by Robert Cowlin
The vinyl revival hit yet another high point in March as it was revealed by RIAA chairman and CEO, Cary Sherman, that “last year, 17 million vinyl albums, a legacy format enjoying a bit of a resurgence, generated more revenues than billions and billions of on-demand free streams: $416 million compared to $385 million for on-demand free streams”. Indeed, “with sales up 28% on 2014, [vinyl records] accounted for 6% of the overall retail music market, and one in five of all ‘physical’ sales”. Vinyl records haven’t sold in these numbers since 1988. This is of course excellent news for musicians and fans of physical music formats, many of whom regard the musical object just as highly as the music carried thereon. A slightly less comforting statistic came in the form of Amazon’s announcement that its best-selling home audio product of Christmas 2015 was a Jensen all-in-one record player. The thing about vinyl playback is that, being a physical mechanical process that relies on high levels of mathematical accuracy in order for it to work correctly, those who have gotten used to CD, iPods, and streaming often get it disastrously wrong. Vinyl playback requires a fair amount of time, attention to detail, and investment in order for it to sonically compete with the most rudimentary of digital players, and the types of all-in-one record players that dominate the very low end of the turntable market simply aren’t engineered well enough to handle the complexity that is accurate LP playback. None of this matters to the fad follower who just wants to frame record sleeves, or indeed to the person who enjoys vinyl for its aesthetics over its sonic potential. However, if your priority is how music is reproduced in the home – and you intend to listen to music on vinyl – then you need to come to the table prepared or you’ll simply be wasting your money on expensive frisbees.
N.B. None of the ideas discussed herein have any impact on one’s ability to enjoy music. This article is concerned solely with enhancing the sound quality of your set-up and it’s crucial to see these two concepts as separate; the former clearly being more important. Owning hi-fi always involves some form of compromise, especially if you don’t have a dedicated room for it. However, owning such equipment means that the possibility to unlock the sonic benefits of music is at your disposal. The quest for audio nirvana is one of balance. Simple awareness of the following practises will help even if you can’t implement them all.
Establishing a record friendly environment:
So you’ve decided to jump headfirst into the swirling maelstrom that is record collecting, and you want to hear your records’ sound properly reproduced to boot! The first thing you’ll need to establish, before you even start to think about which turntable to buy (pro tip: that’s turntable, not “record player”), is where exactly you’re going to put your stereo equipment. Proper LP playback requires three things: a turntable, a stereo integrated amplifier, and speakers. Ideally, you will position the hi-fi equipment on a dedicated rack, safe from footfalls and clear of airborne vibrations. If space is at a premium you might consider using a horizontal IKEA Kallax as a multipurpose hi-fi stand and record storage unit. Using the Kallax as a stand for your hi-fi will provide a sturdy base, but you’ll also need to further isolate your turntable (and amplifier, if you feel so inclined) in order to improve playback, eradicate skipping, and prevent feedback. A turntable should be placed on top of an isolating platform that is rigid and inert, which in turn should be placed on top of isolating feet, specifically designed for hi-fi use. A bamboo butcher’s block can be procured from IKEA or Argos, and is the perfect budget solution. Granite, marble, or stone are not recommended as they vibrate at very low frequencies which are harder to dissipate. Attach some adhesive isolation feet to the block and you’ll have yourself a very sturdy, vibration free throne upon which to proudly place your incoming turntable! The area that you’re dedicating to LP playback should be free of clutter and extraneous noise.
Choosing a turntable:
The market for both new and used turntables is booming and picking the right one for your needs might seem challenging, but there are a number of rules to follow that should at least steer you clear of the junk:
- Keep It Simple, Stupid: Turntables are now coming replete with built-in pre-amps, USB outputs, speakers, USB inputs, radios, bluetooth, etc. None of this is necessary for good sound, and it will all negatively impact upon your record playing experience as the manufacturing cost is distributed amongst needless additional gadgets. If you’ve got a fixed budget then you’ll want to buy the turntable that does the simplest things really well, rather than buying something that tries to do a multitude of things poorly. Look for a turntable that has zero gimmicks: you’ll need a tonearm, cartridge, and platter but nothing else. The entry level models from Pro-Ject and Rega are very easy to recommend and are well regarded by the hi-fi press. If you’re looking at the entry-level end of the market, the Vinyl Factory has a good article about eight budget turntables that won’t ruin your records. These models play records well, and they don’t do anything else. This is what you want from a good turntable. Those looking at the higher end of the market will want to consult the product reviews at Stereophile and Analog Planet, paying close attention to the technical measurements performed by the websites.
- Used/vintage: If this is your first experience with a turntable, I would highly recommend buying a new product from a manufacturer that specialises in turntables at a budget of at least £200-£300 (feel free to spend more, turntable quality improves the higher up the price ladder you go). That said, there are many excellent bargains to be had on the secondhand market where your budget will go much further if you buy wisely. If you’re shopping for a secondhand turntable: avoid products made by companies that also make white goods, research any prospective purchase meticulously to gauge whether or not it’s any good, enlist a knowledgeable friend to help you audition the turntable before purchasing, and be aware that you will have to – no matter what the seller says – buy and mount a new cartridge on the tonearm that is of a standard that complements the quality of the turntable.
- Set a reasonable budget: Vinyl playback requires an investment of time, research, and above all money. Vinyl is the most expensive playback medium and if you think you’re going to get it right with a £50 piece of plastic junk then you should give the hobby up now. Rather than setting an arbitrary budget based on what other home entertainment products cost, research turntable reviews on What Hi-Fi and figure out how much you’re willing to spend based on what the various price points offer.
Choosing an amplifier:
Whilst turntables are enjoying quite the revival at the moment, ancillary hi-fi products are not nearly as popular and, consequently, there are great bargains to be had on the secondhand market. The job of the amplifier is to boost the electrical signal produced by the stylus as it traverses the grooves of a record and send it to the speakers. As vinyl is our primary playback medium for the purposes of this article, it is important to procure an amplifier with a competent built-in phono stage. Let’s keep things simple and say you have two options at this point:
- Purchase a new amplifier that is known for possessing an excellent phono stage. The Rega Brio-R is one such example, whilst the Yamaha AS series provides better value for money.
- Purchase a used amplifier from the glory days of home hi-fi, roughly 1977-1982. It’s crucial to focus on this timespan as it’s prior to the mass introduction of CD, and thus the phono stage was still the most important input on an amplifier. The equipment manufactured during this period was generally of a high standard and should still work perfectly today. There are thousands of potential amplifiers matching these criteria and you should seek out ones built by dedicated hi-fi manufacturers with long lasting reputations and good online reviews from the vintage enthusiasts over at Audiokarma. There is one amplifier that often stands out as the budget audiophile amplifier, the NAD 3020. It came in a number of guises and was hugely popular amongst audiophiles in the 1980s. Above all, it is notable for having an excellent phono stage. A NAD 3020 in mint condition should set you back no more than £100 and will sonically beat any new amplifier in the same price bracket. The 3020b and 3120 models are equally commendable. If you can find one (there are loads of them), make your hi-fi life easier and just buy it. The 3020’s sound is warm, earthy, and involving. It is perfectly suited to jazz, rock, and acoustic instruments and will frame your music in an excellent glow.
In a similar fashion to amplifiers, the used market is crammed full of speakers of varying prices and qualities. You might consider listening to a variety of speakers in your chosen budget at your local dealer and buying new, or you could use the information garnered from the audition to buy something used. All speakers sound different and you will want something that matches your listening space. If you have a small space, you won’t need enormous speakers with loads of bass lest they overwhelm the room with size and sound. Conversely, a large room will need something with a bit of oomph to get the sound moving appropriately in the room. If you’re buying used, go with a company that has a good reputation. Models from the ’80s and ’90s by the likes of: Wharfedale, Mission, KEF, and B&W are easy to recommend (watch out for dried up speaker cones though). Buying new won’t get you ‘as much’ speaker, but you’ll be able to audition a few models back to back and pick the one you like best (you’ll also benefit from advances in speaker manufacturing and trickle-down technology). Remember though, the way a speaker sounds in the demonstration room isn’t necessarily the way it will sound in your room. Be prepared to experiment here to get the best sound!
Getting everything connected:
Once you’ve got your three components you’ll want to buy some quality but not extortionate interconnects from Fisual, and head to your local hi-fi dealer for an adequate length of speaker cable. Cambridge Audio makes some decent cabling that won’t break the bank. If you live in a place with old or shared electrics, you might also consider buying a multi-plug with surge protection for peace of mind. If you find that turning on appliances, lights, or dimmers results in an audible hum through your loudspeakers you should purchase a mains conditioner and plug your components into that. Ensure that your turntable is out of the firing range of your speakers, this is to prevent acoustic feedback through the cartridge. If you are really pressed for space and you’ve had to put your speakers on the same shelf as your hi-fi components, it is imperative that you isolate your speakers from the shelf in order to prevent the resonance of your speakers from vibrating your shelf and, by proxy, your hi-fi equipment. By isolating your speakers you’ll be hearing more of the speaker’s sound, rather than that of the shelf’s. This will also prevent vibration artefacts from blurring the mid-range via your turntable. The cartridge acts like a tiny microphone, picking up vibrations without prejudice and feeding them to your amplifier. No doubt you can appreciate the importance of preventing non-musical vibrations from reaching the cartridge if you want to achieve accurate vinyl playback.
Correct speaker placement:
When you place a loudspeaker in a room, the energy created by the loudspeaker excites modes in the room. This can be heard as a swelling or booming of bass around certain frequencies as the modes hang in the room longer than frequencies that don’t excite the room’s modes. Play a song with a slow, steady, and easy to hear bass, such as “Ballad of the Runaway Horse”, and you will hear that certain notes sound bloated whilst others sound neutral. In a perfect rendering of this song, none of the bass notes should resonate. It’s possible to calculate your room’s modes, and it’s also possible to position your speakers in such a way that they excite the room’s resonant modes as little as possible. Speaker placement philosophies rely on simple geometric equations that place your speakers in such a way that they are not equidistant from the main and side walls (thus preventing a build-up of resonant frequencies). Consequently, every room will have two or three ‘perfect’ loudspeaker locations that you should follow if you want to get the best performance from your speakers. This includes: correct stereo imaging, accurate front to back positioning of instruments, and an even tonal balance. By isolating your speakers from the room’s resonant modes, you’ll hear the speaker as the manufacturer intended, rather than the sound your room makes when it’s exerted upon by your speaker. The three most popular methods of speaker placement are the Rule of Thirds, Golden Ratio, and 38% rule. Thankfully, the good people at NoAudiophile have designed a series of online speaker placement calculators that will allow you to easily review the various speaker positions suitable for your room. I personally find the Rule of Thirds gives the most ‘holographic’ representation of a band playing music in my room; this is also useful if you choose to use your speakers in a home theatre set-up in addition to music. Correctly positioned speakers will create a 3D soundstage upon which musicians will appear to perform (with the right recording). Accurate speaker positioning is by far the best tweak you can make to your hi-fi without spending any money.
Having positioned your speakers correctly, replay “Ballad of the Runaway Horse” and listen for the difference in resonant bass frequencies. The sound of Wasserman’s double bass should be more even and the finger work more realistic, whilst Warnes’ vocal should be dead centre. The backing vocals will appear to float around the edges of the speakers. Of course, your room will still house inherent resonant frequencies that you will only be able to manage through the use of bass traps. Room treatments are however beyond the scope of this article.
All record collectors have their own tried and tested techniques for sourcing high quality vinyl. Some focus solely on first pressings, some seek out pressings that were mastered by specific engineers, some collect audiophile reissues. Be aware that, if you want to get the best sounding pressing, you will need to do some research online to figure out which one is right for you. A classic album from the 1970s that has been reissued many times on vinyl is not going to sound the same across every pressing. Each time a record is reissued, it is re-mastered so that new stampers can be made to manufacture the vinyl. Mastering engineers will be working with different sources and will have their own sonic preferences when it comes to framing the music. The Steve Hoffman Music Forum is an invaluable resource, populated by audiophiles who obsess over different versions of the same records. Search for any album there and you’re bound to stumble upon a lengthy discussion comparing the sound of an original first pressing to a Japanese reissue, for example. Researching purchases in this manner might seem like quite a lot of effort just to listen to music, but if you’ve made the decision that you want to do vinyl the justice it deserves then you might as well put in the time to hunt down the right pressing rather than settling for a dud. You’ll curate a great sounding collection and also learn a lot about the music along the way.
If you have purchased a used turntable you must get a new stylus for it. You don’t want contaminants from a previous owner messing up your records. A good ballpark figure for how much you should spend on a cartridge is to find out the turntable’s original value, adjust it for inflation, and divide the result by two. This will ensure you get a stylus that is a good quality match for your turntable. Spending too little in this area will negate the engineering benefits built into your tonearm and turntable, spending too much will be overkill. Remember, the stylus is the most important element of vinyl playback as it is here where the sonic information is collected. Information lost at this crucial stage can never be regained further up the chain. Each manufacturer has its own ‘house sound’ that will slightly manipulate the overall sonic impression you get from your records. In my subjective experience, Ortofon cartridges have a more rounded bassy sound, Audio Technica is a slightly leaner/neutral by comparison, and Grado cartridges are known for their expressive mid-range. Buy one that complements your other components. For example: if your speakers are bass heavy, consider a leaner sounding Audio Technica cartridge to even out the sound. I recommend at least purchasing an elliptical stylus (not a conical one). The more exotic micro-line styli have a refined tip for extracting further detail from the groove and they are generally immune to sibilants and inner groove distortion. The current cheapest micro-line stylus is the Audio Technica AT440MLb. Mounting a cartridge can be tricky so I recommend watching as many YouTube videos on this subject as possible. Buy a turntable where the tonearm has a removable headshell. The benefit here is that you might choose to have a selection of cartridges depending on the type of records you’re playing. Having multiple headshells that you can easily swap out is useful.
No serious vinyl playback set-up is complete without some way of washing records. Records conduct static electricity which attracts dust particles, and used records can have anything on them: fingerprint oil, cigarette residue, hairspray, pet hair, even mould. If you let any of this detritus come into contact with your stylus you will cause premature wear to the stylus and, perhaps more importantly, you won’t be getting the full sonic benefits of the record as it will be masked by a layer of dirt. Do not wash your records in the sink with an abrasive sponge and washing up liquid as this will cause contaminants to become embedded in the record’s grooves. Have you ever rinsed a glass with tap water and left it to dry? The grime left by water droplets is not what you want smothering your records. Records should be cleaned with distilled or de-ionised water (sold at pharmacies) and some form of record cleaning fluid, generally made with isopropyl alcohol. The cheapest proper record cleaning kit is the Knosti Disco Antistat. This will clean your records as good as any vacuum based Record Cleaning Machine, but the process can be somewhat laborious. I wrote a review for the original Knosti here, which gives equal results to using an RCM but without the convenience provided by a dedicated machine. For a more serious cleaning solution, the machines offered by Okki Nokki and Pro-Ject are commendable.
You should purchase a carbon fibre cleaning brush to remove any stray dust particles from the playing surface before and after play, as well as a stylus brush, digital stylus gauge to ensure you have your tracking weight set correctly, and small spirit metre to ensure your turntable is level. These are all fairly inexpensive accessories that will improve the vinyl playback experience. Playing a clean record on a properly calibrated system will exhibit no intrusive crackle, minimal to zero surface noise, no discernible wow and flutter, and stable speed throughout.
In order to ensure that your turntable is operating accurately, rather than just assuming it is “by ear”, you can purchase a test LP with various tones and ‘torture tracks’ that will allow you to dial in accurate vertical tracking force and anti-skate, as well as provide you with some useful tracks for checking your hi-fi’s stereo balance and phasing. Even if your turntable was preset at the factory, it is worthwhile double checking it in your own listening environment with some objective tests.
None of the methods described in this article should take very long to complete and they are not difficult. They require patience and a little research, but taking a few hours to ensure your vinyl rig is optimised will reap sonic benefits. There is a very useful video on YouTube that covers the basics of turntable set-up, I believe this video complements this article well and should be viewed by anyone who is serious about vinyl playback. It covers many things that I haven’t touched upon and is perhaps more crucial than anything I’ve discussed here.
Analogue vs. Digital:
As you research vinyl playback you will probably come across a number of debates that pit analogue (generally represented by vinyl) against digital (generally represented by CD) methods of audio reproduction. The important thing to remember here is that none of the benefits of either method are of any use to us if the mastering is flawed. You could record the best sounding song in the most high-spec all-analogue studio, but if the vinyl pressing is somehow flawed or defective then it will never sound better than a well-executed CD alternative. Similarly, a great sounding digital production can be ruined on CD if it is brick-walled during the mastering stage. If, in this instance, a non-brick-walled master is used to cut the vinyl version – and your LP playback is up to scratch – then the vinyl record will trump the CD for sound quality. It’s important to remember that – unless explicitly stated on the packaging – the majority of modern vinyl releases and reissues are cut from digital files of unknown provenance. This fact says nothing about how a new record will sound, but if you’re picky about analogue then you will definitely need to do your research before buying. It’s also worthwhile to note that by 1978 vinyl mastering studios had begun to use digital technology in the record cutting process. This means analogue sourced master tapes might have gone through an Analogue-to-Digital and Digital-to-Analogue conversion during the cutting stage. None of this should really matter in your pursuit of good sound but it might be useful for some collectors.
The bottom line is, vinyl sounds great but you do have to put some effort into getting your rig calibrated in order to enjoy it to its fullest potential. If any of these processes seem beyond the pale then I highly recommend considering a digital playback set-up, assuming ultimate sound quality is your primary goal. You can get bit-perfect resolution for as little as £100 and CDs are exceedingly cheap nowadays. Hook a competent CD player or DAC up to your amplifier and speakers and it can sound just as good as vinyl (and probably better). It’s impossible for vinyl to compete with digital on such a low budget, but it’s important to remember that there are many recordings and unique mixes and masters out there on vinyl that never made it to CD. If you’re willing to invest the time and some cash (buy wisely and methodically, you don’t have to spend loads to get accurate sound) into vinyl playback then you will be rewarded for your efforts.
Updated 12 September 2017.