November 2010

Vinyl in the Present: Groove Jazz

The vinyl record is on the scene again in a big way and Brent Butterworth explains how to get in the groove

Jazz continually revisits its past, so why shouldn’t audio enthusiasts do the same? Sure, it’s easy to argue that audio technology has shown clear improvement decade after decade while jazz, in the view of some fans, has not. But there’s more to audio than just technical specifications. Each audio technology has its own charm and its own aesthetic—and, of course, each audio format evokes a certain era.

Vpi_scout_ii_turntable_span3

VPI Scout II Turntable

The love of the past and the quest for a more soulful sound have led many serious audiophiles to embrace LP records again. CD sales are declining, but sales of LPs, while still small, rose 35 percent from 2008 to 2009. It’s getting hard to find a brick-and-mortar store where you can buy jazz CDs, but every major city has at least one good record store selling LPs new and used. Even the 18-to-24 set has embraced the LP, playing classic sides in addition to the MP3 files stored on their computers and iPods.

Most every jazz fan has heard an audiophile go off on how vinyl records sound better than CDs. Whether or not LPs really sound better is a debate that will never be settled. What’s beyond dispute, though, is that while LPs can’t touch the technical near-perfection of CDs, they do sound different; some say the sound is warmer, some say it’s more detailed. Many audiophiles will explain to you how only an analog format such as a vinyl record can provide an actual reproduction of an analog recording, and that digital formats such as CD, no matter how high their sampling rate may be, will never truly capture the music.

There’s also no denying that playing LPs—flipping or changing the record every 20 minutes, gently cleaning them, enjoying Reid Miles’ classic cover art and Leonard Feather’s liner notes at a readable point size—is a more intimate, hands-on experience than selecting a playlist on an iPod and letting it run for hours.

Unlike new formats such as 3D and Blu-ray Disc, getting into LPs doesn’t require buying a whole new system or adding lots of extra gear. Nor does it demand you spend a small fortune (although you certainly can). In this article, we’ll explain what you need to start spinning some Sonny, and discuss a few of your best options in gear. Most JT readers should already know their vinyl basics because they grew up with the format. If we’re preaching to the choir here, pass this primer along to a member of Generation iPod.

THE CLASSIC TRIO

Every record playback system requires three basic components: the turntable, the cartridge and the phono preamplifier. (There’s also the tonearm, the part that holds the cartridge, but most turntables come packaged with one.)

The turntable is the device that spins the record. A typical audiophile turntable plays 33-1/3- and 45-rpm records. Some will also play 78s, but if you want to play 78s you’ll need a cartridge that can accept a 78-rpm stylus.

DJ turntables like the legendary Technics SL-1200 use a direct-drive motor, which allows them to start up fast. However, audiophiles tend to shun direct-drive models because of the rumble (perceived or real) from the motor bearings. Almost all audiophile turntables use a belt drive, because the belt naturally damps vibrations coming from the motor. Some turntables are automatic—i.e., they’ll drop the needle onto the record at the push of a button, and pick it up when the record ends—but most audiophiles prefer manual turntables, which require you to lower the needle onto the record with a lever or your fingers.

Usually, the more expensive a turntable is, the heavier its plinth (or base) will be, and the thicker and heavier its platter will be. The extra mass helps damp vibration, and the extra mass of the platter minimizes pitch variations, termed “wow” and “flutter.” At audio shows, it’s common to see platters measuring 6 inches thick.

Cartridges come in two basic types: moving-magnet (MM) and moving-coil (MC). In the former, the stylus connects to a magnet which moves near a set of fixed coils. In the latter, the stylus connects to coils that move around fixed magnets. Most audiophiles prefer MC cartridges; however, MC cartridges are typically more expensive. While high-output MC models can be used with any phono preamp, low-output MC models require an MC-compatible phono preamp or a step-up transformer.

Phono preamps (or phono stages) amplify the weak signals coming from the cartridge, and also apply an RIAA equalization curve required for record playback. A phono pre can be a standalone unit, or it can be built into a receiver, a preamp or even the turntable itself. Most standalone phono pre’s accommodate any MM or MC cartridge, as do some phono pre’s built into high-end stereo preamps. However, most of the phono pre’s built into receivers work only with MM or high-output MC cartridges. Some phono preamps have a USB output that makes it easy to dub your records onto a computer. Some even offer alternative EQ curves, such as those for releases on the Columbia and Decca labels, which were used before the RIAA curve became the standard in 1954.

TURNING THE ’TABLES

Like guitars, record players cost whatever you want to spend. In both of these product categories you can get something fairly decent for a few hundred dollars, or you can spend thousands (or tens or hundreds of thousands) for something extraordinary.

The Pro-Ject brand is as important among budget turntables as Trane is among saxophone players, and I’m not exaggerating. I would guess that in the last 20 years, more audiophiles have started with this Austrian brand than with any other. The Debut III is Pro-Ject’s least expensive turntable at $369 in matte black, $399 in your choice of seven gloss colors, and $499 with a built-in phono pre and USB output. There’s absolutely nothing fancy about it, but all its parts are well made for the price. It comes with Ortofon’s excellent OM-5E moving-magnet cartridge pre-installed, so there’s very little for you to do except plug it in and play your records. For $499 you can step up to the new RM-1.3 Genie, which is considerably more advanced (and considerably cooler-looking).

One of the most revered brands in the middle of the turntable market—the range from about $1,000 to $5,000—is VPI, partly because it makes great turntables and partly because it makes what are widely regarded as the world’s best record-cleaning machines. The company’s latest creation is the $2,100 Scout II, a heavyweight brute that could be considered the Ben Webster of mid-priced turntables. The Scout II’s platter is machined from solid aluminum to a thickness of almost 2 inches, and then bonded to a stainless-steel plate. With so much mass supporting your records, no vibration would dare intrude on your music.

The high end of the turntable market contains some incredible creations. At these prices—starting at $5,000 or so and going up to about $250,000—you’ll find ultra-sophisticated design, exotic materials and machining of a precision seldom found outside jet engines. A perfect example is Continuum Audio Labs’ Caliburn turntable and Cobra tonearm, a combo that represents a rare combination of old-school tradition and advanced modern theory. Using finite-element analysis, Continuum’s engineers figured out where vibration would arise and tweaked the turntable’s design to eliminate the problems. The 84-pound platter incorporates a vacuum system that sucks records firmly down onto the top surface, ensuring a flat ride for the stylus. The entire assembly floats on a 176-pound stand that magnetically levitates the turntable, isolating it from any ground-borne vibration. The price for this perfection is high: $150,000. But no one I know who has heard the Caliburn/Cobra combination questions its value.

ALL THE EXTRAS

While many budget turntables include cartridges, most audiophiles prefer to choose their own. The options are almost endless—for example, Ortofon’s line includes dozens of models, from the $29 Omega to the $4,200 A90. Such a broad selection can be confusing: Your best bet is to settle on a price range, then read online reviews to see which cartridge in your range gets the most raves. If you’re using a receiver or preamp with a built-in phono stage, choose an MM or high-output MC cartridge unless you’re absolutely sure the phono stage will work with a low-output MC.

If you need a standalone phono preamp, you’re in luck no matter what your budget. Your choices start at about $45 for the Audio-Technica AT-PEQ3, which is a basic but competent unit. Probably the most expensive phono pre is the new Constellation Orion, which features a chassis machined from a solid mass of aluminum, a separate power supply and circuit boards that are suspended using an elastic polymer. A price hasn’t been set yet, but expect something well into the five figures.

START SPINNING

Popular as turntables have become, the world these days is not brimming with high-end audio dealers. If you don’t have a nearby dealer, you do have other options. In the last 10 years, excellent dealers of vinyl records and playback gear have appeared on the Internet. You can find great selections of turntables and accessories at websites such as audioadvisor.com, elusivedisc.com, lpgear.com, musicdirect.com and needledoctor.com.

Having a good relationship with a local dealer is helpful with turntables, though, because the devices can be devilishly difficult to set up. Numerous parameters must be adjusted to get the best possible sound from your turntable, and you do need a few pieces of special gear to do the job. If you prefer to do your own setup, there are plenty of resources at your disposal. You can find setup instructions on manufacturers’ websites and elsewhere on the Internet. If you want more detailed instruction, get a copy of the DVD 21st Century Vinyl: Michael Fremer’s Practical Guide to Turntable Set-up, in which one of vinyl’s most outspoken and knowledgeable advocates steps you through the process.

Once you have your record player set up, you’ll be ready to explore the vast world of vinyl. You can investigate 180-gram special releases, which are about 40-percent heavier than typical records, so they sound a little better and are less prone to warping. You can sample 45-rpm LPs, which achieve higher sound quality by increasing the playback speed and spreading the music out over two discs. These luxuries command a high price; expect to pay $20 to $40 for 180-gram releases, and $50 for 180-gram 45-rpm releases.

If all this is starting to sound expensive, don’t worry—record players also make it possible to pick up incredible bargains. My record collection includes LPs I bought as a kid; stuff I’ve picked up from garage sales, used record stores and NYC street vendors; and choice Coleman Hawkins and Tal Farlow sides I swiped from my father’s record collection decades ago. There’s not a single record in my stack that cost more than $10. So while getting into the vinyl thing can cost a lot, it also opens you up to thousands upon thousands of jazz recordings at crazily low prices.

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