I listen to all kinds of music in all kinds of playback formats. CDs, MP3s, Internet radio, records, surround-sound DVDs, high-resolution 24-bit downloads ... you name it, though I have stowed my 600-plus cassettes away and don’t really revisit those.
With the sixth annual Record Store Day upon us this Saturday, April 20, it’s another good excuse for me to offer up some reasons why I got into record collecting and why I think the format still matters.
And I realize it’s not for everyone, and that record lovers can get all sappy in nostalgia with the commercialized media hype that Record Store Day has produced, as well as the glut of articles that have been written over the last few years about vinyl’s resurgence—despite the relatively small amount of music sales it actually accounts for in the overall scheme of things.
I also don’t necessarily like the way Record Store Day has turned into a way for some artists to cash in with special limited releases just for the event that become Easter egg-like hunts for record collectors, many of whom are simply looking to make more bucks by putting them on eBay. But I do love the attention it gives to record stores in general, so I happen to think it’s a worthy celebration for a music format that still resonates with older music lovers and seems to be attracting younger listeners these days as well.
No, vinyl is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of audio tea. “Millennials” especially have grown up on being able to store thousands of songs on a laptop or hard drive—so, no, not everyone wants to fill a cabinet or other substantial chunk of room real estate on records. Nor do some people want to deal with the TLC that may be required if you purchase used records (but please, to anyone who thinks all records come with the ol’ snap, crackle and pop, try buying a new record and playing it on any decent turntable and you’ll hear what a clean listen vinyl can be).
But I think there are plenty of good reasons vinyl playback still matters, why Record Store Day is a worthwhile event, and why you should consider adding a turntable to your audio system if you’re a music enthusiast:
Physical media still has merits. This isn’t even limited to vinyl—CDs did a nice job of including liner notes as part of the physical media experience. But they’re also part of the reason why album artwork seems to have become less important, or at least artistic, than it was with records. We have burned-in images of certain albums in our minds because of how they look ... and seeing the blown-up detailed vinyl version of an album as opposed to the thumbnail cover image on an iPod is like watching a movie on a projection screen vs. a 40-inch flat-panel. Plus, as someone who has always enjoyed the “collection” type of hobbies, I appreciate the look of a massive record library the same way someone might for a showing off a baseball card or stamp collection or even big Blu-ray/DVD stock in your home theater.
You can enjoy a full music experience. As I mentioned, I listen to all sorts of music formats so I’m not a stranger to the joys of plucking certain songs to play through iTunes like flipping channels watching TV. But a funny thing happened to me as I started listening to records again—I started playing full album sides, and often giving them a flip and going through an entire album at once during a listening session. This is certainly more appropriate when you’re not listening to music as background audio, and it helps that a lot of older albums are maybe 45 minutes long. But I’m definitely less likely to start an album side and then pick up the tonearm after only one or two tracks (or to start listening with a song that’s anything other than the first track). I recently mentioned how we should set aside “movie night” for our home theaters and have a “concert night,” and how that could also encompass a full album; vinyl’s the perfect vehicle to take a cue from Classic Album Sundays. Also, I’ve found it refreshing to discover “new” songs this way (on old records), the way I like hearing music that’s new to me on Pandora or one of the “deep tracks” stations I listen to on TuneIn Radio.
Digging through record store bins. Here’s where the real fun behind Record Store Day should lie, and if it takes a reissue of The Band’s The Last Waltz or some other special release (here’s a list of all of them coming out April 20) to help lure people in, then I’m all for that. You can spend hours going through bins at a good record shop, and along with the new stuff you’ll be able to find plenty of used albums in very good condition typically from $2 to $20. Most places will have dollar bins, too, where I’ve found numerous gems that are often in quite good shape too—Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic that I once bought for a buck is one of my most spun records.
Turntables have tweakability. Again, this is one of those aspects of music listening that I find fascinating but to others they want no part of (like washing a dusty old record). When you make the investment of adding vinyl playback to your audio system there are a couple of ways to do so—set it and forget it, or start taking the upgrade path. A lot of people will be fine with the former, and will have fantastic listening experiences no matter what type of turntable they purchase. Others will like all of the upgrade/tweaks that are possible with vinyl that aren’t there for other music playback (except for the actual CD player replacement, or swapping other components like your amps, pre/pros and loudspeakers ... tweaks that would apply to vinyl too). With turntables you can look to improve sound quality by upgrading items such as the cartridge, tonearm, platter, power supply, cables, isolation feet, plus the phono preamplifier. You can purchase vintage gear and breathe new life into it, or perhaps even put a ‘table into a new wooden plinth to really give it the feel of a classic work of art—older turntables can really look gorgeous.
Sound quality still matters. Certainly a subjective part of the mix, but I love the sound of vinyl playback. For me, at least, I have found more depth and definition in the music I listen to on vinyl, and as I mentioned earlier I enjoy a variety of formats. I’ve heard vinyl playback on friends’ systems, at tradeshows and at specialty A/V shops with a range of good/better/best products and there is a fullness and beauty to it that I’ve only come close to finding with high-resolution tracks. There’s a reason why manufacturers and dealers showcase vinyl at events like Rocky Mountain Audio Fest. There’s a reason why the format didn’t die off in the 1990s and early 2000s when by all accounts it should have in the wake of CD and MP3 ... so why didn’t it? Even though it’s often lumped into the generalized “audiophile” category and presumption that it takes thousands of dollars to appreciate a good vinyl playback system, the fact is that there are plenty of good options out there for under $1,000. It’s more than an audiophile novelty, because more people are discovering or rediscovering vinyl’s sonic attributes—including the musicians themselves both old and new that are releasing albums on vinyl.
So I’ll be going through my local record store’s bins this Saturday, looking for new gems to add to my collection. Will you?
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.