Some Things Change, Others Stay the Same; Introducing the Spin Doctor

This, Stereophile‘s June 2023 issue, is the 50th I’ve produced as editor. That seems like a lot—yet the four-plus years it took have flown by; it seems impossible that I’ve done this 50 times already. Still, the main thing it makes me think is how inexperienced I remain: It will take another 28 years to match JA1’s record. That’s unlikely to happen: I’m not sure when I’ll retire, but I hope it will be before I turn 87. What have I learned? I’ve learned a lot about producing this magazine, and I’ve gained a lot of detailed knowledge, especially about specific hi-fi components. I’ve gained some broader knowledge, too, including a deeper appreciation for the crucial importance of the time domain in hi-fi—of the fact that music happens in the time domain and we experience it there. In the very best systems, that fact is respected and exploited.

Perhaps the main thing I’ve learned, though, is how important skilled and talented audio writers are—not just to this magazine but to our whole industry—and also how scarce. It’s a rare set of skills: to hear, to feel, to comprehend both technically and emotionally—and to express all that in words, directly and lucidly. When all that comes together in a single person, it can change the world, or at least the hi-fi world—the late Art Dudley being the prime example, although several other Stereophile writers have also made a major difference.

On that note, I’d like to introduce Stereophile‘s newest columnist, Michael Trei, whose column, The Spin Doctor, will be appearing monthly. For not quite 40 years, Trei has been setting up turntables, and for at least the last decade, he has become known as the leading setup expert in the east if not in the whole US. Trei describes some of his early hi-fi history in his first column. For As We See It, I asked about his interests and about more recent times.

Me: You’re a professional turntable setter-upper. That’s an unusual (many would say sweet) gig. How long have you been doing it?

Spin Doctor: I started setting up turntables as part of my work in 1986 when I was working at Sound by Singer. I would install cartridges and set up turntables for customers when they purchased them.

Me: When and how did it first occur to you that you could make a living doing this?

SD: In 1989, I took a job as Roksan’s North American sales director, back when they were primarily a turntable manufacturer. I traveled throughout the US and Canada training dealers on how to set up the Xerxes turntable. In the late ’90s, I started to see that a lot of dealers no longer had a “turntable guy” on staff, so I started to offer my services. I branched out into helping individual consumers around 2005.

Me: I often see Facebook posts where you’re heading out on Jet Blue on another trip to set up someone’s record player. How often do you travel?

SD: I average perhaps 3–4 flyaway trips per year, usually to Florida, Texas, or California. Anything within 500 miles of New York City, I drive.

Me: Is business increasing, or does it seem to have leveled out? I’m thinking of this as a proxy for the robustness of the vinyl revival.

SD: Business is still strong. I have a pretty big group of repeat customers who are devoted audiophiles and who like to swap and change things a lot.

Me: What’s the farthest you’ve ever traveled to set up a turntable?

SD: England; several setups at the Munich High End show; Tel Aviv (not specifically to set up a turntable, but an entire system).

Me: How many turntables do you own? How many tonearms?

SD: Someone asked that recently, and I quit counting at 30 turntables. But a bunch of those are basic vintage turntables I can fix up and sell or give away. I have about a dozen turntables that would be considered high end. I like vintage tonearms, like the Breuer Dynamic, the Eminent Technology ET2, and vintage SMEs. I have about a dozen that fit that category.

Me: What qualities do you look for in a vinyl rig?

SD: I started as an audiophile from a British, “flat-earther” perspective, so I have a longstanding fascination with British turntables like Linn and Rega. I tend to like turntables that are well-engineered, beautifully made, and don’t look like someone’s kitchen table science experiment. Most importantly, they have to sound great! Currently I’m drawn to SME, Kuzma, Technics, Dr. Feickert. Cartridges are an ever-evolving thing, but currently I’m a big fan of Dynavector, Lyra, and Ortofon, plus Audio Technica at the lower price points.

Me: What about speakers and amplification? What “camp” are you in?

SD: I live in a NYC apartment with neighbors, so I’m not into loud or hyperdynamic playback. For most of the last 35 years, I have used Quad ESL-57s as my main speakers. They have some qualities that almost no other speaker can match, and their (pretty severe) limitations are not really in areas that concern me. I am agnostic about tubes vs solid state, but for several years I worked for Audio Note, and I found their single-ended P2 SE amp a perfect partner for the Quads. Horn speakers don’t really fit into my world well, although for a while I had a pair of Avantgarde Trios stuffed into my listening room.

Me: What’s your favorite record store?

SD: Within shooting distance, I’d say Princeton Record Exchange, but also Academy Records here in the city and Amoeba in L.A.

Me: You’re a vinyl guy, obviously. Beyond that, what do you prefer?

SD: I listen mostly to vinyl and generally prefer original pressings over reissues. Digital can sound great, but I tend to use it for more casual listening. I find it harder to focus and get drawn into the music from a digital source, whether CD or streaming. Having access to almost all the world’s music at the touch of a button is as much a curse as a benefit, because it encourages us to listen superficially and to quickly move on to something else. Back in the day, when we could only afford to buy an album or two a week, we would immerse ourselves in that new purchase and learn all its intricacies. That no longer happens when every album or artist is just a click away.

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