Since I have added a bunch of stuff to this since its original posting, I though it proper to post again with all the updates in place. The updates are for those who wish to take up vinyl (or improve upon what they already have).
Not too long ago, I wrote a piece on why CDs are better than digital files. Well, since then I have developed an affinity for vinyl. This piece aims to focus on why vinyl is a better way to listen to music…if one prefers sound quality over convenience, that is.
If you ask people who prefer to listen to music on vinyl about the sound quality, the most common thing that you will hear is that the music sounds “warmer.” The main reason for this is that there are frequencies that are simply lost when music is processed digitally (for CD or a digital audio file format), thus when you compare the sound quality you will get a “warmer” sound with a vinyl record and this also makes the brain happy. I have personally experienced what I like to call “frequency highs” because I am being exposed to frequencies that I haven’t been exposed to in years when it comes to listening to recorded music. I would drive around after listening to a couple of my favorite records and felt like I was on a euphoric high (but then again, it could just be the weed). However, even mastering engineers have said that the LP is the most accessible high-resolution music format. But, you need to have good enough equipment in order to truly experience all that vinyl has to offer your ears.
“But what about the crackles and pops?” This is where records sort of get a bad reputation, in my opinion. With a good turntable and stylus (needle) you will experience practically zero crackles or pops over the music when playing a record that has been properly cared for. Right now, I’m listening to an original pressing of Judas Priest’s “Screaming For Vengeance” and I’m in pure Metal Heaven. Sure, you might hear some very light crackles during light passages on certain older records or a record that’s scuffed up, but that just adds to the charm…I barely even notice it now. A well pressed and well cared for record will play just as clean as a CD, it will just sound better on vinyl. Also, albums pressed in certain countries can sound “quieter” than others, such is the case with Japanese, European, and U.K. pressings usually. If you want to make sure you get the best sounding record, a good general rule is to get the original pressing in the country the LP was first released in. Granted, that can get expensive depending on the title, so basically get the earliest pressing you can. That doesn’t hold true for all releases, but usually it works out that way. Of course, it should be noted that with 78s you will almost always hear crackles and pops…but records aren’t pressed on 78s anymore (you also need a different stylus for them). Records today (and the ones you are most likely to buy and collect) will either be at 33 1/3 or 45 RPM.
Another big plus when it comes to vinyl is they (for the most part) retain their value, if not increase (if dealing with an original or limited pressing). You try selling CDs lately? It’s a joke, right? You paid maybe $14.99-$17.99 when it was brand new in the 1990s and you’re lucky if you get $2.50 for it. But with records, you can make some money back if you needed to (assuming your records are well cared for and not bad pressings).
Vinyl is a luxury, no doubt about it. It can be quite the addiction and expensive, depending on how far you’re willing to go for the ‘ultimate sound.’ The records are just part of it….the record player and system make a big difference too.
If you are just starting out and want to be a part of the ‘vinyl culture’ but want something that will sound good and get you excited about listening to records…then pay close attention to the following.
Get an Audio Technica LP-120 turntable (make sure it’s the newer model with the AT95e cartridge – post September 2011) – this is the best turntable for the money and if used properly will make your records sound awesome and keep them in great shape. You can also do upgrades to make it even better, such as replacing the stock felt slip-mat with a cork or rubber one. I have a hybrid cork/rubber mat that I bought on eBay for $19.88 with free shipping, and it is a vast improvement over the felt mat. The reason for this is because the cork/rubber absorbs the vibrations better and has better sound dampening for a richer and fuller sound. Oh and you better get a digital stylus force gauge and set the weight to your stylus’ recommended setting, you can get a decent digital force gauge on Amazon for around $30 or so. This will make sure the weight being placed on the grooves is precise (mine is to the hundredth of a gram at 2.00 exact). This will make your stylus perform at its optimal capability. You’d be very surprised at how inaccurate the weight can be when “eyeballing it” as the manufacturer instructs, but more on that later.
A recommended upgrade would be the stylus, which is done over at LPgear.com or LPTunes.com – upgrades range from $44.95 up to $129.95, so it really depends on your budget. I plan on getting the best available, because my birthday is coming up so hey…why not? That one can be found here (ATN-95SA).
As far as a stereo amplifier/receiver goes…you can find some pretty good used ones at thrift stores and on eBay or Craigslist. Some pretty good speakers can usually be found at thrift stores or on Craigslist (I scored mine for $60), but if you have the cash to buy brand new and prefer un-used goods then go for it. The amp doesn’t need a “phono” input – it is actually recommended that you get a Phono pre-amp (or “phono stage”) for two reasons; the first being that it allows you to use a turntable with an amp that doesn’t have a phono input, but even more importantly it provides even better sound. Many people use them even if they already have a phono input on their amp, because most of the pre-amps built into amps for phono inputs tend to suck. The most recommended “audiophile” quality phono stage is the Pro-Ject Phono Box, but you can do your own research to find the best one that fits your budget. Granted, the LP-120 turntable does have a selectable pre-amp built-in that you can activate with a switch, but DO NOT USE IT. You will also have to get a high quality interconnect (RCA cable) with the lowest capacitance possible, low capacitance ensures you won’t get any hum or unnecessary quality loss. The BJC LC-1 sold by BlueJeansCable.com comes highly recommended.
“But what about the LP-60? It’s fully automatic and just under $100.” Yes, the Audio Technica LP-60 will seem quite appealing on the surface…I almost went with that one myself. However, there is one BIG problem. You can’t adjust the tracking force of the needle (the amount of weight placed on the grooves of the record), which severely limits stylus upgrade options. But more importantly, its tracking force is heavy (at least 3-4 grams or so) while the average recommended tracking force is about 2 grams. What this means is that the LP-60 will place unnecessary pressure on your records, which will damage/wear them down over time. So if you value your records…spend the extra cash and get the LP-120.
Still got questions? Post them in the comments!
I have successfully installed the ATN-95SA stylus upgrade from LPgear.com, which is arguably the best available stylus for the stock AT95e cartridge that comes with the Audio Technica LP-120 turntable as it has a Shibata diamond tip. Note that the AT95e cartridge became the stock cartridge for the Audio Technica LP-120 after late 2011, prior to this they used the ATP-2 which is said to not be as good as the AT95e.
I instantly noticed a vast improvement in the fidelity of the sound with better separation of the instruments. I would say that this stylus makes the stock stylus sound inferior and you will never have a desire to use the old one again. This is the type of stylus that will bring out stuff on your records that you may not have noticed before. Like the saying goes, it’s hard to go back to grape juice once you’ve had fine wine. Of course, it’s good to have as a backup or you can just sell it on eBay or something to someone who wants a stock stylus replacement. LPgear even gives you a nice snap case with pre-cut foam to store/ship your old stylus.
I had been experiencing some weird fuzz over certain frequencies as well as static/fuzz when adjusting the volume dial on the amp. After realizing that the speaker wire I was using was a smaller gauge meant for smaller speakers (my brother in law had some excess wire that he let me have), I decided to replace the speaker wire with something a bit more beefy. I got the BJC Ten White speaker cable made by Belden and sold by BlueJeansCable.com – which is 10 gauge wire (the smaller the gauge number, the thicker it is). I included a picture below that shows the difference in size.
Needless to say, the fuzz is all gone and the music sounds even better than before. If you have clip or spring terminals, then you can just get the raw wire. But they can add whatever connectors you may need. If the wire is too big to fit into your amp or speaker terminals, you can just trim back some of the wire to make it fit. You won’t experience any loss in sound quality.
I decided to get a digital stylus force gauge just to make sure that the weight being placed on the grooves was accurately set. I was able to get one for between $20-$30 on Amazon that weighed out to the hundredths. It should be noted that too much weight on the grooves will damage your records a lot quicker.
I weighed it out to 2.00g flat – and shockingly enough the dial was WAY off. Below is the image of what it looks like after being set with the digital scale. Before this, the dial was set dead-on at 2…now it’s between three-four notches to the left of 2.
-Max ‘ManJewky’ Wallis
KM Co-Founder / Blog Editor