First: I don’t care if you call it vinyls
Before I jump into my thoughts on upgrading your vinyl system, I need to address a bit of a contentious subject for the vinyl listening community. For years, vinyl was seen as a very esoteric medium for music listening. It was seemingly reserved for musicians, record store clerks, those who were holding out from the great vinyl purge of the 90s, and a handful of vintage fetishists. We all had something that the rest of the world could care less about and we couldn’t have been happier. But then something changed. Over the past 5 years, vinyl has had a HUGE resurgence and we are now sharing our coveted space and hobby with what some might refer to as “Newbs”. Like a waring tribe, they have been met with sticks and stones and verbal lashing, in an attempt to humiliate and assert our position as the “keepers of old things no one cares about.” Isn’t there enough devision in this world?! Let’s welcome these people with open arms! Let’s hand them the key to this great library of knowledge we’ve kept secret for so long! And, let’s stop correcting them when they use the wrong terminology! Stylus vs. Needle; Vinyl vs. Vinyls; Turntable vs. Record Player. It doesn’t matter!
After nearly 40 years of listening to records, I just purchased my first high end/hi-fi. Now, I should say “mid-high end” hi-fi. Because any google search for high end gear will show that turntables can cost as much as a Porche. I’m not quite there yet. But, I’m super happy with my purchase and it could potentially be the best turntable I will ever own.
With this purchase, I had to do a little bit of soul searching. Did I really need this record player and even deeper, did I really want this record player? Since this is a tutorial of sorts, I’m going to share some of the questions that come to mind, while making this decision.
Does it really sound better?
The short answer to this is a resounding “YES”! But, better is relative. You need to ask yourself “better than what?” Have you spent much time with your current player, as crappy as it may be? Remember, listening to music is a relationship. Like the saying goes, “If you can’t handle me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” Get to know your player, warts and all. You will be greatly rewarded with every little upgrade, whether it be new speakers, receiver, turntable, or even a new needle (I know it’s called a stylus. Please revert to the 1st paragraph if you haven’t learned your lesson.) Yes, this will all sound better. But, you need to earn it. If you’re just starting out, maybe don’t blow all your money on the best table you can find. Maybe pick up a good starter table. This can also help to keep you humble. The world of vinyl can be a very braggadocios one and can easily become more about the gear than the music. Don’t let this happen to you.
I have a lot of records that aren’t in the best shape. Should I be playing these on my new system?
This is a tricky one. All those records I had collected over the years and maybe didn’t treat as best as I could are now a potential harm to my new turntable. The stylus is often the first thing that needs to be replaced and any scratches can hasten that need. Before, this wasn’t a problem, since a new stylus would usually cost me between $15 and thirty dollars and only need to be replaced a couple times a year. Now, I’ve got a stylus that costs more than my last turntable! So yes, I do need to be careful with what I play. I’ve come up with two solutions to this. One, I’m keeping an old player around. If I’m going to have a nice casual listen on an old record that has been loved to death, I’ll just throw it on and let the pops and scratches stick to me like old scars. I now have records for that player and records for my new player. This, in turn, is getting me to re-listen and reorganize my collection. That’s a good thing! My other solution is to reconsider a lot of the records I just have lying around. Maybe I can sell some of these off and purchase new ones for the new player. I believe a record collection should be a living breathing thing. If it sits unchanged, then what kind of life are you giving it? What I would urge against, is boxing yourself in by only purchasing brand new, expensive “hi-fi” records. You’ll find, very quickly, that this will limit the scope of music you’ll be able to listen to on vinyl. Again, this is about the music and it needs to remain about the music. Whether you need to sacrifice sound quality or space, try not to rule out records simply because they don’t sound perfect. Life isn’t perfect. Music isn’t perfect.
Who have I become?
I’ll admit. I haven’t been the nicest to the audiophile community. I will often complain about the people who are only in it for the gear and will often speak about their music listening in terms of dollars. This has kept me from exploring the audio world much deeper. I didn’t want the value of my gear to overshadow the hard work put into my collection of music. I would like to believe that this trepidation has paid off. Cynicism, when used correctly can act as an effective check on your own worst impulses. I’m confident, moving forward, that I can maintain a healthy relationship with music. I’ve harbored just enough disdain for a certain kind of consumer and that has materialized into a protective shield around the impulsive parts of my brain. As you upgrade your system, make an effort to listen to your favorite albums and not just the ones you think will “sound good.” Truth is, some albums weren’t mixed and mastered all that well and they may not sound perfect on a perfect system. But often times, these are creative decisions. We can’t all be Steely Dan! Learn to appreciate that some artists spend their time and resources on the songs and maybe not so much on the quality of the pressing. Keep it about the music!
I hope this helps you navigate your own thoughts as you work towards your “perfect” setup. Just keep this simple mantra in the back of your head and you’ll be just fine…”It’s about the music.”
Share your story
I would love to hear about your first, second or even third players. Doesn’t even have to be a record player. Tell me about your CD boom box! Tell me about your ipod! Heck, tell me about your smart speaker! As long as it has brought you the joy of listening to music and you have a story to tell, tell me about it! I don’t care about how many records you have. I don’t care how expensive your player is. I care about your relationship with listening to music. Don’t ever let it become about anything else!