Analogue Addiction - Turntables and Vinyl in the 21st Century
With downloads, streaming and music on-demand, why doesn’t vinyl just die? Ed Selley tries to explain...
First, a confession.As I write this, I am parked in front of an absolutely brand new, all singing all dancing Dolby Atmos receiver which will be reviewed for AVForums in due course. It is being used to run a speaker package also in for review and I have at my disposal, a cupboard of Blu Rays, Sky HD, Netflix, my NAS of music and Spotify Connect. In short, I have the finest technology the AV industry can deliver with enough content to last me a lifetime. Despite this, if I had the choice - both in terms of time and in having a functioning listening room, I’d be upstairs listening to a technology that in the form I use it dates back to 1948 but can be traced back in principle to 1903.
Upstairs, I have not one but two turntables and a quantity of vinyl I’d describe as… substantial. Not Brazilian bus magnate substantial or even a shadow of the personal collection of the late John Peel, the latter a trove of records that many of us would sell family members to get hold of. It is nonetheless a collection that I have been amassing for most of my adult life. In that time, I have also bought CDs, cassettes, minidiscs, DVDs and Blu Rays but the only format that I truly care about- indeed come the eventual completion of my new listening room, the only one that will be on display is my records. Furthermore, while I’m in a minority in feeling this way, I’m far from alone and the numbers of people who feel the same are growing. Why is this the case? The answer can’t always be ‘Hipsters’ surely?
I have not one but two turntables and a quantity of vinyl I’d describe as… substantialWhile there are more silly beards and spray on jeans at record fairs than I’d strictly like (the optimal quantity being somewhere nearer zero), the bald numbers suggest that people aren’t just buying vinyl to be ironic. Last year 780,000 pieces of new vinyl found owners in the UK. Now to be clear, 780,000 units is chicken feed in the great scheme of things - whatever anyone tells you, vinyl is not the future of audio - but the fact remains that vinyl is the only physical audio format showing any growth at the moment. When you take into account that these figures don’t include any sales of used vinyl - an area that accounts for between a third and a half of my purchases, analogue is big business and getting bigger. So what is propelling the continued success of the oldest audio format beyond sheet music?
Snap Crackle and Pop
First, let’s start with a little iconoclasm. All things being equal, vinyl does not sound better than digital. There will be a clutch of people who vigorously disagree with this statement so before you begin to pound away at the keyboard with your fists or head, let me add some qualifications and justifications to this statement.
(1) Equipment is rarely equal
There is a tendency for keen vinyl fans to spend out on analogue in a way that they don’t on digital. If you were to say to anyone here that a £5,000 TV will outperform a £500, you’d be greeted with a “well, duh” kind of response. Even allowing for differences in formats, a turntable that costs two or three times as much as a digital source, should outperform it. I’m in the fortunate position to have a digital source that is comparatively close in price terms to my turntable. If I go through the slightly arduous process of turning a side of vinyl into a FLAC rip, it doesn’t just sound similar played through the streamer, it sounds absolutely identical. The audio fraternity gets extremely excited at the prospect of high res material but good CD material is capable of results that are better than an equivalently priced turntable can manage with cooking vinyl. Herein lies the next difficulty in a fair comparison.
(2) Media is even less equal
In order to keep this vaguely on topic, I’ll leave this link to information on The Loudness War and simply summarise that most of the music we have available to us on digital makes next to sod all use of the superior dynamic range the format offers. We find ourselves in the bizarre position that new vinyl has better dynamics than the digital does because if you do try and master a record in the same way, it simply won’t play. This means that while vinyl is at a disadvantage against good digital, there isn’t as much good digital out there as you might like. As such, while I stand by my original comment that digital can best vinyl, all things being equal, and isn’t better than digital, it often has more of an advantage than you might think.
At most, it is fair to say that vinyl has some advantages in some circumstances but it isn’t night and day. Objectively, the argument to go analogue isn’t clear cut. As I’m going to try and explain though, objectivity is not and never has been the reason behind the format’s current popularity.
The big picture
First, let’s be honest here, the only format that has come close to the joy of vinyl packaging and artwork is Laserdisc (which was exactly the same size). Even an ordinary single sleeve album has the space to show art in a way that CD doesn’t and digital artwork rarely makes use of the possibilities available to it. Printed on decent card stock, colours that are neither here nor there on a CD inlay *pop* with vinyl.
When you have a gatefold to play with, to say nothing of a box set, vinyl is an experience even before you listen to it. The orchestral score for Star Wars came with a poster that would have even the most liberal member of the Star Wars canon enforcement team clutching their chest in horror. The iconic (and freaky as hell) Michael Trim artwork for Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds is given the space it needs to really scare a six year old. Modern releases have included photo albums and the sort of cover notes that digital users can only dream of. In the same way we treasure steelbook and limited edition film releases, vinyl is innately lovely before you even try and play it. Of course, when you do play it, the fun only increases
’There are many like it, but this one is mine’
When we refer to a ‘turntable’, you are in fact referring to more than one single purchasing decision. Depending on the deck you choose and the level of insanity you have devolved into, a ‘turntable’ is actually four separate products - deck, arm, cartridge and phono stage. With my main turntable - a Michell Gyrodec- there are many thousands of identical decks in existence, constructed over the thirty year production span. How many of them have exactly the same partnering ancillaries as mine is something for a statistician to ponder. When you move up from the simpler entry level designs to models that allow for you to choose all the components, you can approach the build like a Jedi building a lightsaber. The finished article is not simply a piece of electronics, it is a small reflection of you.
In a world where every other piece of audio equipment on sale is doing more and more things - in the case of the Atmos receiver I’m listening to, it is probably easier to list what it doesn’t do - turntables (to flog this Star Wars metaphor to death and then flog it a bit more) truly are a more elegant object for a more civilized age. Furthermore, they are mechanical devices in a world of the electronic. Even a simple plinth turntable is more visually interesting than most other devices and by the time you are in the rarefied world of the high end, something like the brilliantly named 47 Laboratory Model 4724 KOMA is crossing the line into performance art. In keeping with other mechanical objects, they require maintenance and a degree of sympathy in operation. This lends them a character that isn’t generally present in a CD player.
It also lends them a very long life. I am on my third Blu-ray player which superseded countless DVD players before it. My Gyrodec by contrast has been in existence since 1996 and every single spare part is readily available and a phone call away. In a world where our phones, computers, even our white goods face obsolescence in a few short years, turntables stand for a different way of doing things. I hate calling anything that has a function an ‘investment’ and to be clear, some turntables will be worth buttons in a few years, but for the most part you will see more of your money back from selling a turntable than any other piece of audio equipment. You can ponder this as a benefit while you indulge in the final - and for me the most important - part of the vinyl experience makes itself felt.
Don’t think, feeeel
Here’s a question - when was the last time you really listened to a piece of music? I don’t mean when you last sat on a train with some earphones in or put on an album while you attended to another task. I mean when did you last sit down and give a piece of music your undivided attention? In a world where we multitask by preference, the idea of just listening to music seems faintly bizarre and yet, this reason above all is why I love vinyl. Skipping tracks on a turntable is a process rather than a push of a button (and a process that should be attempted with some caution after a few beers) and for this reason you tend to let albums happen rather than flitting between tracks as is often the case with digital.
The finished article is not simply a piece of electronics, it is a small reflection of you.This means that you can appreciate the magic that is a great album. This is something more than a collection of great songs, it is the process of how those songs relate to one another and whether the album has a meaningful beginning and end (not to mention a barnburner of a track to start the B-side). Classics like Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, Depeche Mode’s Violator, Dr Dre’s 2001 or UNKLE’s War Stories are bodies of work that really come alive when you let them happen (and all have mighty vinyl releases). We don’t chop films up into jumbled playlists of scenes, we watch them and let the story unfold and yet doing the same thing with music is comparatively rare. I’m not saying that it is impossible to do this with digital - I’m not seeking to be a patronising idiot (this time anyway) but the nature of how turntables function makes the process more organic. Yeah, I love the artwork, the ceremony of the turntable itself but most of all, I love this, the act of listening.
Do you want in?
So, you’ve made it this far, your bank statement isn’t written in red ink and you are intrigued by this 1,800 word eulogy to analogue. Should you take the plunge and get a turntable? If there is the demand for it, I can write a complete piece on the ins and out of adding vinyl to your system (and that’s a big ‘if’) but for now, consider the following;
(1) Can you budget for the media?
When we made the move from DVD to Blu-ray, we could start our disc collection at a pace that was helped by the fact that our old media worked fine in the new player. The same is broadly true of going from CD’s to streamed media - one rip later and the old disc is still relevant. If you don’t have a collection of records given to you or appropriated from somewhere, your turntable purchase will need to be seen as part of a wider set of costs to make use of it. While classic albums - especially ones before the dominance of CD - can be very affordable, it is fair to say that many are not. New releases, while freely available are generally double the cost of CD and many labels limit the output which will push prices up after they sell through. Put simply, this can be a very expensive pastime just in software terms.
(2) Are you a tweaker?
Turntables are not generally plonk and play devices (although honourable exceptions exist). Getting the best out of one will require a level of effort that in a world of auto calibration and setup wizards, might seem ridiculously labour intensive. They need to be checked from time to time and cartridges are terrifyingly easy to kill through misuse. Many ‘skeleton’ decks do without dust covers which means constant cleaning is a must. Basically, I’m telling you there’s work involved.
(3) Do you have an addictive personality?
As a reviewer, I can kid myself that owning two turntables, other bits of turntables and constantly tweaking and upgrading both is normal (hint - it probably isn’t). Turntables are nightmarish for this because they can be upgraded in stages and it is easy to be constantly chasing the next performance boost. If you don’t have a good degree of self-control and the ability to be satisfied with what you have, vinyl is the crack cocaine of the audio world - you have been warned.
Come one, come all
If you feel you have a handle on these aspects, come and join the party. Henry Rollins - when not saying unsuitable things about Robin Williams, once said “Sitting in a room, alone, listening to a CD is to be lonely. Sitting in a room alone with an LP crackling away, or sitting next to the turntable listening to a song at a time via 7-inch single, is enjoying the sublime state of solitude.” Only now, in 2014, when you do it, you are far from alone.
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