Yes, Turntables Are Back!
There have been a lot of articles in the mainstream press about the resurgence of the LP Record. As the music industry convulses over illegal file sharing, plummeting CD sales, poor sound quality and terrible pop artists, about the only bright light is the increased popularity of the vinyl LP.
"I thought those were dead!" --That's what most people thought of LP's since the CD hit the scene in the mid 80s. Remember CD's or still have some in your collection? Sony and the other large record companies were so successful in marketing "perfect sound forever" that almost everybody dumped their record collections (some were decades old and worth thousands of dollars!). You could find LPs for a nickel at just about any garage sale during the 90s.
The promise was simple. Here was a new format that sounded "perfect". No hiss, no static, no pops, no wear or tear. And it was small enough to carry with you and play in the car or on a portable CD player. You could skip tracks instantly and copy the disc to your computer and then share it with your friends with utmost ease. What could be better?
CD certainly turned out to be a huge success that delivered on most of its promises. However, part of its success was also its achilles heel. Nobody really liked the smaller album art or liner notes. Also, the portability meant that CDs ended up in a lot of hostile environments. It turned out that CDs weren't so indestructible and the skipping is far more offensive than on an LP.
Soundwise, there has always been a debate about whether CD was really better than vinyl. When CD first came out there were a lot of media-types who said it was crystal clear and more dynamic. Mega-albums like Dire Straits - Brothers in Arms showed some really powerful studio sound. But, there were also a huge number of naysayers. Audiophiles and traditional music lovers who did serious comparisons to the vinyl copies of the same records found that CDs suffered from a glassy, 2-D flatness which sounded harsh over prolonged listening. Certainly some of this was just the early digital transfers, but now after over 20 years of CD, it's quite clear that 16 bit- 44.1Khz CD data does not faithfully capture the "life" and texture of real life the way an analog LP can.
The biggest drawback of CD sound though is not related to its technical capability. Because of short-term choices within the record and radio industry, CDs were getting more compressed so that they would sound louder and more distorted in a bid to have each new release stand out more than the last. This trend was dubbed the loudness war. CDs of new artists and even remastered classics began to sound positively terrible.
This brings us to streaming music services. Spotify, Apple Music, and Google Play are great options for casual listening, but they’re a little like the fast food of music — ok on occasion, but still compressed and lacking the depth and nuance found in an LP. Most of these services are meant to sound great on a phone, but they lose the magic when played on a stereo.
LPs don't suffer nearly as much from compression because it's not really possible to compress the sound and boost it up. The grooves on a record can only be so wide and the louder the music the wider the groove. At some point the needle would just jump out of the groove! As a result, LPs tend to naturally preserve more of the dynamics of music - the loud parts are loud and the quiet parts are quiet. Secondly, vinyl has a unique warmth or "organicness" that is undeniable. Even digital recordings pressed to vinyl take on a bit of this character. It sounds more human.
There's also a backlash against the convenience of digital music. Who has time or the inclination to make a decision about what to listen to when you have 30,000 songs in the palm of your hand? Shuffle options and playlists help, but it's also jarring and destroys an artist's intent with the album format. Worse, so much of the emotional connection that was available by listening to your favourite album with your friends has been lost. People are craving the emotional value that full albums and extended listening can provide. You wouldn't watch 10 minutes of a movie and skip to another would you?
Vinyl is also more social. It's a talking point and the routine of selecting and playing it is fun when you have people over. Investing the time in music is a social activity that iPods or CDs can't compete with. The large covers appeal to people's desire to hold something tactile and the rarity of a physical object allows a form of personal attachment.
The technology of vinyl pressing hasn't stood still either. Today's records are often far superior to the flexy discs of the 70s and 80s. 180 and 200 gram pressings have so much information on them that digital music struggles to come close in resolution or lifelike recreation of a musical event.
The technology used in turntables has also evolved. Turntables today are far superior to what you were used to in the 70s or 80s. Computer design, along with production automation mean that all the important mechanical parts of a turntable can be made with far greater precision. The junky plastic turntables of the 80s which cost a few hundred bucks have been replaced with composite plinths of engineered MDF, acrylic platters, extruded one piece aluminum tonearms, and even carbon fibre -- for about the same price. It's simply amazing the kind of engineering you can get for under $600 today. Today's budget tables are the quality of top of the line tables of the 70s and 80s.
What does this mean? Well, the common gripes of poor turntable reliability and difficult setup are gone. A table like the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon for $599 could conceivably last forever with little or no maintenance.
And what of pops and clicks and surface noise? So much of people's memory of turntables comes from cheap Sears all-in-one systems with steel needles. Today's cartridges and styluses allow for near noise-free playback of LPs. Cartridges in the $500 price range will make you wonder why CD was ever invented. They're silent.
Compared to CD players, even a budget table will potentially outperform a $1000-$2000 CD player. The music is just more enjoyable and more real. Turntables in the $1000-$2000 range with appropriate cartridges will handily exceed the performance of even the best CD players costing tens of thousands. We are always happy to demonstrate this to anyone who wants to hear. You will be shocked at just how much more enjoyment an LP can give.
Interest in LPs is growing amongst all demographics for all the reasons we've discussed. Kids are listening to independent rock bands that press 500 copies of an LP because it's cool. Audiophiles are buying 200 gram 45 RPM "master" discs because they can't get the sound quality from digital. Baby boomers are buying their favourite classic rock collections all over again because they regret selling them in the 80s.
As a result, record companies are waking up to the increased demand. We are seeing more and more new LP releases and tons of classic reissues becoming available again. Prices are competitive too, often not costing the same as a CD (which were always priced too high).
The influence of computers on vinyl is changing things too. Want to get some of that warmth on your iPod? Buy a USB phono preamp such as the Pro-Ject Phono Box USB, which allows you to connect your turntable directly to the computer. There is really no need to own a CD anymore.
It remains to be seen whether the market for vinyl will keep growing, but all signs point to that being the case. As our lives become more hectic and we are bombarded by choice, making quality time for music becomes more important. The LP is an old format but it's also a tie to a simpler past when music was valued and time was invested to appreciate it. That will never change. As the rest of life rushes forwards, we think there will be a growing number of people who come to re-appreciate the merits of the LP.