This website is usually for discussing new technology. Recently, though, I rediscovered an old technology that still qualifies as new for many readers, and one that I can’t recommend enough as an addition to your audio system, especially if you consider it mid-to-high end: vinyl.
A Sony turntable I bought 10 years ago served me well at the time but had long been removed from my theater system when I got lazy about replacing its bum needle. Plus I’d become enamored with surround sound. But thanks to some electronics and speaker upgrades, and reading constant vinyl evangelism from Stereophile’s thirtysomething (my age) blogger Stephen Mejias and his “Elements of Our Enthusiasm,” the analog bug began biting again.
(Click here to see a slideshow of some analog goodness.)
But aren’t turntables, cartridges and needles the kind of pricey gear that only so-called “audiophiles” invest in, you’re thinking? Yes, there are many types of ’tables, and cost can quickly escalate well into the thousands.
This time around, I figured I’d start at the very entry level. After a $50 Technics turntable find on Craigslist and $100 Cambridge Audio phono preamplifier purchase (you’ll need one if your processor or receiver lacks a phono stage), I wasn’t into the vinyl experiment for much money.
Plus, there are several respectable turntables in the sub-$400 range should I decide to upgrade. In fact, Mejias moderates the Stereophile forums, including an “Entry Level” thread with a sticky post called “Since this comes up a lot. Turntables under or $1,000” with all kinds of great turntable suggestions.
As much as I enjoyed spinning records 10 years ago, the analog epiphany really cold-cocked me this time. Perhaps my job as a custom electronics writer/editor has given me a greater appreciation of sound quality (especially when it comes to hearing demos at tradeshows), but listening to old LPs through this new setup was nothing short of nirvana. It didn’t matter that some albums crackled more than Rice Krispies—the instruments also snapped and popped a whole lot better, too.
Even while lacking the “golden ears” of some reviewers, it was easy for me—and my wife—to hear the differences between CD and vinyl versions of songs. The vinyl soundstage was wider, instrumentation was more defined, bass was tighter, hi-hat drum cymbals were thicker and livelier, and dynamic range was fuller. “I wonder if more people would the like music they say they hate if they listened to it this way,” my wife said after I forced Yes’ prog classic Roundabout on her.
And record hunting is almost as fun as record playing. I’ve bought LPs purely for the artwork; some include fancy lyrics booklets; Bookends came with a giant Simon and Garfunkel poster! You can discover gems at flea markets, tag sales, the Salvation Army and, if you’re fortunate, a local record shop. At Divinyl Revolution in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., this weekend I picked up 14 albums for $24.99, the majority of which cost $1—or the equivalent of a single, compressed song download from iTunes.
Not to mention that when I went to the Craigslist seller’s home to pick up the turntable, he gave me a small stack of records, including perhaps the most listened-to LP of all-time, Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, with a sweet Dark Side pyramids poster up its sleeve. How’s that for good karma?
We know records have been making a comeback in recent years, to the point where Best Buy has added shelf space for vinyl and artists are appealing to younger-generation listeners by releasing vinyl albums that include free digital downloads of the same in MP3 format.
Of course, it’s places like Divinyl Revolution that predominantly keep the format alive and well. Even in summer tourist destinations like Saratoga, record shopping is a year-round excursion. “This is the only place like it, for about 40 miles in each direction,” explained super-cute shop proprietor Brittany Nasser, who’s kind of the anti-Jack Black in High Fidelity. “We have a bunch of loyal customers who can’t wait to hear what just came into the store.”
I’ll look forward to visiting again next summer.
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Arlen writes about home technology installations and product news and reviews for electronichouse.com
and Electronic House magazine.