Monday, November 17, 2008

Going backwards to go forwards - Vinyl

Craving for the latest technology and keeping up with the Jones’ has been bred into our blood. We all strive for the latest and greatest the world has to offer and often spend huge sums of cash in doing so. So what is it lately that has so many of us going back to older technology of vinyl these days? Yep, those big, black grooved discs us over-forty types are ga-ga for and those under-30 sadly never saw, used or owned. Despite my own personal pursuit of the best digital media reproduction, I have always been fascinated by the turn-table, and it seems I am not the only one. The RIAA recently announced a 36.6 percent increase in sales or LP’s and EP’s. This in the face of an 11.7 percent decrease in Compact Disc sales during the same time period.

Why is this happening? Many of you are likely trumped by these facts, but I think there is good reason for it. Vinyl never really died. It has been kept alive by the hardcore audiophiles around the world, and has been consistently used in tradeshows and better specialty retailers to audition top performing audio gear. Why vinyl never dies is multi-factorial. While a new CD costs about $16 at most brick and mortar stores, vinyl can be had, albeit used, from under a dollar per album to at the most about half of the cost of a Compact Disc. This decrease in software cost is not to be undervalued, especially in the face of the ever-rising gas prices and housing slump. Consumers are left with less money yet long for more and more recreation in their free time. Vinyl represents a value proposition that today is simply more compelling for many music enthusiasts than a 25-year-old plus Compact Disc. With no music being commercially released on a high resolution (and copy protected) Blu-ray format and both SACD and DVD-Audio officially dead – there simply is no other place to get a compelling musical experience other than the cutting edge of AV convergence via high resolution music downloads from the likes of AIX Record and reseller Music Giants. While HD music downloads are great and the promise of music on Blu-ray isn’t reality a promise - major turntable manufacturers today are adding USB outputs to phono preamps allowing vinyl fans to convert their music collection into digital media for use in their iPods and other MP3 players. Email or your favorite ponytail wearing Baby Boomer record executive with your complaint as to how they killed off the $33,000,000,000 per year music business with their sheer and total incompetence, law suits of their most loyal customers and lack of any real world understanding of the importance of the album versus just selling music by the single as if it were 1955 all over again.

A quick Google search and I found five shops in my area of Florida that specialize in vinyl, to my surprise, one of the largest vinyl stores in the country, if not the world, Bananas Music ( is only seven miles from my home. This place is tucked away in a quiet industrial neighborhood but houses over 3,000,000 albums, sorted by genre and arranged alphabetically. Visiting this shop is like walking back in time, the damp and mildly musty smell of aged paper fills the room, as does the soulful music of bygone days. Young teenagers and pre-teens dragging their parents into the store to pick up music that predates them by decades in a format that many thought was dead by as long a margin are contrasted by audiophiles seeking esoteric music and limited edition copies of favorite albums. Be it 33’s, 45’s or 78’s, they either have it, or can help you find it. I did a quick survey of the rows and rows of albums and came to realize I needed days if not weeks to truly go through this store. I checked out with the stack of albums I selected and then spoke at length with the owner, Doug Allen who’s been running this business for 32 years about the trials and tribulations of the recording industry, from downloads to copy protection and beyond and we both joked about how they single handedly ran themselves out of business.

It was great to see that people working behind the counter with actual knowledge of music really still exist, and when a very good copy of older vinyl albums can run from $2 to $7, it’s no wonder the younger generation is starting to catch onto this musical retail trend. A trend you will note that sells back catalog titles to willing consumers but has cut the record label out of the purchase process because the fear high resolution, copy protected formats like Blu-ray in ways that far larger and far more savvy Hollywood movie studios do not.

Price isn’t the only selling point for vinyl over a Compact Disc or an MP3 file. Anyone into vinyl will show you, and a quick listen for yourself will confirm, that analog reproduction is a totally different beast than current consumer grades of digital audio playback. I have some exceptional digital players, but none offer the smoothness and warmth of a good turntable. Sure the dynamics are not comparable to a Compact Disc and the signal to noise ratio is higher, but I have put friends into a demo with vinyl just to see the look on their faces when they spin around and see no digital source is even on. Many swear they were listening to the best CD they aver heard, and that is what vinyl can give you when properly set up. I will even go so far as to say it will give you more than the best digital music system can as it keeps all the music in the analog domain, so the sound is different than CD’s.

I am a physician by trade, and as such realize there are things we, yes, even physicians don’t understand. I truly believe the difference between analog and digital music reproduction is one of these things. You can place both formats on the most sophisticated measuring equipment made, and sure the Compact Disc will outdo vinyl in terms of noise floor, dynamics, and even distortion. Then go listen to them both again. You might be amazed how good a well engineered and properly set up turntable sounds in comparison In my demonstrations to friends in recent months most are picking the LP over Compact Disc despite the fact my Compact Disc player is an audiophile grade $9,000 unit and my turntable (and associated analog rig) is significantly less expensive.

Vinyl also holds an allure that CDs never got. It used to be when you bought a new album you rushed home to listen to it, read all the liner notes, words, credits and when it came to the end of the first side, you flipped it over and continued the process. Today’s CDs simply don’t offer that appeal. MP3s are even worse. While vinyl I bought 20 years ago is still in it’s original case, CDs I bought last week have already had their jewel cases thrown away and are left as barren shining discs of information. Compact Discs never had the appeal of vinyl, and are merely media, whereas vinyl records give me a solid, meaningful connection to the music.

Is vinyl for you in an increasingly digital world? That is a question only you can answer. But I can suggest that beyond your Crackberry, your 600 emails-per-day and your agro commute – there is something more creatively meaningful for your life. Be warned, once you get a taste, you might not want to let go and this will further add to the upgraditis many of us already suffer from with our systems, but that smooth analog sound can be so seductive. Try it and you just might agree that you’ve moved forwards by going backwards in technology.

[Modern Home Theater]

No comments:

Post a Comment