A turntable? Vinyl records? Still now?
A 2008 teenager saw my turntable and asked: “What is this? A Gramophone?”. It won’t happen to my son. As you should have realized by now, I still do own and use a turntable and I won’t ever let it go. I still have many of the records from my youth and I still buy them when I can. In 2011 my son was just more than 2 years old and he was already used to see vinyl records. It will be normal for him. He helped me cleaning them with the proper brush, he saw me placing it on the platter, let it turn and lowering the stylus. He was amazed at the music appearing magically at the stylus’s touch. That evening, his mother, slightly surprised but happy, found us sitting on the couch listening to some good vinyl record. The pleasure of listening to a real record, something perfectly normal 30 years ago, is not easily explainable to young people today (some elders have also forgot about it). One should try. It is a much more natural way of enjoying music than today’s digital media. Digital is cold, hasten, distant, just like today’s society. The physical contact with the record itself, its cover, so large, made of paper not plastic, warms the soul in a way no optical disc or ethereal music file can do.
Maybe I will surprise you once more by saying you can stiil buy a new turntable today! Yes, they still make them! You bet they do! For all tastes and pockets. From the 70s on, the Scottish firm Linn never ceased to market their Sondek LP12, still today a highly regarded turntable; the English brand Michell was and still is renown for their wonderful Orbe and Gyro (my secret dream – at right). For those who do not want any problems or don’t feel comfortable with used stuff, a Project Debut or Essential would be a great start. It is a cheap plug-and-play turntable, factory adjusted with a stock cartiridge included. A modern Rega RP-1 would probably be even better, but an old Thorens turntable like the one I have, or a Garrard, Lenco or Dual, fine tuned and properly refurbished, can maybe give a run for their money to modern medium-cheap turntables. It could certainly sound much better than a mid-class CD player. Mind you, a badly recorded vinyl disc will sound worse than a well recorded CD, this is the undeniable truth. A CD can sound damn good in a top-level player. I do love vinyl records, so I don’t feel prepared to play files off a computer or hard disk (although it seems they should sound better than CDs). But if I were to advise a person who has no vinyl records and wants to build a HiFi system form scratch, I wouldn’t suggest a turntable as the source. If passion and fascination are overwhelming, ok, go ahead, but there would be more sense in starting off with a CD player, since it still is the most common sound medium and, thanks to the increasing music download habit, the golden discs can be really cheap today.
The black discs (spin the black circle…)
“See this needle, see my hand dropping it down…oh, so gently… Pull it out a paper sleeve. Oh, my joy, only you deserve conceit. You’re so warm…oh, the ritual, when I lay down your crooked arm…” So my equals-in-age Pearl Jam were singing (rather strongly!) in distant 1994 (Vitalogy album ). The track “Spin the black circle” was a rock tribute to the musical medium they love most.
Recently, vinyl record sales have increasingly raised. This happened mainly because the music industry smelled the chance to increase sales and started pressing records to take advantage of the renewed fashion. The risk is stumbling in a poor recording or a CD dump. But a well recorded vinyl disc sounds more natural to the human ear. Listening to a cheap but well tuned up turntable today may surprise you more than you imagine. The music industry introduced the CD as a technological miracle, the laser disc form sci-fi, indestructible (not true), with no noise (it suffers from quantization noise), so they could revive an overstocked market. Therefore, if you still have a turntable at home, do not underestimate it. If you don’t have one, but still have your old vinyl record collection in a good state, it is certainly worth looking for a new TT (Project, Rega) or a used one (Thorens, Rega, Linn, Garrard, AR). In the latter case, some experience is necessary. You won’t regret it, the myth of ruined, clicking and noisy records is just a matter of ignorance on the subject. When vinyl was the only music medium, few users cared for adjusting their turntables, they just didn’t know. Clicks and surface noise may be there but a quality setup, especially a good cartridge and tonearm, can decrease, minimize, sometimes even cancel them. When this is not possible, the quality of listening is such that we learn how to live with surface noise happily. A properly maintained vinyl record, well cleaned, replaced in its paper sleeve, stored vertically, always played on a well-tuned turntable, can easily outlive a CD. I have records from the 60s (!!!) that still sound perfect…
Again, it is not easy to explain the pleasure of listening to a vinyl record. I often listen to music hastily, too, feeding a CD to a player or through my iPhone and headphones. But when I can spare some more time and I put a vinyl record on the platter… what a magic! Maybe I appreciate it so much because I can’t listen to vinyl records everyday, so analogue music listening occurs after hours of hurried and distracted digital playback. I like to compare analog music to analog photography: a print from a film photograph is way different than a printed digital file. The analogue sound’s warmth (I don’t mean the sound timbre or tone) is comparable to that from a film photograph. Who cares about some surface noise (the film grain), the conveyed feeling is more involving, more touching, relaxing. I have the feeling this is due to our ears and eyes being actually analogue, therefore analog sound, as well as film photography, turns out to be more natural and pleasurable to our senses. This is no old time stuff. This is the biggest common mistake. A turntable is modern technology. Many producers invest money in research so you can find space-technology turntables, magnetic levitation turntables, costing like a car. Admittedly, an other mistake would be believing that vinyl is always better than CDs. We should be very careful in our judgement. A very good CD player can sound really good, besides its “genetics” are limited. If the turntable is not well adjusted, the cartidge is not aligned, the record is ruined, the listening experience may turn out to be unpleasant. Bad and good recordings are still out there, they don’t depend on the music media. In summary, if you still have a good vinyl records collection go ahead and buy a good turntable for them, or just restore the one you still have. You don’t have any vinyl records anymore? Just choose the right CD player and live on with it…