I’m sure there’s a metaphor in here somewhere…

It seems I have re-entered the world of vinyl records.

About two-and-a-half weeks ago, I stumbled upon a bunch of KLF-related vinyl that had been sold by a local DJ to a local record store. They bought so much of his collection that they’ve got an entire section (about four wide racks’ worth) devoted to it—and I’m told that that’s only about a quarter of the collection so far. Anyway, a few of the discs I found were ones that I’d only ever read about—but had never actually seen before.

Additionally, over the last year or so, I’ve occasionally browsed the 99-cent bins for LPs with covers that might be suitable for framing. Album cover art has been such a huge part of my experience of visual art that I decided I’d rather put LP covers on my wall than, say, the usual cheesy paintings, boring photos, or garish posters. Most of the LPs that have caught my eye—generally either some sort of striking bit of abstract illustration, or a slice of mid-20th-century twilight glamour—have been from the late 1950s and early 1960s.

As a result, I’ve managed to build up a small collection of vinyl once again. At less than 100 records, we’re not talking anywhere near the hundreds of records I had before I gave most of my record collection to friends in 1987 and decamped for Tokyo with about 125 CDs. Still, I decided there was enough—especially with the aforementioned KLF records—to warrant getting a turntable again.

The only thing was that I had not really owned a bona-fide stereo since ten years ago, before I got married. During my marriage, the stereo system I did have never got much use unless someone in the house was watching movies on DVD; listening to music became something I could do only in my car. Except for a brief period during the few months before my future ex-wife and I decided to get a place together (with her two kids in tow), I hadn’t owned a turntable since 1989 or 1990.

So, I found myself hunting for a turntable. I quickly ruled out USB turntables and the cheapo turntables often found in some book stores and record shops. Sorry—no over-priced turntables with cheap ceramic cartridges for this guy. No, I wanted a real turntable.

I finally decided upon an Opticon direct-drive turntable. If that brand doesn’t sound familiar (I hadn’t heard of it either, quite frankly), apparently it was a Sharp brand intended to compete with Pioneer’s Elite line and Sony’s ES models. Well, Sharp is a reputable brand (the last couple of TVs I bought were Sharps), and the model I found (RP-7505, from 1979) has a base that’s as solid and heavy as a frickin’ tank, so I forked over the couple hundred bucks the shop was asking.

Turntable? Check!

Well, a turntable is not much good without an amplifier. Since the mini-stereo I’ve owned since 1998 does not have a phono input, that meant shopping for an amplifier or a receiver.

Unfortunately, most amplifiers and receivers these days are intended to be part of home-theater setups. The last receiver I owned was one of those beasts. While it delivered perfectly good sound, and could easily accommodate optical and coaxial digital inputs, its menu-based system was a regular source of annoyance. So, no, I wasn’t going to want to go that route this time. A simple, down-to-earth stereo amplifier/receiver was going to be more than enough this time.

Here again, I decided to go the “vintage” route. I poked around eBay, checking out different brands and models, doing Google searches for information along the way. I decided I would go with a Marantz receiver. I’d briefly considered a Marantz receiver when I was in high school, but ended up opting for a Technics receiver instead. This time, the Marantz receiver was actually going to be a Marantz!

Okay! Found one on eBay—but waited a little too long; someone else bought it before I’d made up my mind. So, I bought one of the other models the same seller had on offer. It was actually the lower-priced sibling of the one I’d missed out on; the only real difference was that this one did not have a midrange control. Meh. No big deal, all other things being essentially equal.

Last item: speakers. Sure, I could have the turntable and the receiver, but a pair of speakers was going to be necessary if I wanted to be able to actually listen to anything. I briefly considered going the vintage route here as well, but decided that, no, I’d stick to something new in this area. I’d owned a pair of Advents that used to belong to my father; though I’d never noticed any problems before (remember, there was no real music listening going on during my marriage), when I went to get rid of them, I found that the foam around the woofers had pretty much disintegrated, rendering them useless for anything but disposal. Instead of worrying about having to possibly replace either the speakers or aging components within a short time, I concluded that it would just make more sense to buy new.

Speakers have changed since the last time I looked into buying a pair (which was 1998, after my apartment was broken into). There are inexpensive speakers that promise great frequency response, but they lack proper crossover circuitry. Most everything else seems oriented towards use in home theater setups, so you’ve either got towers or really small speakers.

Here again, eBay came to the rescue. I was starting to find that most signs pointed to Polk Audio. As it turns out, they have a presence on eBay, selling a mix of new and factory-refurbished speakers at respectable discounts. After considering a couple of relatively more expensive models, I settled upon a pair that they were offering on eBay for about $90 before shipping. Yes, they were small, but the specs suggested decent frequency response, and they came with two sets of connections for bi-amping or bi-wiring. (I was sort of familiar with bi-amping, but had never heard of bi-wiring. After looking it up, I decided that this was something I could do.)

As I waited for my new (and old) goodies to arrive, I looked into getting something with which to clean my records, since a few of the used discs I’d recently bought were in need of cleaning. Well, the really effective systems, which involve platters and vacuums, can cost several thousand dollars. Yowsa! Okay, that’s not quite for me, so I picked up a simple cleaner at Silver Platters. Not quite the same as the ol’ Discwasher cleaning system from back in the day (the current version apparently leaves much to be desired), but it would do for now.

I suppose this is where the metaphor part comes in. The thing about getting set up again for listening to music on vinyl is that there’s a whole different set of considerations at work. The great thing about digital (at least, before the loudness wars came along to fuck everything up, making most new music more-or-less unlistenable) is that there’s no inherent degradation of the sound involved. All other things being equal, that CD, SACD, DVD, or MP3 is going to sound as good the 1000th time you play it as it did the first time you played it. The digital medium ensures that any flaws in, or minor degradation of, the sound carrier will not affect the sound you hear coming out of your speakers (or through your headphones). So, unless that CD is scratched up to look like the screens you put on your windows, there’s really very little that you can do that will prevent the music on that CD from sounding the way it is supposed to.

Vinyl, on the other hand, requires a lot more care and attention. You’ve got dust to worry about, plus static electricity, vibrations from footsteps and other sources, the condition of the stylus, placement of speakers, the volume at which you choose to listen, variations in the speed of your turntable, and so on. As good as vinyl can sound, there are a lot of different things that can affect your listening experience—and, even if everything else is perfect, you may still encounter pops, clicks, skips, and surface noise.

In other words, unless you’ve got thousands and thousands of dollars to spend on your stereo system, there’s a lot of forgiveness and acceptance involved with vinyl. You really do have to think differently about how you interact with the music and its reproduction.

I haven’t figured out what this means for me just yet. But, it’s got me thinking…

(13 July 2013)