OPINION: FINAL VINYL?

by Charles Thomson

20 years ago

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OPINION: FINAL VINYL?

For most lovers of recorded music, the analogue vinyl LP, is dead! One could be excused for thinking this correct. After all when did you last see a turntable on display at any off your local hi-fi shops – let alone hear one playing?

Perhaps it is understandable that CD is now the largest medium for storing recorded music – silent surfaces, convenien ce of operation, longer playing time per side, near instant track access, less storage space, and so on. Indeed a modern product for the late 20th century. I mean, could you seriously consider a product designed 100+ years ago worth listening to today, let alone dragging these pieces of plastic into the new millennium in a few years time.

Unfortunately many people have forgotten what our hobby is all about – music and sound quality. While over half my musical listening time is provided by CD, I must admit to a preference for the sound of LP. I must also admit to the pleasure of demonstrating the superiority of LP to any interested visitors to our home. I am saddened when I learn that some of these visitors have thrown away hundreds, in one case over 1800, LPs in their rush to embrace the newer technology.

First up – a challenge

For anyone who hasn’t played an LP in years and thinks their turntable works, go dig out an LP or two from that hidden collection in the garage, attic, basement or where ever you hide such things at your place.

At this point, be fair. Don’t select an LP from the bottom of the pile which hasn’t been in a cover since circa 1970. You remember the “Top 20 Hits” of that period which were carted to parties every Saturday night, played on any old turntable (including record changers), washed in beer if cleaned at all and usually stored in a carton with dozens of other LPs without a record cover in sight, let alone an inner protective sleeve . While reading song titles from the labels may produce a nostalgic “buzz,” sound quality is going to be a right turn off. 

As long as your stylus is in reasonable condition you are likely to be pleasantly surprised at what you hear. If such is the case be prepared to spend hours, weekends even, renewing old acquaintances.

Now some who take up this challenge are going to be disappointed. Clicks, pops, scratches and surface noise etc. Yuk!!! Unbearable!!! All those reasons you gave up vinyl in the first place. Be patient – please!

Firstly take your stylus to a hi-fi dealer who still has a microscope and can look it at about 50X magnification to check for wear. Don’t be surprised if what appears in the eye piece resembles a blunt chisel which has cut though nails instead of a beautifully rounded tip. Hell, there might not even be a piece of diamond of any shape stuck to the end of the cantilever. And you were blaming the medium for poor sound quality.

Get interactive!

Routine maintenance of the turntable is next in line. If you can remember how to do it yourself, great. Here’s where LP has it over CD – you can get interactive, hands on, become part of the process, receive personal satisfaction, oh joy !

Otherwise find an enthusiastic hi-fi shop who will check out such things as alignment, VTA, tracking weight, anti skating, speed accuracy, clean the drive belt and lubricate the bearing.

Having done all the above, maybe even “bitten the bullet”and purchased a new styli, your LPs should be starting to sound pretty good. If what you are hearing is starting to touch the “soul” and interest is being re-kindled, then a serious session of record cleaning could improve things even more. My preference is for the wet clean, vacuum dry process from such manufacturers as Nitty Gritty and VPI. Some second hand record stores have commercial versions of these machines which do the job quickly for between 50 cents and $1 each.

So what’s available in New Zealand?

Obviously any new found interest in LPs, or continuing interest, for that matter, will depend on availability of music. By far the greatest quantity of vinyl today is to be found in second hand record stores. “Bugger that,” I hear you say, “our own records click, pop and hiss enough without buying someone else’s rejects.”

Well now, just hold on a minute. Major second hand record dealers are music lovers – they are enthusiasts – and their stock is probably in better condition than most of your collection at home. Secondly, some of the newer elliptical, fineline, micro reach, etc., styli reduce surface noise to such an extent you would think you are playing a mint condition record.

The great thing about second hand vinyl is the price – $2 to $10 being a representative range. Some collectors items can cost much more of course. I believe an original two-record set of The Royal Ballet Gala conducted by Ernest Ansermet on RCA Living Stereo will set you back around $US1500. 

Sadly for classical lovers, second hand shops seldom cater to your taste [Real Groovy Records in Auckland has a large selection—Editor]. You, my dear friends, are restricted to garage sales or to re-issues of some of the great performances/recordings as stocked by Jim’s Music Room in Tauranga (phone 0800-367 4434 for details) [now Intamusic online]. These are new records, processed to the very highest standard and stamped from 180 plus grams of virgin vinyl. Not cheap – but what fabulous sound quality. An interesting selection of jazz and blues is also listed in Jim’s catalogue.

New vinyl featuring latest releases from the pop charts, jazz, alternative, dance, funk etc., are available from specialist shops such as Off The Record in Wellington and Marbecks in Auckland. Prices on a par with CD.

Hardware

Despite little being on display in hi-fi stores a surprising amount of equipment is available in New Zealand: four models of turntable from Pro-Ject ranging in price from $499–$999, including cartridge; three from an old favourite, Rega, including the justly famous Planar 2 and 3, along with the new Planar 9 from $799–$4650; two from Well Tempered $4000-6995; and Linn supplying the ubiquitous Sondek LP12 from $5595 (LP12, Akito, K9) to $13,300 (LP12, Lingo, Ekos, Arkiv).

Cartridges from Audio Technica, Dynavector, Linn, Ortofon, Garrett Bros. and Rega are readily available. Sadly some great performers such as Audio Technica’s OC9 have been discontinued in recent times. Still if you have a mind such lofty names as Koetsu, Benz, van den Hul, Linn Arkiv,and Transfiguration Temper, these are not too difficult to source. Prices range from budget models at around $100 to, well… the sky’s the limit.

No phono stage? Budget models from QED and Rotel are available, the two Plinius models featured elsewhere, and a model from Audiolab are readily available in New Zealand.

My wish

The equipment is available, LPs are available (if a little harder to find). Many who read this article will have both at home already. My wish then, is for anyone in this situation to take up the challenge and re-visit the world of vinyl. It might just become your prefered music source.

(From the print magazine AudioEnz, March 1997)

Written by:

Charles Thomson

Posted in: Hi-Fi Industry

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