The Vinyl Revival: Why Digital Is Not Always King
By Justin Kresse
The advent of streaming was an influential moment in the timeline of music listening. Up until that point, almost all music formats presented the listener with an entire album’s worth of songs and gave them a physical, tactile experience. When iTunes, Spotify and Tidal launched, they offered users a more convenient option to listen to music, but they took away the tactility and some of the listening experience that had been important aspects of the previous formats. Lately, however, listeners have been drawn back to an older, but more superior listening format — the record. This recovery is called the vinyl revival, and it demonstrates that more and more listeners today have grown to appreciate the experience of putting a physical record on a turntable and actually sitting down to listen to an album.
Before services such as Spotify, Tidal, SoundCloud and iTunes came onto the scene, there was only really one way to repeatedly listen to your favorite music: you had to buy it on a certain format. One of the first popular music formats was vinyl, but then came cassettes, eight track tapes and CDs, to name a few. Most of these formats included an entire album’s worth of songs, which meant that listeners got the full experience that the band or artist intended for listeners. Also, for all the formats besides CD, they used analog audio signals, which meant that the recording was almost identical to the original mastering done in the studio. CDs, while using digital audio, use lossless audio quality, which means that all the information from the original master is still there, and most listeners would have great difficulty telling the difference. In contrast, most streaming services use lossy music files, which don’t have all the information of the original mastering. (There are a few exceptions, such as Tidal, and Spotify is planning a new Spotify HiFi with CD-quality music.) Having the best sound quality isn’t as big of a deal for most listeners, but if you invest a lot of money in higher-quality equipment, you might be able to notice the difference.
One other benefit associated with vinyl is the tactile feel that a record brings. Taking a physical record, placing it on your turntable, and being able to watch the needle fall onto the record and seemingly glide across its grooves is an experience in itself. Associated with this tactility is the physicality of a record. When you pull a record out of its sleeve, you have a physical object with music on it. You don’t need internet to stream that music. You could be in Antarctica, but as long as you have power for your amplifier and turntable, you can listen to your entire vinyl library.
Another benefit of vinyl is its visual appeal. Not only do you get a physical record sleeve with usually very interesting artwork on it, but especially newer records also sometimes come on colored vinyl and even picture discs, adding something extra to the experience.
While the arguably better sound quality and physicality of vinyl does have its appeal, the reason I love vinyl so much is that it forces me to listen to an entire album. Unlike with streaming services like Spotify where you search for an artist or band and are immediately taken to their top five songs, with an album, you’re forced to listen to all the songs on the record. While this might sound like an inconvenience, it has actually shown me a lot of songs that I never knew before listening to an album on vinyl. It is important to note that you are also forced to listen to an entire album when you use CDs, cassettes and other formats. I just prefer vinyl because of the previously mentioned other benefits. Listening to the entire album also allows you to get the entire listening experience that the band or producer intended. Every song is laid out in a specific order to create an experience for the listener, even sometimes incorporating the switch to side two as a sort of intermission. When you only listen to an individual song on Spotify or any other streaming service, you lose a lot of that musical experience. Even if you don’t intend to get into vinyl, I would still recommend you use your streaming service of choice and try listening to an entire album from one of your favorite artists from start to finish.
So, if I’ve convinced you and you’re now interested in experiencing vinyl for yourself, there are a few ways to get into the hobby. If you’re on a tight budget, the best way to stretch your dollar is by looking at vintage equipment. After all, the format has existed since the late 40s, and a lot of the equipment people used to listen to records back then still works great today.
You’ll want to pick up a turntable, as well as a pair of speakers and a receiver or amplifier to power them. Many speakers, specifically older ones, can’t just be plugged directly into the output of your turntable. They need a more powerful signal, so you plug the turntable into the receiver or amplifier, which will be able to power the speakers. When connecting the turntable to the amplifier or receiver, you will also want to make sure you use a “phono” input. This is because the turntable output is quiet and also needs some amplification, which is only built into the phono inputs. If your receiver or amplifier doesn’t have a phono input on the back, you can always buy a separate phono preamplifier, plug the turntable into that, and then take the output and plug it into any input on the receiver or amplifier. If you don’t quite understand what I just said, just google “turntable setup” and you should get some more in-depth videos and instructions.
When looking to purchase vintage stereo equipment, your local thrift stores are a good place to start. They will definitely have the best deals, and you get to look at the product in person before you buy it. However, you may not be able to test it and there may not be a return policy, so be warned. You can also check Craigslist or Facebook marketplace for deals on vintage stereo equipment. A good rule of thumb when buying anything used – but especially stereo equipment –is to look at it before you buy it. Try to see if it at least turns on or if anything seems to be falling apart on it. A quick google search might also give you some reviews to see if the device is worth your while. If you’re not finding anything at your local thrift stores or you want another option, eBay has a large variety of vintage and modern stereo equipment at reasonable (but higher than thrift-store) prices and will work with you on returning something if the product is not as described. Especially with turntables, though, going vintage can be problematic. Moving parts tend to wear out over time (though you can usually buy parts to fix these), so if you’re new to the hobby and don’t want the hassle, buying a new turntable (even to pair with vintage speakers and amplifiers, which can last longer) is more of a sure bet. The Audio-Technica AT-LP60 is a decent option for a new turntable at $100, and if you can afford a little more, the Fluance RT81 will not disappoint for $250.
In terms of buying records, it all depends on your taste in music. Again, thrift stores are a great cheap way to build your collection for a few dollars per LP, but the condition can vary, and they tend to only have classical, jazz, and maybe some classic rock if you’re lucky. Just like with the equipment, if you are looking to buy used records at a thrift store or anywhere else, make sure you take a look at them before you make the purchase. A few light scratches or a scuff are fine, and records can be cleaned with special cleaning solutions, but if there’s too many scratches or bigger ones, it’s probably not worth it. Another option to buy records (and sometimes stereo equipment) is record stores, which are probably your best bet, especially if your music taste is more modern or unique. Depending on the store, they will likely have a mix of new and used albums, but their prices – while not terrible – will definitely be higher. Expect to pay upwards of $15 or $20 for a new record and between $3 and $10 for used records. This varies, of course, from store to store. The final way to buy records is online. I would urge you to support your local stores if you can, but if they don’t have an album you’re looking for, eBay and Amazon will likely have it. The only reason it would not be online is if the artist didn’t release it on vinyl.
Especially due to the pandemic, vinyl sales have gone up drastically. In fact, in 2020, they even surpassed sales of CDs, which hadn’t happened since the 80s. While many of us are stuck at home, it’s helpful to sit back and listen to some music, and through vinyl, you can experience your favorite artists and albums like never before.