Introduction to Vinyl

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This article is in a series pertaining to vinyl setup. For the other articles, see the top-level Vinyl Guide.

Why vinyl?

Why invest in an obsolete, 50+ year old music medium?

  • Used vinyl is often extremely inexpensive - 50 cents to two dollars a disc is common for some releases. Vinyl is a very cheap way to expand your collection in older artists that you cannot justify spending $15/CD on listening to.
  • Some albums have simply never been released on CD.
  • Some album art is better suited to the larger scale of LP covers and sleeves.
  • The mastering of an original LP release is often considered superior to a CD remaster of the same release. This can be for any number of reasons, including:
    • Increased use of compression and limiting on the CD release, reducing dynamics
    • The master tapes have often degraded in the time between the LP and CD releases
    • The equalization and even mixing of some CD releases is radically different than on the LP releases. For instance, many Zappa LPs have had entire drum tracks replaced for the CD release.
  • Properly maintained vinyl is of a surprisingly good quality and is often not objectionable.
  • It can be safely purchased as a long term investment.
    • As a playback standard, vinyl has remained essentially unchanged for 50 years, and turntables will continue to be manufactured into the distant future. Unlike many digital data formats, vinyl has no risk of having no available playback devices.
    • Properly maintained disc records (including both vinyl and shellac) have survived to the present day with little degredation. The long term chemical processes involved with vinyl are believed to keep it stable for 100 years or more.
    • While large swings in value have plagued vinyl as collector's items, there are no long term risks to future devaluation for vinyl as a whole.
    • Well built turntables should last 40 years or more and are refurbishable.

Why not vinyl?

There are several risks and disadvantages to vinyl, compared to other (digital) audio technologies.

  • Vinyl is harder to maintain than CDs, and should ideally be stored in temperature- and humidity-controlled environments. (However, air conditioning, perhaps with a dehumidifier, is almost always sufficient.) Mold can grow on vinyl and may permamently damage it and its sleeve, and can spread from record to record.
  • Vinyl is very easy to damage during playback. Any scraping of the surface can permanently compromise the sound quality.
  • Surface noise, while often inaudible, will always be present and measurable, even on a brand new LP.
  • The sound quality of a record cannot be determined until you play it, increasing the risk of the purchase. Even brand new, sealed LPs can have significant pressing and warping problems that may make it unusable for listening purposes.
  • Turntables and cartridges require periodic maintenance and alignment by a professional, usually a repairman or a dealer. Otherwise you must learn how to tune a system by hand, which may require a great deal of time to perfect.
  • Turntables may require realignment if they are moved.
  • Any play of a record, even one, has the risk of permanently damaging the record. Repeated playback with an excessively worn or misaligned cartridge will cause permanent damage.
  • Vinyl playback is not nearly as portable as other technologies. Portable record players exist, but they are considered of inferior sound quality and require a motionless playing surface.
  • Investing in a high quality vinyl system is hundreds to thousands of dollars more expensive than investing in a high quality digital audio system.
  • Cartridge stylii wear out over time (typically 200-1000 hours) and require periodic replacement. High quality cartridges generally cost between $60-$6000. At the upper end of cartridge cost, playing a single LP may cost $1 in stylus wear alone.
  • Records are large and heavy. Transporting them correctly is logistically difficult.
  • The "book value" of many LPs, representing both its collector's value and its musical value, is often quite high - anywhere from $10-$20 for either new or used LPs to over a hundred dollars for collectible LPs.
  • LPs in general are neither overvalued nor undervalued. While they do not risk becoming worthless, they usually do not carry their value well unless certain releases become more collectible. Vinyl is not a particularly safe investment for collection or financial purposes only.

Financially, any benefits of the cheaper media must be compared against the amortized cost of the equipment needed to play and maintain it.

Vinyl Myths and Misconceptions

Note: These are preliminary notes, are a little opinionated, and are subject to change. Please edit as appropriate or comment on the discussion page.

  • The vinyl surface is heated to several hundred degrees on playback, and repeat play of the same track should wait until the vinyl has cooled.
  • Proper vinyl playback is click-free.
  • Vinyl is better than digital because the analog signal on the vinyl tracks the analog signal exactly, while digital is quantized into steps.
  • Vinyl is objectively worse than digital.
  • Vinyl is objectively better than digital.
  • Adding a penny to the headshell improves tracking/sound.
  • Vinyl sounds better with the dustcover on/off.
  • A cartridge is permanently damaged and should be replaced if the stylus appears even slightly bent.
  • A record cleaning machine is required for proper playback.