THROUGH THE LENS: Why Vinyl? The Roots Music Lover’s Guide to Analog, Part 2
Bruce Robison - The Next Waltz - Photo by Amos Perrine
It’s been a year since this column first explored the benefits of vinyl records and noted some analog resources. During the intervening year we’ve seen such an explosion in LP sales that for the first time in 30 years vinyl is once again the dominant physical form of recorded music.
While I refer you back to that earlier column on why vinyl sounds better, it appears that lots of folks agree with that assessment as audiophile labels such as Mobile Fidelity easily sell records that cost over $100. But we need not go to that financial extreme to revel in the the glorious sound of LPs. For example, The Next Waltz, Vol. 3 currently sits atop the Americana charts. It was recorded in Bruce Robison’s all-analog studio, The Bunker, outside of Austin, Texas, and released on vinyl. (ND’s Stacy Chandler did a feature on Robison and his studio in November 2019.)
On why he records analog, Robison told Sound and Soul, “The way we record, in just my opinion, it just historically is the best way to record this type of music, which is very simply. It’s just the sound of musicians goin’ down and collaborative. We’re all in a room, we’re on a bunch of gear from the ’70s, and all just playin’ music together. And if the song ain’t good, then it’ll show right away!”
In the absence of live music there has also been an substantial uptick in the amount of time spent at home listening to music. Another generation, perhaps two, has been experiencing the unfettered joy of hearing music fill an entire room. However, I have also seen so many otherwise critical music lovers listening to records on equipment that does not even begin to skim the surface of the magic that’s within the grooves of an LP. Thus, this week will be a “consumers guide” on some modestly priced stereo equipment that does vinyl justice. View it as a starting point, and visit What Hi Fi for valuable recommendations. Additionally, Melinda Murphy has some very nice YouTube videos talking about vinyl and stereo equipment from a fan’s viewpoint. Her most recent one is on equipment changes that have made huge differences for not a lot of money.
Again I refer you back to that 2020 column on turntables, but in the intervening year some makers, Pro-Ject and Rega included, have added models that include a necessary phono stage. As nearly all amplifiers and AV receivers sold within the past 20-30 years excluded one, this is good news. It’s also beneficial if you want a minimalist system. Just hook it up to a pair of powered speakers — i.e., speakers with a built-in amplifier — and you have a system you can pretty much put anywhere. Audioengine and Klipsch make a variety, some with Bluetooth capability, and Klipsch makes at least one model with a built-in phono stage.
Don’t forget the cartridge: a really good one is perhaps the single biggest upgrade you can make to a stereo system. While Ortofon is the cartridge of choice for Pro-Ject, Grado and Sumiko also offer nice ones at various price points. You’ll want a high output moving magnet (MM) model.
Another option is to connect your turntable to an integrated amplifier, with a built-in phono stage, that will allow connection to other devices such as a tuner or streamer. I like those made by Cambridge, Yamaha, Rotel, Rega, and NAD. Models worth considering include the Cambridge AXA35, NAD D 3020 V2, and PS Audio Sprout 100. Some models also have built-in digital-to-analog (DAC) converters and Bluetooth.
But all those are transistor models. While transistors have come a very long way, many pale when compared to a fine tube amplifier. Expect a hefty price increase. A nice entry model is the Cayin A-50T MKII.
This is where things get very interesting. Let me perhaps burst your bubble: Speakers are the least important component. The reason is simple. Any deficiencies in your other components will become only too apparent on a nice pair of speakers. So put your money in the turntable/cartridge first, the amp second, and finally the speakers. As some speakers are more efficient than others, make sure the amp you choose has enough power, measured in watts, to drive them.
ELAC, Jamo, Focal, Monitor, Wharfedale, and many others make nice speakers at a variety of price points. I particularly like Bowers & Wilkins and KEF speakers. Position the speakers so that when you are sitting in your favorite listening spot the the vocals seem to be coming from the middle. The purpose of two-channel stereo is to create the illusion of a soundstage.
You’ll also need something to clean your new records and cartridge stylus with. So get a record cleaning brush and a stylus cleaner, such as the ones made by Disc Doctor. If you haunt used record stores, flea markets, and estate sales for your vinyl collection you may want something a bit more substantial, such as the Spin-Clean record washing system.
You’ll also need speaker cables. Do not use lamp cord that hardware stores sell. Instead, get something in the Audioquest Rocket line. If you have other components going into your amplifier, upgrade those cables. Audioquest makes some nice ones.
Before buying anything, or making a substantial upgrade, I highly recommend visiting a real hi-fi shop for guidance and purchase. Travel, if necessary and if you can do so safely — it’s worth the time and energy.
Don’t be afraid to spend more than you had anticipated. Upgrade to the next model, or get that one component that sets you on fire. View it as an investment and amortize it; good music deserves a good sound system, and so do you.
While live music is a communal experience, listening at home is a private, personal affair, just you and the music. Try listening at night, turn off other sensory distractions such as the lights and put down the phone. You are no longer merely listening, you are immersed in it.
The photos below are of artists who are featured on the three volumes of The Next Waltz albums. As a bonus, you’ll get a peek at some ND photographers’ analog sound systems.