Breaking Vinyl

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Why own a record player? Will buying a record player make me a audiophile?

Up until the late 90s, the goal of an audiophile had been to get as close as possible to the original performance. But as recording and engineering technologies changed so did the performance itself. Non-linear digital recording became an important factor. By 2000 it was the norm. It was common for every element of a performance to be edited by an engineer or producer after the musicians left the studio. The engineer shaped the sound.

Digital allowed post-production to be a creative contribution. Post 1990 performances were rarely a group of musicians packed in a recording studio recording together. Instead, they involved several takes of each musician, run through a series of processing algorithms, mixed together, and finally mastered. As a result, the sound of the original performance was either finely crafted, or mechanically canned.

The argument for having a high-end audio system, nevertheless, had stayed the same. Although the final recording was not the recreation of an actual performance, in the old fashioned sense, it was, in it’s best cases, the illusion of one.

So who are audiophiles anyway?

Audiophiles have always been special kinds of people. They tend to be romantic, introverted, particular, and generally discontent. They are in pursuit of a higher emotion, a pure feeling. They listen not for the beat, but for the heart. When they listen they want to be moved, not just by the air, but by the spirit of the music. To them a stereo is not just another piece of furniture that can double as a clothes rack or decorative cube sitting inconspicuously in the corner. No. Audiophiles usually have a special room in their house, or space in their apartment that is set apart, revered like a shrine. It’s a space in which what moves the air moves the soul, and often feels and looks like a temple. If this is you, then your an audiophile.

Over the last year or so I’ve been visiting trade shows: fashion shows, architecture and design shows, street art fairs, aquarium and fishing shows and, most recently, a high-end audio show. At this show I ran into the Audiopheliac, Steve Guttenburg, who noted that unlike other trade shows, people at the high-end audio shows were mostly middle aged white men who came of age in the late 80s; the golden age of high-end audio. Sadly, he was right.

In my youth I used to spend hours in my room listening to records. My dad used to tell me “Your not going to get a job listening to your music!” Well, I did get a job working in a high-end audio store in San Francisco but I wasn’t particularly good at it; I did listen to music though. My boss, and the owner, was a white guy in his late 30s who bought a warehouse after getting a plea deal from selling cocaine by informing on his supplier. It was the 80s. He used most of the warehouse to silkscreen T-Shirts, but there was an extra couple of rooms he converted to his high-end audio salon. So, he got gear at cost, and I was able to get a job listening to, and occasionally selling, high-end audio. He ended up converting the space to apartments later just before the first dot

Breaking Vinyl

com boon hit and made a fortune. He become a millionaire before the age of 40. There was a lot of that going on in the Bay Area at that time.

The rise in high-end audio in the 80’s in the Bay Area coincided with the rise of Silicon Valley’s tech bubble and the proliferation of cocaine; a white boy drug if there ever was such a thing. Perhaps this is how elaborate stereos became lodged in the cerebral cortex of the middle aged white male demographic.

As usual, there are a few minor exceptions. Noel Lee, who started Monster Cable, was technically an Asian American guy. But he fit the profile. He’d occasionally make an appearance at our shop. Like a Vegas mobster he’d pull up in a big German car with a girl under each arm and sit for few minutes to listen to our big sounding tiny speakers. Anyway, for the most part though, high-end audio was dominated by silicon valley nerds and white collar criminals.

Another notable guy fitting this demographic that used to come into our shop was Mark Brassfield. He would crash down onto our sofa and bemoan that the mods he made for cheap Magnavox CD players were in stereo systems that neither of us would ever be able to afford. I didn’t particularly appreciate him including me, a mere teenager, in his assertions about the future. But he was right. He eventually sold his business, M.S. Brassfield Audio, to some businessmen and Mark S. Brassfield became Most Significant Bit or MSB Technology.

By 2007 high-end audio’s luster began to fade. Record sales hit rock bottom. Most record stores closed. Perhaps it was the iPhone’s integration of an mp3 player, perhaps it was the trolls’ belief that if you can’t measure it, you can’t hear it, or perhaps it was the Loudness Wars that took the creativity out of post-production with routine compression. Perhaps it was something else, but whatever it was, the desire to listen high-end, especially analogue, had all but vanished.

What about Vinyl?

Backup to 1972. The Scottish company Linn introduced the LP-12 and popularized the philosophy that the turntable was the most important part of the chain. If you didn’t get the sound out of the groove in the first place, the argument went, there was nothing you could do later. It simply wasn’t there. That same year Technics manufactured the SL-1200. This turntable also changed music history by using a direct drive motor which made records practical for radio stations, and in the hands of a talented club DJs they became an instrument in themselves.

By 2016 though, the SL-1200 was discontinued; but vinyl didn’t die. It just went into hibernation. Technics brought back a $4,000 version of the SL-1200 in 2017 and it sold very well. New record stores began opening up again, and millennials went to Record Store Days in record numbers. It’s now cool again to listen to analogue.

Should you buy a turntable?

Breaking Vinyl

Lets say your a young hip person who’s doing reasonably well and you want to impress your friends with your taste and sophistication. So, should you buy a turntable? The short answer is yes. What kind? Well, my first turntable was a Rega Planar 2. It sounded great. I was happy. This is a much imitated classic. The best thing to do with a Rega, or any turntable without much of a suspension, is to mount it on a shelf bolted to a stud in the wall. This secures it to the foundation, and your house acts as your suspension. Rega makes such a shelf and it’s the best and cheapest way to isolate your record player.

The turntable I bought for my girlfriend back in the 80s was a Thorens. They’re still around today. They’re a vintage classic in all respect. The best sounding turntable I ever owned was the Well Tempered. The tonearm uses a golf ball shaped base suspend in silicon fluid as the bearing; weirdly, it worked great.

Today, if I could afford it, I would buy one of the new Technics SL 1200s. They’ve got a recognizable design that’s sexy, functional and sound great. They are a DJ turntable reengineered for the audiophile.

A turntable is a complicated device and if your going to be buy records at $20-$30 a pop, I wouldn’t recommend buying a cheap player. Make an investment. If you plan to get used records for $1 then just have fun with it and get something you like for around $250. For those who are more serious there are a few things to know. A good turntable needs to have a decent suspension, an isolated motor, advanced power supply, damping platter, low mass tone arm and a cartridge that can track the type of records your going to be listening to. If you visit enough high-end audio rooms it’ll be clear what tables are favored.

You must audition turntables with your own records. Listen to your records on your prospective turntable with your gear, or as close as possible to that as possible, before buying.

Let’s say your not so young. Your an audiophile lite, and you just want something to unwind with. Should you buy a turntable? The short answer is probably not. Don’t get me wrong, turntables have a sound that I love, but 1985 it’s not, and there’s no bringing it back. Let it go. If you have a gazillion records in storage, or you like getting out, rummaging for records, un- mingling with millennials, or if you appreciate the art and the tactile feel of the album, then by all means make the plunge. But if you just want to listen to music, a turntable may be an annoyance that’s more work than play. Go digital. You can always get a turntable later.

Finally, you must listen to your system for yourself. Don’t trust some You Tuber. It’s your money, and your ears that matter, they’re good enough. You’ll be surprised. Don’t listen for the beat of the bass, listen for the beat of your heart. It’ll either move you or it won’t.