Vinyl Records: A Love/Hate Relationship
We have spent a lot of time discussing high vs low quality audio on the show lately. A full feature on the subject is still in the works and should be available sometime in the summer. But along the way we have had a few of you tell us that you still listen to Vinyl on turntables. At the same time we have seen a few companies reintroduce turntables to the market so figured why not take a listen and more specifically introduce some younger ears to how we used to listen to music back in the day.
The purpose of this is not to say vinyl is better or worse than digital, but to discuss how the digital age has totally changed how we listen to our music. There are some out there that say vinyl is better because there is no compression and it captures exactly what the artist wanted you to hear. Others say that it just sounds warmer. Regardless of what you think of the quality listening to music on vinyl is a dedicated experience that can’t be taken on the road or while you workout or pretty much anything else. The experience is about the music.
- Full-Automatic Operation
- Dual-Layered Chassis with 4 mm-Thick Metal Plate
- Low Center of Gravity
- Built-in Phono Equalizer
It took about ten minutes to setup the turntable. A nice feature of the PL-30-K is that you have an option to connect it to your receiver through a normal RCA input because of the built-in phono equalizer. There is also an adjustment of the amount of weight the needle puts down on your albums which is there to help in tracking and skipping. That’s something you don’t think about with digital files.
I (Ara) pulled out all my old albums, some in atrocious condition and some in nearly pristine condition. As a control I bought the latest Taylor Swift album, 1989. I needed something my kids would want to hear plus they are very familiar with the digital version so their young ears should be able to hear any difference in sound.
My kids were very amused at the spectacle of removing this large black disc and carefully handling it only by the edges and then placing it on the turntable. Then with the press of a single button the arm lifted and moved its way over to the first track which resulted in Taylor’s dulcet tones emanating from my Kef speakers. I was quickly taken back to when I was a kid. I grabbed the album cover from my kids and immediately started looking at the pictures on front and back and on the inside. I even showed my kids that they would put the words to the songs on the album sleeve.
My youngest was enjoying the song and her non-critical ears really didn’t hear any difference. That is until I pointed out some static that was barely noticeable on some quiet passages. This surprised me, even on a brand new album pressed in Germany I was hearing static. Perhaps the arm adjustment could have been made to eliminate/minimize the static, but I was not accustomed to hearing pops and clicks no matter how hard I listened for them in my music.
Then the song ended and my daughter wanted to hear a song that was on another disc. I hit the stop button, take the disc off the turntable and put it back into the sleeve, then I pull out the new disc place the correct side on the turntable, and finally raise the arm move over to the track she wanted to hear and miss the starting point. I lift the arm reposition it and lower the needle at the beginning of the song. My daughter laughs and says if I knew it was going to be so complicated I would have just listened to the next song. Sigh…
I explained that, for the most part, we would listen to albums in a linear fashion and that many albums tracks were selected in a particular order to convey some sort of meaning. Of course there were plenty of pop albums that had one or two good tracks and the rest were just filler.
My oldest daughter kind of liked the experience and wanted to have a party with her friends to listen to my old albums. I think it was more of a retro thing than anything else. But she could see how you could make an evening out of listening to music. When it was all said and done, I think there is no way my daughters will give up their portable music that can go anywhere they go and allow them to create playlists on the fly to compliment their mood of the moment.
Although my kids were done with the experiment I still had stacks of old LPs to listen to. So I dug through disco, rock, pop, and even comedy albums from the early 70’s to the late 80’s. And what I found was that I took atrocious care of my old LPs. On the stuff I listened to over and over in highschool you could hear pops and clicks that ruined the music. But still I had a smile on my face. The only thing I could think of was that not only was I listening to the music of my youth, which I can do at a moment’s notice on my iPhone, but I was ACTUALLY listening to the music of my youth. I fondly remembered sitting in my room playing my Japanese import of Cheap Trick at Budokan. Then it hit me… I was listening to the Japanese import of Cheap trick at Budokan! That goes back to the late 70’s and sure I had a pristine version on my iPhone and yes so do my kids (they love Cheap Trick). It sounded like crap but I was smiling. I even called my kids back into the room to take a listen. After listening for a few seconds my youngest said, “Poor Daddy, how did you guys ever make it through highschool without iPods?”. I explained that the albums sounded better when they were new. But I think her point was that it was so cumbersome to listen to music. After all, how did we setup party mixes?
I searched for my Dire Straits albums since they were among the last that I bought before I got my first CD player. I figured those would be in the best shape. Indeed they were! It was 1985 and thanks to MTV I had discovered that Dire Straits had more music than just Sultan’s of Swing. I went down to Tower Records bought a bunch of their old Albums. I remember that day very clearly because the guy at the counter made a comment that he was selling a lot of Dire Straits due to the popularity of the Brother’s in Arms album. Even buying music was an experience! I didn’t discover the song Skateaway for many years and as such was never really played on my old turntable so I knew it would be in perfect condition. It was and it sounded great! I sat there and remembered the old times and how much I missed actively listening to music.
Before my listening session was over I had listened to at least one track on almost all my albums. Some sounded great and some sounded downright horrible. Not due in any part to the turntable of course. This is what I learned:
At their best, vinyl sounds as good as CD. Is it warmer or more analog? I don’t know, but it does sound slightly different . On pristine tracks I was still able to tell which was digital and which was vinyl. But who cares, they both sounded excellent.
Listening to music on records is a dedicated endeavor. Sure you can turn on the turntable and play the A side of your favorite album while you pay your bills or clean the kitchen, but that’s not typically what’s done. Instead you find some time, pull out your music, and listen. No multitasking, just you and the music. Read the liner notes, look at the artwork, and drift off to wherever the music takes you. Yes you can do that with digital, but seriously, how many of you listen to an entire album on your portable music player? I am sure some of you do but you are the exception.
With all that said, I don’t think digital music has anything to worry about. As much as I loved going down memory lane, I hated how careful you had to be with records. One slip or drop of the LP and your fantastic sounding record was ruined. Hearing pops on some of my old stuff brought back memories of being upset because a friend scratched my favorite album. Your digital files will sound as good 100 years from now as they do today. Listening to Surrender with static was fine once but not over and over. Then there’s portability, I can take my music anywhere I go. Not just a few albums but all my albums. Going back to my daughter’s comment about party mixes, it becomes trivial to setup a playlist that can run all night without any intervention. Its easy to buy, discover, and stream music with digital files. The list goes on and on. Even if you think the digital music sounds soulless, you can’t argue that it still sounds pretty good.
Here is my compromise. At $300 the Pioneer PL-30-K makes it possible for you to have the best of both worlds. Take your digital music on your runs or in your car. But when you want to really get lost in the experience, pull out your records and let the music take you away!