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Aaron N. Tubbs

Dragon chaser.

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At an excruciatingly slow pace, I am downsizing. The miserable reality of being a seller on eBay has done little to help this. My general focus to this point has been on things I have not been regularly using, or things I do not anticipate needing in the future.

A few of the pieces I moved first were some extraordinarily collectible and exotic board games. One of the pieces was desired by another member of the community, but they lacked the financial means to cover the sale. My ultimate goal was to reduce the things I had that I didn’t use and to get these sorts of pieces to people in the community that would use them. His problem was he was attempting to downsize too. There were many things on offer that I did not need, but a turntable piqued my interest. So, we worked out a deal. I now own a turntable.

I’ve always wanted a turntable, but collecting vinyl is a pain in the ass. It takes a lot of room, it’s finicky, and it’s an exercise in madness. Nothing’s really changed in that regard, but I guess I’m over it. Perhaps I’m just reverting to mean, having cleared out a few things.

record player picture

Let’s start with what I thought I’d care about: Does it sound better than my digital rig? It’s sort of a tough comparison. My entry-level Wadia transport and DAC are not particularly exotic, but they do rather well for the money.

With the phono system, we’re talking truly entry-level by comparison. I’m pretty sure the interconnect between transport and DAC buys the entire phono signal path. So, it’s not a fair comparison.

After that, everything’s the same (modulo the minor difference that the digital path remains balanced once in the analogue realm, and the phono path does not).

It sounds different. A little less clinical, a little more emotional. Is it colored, or is it more authentic? I don’t know. Voices and instruments can be hauntingly three-dimensional. Really electronic pieces don’t sound much different, and sometimes lack the punch present in the digital path. On the other hand, the music has an effortlessness to it that makes the punch that’s there seem more authentic. It’s weird. Dynamics are not as pronounced, but then most of the digital recordings are dynamic range compressed and lose the advantage my system offers them. So it might be a push, even on dynamics.

The phono rig is less fatiguing. The noise floor is not as low; I can hear the vibration from the motor. It’s distracting when there’s no music, but even quiet passages I quickly forget that’s there. I can’t tell how much is transmitted through the belt versus through the plinth. While the motor is physically isolated from the plinth, they both sit on the same surface, so physics happens. Not much I can do about transmission via the belt, but a more rigid/isolated surface might help. It doesn’t really matter, though.

That’s enough on the topic. Perhaps the sound is not better, but it’s different. What’s clear is that it’s astoundingly good sound for an order of magnitude less spend than on my digital path. At the end of the day, the convenience, lack of portability, software, and other externalities are far sooner going to decide whether somebody chooses this path.

record player picture

What is surprising to me is that the things I’m thinking about have very little to do with the sound quality. I am thinking more about music and the second-order effects of listening to it on vinyl than I am about how good it does or does not sound. Listening to music on vinyl is different. Some of this is obvious and intuitive, but in many situations I hadn’t considered the implications. Naturally anybody born before CDs knows all of this stuff already, as do quite a few other folks.

There are generally a few tracks on each side of a 12” LP, with 15-23 minutes or so per side. This creates a lot of interesting side effects. The first is that track ordering tends to be different than the CD in order to prevent the need for a third LP. Box packing is a bitch. On the upside, some records have extra tracks, because there’s room, and there’s no real incremental cost to filling the empty space.

Listening is much more active. About three times an hour, one needs to lift the stylus, safe the tonearm, stop the motor, flip or change the record, start the motor, start the tonearm, and drop the stylus. There’s a periodicity and ritual to it that’s soothing. It takes some time to slide a record into a sleeve and slide the sleeve into the cover. It takes some time to select the next album, open it, and remove it from the sleeve.

record player picture

Pausing is surprisingly easy. Just lift the stylus. Skipping tracks is not difficult, but requires a little thought and careful attention. It’s more work than hitting a track advance button, and thus it has to be a more deliberate thing. I don’t often skip tracks on a record.

The downside to this is just listening to a song isn’t really a thing for me. I have to have some time set aside to listen to a record. It’s not a casual thing.

On the other hand, perhaps none of that is a downside, in truth. The listening is more deliberate and attentive. This is not just a shuffle of music, but an album/side has been carefully selected, and that’s what I’m going to listen to for the next few minutes. I’m thinking about it. There’s a mindset.

The presentation is a thing, rather than just a flat image on a digital screen. There’s a cover, perhaps some inserts, perhaps some art sleeves, perhaps the inner sleeves, perhaps other things. They’re all out and open and in my face.

That said, the packaging of records varies wildly. Most packaging sucks. I’ll probably end up re-sleeving many of my discs. Cheap cardboard sleeves with no inserts deposit all sorts of crap on the records. The records slide around in these things, to unknown effect. Many of the stock sleeves are offensively bad. They stick to the discs, are too tight, and don’t fit in the album cover. Many I’ve found folded over or damaged straight from the manufacturer. The more I have to fuss with these, the more likely I’ll end up touching something other than the center or edge of the record, and that’s unfortunate.

Records themselves, are a mixed bag. It seems like the manufacturing quality for many of them is inconsistent, but generally bad. It’s not uncommon to have distortions of the vinyl from the manufacturer, there’s often plastic debris hanging on the edge of the disc, the center hole too loose or too tight, the label poorly attached, the disc has a mild warp, etc. It’s sort of surprising. This is as true on a 180g or 200g “audiophile” custom pressing as it is on some $9.99 pop music specimen. That said, there’s something charming in that most records are hand-stenciled with a serial number. This comes in exceptionally handy when the label doesn’t say which side is A or what songs are on that side! It’s a nice human touch, much more personal than some file on an iPod.

The mastering generally seems to be better. There’s no technical reason this has to be the case, but it’s been pretty consistent for me thus far.

record player picture

That records are seldom particularly flat, often somewhat ovoid, and the tonearm frequently moves several millimeters per rotation was not expected. I thought them far more precise than they in reality are. It’s somewhat amazing that with this they so accurately reproduce sound. The engineering necessary to make this all work is neat to see in action.

The downside is that a tonearm has an awful lot of adjustments. At least at the low end, adjusting azimuth, tracking force, tracking angle, and anti-skating force is a hassle. Adjusting tracking force, particularly, is a horribly frustrating procedure on my table. Having to hex-wrench loose a set screw and try to dislodge the counterweight usually results in a half-gram or more swing, making it a lot more like playing the lottery than a precision adjustment. Clearly some of the fancier (read: orders of magnitude more expensive) tonearms aim to make these adjustments a simple matter of dial-turning. Screw up the adjustments and it sounds bad (best case), damages the stylus (expensive), or the record (worst case). Feels a bit like owning a British sports car.

Keeping records clean is a bitch. They’re often not that clean from the factory. They accumulate static and attract snaps, crackles, and pops. Cleaning them, like playing them, is a lossy operation. Not cleaning them is destructive to them and the stylus. It’s a losing proposition.

Tweaks actually seem to be a thing. Where most tweaks with digital gear seem to be based in fantasy, there are very clear advantages to better physical isolation, careful signal path layout, etc.

record player picture

There are a few things I can’t figure out, perhaps the silliest one is why many records are rather sharp and acute on one side and completely flat on the other? The sharp end looks to be a pressing artifact and the flat end looks to be a milling artifact? Perhaps I figured it out in saying this (the edge is cut to make it round after stamping), but it’s just not clear to me, yet.