Customs at Newark Airport. The guy who took the paper work from me was what could be described as a "working class stiff." A "regular guy". He looked at the paperwork and recognized my name. He was a Stereophile reader and a vinyl fan. From that day I realized any fixed idea I had in my mind about who was reading what I wrote or who was an "audiophile" was WRONG!

What is a true meaning of high-end audio through your eyes?

Any system that is good enough to engage all of your senses and keep you listening with rapt attention while doing nothing else. No reading, no fidgeting, nothing... It overtakes the senses. That does not have to be expensive. Just smartly assembled.

Digital audio era is here and ever changing. How far did we come with it?

It's gotten much better over the years. It's taken decades IMO. The problem is that so much of what's available now was transferred poorly from analog decades ago when few know what they were doing.... digital can be far more destructive than analog IMO.  High resolution downloads are a huge sonic step forward. Unfortunately, there are still skeptics who think CD resolution is "perfect" and that 96/24 is "hype" because it can't be heard. The "proof" is math not listening in their opinions. They are their own worst enemies because over time people who believe them are confronted with truth based on listening.

Do you think digital will ever come close to analog?

Like tubes vs. transistors, they will always be different. The best digital is described as "analog-like."  "Analog" will always be "analog" to my ears, not "analog-like."

Best system ever heard in you life?

A fellow in Greece who was kind enough to fly me over to hear his system. Enormous Cessaro horns, custom made, driven by Audio Note SET amps, Continuum Caliburn, Ypsilon preamp and phono preamp DCS digital. The key was an enormous listening room, custom built and treated. The room has a balcony!!!!! It produced a life-sized picture that was coherent, transparent, musical and believable as no other system in my experience has matched. Mine is great, but in miniature. I'm in a relatively small room. It's enveloping and creates a good illusion but his illusion was on a scale you'd have to hear to believe.

Einstein talked about simple, but not over simplified. When is it simple enough for you?

A great integrated amp like an ASR, a great phono preamp (choose among many)  a good turntable, arm and cartridge and a well designed 2 or 3-way speaker system capable of 35Hz extension and you are way there...  like a pair of Joseph Audio Pulsars. Stand mount, amazing sound!

Michael Fremer audio philosophy?

  Don't obsess!!!!!!!!! Too many people aren't enjoying music and instead are obsessing over what's wrong or how it can be made better. There's a time for that, but keep hidden until you're ready...

How do you see the state of present high-end society?

I'm optimistic because a new generation of audio enthusiasts who entered through the turntable door are coming on board.

Would you say that high quality is more affordable today or you have to pay premium price for best components and sound?

The "best" will always cost more, that's what I've found. My mother used to to say "you pay, you get," and that's true in audio in clothes, in cars, etc. The people buying at the top are not being "scammed" as some very jealous people like to claim. I once held my breath and bought a $1500 Pal Zalleri suit from Italy. I'd never spent that much on a suit. But I'd just lost 22 pounds and wanted to treat myself. When I put that suit on I feel like $1,000,000. People look at it and compliment me on how it looks and how I look in it. I've worn it for 8 years and it still looks and feels great. I still love wearing it. It was a good investment for every reason.

Where does usual hi-fi stops and high end comes in for you?

Again, it's not price driven. It's sonic quality driven. Hi-fi tends to sound bright, artificial and mechanical. "High performance" tends to sound musically believable.

What do you see the future of analog?

Up and up. I just wish more artists could afford to record to tape. It's expensive. Vinyl is growing and not going away any time soon. Kids now love "old" music. Classic rock. Best way to hear that is vinyl. When the boomers die off, their record collections will become available to a younger generation. Records used to be discarded! Now they are being treasured again.

It seems that physical medium are not obsolete at all?

Not at all. Books, records, etc. will always have value. I know where I was when I bought most of the records I own. I know what I was doing, who I was dating, etc. Every time I take one out the memories come back. Will a kid downloading a song remember in 40 years what he was doing when he downloaded that song? NO!

What is your opinion on rising sales of vinyl?

More please!

Do you think analog master tape quality can be matched withing digital domain?

Always different but the best is very good.

Who are your musical inspirations?

Small Faces, (Steve Marriott), The Who, Beatles, Stones, Kinks (!), Neil Young, Mark Hollis of Talk Talk, Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno, Love (Arthur Lee) Joni Mitchell, Sandy Denny, ---all of the usual suspects. But then contemporary artists like Sufjan Stevens, Nat King Cole, Mel Torme, Frank Sinatra. I could go on for pages.... but I'll stop.

Can you state few of your all time favourite vinyl albums?

"Ogden's Nut Gone Flake," "Revolver," "The Beatles" "Who Sell Out" (Love) Forever Changes", "Another Green World," Avalon,"  John Coltrane's "My Favorite Things", "Waltz For Debby".... again, I could go on and on and on...

10 must have vinyl albums!?

That is so taste dependent I can't answer..

Is it possible to achieve concert feeling within analog high-end audio?

If you are willing to suspend belief, a great system can give you the real deal feel.

Is there a place for mystics in audio or simply good and great engineering?

There's no place for "mystics". It's all about a combination of good and great engineering and good listening. Take a well engineered circuit and it will perform well. Start listening and swapping parts with the same values and you WILL hear differences, sometimes major. The guys who design based on solid engineering and then finalize by LISTENING are the ones producing "mystical" sound not the "hobbyists" messing around with circuits hoping to accidentally hit upon something good.

What is the difference between audiophile and music lover?

An audiophile can also be a music lover. Most are. But the definition of an "audiophile" who is not a music lover---and there are too many of those but not as many as some think--- have a small collection of records or CDs that they play incessantly listening for stupid stuff and trying to hear those same few records sounding better and better.

What is the real high end reproduction for you?

When I can stay up all night listening when I meant to just play one record, and leave the room more rested and refreshed than when I sat down.

Any last thoughts for our readers?

HAVE FUN. DON'T OBSESS.  Also, don't be resentful of those who can afford things you cannot. When the best I could do was Spica TC-50s Hafler etc. I loved the sound and sat and listened as I do now. I read TAS and Stereophile. I read about stuff I thought I could never afford but rather than being resentful and dismissive, I hoped one day to be able to afford some of that expensive high performance stuff because I knew it did sound better. By reading the reviews I learned why. I dreamed of better and now I have it. If you don't dream it you'll never have it.


Matej Isak. Mono and Stereo ultra high end audio magazine. All rights reserved. 2006-2013. www.monoandstereo.com. ..:: None of the original text, pictures, that were taken by me, links or my original files can be re-printed or used in any way without prior permission! ::..