It's become something of a common lament these days to say that the music industry has seen better days. But, while cliched, it's also undeniably true. In the past 15 or so years, with the decline of record labels, rock n’ roll, and the onset of piracy, musicians have had to endure a number of tumultuous sea-changes and facelifts in the fight to keep their art form financially viable.
Running underneath all of this uncertainty, though, has been one of the more important changes to the actual music itself: the methods in which we choose, as consumers, to listen to it. As we’ve moved from turntables to Walkmen to CD players to iPods, the fixed nature of music’s original format, vinyl, has led to a swift decline for the medium. After all, why would anyone choose to sit down for an hour with an album, when they could just load it up onto their portable player and go with it where they pleased?
The MT5 Precision Turntable lets you experience vinyl the way that you’re supposed to: truly absorbing the music, hearing every note as if it’s the first time.
In recent years, though, vinyl has slowly been making a comeback. In April, the Washington Post reported that 2012 saw vinyl hit its highest sales point since 1997, thus confirming observational evidence that had been collecting for a few years prior. This isn’t just because hipsters are looking for new ways to decorate their apartment, either. Serious music enthusiasts know that a premium aural experience doesn’t come from loading up a playlist on Spotify or even by expanding your MP3s to higher quality formats like FLAC. Though these new technologies have tried to usurp vinyl’s place atop fidelity’s throne in its 100+ years of existence, each one of them has been unsuccessful in doing so. Hence, the medium remains as the most direct one-to-one route of listening to music—that is, the shortest distance that sound can travel from the recording studio to our ears. No format is better equipped to preserve the nuances of creation.
Of course, with vinyl you also need to have the proper equipment ready in order handle all this information. As sales for 33s and 45s have grown, so too has the volume of cheap turntables available on today’s market. I, myself, opted to buy a Jensen JTA-460 a few years ago when I first started collecting and listening to records. While it’s a serviceable model, featuring built-in speakers and MP3 playability via a USB port, the playing arm is faulty—a problem I’ve noticed that others with the same model have shared—and it causes the records to skip too frequently; at times, the needle will simply skate up and the down the record, unable to press down and tune in with its grooves. Because of this, I couldn’t truly say that I’d ever listened to vinyl on a state-of-the-art system. And after I had the chance to sit down with McIntosh’s new MT5 Precision Turntable, I found out exactly what I was missing.
Set in the historic Electric Lady Studios this past Tuesday, and curated by fashion designer John Varvatos and musical polyglot, Questlove, McIntosh displayed their latest sound system to myself and a group of fellow reporters in order to showcase the transformative effects that vinyl can have upon one’s listening experience. Despite the lofty conditions, the evening managed to come off as fairly casual. Drinks were served, couches provided, and after an hour or so of conversation and mingling, we all sat down to finally see what McIntosh had brought us here for. In the corner, adjacent to the stools upon which Varvatos and Questlove sat, stood the hand-crafted MT5 flanked by an accompanying stereo system. Highlighted by a neon-green illuminated platter, the MT5 certainly had no trouble standing out to any of us. And that was before they even put a record on.
After a couple quick remarks from McIntosh’s Ellis Reid, the listening session began with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”—a song chosen by both Questlove and Varvatos. As soon as the track was cued up, the conversational din of the background chatter and hollering that opens the tune began to flood the room, followed by the gradual wail of Eli Fontaine’s alto sax line wandering in to envelope us. It was impressive, to say the least. You truly live in a song when you hear it on equipment that’s this well-made.
What was most remarkable to me about McIntosh’s new product, though, was how well the system was able to manage the eclectic selection of sounds that Questlove and Varvatos had picked out. After hearing “What’s Going On” come in full through the speakers, I expected a power-ballad like Guns N’ Roses’ “Sweet Child O’ Mine” to blast us out of our seats. Surprisingly, though, the turntable instead brought out some of the more acoustic elements of the song—the richer, earthier textures hiding in the background guitar chords—while still maintaining the sharper edge of its signature opening riff.
This was how it went for nearly every song that we heard; there was always something waiting to be discovered inside the grooves of each record. With Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I was able to find new meaning within the shimmering, two-note guitar line that backs each verse of the song. Much has been made lately about the appreciation Zachary Cole Smith—of the dreamy, shoegaze outfit DIIV—has for Nirvana, as well as the resemblance that his band’s sound shares with them. But until I heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on this turntable, that similarity had never been entirely clear to me.
What makes the MT5 so noteworthy, though, is that—divorced from this prestigious context—McIntosh has still delivered a product that’s more than capable of standing on its own two feet.
Even an audiophile like Questlove was noticeably moved by the effect that a good set-up can have after hearing Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” played through the MT5. “Bill Withers was the first artist I idolized as a kid,” he said. “But to hear [Ain’t No Sunshine] in this context, like I...I never heard Bill Withers hitting the guitar with the drummer and I never heard the frets of the guitar, the sliding, and the rasp in his voice. Even his foot tapping the ground...I’ve lived with the song for 40+ years and I’m only hearing it now.”
“Digital won’t give you that,” Varvatos added.
Of course, with praise this glowing, you have to expect that the hardware itself won’t come cheap. Unfortunately, the MT5 Precision Turntable will run you $6500 in-stores, and that doesn’t include the two XR100 speakers that were backing it during my listening session, nor the amplifying system.
Obviously, you’ll be hard-pressed to match the ambiance too, as the level of history present in the room was undoubtedly an added plus. After all, here we were, inside the House that Hendrix Built, to hear the latest from McIntosh—the company responsible for powering the original Woodstock.
As Reid noted, bringing himself to the center of the room before cueing up "Superwoman": “Right about here is where Stevie Wonder recorded Music of My Mind.” What makes the MT5 so noteworthy, though, is that—divorced from this prestigious context—McIntosh has still delivered a product that’s more than capable of standing on its own two feet.
Balanced with tracking force, anti-skate force, and a magnetic platter system, the turntable spins steadily and quietly, knocking on every detail impressed into each record. The product is also clearly durable, and the design comes off as smooth and well-ordered. Sure, the price point may be difficult for some, but if you’re willing to spend the money, you’ll find that it's worth every penny. The MT5 Precision Turntable lets you experience vinyl the way that you’re supposed to: truly absorbing the music, hearing every note as if it’s the first time.