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Global feedback: Pioneer PLX-500 infected w/ Ortofon Nightclub MKII

  • I’ve got too much energy to switch off my mind,
    But not enough to get myself organised.
    My heart is heavy–my head is confused,
    And my aching little soul–has started burning blue!

    So run the opening lines from The The’s Infected. You probably won’t be spinning it at your next dinner soirée. However, in 1986, to my teenage self, the album’s rigidly-rhythmic (and titular) opener was the first time music felt like electricity applied directly to the temporal lobes. All good music fans remember such moments – what are yours?

    Infected’s original format was the vinyl LP (and cassette). In some territories, Matt Johnson’s artistic intent was mangled by the introduction of a CD version. As was common practice at the time and in an attempt to draw customers over to the new, more expensive digital format, CBS added three twelve inch versions to the album’s original eight song sequence but in doing so, side openers “Infected” and “Sweet Bird Of Truth” were hacked down to radio edits.

    Borrowing from modern day marketing parlance, if you want to hear Infected as the artist originally intended, seek out the eight track CD version (it does exist) but not the 2002 remaster hotted-up by Howie Weinberg (which sounds awful) or, better still, the original vinyl LP.

    For non-redeemable vinyl collector bonus points, try to snag the limited edition ‘Torture sleeve’ edition (with free “Heartland” poster), which paradoxically replaces Andy Johnson’s fantastic whirling dervish illustration with a still from “Out Of The Blue (Into The Fire)”‘s promo video.

    On the back of the unexpected success of The The’s debut album, Soul Mining, Johnson convinced CBS to bankroll a filmcrew’s travel to distant, and sometimes dangerous, locations in order to shoot a video for each of Infected‘s eight songs. These videos would later be stitched together with Super-8-style interludes for a movie-length mega-promo.

    A recent weeklong run at the ICA in London was Infected: The Movie‘s first public screening since the UK’s Channel 4 first aired it (twice) some thirty years ago.

    This week too the The The webstore has begun selling Infected-related merchandise: a t-shirt sporting the Infected single’s artwork – a masturbating devil, also drawn by Andy Johnson – and (a restock) of one that reads “This is the 51st State of the USA” – an ever-relevant lyric from “Heartland”.

    This recent flurry of Infected activity suggests the album’s reissue is imminent. Digital audiophiles might want to check their hope at the door. Soul Mining’s 2013 reissue was a strictly vinyl-only affair – a box set that contained the remastered album plus a couple of period-relevant 12″ singles as well as some other promotional paraphernalia.

    Also included was a download code for a needledrop of the remastered album – reportedly ripped using Johnson’s own vintage Thorens idler turntable – but encoded to mp3. Still, the source is vinyl, so it’s rich and warm and sounding superior to the original CD, also ripped to 320kbps MP3? Nope – not even close. In terms of dynamic thrust, clarity and resolution, the official needle-dropped remaster doesn’t hold a candle to the digitally sourced original. Oh dear.

    Perhaps Johnson’s phono stage isn’t all that? Or maybe he’s in urgent need of a cartridge upgrade? Some might point to the A/D converter a homogeniser of tonal colour and dymamic contrasts?

    All of this brings us to 2016, a Pioneer PLX-500 running with factory-fitted cartridge and in-built phono stage into a line level input on a Rotel RA-10 integrated which in turns powers a pair of ELAC Uni-Fi UF5 floorstanders at this commentator’s new Berlin digs (“DARhaus”).

    And in the spirit of albums as time capsules, it brings us back to Infected. There was a time, during most of the noughties, that Infected’s grandiose production sounded unbearably dated. Perhaps the mainstream’s more recent affection for a 1980s-infused aesthetic – see Stranger Things –  has made Johnson’s magnum opus more bearable. With new surroundings, I hear it with fresh ears.

    But something’s not quite right. The entry-level Pioneer – likely quite a bit better than the average American’s turntable – sounds dynamically castrated. That’s not what we want from Infected. We want to feel beaten around a bit by the time “The Mercy Beat” closes to its droning loop in the run-out groove.

    Switching over to headphones, the AudioQuest NightOwl Carbon, powered by a Schiit Jotunheim gives us access to the latter’s phono module. It sounds more open and alive than the Pioneer’s but still, something is missing. Time to capture the Infected vinyl’s first three cuts – an original UK pressing – using the PLX-500’s internal A/D converter piping out ones and zeroes to Audacity running on an 11″ Macbook Air (just as was done with Prefab Sprout).

    Swapping out the cartridge was the next obvious step. Being a DJ-centric ‘table, sold largely in DJ stores the world over, I went leftfield of the usual audiophile models and dropped cash on a DJ cartridge: Ortofon’s Nightclub MKII (€129). It clips onto the arm directly so that azimuth, overhang and alignment are baked into its concord nose. All that’s required of the end user is to set VTA and tracking force.

    Some would have us believe A/D converters homogenise the sound. That one cartridge will end up sounding much like another. One analogy is that every car entering the Lincoln Tunnel emerges the other end as a SMART car. Direct experience tells me that isn’t the case, even for cheaper chips; that the most damage caused to our car-driven signal is a light dusting of the tunnel’s soot.

    Time for you then to listen and decided for yourself. I re-ripped side A of Infected with the Nightclub MKII fitted to the Pioneer. Each needle-drop was cut back to leave only the first minute of each of three songs before being normalised (0.6) and encoded to FLAC (level 8).

    Download the zip file here (67Mb) and then vote for your preference here:

    [poll id=”8″]

    If you wish to compare these needle-drops to their digital cousins, click to Tidal here and Spotify here.

    I’ll publish the results and let y’all know which rip belongs to which cartridge in a week or three.

    The results can read here.

    Polite and constructive observations are welcome in the comments section below.

    Further information: Pioneer DJ | Ortofon DJ

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. I followed reports of the ICA run with envy, having vivid memories of an afternoon spent watching the entire Infected broadcast on Channel 4, curtains closed, sound raised, wishing so hard that there was some way for me to get the TVs sound quality to do the music justice.

      The world needs new material from Matt Johnson probably now more than ever. As you allude, much of his commentary remains just as prescient, if not more so.

      My top two artists that the world needs to coax back to public productivity are Matt Johnson and Mark Hollis.

      • Yeah, I hope Infected: The Movie is made available to own at some point. I’d buy a Blu-Ray player just to watch it.

        Armageddon Days and all that.

    2. John here’s five songs that went straight to my brain and stayed from my teen years.

      Gimmie Shelter Rolling Stones
      Maybelline Foghat
      You Ain’t Goin Nowhere The Byrds
      Fresh Air Quicksilver Messenger Service
      The World Is A Ghetto War

    3. Hello, I prefer needle drop A. It has better dynamics, wider and more stable soundstage and I think the cartridge used for A has less surface noise and tracks better. It is however not a night and day difference. The digital stream (I used Apple Music) makes it a lot easier to follow all the different sounds and instruments and lets you really feel the energy. The kick drum has real slam. Something I noticed: right before the start of the intro you can hear a very faint “pre-echo” of the singers, I think it originates from the analog tape. But only on rip A and B, it has been deleted from the digital stream.

      • Isn’t that pre-echo due to the stylus picking up info from the neighbouring (and forthcoming) ‘groove’? (And yes, I know it’s technically a single groove).

        • I am not sure if that is possible technically. But I think if that is the case one would be able to hear a pre-echo on a lot of lp’s. And I can’t remember hearing this earlier.

    4. Hi John,

      My first turntable was a Trio (Kenwood in the USA), the model was KP1022D, I think, which was introduced as competition to the mighty Pioneer PL12D. The Pioneer was king of the budget turntables around ’75. Chosen cartridge was a Shure M75 ED or EJ, which I later switched to an ADC, I think, though I also had an Audio Techinca of some type.

      The big, big discussion in those days was the merits of belt drive vs direct drive. Honestly, it was analogous to the digital vs analogue discussions I see replayed today. The consensus in the UK hifi magazines was that belt drive was king, which saw the proliferation of Thorens, Dual, Linn, Ariston. Michell, Fons and a bunch of other makes. (I bought a Leak Turntable, which was bloody fantastic, but you couldn’t switch arms on it; 99.9% of people have probably never heard of it). The arguments centered around ‘musicality’ vs ‘accuracy’, DD turntables being slighted because they were accurate but not musical. If proof were needed of that, it was the rise of Linn which exemplified those arguments: ‘garbage in, garbage out’, being their famous ad campaign. Ivor Tiefenbaum rode that wave marvelously. I haven’t seen the resurgence of the belt drive vs direct drive argument yet, but I promise it was pretty active then. Perhaps those that are coalescing around turntables now, haven’t yet dug that deep?

      Comparisons are a part of what this hobby is about, and comparisons between equipment and technology in particular. I was convinced that digital would end all of that. It shows you what I know, and what I have learned.

      Meanwhile, at the centre of it all lies the music. For the right music, I’ve never known a source make a jot of a difference.

      Keep spinning.


      • Some nice insights there, Bob. Thank you. I can never get my head around the word “musicality” though. As Srajan says, it’s a slippery term that errs toward the subjective. If it’s not accurate, it must therefore be coloured? Perhaps rigid and relaxed might serve as better descriptors?

    5. ah what to make of the vinyl “revival”- is it a new “format” given that formats are dead in the world of streaming? How do you resell the catalog to the generation that has eschewed objects? Everything old is new again. Same with Polaroid, after dying an ignominious death at the hands of several VC firms it survives thanks to industrial giant Fuji and millennial darling The Impossible Project, albeit in a poorer form.
      Interesting to me is the loss of knowledge that occurs in these format extinctions- the achievement of Polaroid in solving a technical problem, worked out to the nth degree, and now The Impossible Project is essentially reinventing the wheel and finding they cannot match Polaroids resources, expertise and brilliance. And perhaps it is the same in the audio industry, a generation of recording engineers, lacquer cutters, lathe operators etc has dwindled and the scared knowledge is not passed down? So we have a format revival with poor cousin results, squashed dynamics, but at least the packaging is better than it used to be.
      One of my high school totems was Supertramp Crime of the Century and Breakfast in America. I have a second hand version of the former and bought a new copy of the latter. Both sound pretty much as I remember them, better now on my better rig. I would have to compare to the Tidal to see if that is better.
      In both of your needle drops on P-S and The The there was no comparison to the Tidal stream, they were constrained altho they were still musical and listenable and enjoyable.
      But I think the vinyl revival isn’t exactly about sound quality, most of the decks i hear in restaurants and bars in Brooklyn are cheap AT-150 usb models playing dirty scratchy discs. It is about an appeal to an idea of authenticity that is a yearning in the heart of millennials who have been born in to a world they did not create but were sold. The nostalgia that they look back with I think is justified, a world before social media, where mistakes and messiness did not end up on their “permanent record”. I think they embrace the supposed innocence of that time in those objects like old photographs, records, cassettes, and the warmth that they covey. The SQ that they are chasing is of the heart not the head.
      As for me I can live happily between both worlds of streaming and vinyl playback as I am sure many readers here can, and sometimes the old records do not live up to their memories, and sometimes they exceed them. I am rarely surprised by a streaming experience, they all sound more or less very clean and detailed. Dropping a needle on a new find however, the possibilities go from awful to amazing, and as a listener pursuing the next “fix” that risk is another aspect of the way records satisfy. You can’t be amazed if you are not at some point disgusted:)

        • And to your point about entry level decks- in my own experience the delta between awful and amazing was mostly reduced to ‘meh’ a lot of the time. My first tt was a Project Debut with Ortofon 5e cartridge. Speakers were Home theatre Fluance floor standers through an Adcom borrowed system. A lot of the vinyl was ok but rarely was great. CD’s sounded generally better. Engagement was getting going but not overwhelming.
          Later after the upgrades, Zu soul supreme, schiit pre, Almarro tube integrated, rega rp3/dynavector 10x, Great discs sounded amazing, bad discs sounded better, nothing was truly bad, well, apart from old/aged damaged discs. But the Tidal had the edge on transparency, whereas the analog has the edge on engagement. Its a happy place with surprises in the vinyl, and engaging streaming. The heart is happy.

    Looking through solid Ayre: QX-5 Twenty internals & factory tour

    KIH #39 – Listening modes