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Spin Vinyl

Why you should invest in a good turntable in the age of digital downloads.

A good turntable: worth its weight in gold. Above, the Pro-Ject Debut III.

Photo courtesy traaf/Flickr Creative Commons

We are living in a golden age of vinyl, though you wouldn’t know it from all the mobile music platforms on smartphones and laptops everywhere.

Or maybe you do know it. LPs are suddenly on sale in the oddest places: not just in alt-rock record stores and audiophile websites but also in prominently placed bins at Barnes & Noble, Target, Whole Foods, and Urban Outfitters.

There are even jokes about LPs in the popular media. On the latest episode of his HBO show, John Oliver described the National Security Agency as “the most obnoxious record collector outside of hipsters who insist that vinyl sounds warmer.” In a recent New Yorker cartoon, a dweebish guy says to a friend, “The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.” Funny! But here’s the telling thing: No one bothers to make jokes about a moribund medium.

And the long-playing record album is the opposite of moribund. While CD sales are tanking, the market for vinyl is soaring. According to Nielsen Soundscan, 8.3 million vinyl albums were sold in the United States last year—up 50 percent from the year before, up from just a few hundred thousand albums sold in 1993, when the compact disc made its first headway and everyone predicted the quick demise of the unwieldy LP. At least one survey of record pressing–plant owners suggests that actual sales figures might be twice as high as Nielsen estimates.

Whatever the precise number, what accounts for this resurgence of a technology that so many dismissed as dead so long ago? Baby boomer nostalgia, retro-cool hipster fashion, the perverse appeal of “the expense and the inconvenience” in a trend-laden go-go economy? Maybe.

But some of this growth must be driven by something else, and it’s the reason I’m urging those of you who love music to dig out your turntables from the closet and dust off your old records—or, if you threw them all away (or you’re younger than 40 and never had them in the first place), to go out and buy new ones. That reason is: On a good stereo playing a good recording, vinyl sounds better. Not just “warmer,” John Oliver, but also more detailed, more tonally true, more rhythmically lively: more like real music.

I should clarify a few things. First, I’m not a hipster: I’m way too old (I was alive and sentient during the era that the hipsters romanticize); I don’t wear pork-pie hats; and I live in Brooklyn, but in Park Slope, not Greenpoint or Williamsburg.

Second, I’m not and never have been a tinkerer. Aligning the phono cartridge, cleaning the records, brushing the stylus tip—some of my fellow audiophiles derive a tingly pleasure from these necessary rituals, but not me. Truth be told, I’m so ham-fisted that, every few years when I buy a new cartridge, I pay an expert to come install it properly.

At the same time, I do take pleasure in the feel, even the sight, of a crisp stack of record albums. This may be partly generational but not entirely, I think. There’s the scene in Almost Famous where our 11-year-old hero finds the trove of LPs under his older sister’s bed—the great rock albums of the 1960s and early ’70s by the Stones, the Beach Boys, Led Zeppelin, Joni Mitchell, the Who, and others—and he gasps at the beauty of the treasures he’s inherited. That scene wouldn’t work, it wouldn’t set off the slightest emotion (except maybe boredom) if the kid were flipping through a pile of plastic jewel-box cases.

Ultimately, though, for me, the sound is the thing. If someone invented a no-fuss digital format that matched the sound of analog vinyl, I would toss out my records tomorrow—well, maybe 80 or 90 percent of them. I wouldn’t want to part with my original pressings of Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue, Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, or (now that I think about it) a couple hundred others. OK, then, call me a boomer; that’s what I am.

But let me say this. I have an original 1972 pressing* of Nikolaus Harnoncourt and the Vienna Concentus Musicus playing Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concertos on ancient instruments—and no digital format that I’ve ever heard captures the gritty resonance of a harpsichord, the silky strings of a violin, or the lush ambience of Schönbrunn Palace, where the session was recorded on analog tape, as truthfully as this 43-year-old slab of vinyl (which I bought as a college freshman the year it came out—and by the way, it’s still in excellent condition).

I have an LP, released last year, of Neil Young doing a live solo set at the Cellar Door, in Washington, D.C., in 1970—just Neil, singing, playing the acoustic guitar, sometimes switching to piano—and no existing digital format can so palpably reproduce the presence of his voice or the eye-blinking force of his hard-strummed guitar.

I have an LP, an original pressing from 1962, called Our Man in Jazz, recorded live at the Village Gate, with Sonny Rollins on tenor sax, Don Cherry on pocket trumpet, Billy Higgins on drums, and Bob Cranshaw on bass, and no digital format gets right the sheer power of Rollins’ blowing, the terse tone and size of Cherry’s trumpet, or the shimmering cymbals of Higgins’ drum kit as just-right as this commercial LP, released on the RCA label more than a half-century ago.

I could go on and on. It’s not just old or esoteric pressings that have the magic. More and more contemporary albums are coming out on vinyl; and if they were recorded in analog or high-resolution digital, they’ll contain more of the music in their grooves than a CD will ever reveal. (The trick, of course, is getting a turntable and cartridge that can extract as much as possible from those grooves.) Vinyl reissues of older albums are commonplace now, and if they were made at the better pressing plants (which are superior to the plants of yore), they’re likely to sound nearly as good as—in some cases, better than—the originals. (Often the originals sound better anyway because, unless it’s properly stored, analog tape degrades over time.)

So, where to find the good stuff? The catalogs of the leading audiophile houses—Acoustic Sounds, Music Matters Jazz, Mobile Fidelity, Rhino, Pure Pleasure, Speakers Corner, ORG, and Mosaic—are worth browsing. Mainstream labels are getting into the act too, including Sony/Legacy, Blue Note, Warner Bros., and others, though the albums they master from digital files are pale shadows of those that they strike from the original analog tapes.

The same is true of those big-boxed sets of 14 Beatles LPs released with such fanfare in recent years. The stereo collection, which was mastered from digital files, sounds so-so. For the mono LPs, the engineers went back to the original analog tapes, and many of those albums sound terrific, way better than original U.S. pressings (though not quite as good as the original British ones, but try to find any of them, much less all 14, in mint condition).

You need a guide to filter the dross from the gold, and the best guide I know is Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet website. Fremer is a friend, but more to the point, he’s a fanatic: passionate about music, encyclopedic about record pressings, as excitable about excellent cheap equipment as he is about the top-of-the-line gear—in short, the kind of fanatic worth following.

What about turntables? Are they, as the guy in the New Yorker cartoon says, expensive and inconvenient? It depends. A Czech company called Pro-Ject makes decent turntables that cost as little as $400 (an upcoming model will go for around $200), and they come with a decent Ortofon cartridge. At the other end of the spectrum, an Australian company called Continuum Audio Labs makes a turntable that retails for $200,000. Dozens of companies make hundreds of models at all price points in between.

Good models in the three-figure range, besides Pro-Ject, include VPI (made in New Jersey), U-Turn Audio (Massachusetts), Rega (the U.K.), and Music Hall (specially made by Pro-Ject), Stepping up to four figures, there are higher-grade models from most of those same companies, as well as Linn’s Sondek, Clearaudio, Oracle, Well Tempered Labs, to name a few. Good phono cartridges for under $100 come from Ortofon, Shure, Grado, and Audio-Technica; as for more expensive ones (and these too can run into the thousands of dollars)—there are too many to list. Ditto for preamplifiers, power amps, and speakers. Check out the Recommended Components issues of Stereophile (which, I should note, I write for) and the Absolute Sound (which I used to write for).

I won’t delve here into why analog sounds better than digital (all other things equal). Doing so would only set off rancor in the comments section: The naysayers would cite the Nyquist sampling theorem, which “proves” CDs sound perfect; vinylphiles would retort with charts on the ringing distortions of digital filters; everyone else would be glassy-eyed. So I will simply link to this excellent paper by the chairman of Meridian Audio, manufacturer of excellent CD players—and urge skeptics (and prospective buyers) to go to a high-end audio store, bring along some records or CDs that you think you know well, ask a salesperson to play them on a variety of systems, sit down in front of them, and listen. (If the salesperson acts like a creep, as too often happens at some of these stores, go elsewhere.)

There is one thing you must not do. Many of the retail stores that sell new LPs (Whole Foods, Target, etc.) also sell a really cheap Crosley turntable to go with them. Do not buy this turntable. It’s a rattlebox, a toy, fitted with a nail instead of a cartridge. Not only does it sound like hell, it will carve new grooves in your records. For just a little bit more money, you’ll get much more pleasure from the U-Turn or the Pro-Ject turntables (and your records won’t be ruined).

Finally, I have an admission: Most of the time, I spin CDs. When I put on music while reading the paper, eating, talking with somebody, puttering around the house, or slothfully lying on the couch, I almost always spin CDs. Besides, a lot of new music is available only in digital, and a lot of CDs sound quite good these days.

But LPs are not for casual background music. LPs are for listening. “We’re trying to do time traveling here,” the proprietor of an LP-reissue house once told me. I quoted that line a while back in a Slate column, titled “I, Audiophile,” then added, “That’s what this is about—feeling transported to the place where the players laid this music down, hearing it the way the mics and spools and mixing boards took it down.”

Nobody has much time these days to sit and listen to a half-hour or hour of music without doing anything else. I don’t have much time to do this either, and I’m the kind of guy who writes a column like this. But there’s truth to the (often-misquoted) line by Congreve: “Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.” The world is ripe with savagery these days, and we could all do with more soothing. One source of musical soothing, whose charms outshine those of little aluminum discs, is a well-recorded LP on a well-built turntable.

*Update: It has come to my attention that this album was recorded in 1964. What I have is a second-edition pressing released in 1972.