Pendock on cork closures ...

Thursday, 17 June, 2004
Neil Pendock for Nederburg News Service

Hi-Fi World magazine arranged a shootout to decide the issue. Five pieces of music were played to six groups of forty people on a R750 000 Linn Hi-Fi system featuring the audio world's most advanced and most expensive CD player, the Sondek CD12 together with a benchmark turntable, the Sondek LP12 complete with Ekos arm and Arkiv cartridge. Sound was amplified by a Linn 5103 system controller and a pair of Klimax power amplifiers that fed into a state-of-the-art R300 000 pair of Komri professional monitor loudspeakers.

The results were conclusive: by a margin of 2:1, listeners preferred the turntable recordings to those of a CD. This triumph of analogue over digital confirms a trend among audiophiles of reverting to LP records, a phenomenon duplicated in trendy night clubs by DJs who invariably choose vinyl in both fashion and music requisites. No less an organ than the Financial Times was earlier this month singing the praises of LPs for capturing the ambiance of a live performance more pleasingly than the 'metallic' and too clinical delivery by CD.

Listening to the audio arguments, one is struck by a similarity to the cork/screwcap closure debate in the wine world. Corks and LPs are both consumer products with a long social history, considered the traditional solution to storing wine and sounds. Thomas Edison's gramophone is an icon of industrial design, as is the corkscrew and both joined the paper clip, some Tupperware bowls and a ballpoint pen in the recent Humble Masterpieces exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

CDs and screwcaps are far easier to use than their analogue analogs. With a push of a button and the flick of the wrist, music and wine can be efficiently delivered on demand. Resealing a bottle or pausing a performance is a doddle and confirms there is no contest in functionality between the new and what they replaced.

Yet in spite of all this, LPs and corks remain popular with the populace. A UK consumer survey reported in Harpers at the end of last year noted that 99% of 1 170 wine-loving respondents felt positive or neutral about cork closures compared to only 40% who had the same feelings for screwcaps and a massive 60% who felt negative, coincidentally echoing the LP/CD numbers. And this for a product where TCA contamination is ruining around one in twelve bottles through cork taint.

The audio analogue to corked wine is the hiss, crackle and pop and occasional skip of a well-played LP, noise we've perhaps come to associate with an audio experience in the same way that wine faults have become part of a drinking experience.

In an ideal world, where wines are made from grapes grown on virus-free vines in clean cellars with not a Brattanomyces yeast or a Chameleon in sight and delivered to the glass without a TCA contribution to flavour, we'll have the wine world's analogue of a flawless digital recording faultlessly reproduced by a CD. And most people will be unhappy with it.

Blame it on human nature, retro-revisionism, a suspicion of perfection or a fear of technology, but a sizeable majority will surely hark back to those 'great' unripe vintages of the seventies, that stinky Côte-du-Rhône or slightly mouldy Bordeaux blend as surely as film buffs would rather watch a jumpy super-8 movie in preference to digital video or opera aficionados

Pendock on corks
Pendock on corks

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