Arts & Entertainment

Vinyl records listening guide

All photos: The PHOENIX// Ellen Bauch

Tracking, tonearm, platter, RPM — if any of these terms sound strange to you, you probably are not a vinyl listener. And why would you be? In the age of the iPod and Spotify, physical media (especially vinyl records) are outdated forms of listening that lack the portability and immediacy of digital listening formats. However, as unbelievable as it sounds, vinyl records have made a surprising resurgence in the music marketplace.

Between 2002 and 2012, sales of vinyl records have boomed a whopping 250 percent, according to statista.com. In 2013 alone, vinyl accounted for 6 million units of total U.S. album sales. Although 6 million units is relatively miniscule compared to CD and digital album sales (165 million units and 118 million units, respectively), these statistics show that vinyl records have carved out their own little niche in the modern music industry. Not bad for a format that is actually more expensive and less accessible than its competitors.

The format of vinyl is an interesting one and provides a more personal experience than CDs or digital albums.  To listen to a vinyl record, you have to physically interact with it looking at the cover art, reading the liner notes and watching the record spin right in front of you forges a connection between the listener and the music.

That said, vinyl can often be a tricky format to deal with and requires patience, care and a pretty decent investment.

 

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What is a vinyl record?

Without getting too deep into how a vinyl actually works, here’s the rundown: A vinyl record is a medium for copying an analog signal. This signal is stored in fine, circular grooves in the record. The signal is then read and transferred back into sound by a turntable needle, ultimately resulting in a faithful recreation of the original signal. Basically, it’s a big black disk with grooves in it.

Vinyl records also come in a variety of shapes and sizes, and must be spun at a certain speed. Records are usually 12, 10 or 7 inches in diameter, and their size determines how much information can be stored on them. They also have a specified speed that they must be played back at. Nowadays, records are spun at either 33 or 45 revolutions per minute. Playing at the wrong speed will make the music sound either sped up or slowed down.

 

Why should I listen to vinyl over other formats?

This is the big question that gets asked by those looking to get into vinyl, and it’s important to ask before investing in the format.

To answer this question, I went to the experts at Reckless Records (3126 N. Broadway) to find out what is so special about this medium.

Angela Ziles, an employee of Reckless for six years, feels that vinyl records have the “best quality” when it comes to audio fidelity. However, she does think that it depends on the listener.

“It’s kind of ‘use your own discretion.’ Of course you can buy CDs and [the sound is] a really high quality. But with vinyl, you just get a warmer quality,” Ziles said.

For Ziles, it’s not just about the quality but also the experience.

“There’s the whole notion of feeling more connected to the music, as well,” Ziles said. “Actually putting the record down on the turntable and putting the needle on the record is much more involved than pressing play on a computer or a CD player.”

 

What do I need to listen to vinyl?

One downside of vinyl is that it lacks the plug-in-and-play quality of MP3 files or CDs. To get a basic listening setup going, you’ll need four main components: a turntable, an amplifier and two speakers.

The most important part, of course, is the turntable. In order to get the best out of your vinyl, a good turntable is a must.

Costwise, turntables have a fairly wide price range. For a brand-new turntable, you could go as low as about $150-300, with high-end turntables in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Ziles recommends the brand Audio Technica to new vinyl adopters because of the company’s ability to mimic more expensive turntables without the big price tag.

She also mentioned that companies such as Sony and Denon had more reasonable offerings, warning against any turntables that are all-in-one or cost less than $100, namely the brand Crosley that is found in stores such as Urban Outfitters.

“We tend to encourage people not to buy those. Not only will the records not sound as good, the needles are so bad that often they’ll ruin your records,” Ziles said.

If you plan on using a used turntable, make sure that you do some maintenance on it first. Ziles suggests immediately replacing the needle because a worn-out needle can destroy records. Also, if your turntable is belt-driven, make sure that the belt is also in good shape. Otherwise, your records could be spinning at the wrong speed.

Listening to vinyl is a totally different experience from the more popular formats we use today. It provides a more honest listen to what the artist originally intended and creates a more personal connection between you and the music.

It is, however, a fussy medium that requires attention and care and lacks the portability and convenience of CDs and MP3s.

But for audiophiles like Ziles across the country, it can’t be beat. And you can put that on the record.

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