musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

Vinyl Fever or Buyer Beware?


There have been many articles in the media in the past year or so, heralding the return of the vinyl record album, a format that many people had long-thought dead, consigned to the dustbin of history, after the heralded arrival of the compact disc in the mid 1980s. But lo and behold, old record pressing machines are being salvaged and refurbished, cranked up and humming again, spitting out hot slabs of wax, and the sales of vinyl records are surging. Who woulda thunk it?

Legions of music lovers, especially those who consider themselves to be audiophiles, will proclaim passionately about how much more superior the sound of vinyl records is compared to that of CDs, or those lowly but prolific MP3 files. I don’t doubt that vinyl records sound better — or at least have more “warmth” and more dynamic range — than the other formats, but my ageing ears certainly can’t detect much difference, at least not enough to give a hoot. Then again, I never was one of those picky audiophile types that paid much attention to stereo separation and EQ levels, or whatever criteria is used to measure sound quality. Stereo or mono, vinyl or CD, boom box or high-end sound system, what matters to me is the quality of the music itself; the melody, the beat, the singer, the musicians, the lyrics, the whole package.


Back in the United States, I worked in music stores (selling vinyl, cassettes, and CDs) — either as a clerk, manager, or eventually a store owner — for nearly twenty years, and then spent another two years working for Tower Records in Bangkok. I have great memories of the old vinyl era, both as a consumer and as a merchant. But personally, I don’t miss vinyl records one iota. Sound quality aside, with vinyl you always had to deal with a variety of nuisances, ranging from the possibility of warped records to defects such as pops, skips, and scratches. Records are fragile and they can break. Then are the issues of storage and mobility: records take up more space and they are heavier to haul around.


Yes another factor that many people caught up in the current wave of vinyl fever forget is perhaps the most important one: the cost and availability of the record needle. Hey, you can’t play records without a working needle, right? And if you play those records with any sort of frequency you are eventually going to wear out your needle — depending on usage this can necessitate a replacement in a matter of months versus a year or longer — and will need to buy another one.

Okay, that brings up the cost of the needle. Obviously, the better quality of the turntable you have, the more the needle will cost. But wait a minute; can you even find the damn needle that you need? Back in the 1970s and early 1980s, we used have these reference books that would help us find the correct needle that customers needed. There were literally hundreds of different needles listed, and most were not compatible with other turntables. Finding the correct needle was sometimes a difficult task. Sometimes you had to wait until the replacement that you had to order would arrive. I can’t imagine the availability and compatibility of needles has suddenly gotten better. So what are these happy new turntable users doing? Are they playing their records sparingly or causing further damage to their precious vinyl by playing the records with a worn stylus?


An additional twist to this vinyl renaissance is the cost of the records themselves. Man, they ain’t cheap! In a tactic that is typical of a greedy, clueless industry that grossly over-charged consumers for CDs for far too many years, the cost of vinyl records is now more than that of CDs. Colored vinyl! Limited Edition! More money! Honestly, it’s like these record companies have schemed up another new scam in a desperate attempt to rake in profits.

So no, I have no desire to return to those “glory days” of vinyl records. I’m quite satisfied with my burgeoning collection of compact discs, even if those too are becoming an endangered species in this era of file sharing and digitized downloads.

Here is an article on the subject of the vinyl resurgence that appeared in the New York Times this week:

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