[SoundStage!]The Vinyl Word
Back Issue Article
April 1998

The Virtues of Vinyl

If you aren’t aware that I am a known and established proponent of the LP-record format, you should be so advised. In the early days of the Compact Disc (circa 1982), I took up with a host of other like-minded individuals, and we formed the core of the New Audio Right. I went so far as to design a standard which all of our comrades could proudly emblazon upon a tee shirt or jean jacket as they spread the word. It was in the form of a Linn LP12 turntable, tonearm cocked as though flexing its biceps, stomping with a caricaturized foot upon a CD player. Sprawling above this graphic image were only the words, "Death Before Digital!"

I must admit, there has been a slight softening to this rather extreme edge over the last two years, but only because the infant we know as the 16-bit, 44.1kHz-sample-rate baby has finally learned to walk. Remember that the digital medium, as we know it, is but a scant 15-plus years old and is essentially just entering its adolescence. The first mass-produced analog discs and players appeared in 1901, just one short year after the opening of the great Symphony Hall in Boston, clearly placing them in their own Golden Age. No, I am no longer quite as fanatical.

With such apparent baggage, it is not surprising to discover that I am still very often accosted with phrases such as, "Why would you bother with vinyl today?" or "Oh, those old things!" Well, dear readers, I’m here to share with you a variety of extremely good reasons why you should consider buying, collecting and listening to "those old things." Don’t panic, I’m not about to try to carry this contention only on the weight of the assertion that vinyl sounds superior to the CD, even though I still vastly prefer it to digital under the proper conditions. Rather, I’ll explain why vinyl offers, in most circumstances, the most cost-effective method for collecting and listening to recorded music. Though I feel the sound-quality issue in and of itself is a valid reason to listen to records (and I’ll deal with that aspect in a moment), it is by no means the only reason to buy and collect music on vinyl. It is thus that I begin what will be a regular series here at "The Vinyl Word."

Getting Started

If you don’t own a turntable yet, or if you would like to upgrade from the one you have now, the climate has never been better. Turntables are very available to all who choose to seek them out. You can pick up a good new ‘table for about $500 from the likes of Rega, Thorens, Sumiko or Mitchell Engineering. The last issue of the Audio Advisor’s catalog even offers a new table from Music Hall. The MMF-2 provides a host of great features like a medium-mass tonearm with damped cueing, adjustable anti-skate and VTA (tonearm tracking height) and even includes a cartridge for under $300 (watch for an upcoming review).

One of the best ways to win at the diminishing-returns game is to turn to the used market. A friend of mine just bought a turntable that retails for $999 at a thrift shop for 40 bucks. Another picked up a $450 table with a $250 specialty arm already mounted at a pawnshop for the same amount. Don’t forget the Internet. Newsgroups like rec.audio.marketplace have a wealth of offerings daily, as do many other net resources like Audio Trader, Audio Shopper and AudioWeb Classifieds. So don’t think that I’m suggesting you need drop huge dollars to play. You certainly can so if you choose to, but it won’t necessarily buy you better sound.

The Three Pillars

Quite honestly, aside from preferring the "warmer," more full-bodied sound of a record (like I said, more on that later), I feel vinyl offers a better value for collecting music outright—given three very simple conditions. First, the types of music you listen to must be available on vinyl. If you only listen to contemporary country/western and Gregorian chants, records definitely are not the medium for you. Next, you need to have access to used vinyl. Many outlets are available to which you may not have given any thought. And finally, to really enjoy the LP medium, you absolutely must have some kind of deep-cleaning system like a vacuum-powered cleaning device. Given those three conditions, vinyl easily becomes the preferred method of collecting as well as listening to music. Assuming that the first condition is met, let’s look at the other two a little more closely.

Sourcing Sources

Today, most people perceive their old records as valueless. I just picked up 220 classic rock albums—nearly all of which had been played only once or twice to record to cassette and then filed away. This pristine collection came to me from the friend of a friend whose wife just wanted them out of the house. I’m almost embarrassed to tell you that they were given to me, absolutely FREE OF CHARGE! When was the last time you got 220 CDs for anywhere near that price?

Pre-owned Vinyl

Knowing where to look and what to look for is the key. Searching yard sales, pawnshops and flea markets can quite literally yield black gold. I recently found one of the early Mobile Fidelity half-speed releases of Fleetwood Mac, the first album release by that venerable rock group after absorbing Lindsey Buckingham and Stevie Nicks, at a pawnshop in the midwest for a buck. At a recent yard sale near my home I found 15 mid-70s Deutsche Grammaphons and London ffrrs, all of which I bought for just $5. Judging from the way they look and sound, I don’t think any of them have ever been played. And yes, I know I paid too much!

Another favorite and regular mine for used vinyl is my local Goodwill store. I am especially fortunate that my area has a large "Super Store" that seems to get loads of records on a regular basis. But don’t pass any type of thrift shop without at least looking. The cool thing about the Goodwill Stores and most other thrift shops is that they sell any record they have for 50 cents. Granted, it takes a while to sift the wheat from the chaff, but that can be half the fun.

In my last three visits to Goodwill, I have found nine RCA shaded dogs (many the coveted mono pressings), three of the marvelous Mercury "Living Presence" series and about a dozen of the old Columbia "Six Eyes," all in eminently playable condition, if not flawless. And I cannot recall how many other first or early pressings of classic rock recordings I’ve brought back to the light of day. It allows me to own things that I would never pop for on CD, even at $10 or $12. But for four bits, you bet I’ll take it. At those rates, you have a chance to expand your musical experience without any significant damage to the wallet. Any way you look at it, cheap vinyl spells more music for your money.

On the down side of snagging up used vinyl, not all records are created equally. This is where knowing what you are buying comes in. Not all pressings of a record will sound better than a CD. As with anything, the closer to the first generation the record is, the more likely it will sound good. One nice thing about all records is that their individual pedigree lies in the numbers stamped in the run-out groove area for any who care to look. In future installments I will be providing information that will help you decode those matrix and stamper numbers. Once you have some clues as to what those numbers mean and how to read them, you will have a much better idea of the pedigree of each individual pressing. Armed with such knowledge, you should be able to make pretty accurate assessments about the sound quality of any record in question, before you ever put it on your turntable.

New Vinyl

Don’t forget the places that sell new and used vinyl, both walk-in retail stores and mail-order houses. Quite honestly, some things will not be available anywhere else. Some of the best deals on the new and reissued vinyl are offered via mail order. Get on the mailing lists of places like:

  • Classic Records – 213/466-9694
  • DCC – 818-993-8822
  • Music Direct – 800-449-8333
  • Acoustic Sounds – 800-715-3553
  • Berkshiere Record Outlet – 800-992-1200

I’m not saying that there are always great deals available on new releases (the few that are released on vinyl) or the many wonderful reissues that are coming out today. But be sure to ask about discounts for volume purchases, clearance items or close-out products. It can be very worthwhile. I just picked up six of the killer 180-gram Classics reissues of the RCA shaded dogs (so called because Nipper sits in a field of maroon on an otherwise red label). These are highly sought out by collectors, with the originals fetching several hundreds of dollars each. The reissues list for at least $30 a pop, some going a bit higher at $45. That means I should have expected to pay at least $180 for the six I wanted. I got them for ten bucks each, just $60 for the entire half-dozen, all brand new, first quality and still sealed. How did I manage it? Simple, I waited for the mail-order company to reduce them by putting them on a close-out special. Many of the reissues coming out today have limited distribution rights. So when these rights are due to revert to the original owner, dealers will sell everything they have on hand at or near cost rather than destroy them and lose everything. Keep your eyes open for these kinds of specials, and when you don’t see them advertised, don’t be afraid to ask.

Cleanliness is next to…

One of the most important tools to assist in being able to fully enjoy your vinyl collection is a good cleaning device. Surface debris, mold-release agents and accumulated "gunk" may conspire to keep you from hearing the best that this medium can offer. Dirty records have that "snap, crackle, pop" characteristic that make most people wonder how anyone can listen to such a "noisy" format. While some records have been destroyed by poor care, abuse or repetitive play and can never be restored, most records can be brought back to serviceable life with a good cleaning.

Many vacuum-powered cleaners are available, and they all work fairly well. There are non-vacuum-powered cleaners available, such as the inexpensive Orbitrac 2 which sells for around $35 (see John Upton's full review in the SoundStage! archives), that may or may not do the job in a manner that will bring life back to a really soiled LP. There is also the Disc Doctor Miracle Record Cleaner (see the 12/97 "Synergizing" in the archives). This fluid and its applicators offer some of the best deep cleaning I’ve experienced to date, and you don’t have to use a vacuum-powered cleaner to realize its powerful effects.

The vacuum-powered devices range from under $200 and escalate to as much as you care to spend. My recommendation for an affordable new device is the Record Doctor, made by Nitty Gritty and sold only through the Audio Advisor. It does a wonderful job and retails for about $170. All it does, through the use of its vacuum power, is suck the gunk off your records after you have cleaned them with you favorite fluid. That’s right, you have to apply the fluids, manually scrub the record clean and then manually turn the record over the vacuum device to remove the fluid and all the debris it has loosened. Poor baby! But hey, if you’re lazy and you want one that spins the record, or even one that will apply the fluid for you, they are available. Be prepared to pay through the nose. They start around $500 and go up. And, once again, don’t forget the Web. I’ve seen used cleaning devices going for under $100 on rec.audio.marketplace.

Extras

You’ll need a couple other gizmos to aid in your vigilance against dirty LPs. Once you have really deep cleaned a record, all you will have to do to maintain it is use a carbon-fiber brush before each play and before you put the record back into its sleeve. Brushes are available from companies like Hunt and Audioquest, start at about $13, and are to be considered essential.

An anti-static gun comes in around $40 new and is very handy, especially during the dry winter months. It alleviates any static build-up on the record and prevents annoying discharge noises during playback. Doug Blackburn tells me there is a Conair hair dryer available that includes an anti-static feature. He even says he’s seen them in discount warehouses for about $10. Try as I might, I cannot verify this, but I’m still trying. If you see one, buy it and cut off the AC cord and you’re ready to go.

One more gizmo that should be considered a necessity if you wish to resolve the best from the format is the record clamp. They come in several varieties and keep the record in firm contact with the platter to help control undesirable resonances and will even help alleviate the problems experienced with mildly warped discs. DB Systems sells a nice reflex unit for about $40.

The Question of Preference

While it is no longer a secret that I prefer the sound of vinyl to that of the CD when the conditions permit, I am not going to tell you that it is the only way to listen to music. I have no interest in perpetrating the digital-versus-analog debate. It is my belief that this ongoing debate has been a major detractor to the progress of the high-end cause in general. This and other similar arguments have drawn the focus away from what is important—the music itself. That is after all why we pursue this hobby, regardless of format, isn’t it? In this regard, I am glad to say that I have seen the error of my past ways and have repented. Yeah right! At least I said so in public. Hee, hee, hee!

Neither am I going to tell you that I find digital so unpalatable as to be unlistenable at length, even though that was true enough just a few short years ago. We have the pioneering efforts of such companies as the now-defunct Audio Alchemy to thank for the proliferation of affordable yet very musical digital. And ever since my diminutive little DAC underwent a near-magical transformation at the hands of Dusty Vawter, formerly of Audio Alchemy and currently operating Channel Islands Audio, I am able tell you honestly that I now can truly enjoy the format. This little DAC is cranking out the most pleasing-sounding digital I’ve ever experienced at a price point that was, just years ago, impossible. I won’t even go into the further refinements available from the current generation of jitter-reduction and resolution-enhancement devices.

The Sonic Differences

Just what is it about vinyl’s sound that gives it the sonic edge? Perhaps the most effective way for me to contrast the differences I hear between the two mediums is to compare them to two differing motion-picture formats, celluloid (or film stock) and video tape. As you watch a motion picture—that is, actual film in a theater projected by light onto a screen—there is an overwhelmingly three-dimensional perception to the image. There is more vividness to a motion picture viewed on celluloid. Images have more detail, colors are rendered with more vibrancy, detail is more vital, contrast more stark and nuances exhibit more power over the viewer. These distinctions, readily apparent to anyone that chooses to compare both a film and its video-taped transfer, all serve to create greater involvement with the motion-picture experience. Although the videotape catches the essence of the film, these more subtle interpretations and variations just don’t make the translation. So I find it with vinyl.

Timbre, like the color in our celluloid film, is more natural and correct sounding. Bass is more full, round and rich. Vocals are more present, providing more of a sense of the "body" that created them, be it flesh and blood, wood or metal. Cymbals are more detailed, more bronzy and lifelike. They are more likely to shimmer over you rather than splash at you. The soundstage, again much like the film image, is more dimensional in its layering, providing a better sense of both the real space of the individual instruments as well as its placement in the venue. There is a greater sense of the space around instruments, and of the bloom of each instrument itself. The image, just like that of the film, is wider, deeper and especially taller. There is an overall vitality and life to the music that is inescapable—to me anyway.

With the CD, bass tends to be more flat, coming across more in a two-dimensional sense, with less depth and less breadth. Timbre is often less honest. Vocals nearly always seem rougher and have less body. Cymbals sound "whiter," often with a splashy, tishy sound. The stage is usually more shallow. Layering is rendered much more discreetly, more like a two-dimensional cut-out suspended in space rather than projecting spherically in all directions and overlapping in space. The CD portrays the acoustical space much like a videotape foreshortens and flattens the cinematic image. The obvious "flatness" of the videotaped image is inescapable by comparison. The image is most often more prone to wander. While I will acknowledge that these attributes typically lessen as the cost of the player/DAC rises (and conversely, increase as the price drops), they nonetheless describe the overall performance of the digital medium in general. There is an overall sense of "less" rendered by the CD when compared to that of good analog playback, and it is painfully obvious.

Neil Young, the grizzled rock veteran, has a much more graphic analogy for the contrast. He said that if you equate listening to vinyl to the feel of the water falling on you when standing under a waterfall, then listening to digital is like standing under someone pouring buckets of ice over you.

...Greg Weaver
gregw@soundstage.com

 

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