Vinyl records have experienced a resurgence in popularity in recent years. According to Nielsen’s 2017 year-end report, vinyl records accounted for 14% of all physical album sales that year after 12 years of growing sales. While it’s still something of a niche market, it’s one that’s steadily growing. And if you think that these sales represent only retro aficionados, well, you’d be… partly right. The year’s top-two records were both Beatles collections, but the third spot went to a mainstream mix only recently released as a collection: Guardians of the Galaxy: Awesome Mix Vol. 1.
If you’re here, you’re probably curious about the (re-)emerging appeal of vinyl, turntables, and people who buy them. In an age of music streaming (still going strong), digital downloads (dwindling), and CDs (resilient), what has people returning to the apparent inconvenience of vinyl?
The Turn of the Tables
You’d probably assume it’s their old-school charm or perhaps their rarity that keeps people going for them. Both of these are indeed, points of appeal—but not the only ones.
Vinyl records and turntables can produce sounds of a particular quality and character that is rarely, if ever, found in digital formats, whether these are streamed or stored on CDs. These traits, results of the production techniques used for vinyl records and turntables, make them a worthwhile purchase for anyone who loves music.
It’s possible to go quite in-depth on this subject—and you’ll no doubt find many audiophiles willing to do so—but for introductory purposes, we’ll stick to the basics:
- How vinyl records are made (and which ones are worth buying)
- How turntables work (and how to pick a good one)
- How and why a turntable is a great investment for any music-loving soul
Vinyl’s Signature Sound
Ask someone why they like vinyl, and they might tell you it “sounds warmer” or “has character” or that it’s how music “was meant to be heard.” Even to someone fairly receptive to the idea, this can come off as a load of claptrap. Warmth? Character? Authorial intent? Isn’t there a more, well, objective basis?
There is indeed. But it’s not that the objective reason is separate from these statements. When people speak of vinyl’s unique sound, they’re generally referring to a mix of qualities that come about when a vinyl record is produced well.
The production process of a vinyl record starts after the recording when a studio sends the songs out for mastering; it has a few options for doing so. The best way of doing so is by sending the magnetic tapes. This process keeps the audio “lossless”—it preserves all the musical information picked up during recording. That is to say, it maintains as much of the sound details as possible.
When music is converted to digital files—another option studios have for sending recordings out—it undergoes a compression, which may result in the loss of musical information. Larger file formats do a good job of preserving musical information and can still produce a good record. The kinds of files used in CDs, however, involve more information loss; these produce records with no inherent advantage over their CD counterparts.
The process of translating the recordings into the physical records depends on the way the press is designed and, consequently, the size and number of discs involved.
High-quality recordings require more physical space on a vinyl record than their lesser counterparts. This is because a good record needs wider grooves to include more musical details. Because this means that less high-quality recordings can fit on a single vinyl, the best LPs are those that come in sets of two, three, or even four records to an album.
So when people talk about the character and authenticity of vinyl, they’re referring to its ability to maintain more musical information from studio to record—but only when done right. And because it can preserve more details, you could argue that vinyl records are, in fact, closer to how musicians intend for their music to be heard. To bring out that quality, however, you’d need a reliable turntable as well.
Into the Groove: How Turntables Work
There are two main parts to consider in a turntable: the platter and the phono cartridge. Each one requires a level of precision in order to be good. In the best turntables, both are not just extremely precise—they work in tandem to produce amazing sound qualities.
The platter is the part of the turntable that holds and spins a record. While this may seem simple, it’s important that a platter be able to maintain a precise speed while creating as little noise as possible. A poorly designed platter could result in uneven playing speeds—throwing of a track’s beat and rhythm—or a lot of ambient noise.
The ambient noise poses a problem when it gets picked up by the phono cartridge. The phono cartridge is the part connecting the needle to the turntable’s arm. It’s responsible for translating the needle’s movements into music that can be played.
Higher quality phono cartridges are more sensitive and can thus pick up on more subtle vibrations, which works well when the platter is well-designed. If there’s a lot of ambient noise from the platter, however, an exceptionally sensitive phono cartridge might pick these up as vibrations, which could then muddle the final sound.
Get Those Good Vibrations
In short, a good turntable is sensitive enough to capture all the rich musical details of a well-pressed record, but quiet enough on its own to avoid muddling the sound with ambient noise. Luckily, you’ll find many turntables that can manage this, both among modern offerings and vintage builds. And whether you choose a newer model or an older one, you’ll find viable offerings at different price ranges.
As good records and good turntables retain their value over time, it’s easy enough to make your start with a decent turntable and a few good records. From there, you can slowly build your collection through upgrades, trades, and purchases—all while assured of the value of your investment and the quality of your music.