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 at least several hours until the vinyl has cooled.
    • Obviously, the temperature of the record is at room temperature except at the stylus contact point - otherwise the record would completely melt.
    • It is true that back-to-back playback will introduce slightly more distortion than a fresh play. This is believed to be a temporary effect and goes away after approx. 10 minutes.
    • Repeated playback (no matter what the timeframe) carries the risk of permanent damage.
    • No published evidence exists of back-to-back playback causing permanent damage.
  • Proper vinyl playback is click-free.
    • Pops and clicks are often not audible during a song on a well-maintained record and should not distract from the listening experience.
    • No evidence exists of a record that is shown to be played back with absolutely no pops or clicks whatsoever.
    • They are introduced at virtually every stage of production, from cutting the laquer to the pressing to the playback itself. Some pops and ticks are pressed into the record itself.
    • Because of the lack of evidence for a tick-free record and the engineering factors making such a record extremely rare, it is quite likely that no record exists that is truly free from all pops and ticks.
  • Vinyl is better than digital because the analog signal on the vinyl tracks the analog signal exactly, while digital is quantized into steps.
    • PCM encoding (used on CDs and DVD-A) records audio data in a quantized format. Analog formats do not have a measurable time or signal resolution.
    • Analog encoding still has many measurable and audible faults, potentially including THD, noise, IMD, etc.
    • PCM can encode time delays to any arbitrarily small length. Time delays of 40ns or less - a tiny fraction of the sample rate - are easily achievable.
    • Signal quantization (ie 16-bit or 24-bit) only results in increased noise in a correct implementation. No distortion is introduced and the noise is of questionable audibility under most listening conditions.
    • The term "analog", by definition, means that the signal is not and cannot be a perfect reproduction of the original - it is merely an "analogue" of the existing signal, corrupted in the process of encoding.
    • In short, by any numerical basis, vinyl is not as accurate as competing digital formats.
  • Vinyl is objectively worse than digital.
  • Vinyl is objectively better than digital.
  • Adding a penny to the headshell improves tracking/sound.
    • The trackability of a cartridge is related to the mechanical parameters of the tonearm and stylus assembly.
    • Adding weight to the headshell (and adjusting the counterweight to compensate) increases the effective mass of the tonearm and reduces its resonant frequency. If the resonant frequency is excessively high - 15-20hz as measured by a test record - the weight may improve trackability by moving the resonance out of the audible range. Otherwise, it will generally only reduce trackability.
  • Vinyl sounds better with the dustcover on/off.
    • The sound emanated by the vibrating stylus is audible and can theoretically bounce off the dustcover and back onto the record.
    • Moving the dustcover compromises the balance of spring- or foam-damped plinths. The azimuth error, if not fixed, may be more audible than the reflections made by the cover.
    • No published evidence exists of the dustcover having this effect.
    • Keeping the dustcover on can reduce the amount of dust settling on the record during playback, improving sound quality with long-term use.
    • Dust covers keep dust off the record mat, which can also get on the record.
  • A cartridge is permanently damaged and should be replaced if the stylus appears even slightly bent.
    • Bent stylii cause azimuth and alignment errors which may be audible. In extreme cases they can cause record damage.
    • Cartridges are hand-built and always have some finite tolerance in their construction. No stylus is completely straight, down to the atomic level.
  • A record cleaning machine is required for optimal playback.
    • Record cleaning machines were not used by the vast majority of the music-playing populace during the heyday of vinyl.
    • Few record stores use record cleaning machines, and only a few more perform a cleaning regimen.