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An Ode to Vinyl

Geoff Anderson By

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Snap, crackle, pop! Is that the sound of a bowl of Rice Krispies or an abused record? In a blind test, 7 out of 10 listeners couldn't tell the difference between a record from a broken home and milk activating that morning bowl of puffed air. It's a sad fact: records can sound dreadful. Yet...Records are back. And, ironically, one of the main reasons for their unlikely resurgence is because of their great sound quality. But can anyone really tell?

Yes, records are back. But, like so many things suffering from trends, they never really went away; they've just become popular again. Is their revival due to their superior sound quality or is this just another fad? Maybe the first question to ask is, "Superior to what?" If the comparison is to a highly compressed MP3 file, maybe so. If the comparison is to a compact disc, maybe so. But maybe not. It all depends. But more on the comparison idea in a bit. First, let's inspect those records.

The Vinyl Love Affair

I love records. I've been listening to, buying and collecting records for well over 50 years. For decades, they were far and away the highest quality audio source available. For much of their existence, tape was their main competitor: reel to reel, cassette and the ghastly 8-track. With good equipment, records were the first format to offer true high-fidelity sound. Match a good turntable with a really good cartridge, add numerous 15 inch woofers, hundreds of watts of pure, clean power and...ahh....sonic nirvana.

CDs came along in the '80s and pretty much did away with album cover art (and, almost, albums themselves). They were more expensive, but offered more music; 60 minutes or so compared to 38 or 40 minutes on vinyl. Then, the iPod hit the scene eliminating the physical product altogether. Now streaming's the thing, making the concept of "owning" music obsolete.

But now, records are back; something to hold onto; something to look at; something to watch spin around on the turntable; something to take care of (not unlike a pet). And of course, one cannot overlook the erotic aspects of vinyl. There's the hole in the middle, the spindle on the turntable, the circular motion, the ritualistic cleansing procedure and of course, the main event: the needle in the groove.

So records are fun. They can sound great, but not always. Are records delicate or durable? It depends almost entirely on the quality of their care. Properly handled and stored, records can remain in top shape and sound crisp and clear for decades; generations even. However, when mishandled, records can quickly degenerate into a scratchy, screechy mess far more likely to annoy than entertain. Back in records' heyday in the '60s and '70s, record abuse by the masses was as widespread and disheartening as disco music. Greasy fingers directly on the playing surface, stacking of records on "automatic" record players, leaving them lying around outside their jackets, and one of the worst sins of all: playing records with a penny taped to the tone arm; these are some of my least favorite things.

The reason I said records' durability depends "almost" entirely on the quality of their care, is because record production, again back in their heyday, was notoriously uneven. Some labels used virgin vinyl as a matter of course and all those records sounded great. A couple notable cases in point were German-manufactured records on the ECM label and most releases on Columbia. Other labels weren't so picky. Stories abounded of record labels that took their unsold records, melted them down, paper labels and all, and used the residue to print more records. The result was vinyl with a paper content sometimes as high as 7%. How does paper imbedded in vinyl sound? Pour the milk on those Rice Krispies and you'll see. Some records sounded like this right out of the shrink wrap.

I've been amused by seeing some "record players" available for sale lately where vinyl and CDs are sold. These are tiny, all-in-one units that come in their own little suit case. The platter to place the record on is about 7 inches in diameter so a 12 inch LP dangles off the edge. (A 45 fits nicely, however. Yippee!) The single speaker is built in (no stereo here). These are actually little more than toys. In fact, I still have one of those. (See "related photos," above) My parents gave it to me sometime in the early '60s, when I was about 5 or 6 years old. It had two controls: a knob for "On/Off/Volume" and another for "Tone." So, somebody is still making these things. Do you suppose people are playing $35, 180 gram audiophile pressings on these things? Undoubtedly. *Sigh*


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