Don’t scratch that: A beginner’s guide to vinyl in the modern age
According to sales figures for the high-end audio market, in the 2013 financial year more vinyl turntables were sold than CD players. That’s about in line with the actual music sales, too. CD sales are dropping off – and most people already have CD players – but vinyl listenership is picking up. As a result more people need turntables, and business is booming for the companies that are pushing out these products.
The unlikely resurgence of vinyl, a format that saw its beginnings more than 100 years ago, is even affecting the local market. Locally industry sources say that the market for turntables is growing, and they’ll be very happy that companies like Musica and Look & Listen now stock music in vinyl format.
Not that vinyl ever disappeared. After CD took over as the dominant format in the 80s, vinyl was kept alive by DJs and high-end audiophiles. For the former the analogue experience is so much better when dropping beats at clubs across the country. And for the latter it’s a combination of better perceived audio quality and a more enjoyable listening experience.
Technically there’s no real comparison: CD is better. It has the upper hand in almost every way. Dynamic range is higher, frequency response and audio resolution are better, and with built-in error correction they’re a bit sturdier than vinyls. CDs don’t pop and crackle, and that’s a good thing, right? Digital is better. The end. Except, our ears are neither computers nor digital. Our hearing is already analogue, so the vinyl – an analogue medium – has more appeal. It’s more human – yes, we went there.
Vinyl is the antithesis of the way we currently consume music, and there’s a growing movement of people – perhaps those who appreciate music more – who want a bit of the vinyl magic; something that’s removed from the instant download generation. Some people want to go home and listen to an album from start to finish, without the temptation of being able to instantly skip a track. Probably the same people who still turn off their phones when going to the cinema.
There’s also a case to be made that vinyl could simply sound better because more care is taken when mastering a vinyl pressing. Since the technology is more limited and thus challenging to work with, studios have to take more care when mastering music for the format. It’s not just a matter of taking the CD recording and creating a vinyl version. The music has to be mastered in a certain way to sound good. As a result, the same album on vinyl is likely to sound better simply because they took more time when engineering the sound for it.
So, if you fancy yourself a new kind of music listening experience – one where you grab some wine, close your eyes, and let the so-called warmth of audio tickle your eardrums – here’s what you’ll need.
This is the part of the setup that plays the record, spinning the vinyl disc at a predetermined 33rpm (for the 12-inch LP records) while the stylus drags along in the grooves, converting the physical into the musical. Turntables start at around R1 000, and can get as expensive as R60 000. Obviously, if you’re getting started, you’ll want to spend as little as possible without getting something that’s poorly made or sounds bad.
Something like the iON Pure turntable (R1 000 at WebAntics) will do just fine, and even has a USB output for capturing vinyl audio on your PC, but sound quality won’t be the best. Alternatively, shops that specialise in DJ and music equipment will have DJ-specific turntables. These will also do – this Vestax turntable costs around R3 000. If you prefer sticking with known home audio brands, like Denon, there are also options for as little as R3 000.
If you’re more serious about sound, thought, there are some audiophile-grade bits of kit to look at. Entry level turntables from a specialise company like Pro-ject start at R5 000 from the local importer. These are serious bits of kit, where your imaginary budget is the limit.
Things to consider with all turntables are build quality, features (supporting different speeds, and having damped tone arms), and what cartridges they use. The cartridge is the bit that houses the stylus, a diamond- or sapphire-tipped needle that reads the grooves in the vinyl record. These are consumable parts and will need to be replaced over time. Depending on what you buy styluses or cartridges will be freely available, but if you buy a no-name-brand turntable for around R500 a replacement stylus might cost as much as the turntable itself, if not more.
It’s not always as easy as plugging your shiny new turntable into your existing speaker setup. Some turntables will need a phono stage – the technical term for a pre-amplifier. This is a special amplifier that amplifies the signal from the turntable using something called the RIAA curve. The volume curve on vinyl is compressed, and the RIAA curve helps make bass frequencies louder and tones down certain treble frequencies. Once the signal from the turntable is normalised by the pre-amp, it’ll sound like real music when played through your speakers. Without a phono stage or pre-amplifier, the music is just tinny and quiet.
Now, there are turntables that have built-in phono stages, but this is a case of “you get what you pay for”. The Denon turntable mentioned above will have some good circuitry, but the iON’s internal phono stage might not do your fancy speakers any favours. The phono stage is where sound quality is made or broken, and your high-quality vinyl recordings just sound cheap. A bad phono stage will push out terrible, distorted audio. A good phono stage will keep things balanced and not ruin your music.
A good phono amplifier is usually considered a separate buy, though – and is a must with most of the high-end turntables. Here, expect to spend between R1500 to R2000 for a very good unit, but as with all things audiophile you can end up trading in your car for the best, must-have brands. Turntable manufacturers often have their own external phono stages, for buyers to mix and match. The Phono Box mm from Pro-ject audio costs about R1 600.
You could also strike it lucky if you have an existing audio setup. Some AV receivers (home theatre amplifiers) will have built-in phono stages. If you have a receiver from Yamaha, NAD, Marantz, or another reputable AV company chances are that it’ll have a built-in phono stage. How to check? Simple, just look for an input specifically labelled “Phono”. A turntable plugged into the phono channel on this receiver will be amplified properly, and these pre-amps are considered to be very good.
Speakers and amplifiers
If you have an existing hi-fi setup, you’re golden. Plug everything in and get listening. All you’ll need are some RCA cables – likely supplied with your turntable – and hook it up to the equipment you have.
But, those who don’t even have any speakers will need to spend a bit more money. A turntable connects to a phono stage just fine, and the require cables will be supplied with in the box. After that, the phono stage needs to be connected to an amplifier, which is then connected to some speakers – or a set of active (self-amplified) speakers could be used.
How much you spend on this is completely up to you. If you really care about audio quality, but don’t have a lot of space or a huge budget, you can get a set of bookshelf speakers for about R1 000. Those will need an amplifier to power them, which will be another R1 900. Alternatively, a set of studio-quality active speakers can be had for R1 300.
If audio quality isn’t a big deal, but the idea of listening to music the old fashioned way appeals, any good set of powered multimedia speakers will do. Most speakers from Creative Labs and Logitech will do, and won’t break the bank. Should a more intimate listening experience be on the cards it’s even possible to hook up a headphone amplifier and a high-end set of headphones to your vinyl setup.
- Vinyl attracts dust like nobody’s business, since it’s plastic and easily get a static charge. Always keep records clean – there are special kits for cleaning vinyl – and keep them in their protective sleeves. The diamond or sapphire tip of the stylus is affected by dust and scratches, and it’ll cause damage over time.
- Turntables are sensitive to the environment they’re used in. Since the audio relies on a physical, mechanical connection (the stylus touching the vinyl) it will be affected by things like uneven surfaces and external vibrations. This alone is why a lot of high-end gear focusses on damping vibrations near the turntable and stylus.
- Set up the turntable properly. A lot of this comes down to the tinkering, hobbyist aspect of audio kit, and it’s something audiophiles spend a lot of time on. There are tons of settings and tricks for getting better audio quality, but it’s not absolutely necessary to learn the finer arts.
- Keep vinyl records away from heat. Vinyl and plastic will melt and warp when left in the sun, and could cause irreversible damage.