CDs came on like gangbusters over 20 years ago and sent record players packing in favor of digital playback. But vinyl is making a comeback among those who gave up playing LP’s as well as those who never played LPs before. What does one need to know in order to get the best music from vinyl in one’s home theater? Eric Smith, National Trainer for Pioneer Home Entertainment USA is spinning the answers.
First, what do you see as being the reason for the resurgence of vinyl?
Eric Smith: Vinyl has indeed been seeing a resurgence recently. According to a Wall Street Journal article nearly 8 million vinyl records were sold in 2014, which is up 47% from 2013. There are multiple reasons why this has been happening, but if I had to point to one reason with the largest impact I would say that vinyl is selling better because of its reach to a new younger audience. Previously the vinyl you could buy was primarily classical and jazz for audiophiles and dance for DJs. Now we are getting releases in vinyl from groups like Daft Punk, Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire bringing vinyl to the attention of a wider audience.
There is a pride of ownership with vinyl as well. It has a larger 12 x 12 canvas for artwork and liner notes and many releases are collectable as well. Jack White released vinyl in limited batches in different colors. There is also a certain cool factor with being able to say “I’ve got that on vinyl.”
While vinyl arguably does sound better than CD, sound quality may not be the primary reason the new audience is buying vinyl. For audiophiles sound quality is of course of paramount importance. For the new younger generation sound quality is still important but it may not be number one. They are still streaming or downloading music as well as buying vinyl. The portability of digital music is great for in the car or listening on your phone, but dropping a needle on a record and letting an entire side play is a different matter. Rather than just hearing the sound, you are listening to the music as the artist originally intended. It is a completely different experience.
What do you need in order to properly integrate a turntable into your home theater?
Eric Smith: Unlike a CD player where you can plug the left and right analog audio cables into just about any input on a receiver, a turntable usually requires a special phono input. If you plug a turntable into a CD or AUX input on a receiver the volume output will be very low. Some receivers such as the Pioneer Elite SC-87 and SC-89 have a dedicated phono input to compensate for this low level. If your receiver does not have a phono input you need an external phono preamp in between the turntable and the receiver which will boost the level so you can get the volume you need. Some turntables like the Pioneer PL-30-K have a phono preamp built in as well. If you have a receiver with a phono input great, if not, it’s a matter of flipping a switch to utilize the built in phono preamp in the turntable.
What should you look for when you’re buying a turntable?
Eric Smith: Here is a short list of what to look for when buying a turntable.
• Solid construction with a good amount of weight-
o This is important to minimize vibration. Vibration of the turntable can result in muddy bass and overall poor performance.
o In our Pioneer PL-30-K turntable, for example, we have a dual layer chassis with a 4mm-thick metal plate and low center of gravity to help minimize vibration. On top of the platter is a 5mm thick rubber matt to further isolate vibration. It is also over 12 lbs, over 4 times what most current Blu-ray players weigh.
• A solid and weighty platter
o Good weight in the platter helps maintain a consistent speed providing better audio.
o The Pioneer PL-30-K uses a cast aluminum platter.
• A quality motor
o For consistent speed and low noise.
o The Pioneer PL-30-K uses a DC servo controlled motor for precision
• Adjustable tone arm counter weight and anti-skate control
o Every good turntable needs to be set up before you play a record. Setting the tone arm weight or tracking force as well as the anti-skate will make sure the stylus follows the record groove correctly, providing the best sound without skipping or damaging your record.
• Replaceable cartridge
o Audio quality of any turntable can be improved by upgrading the cartridge
• Do you need a phono preamp?
o Having it built into the turntable allows you to plug it into any device with analog inputs.
The needle isn’t something you can ignore either, correct?
Eric Smith: The stylus (commonly called the needle) is the part that physically rests in the groove of the record as it spins. The cartridge is what coverts the mechanical vibrations from the stylus into an electrical signal that your electronics can play. The Pioneer PL-30-K comes with a high quality cartridge installed, however if you want to improve the audio quality you can upgrade the cartridge. I would recommend talking to your audio salesperson if you wish to do this for two reasons. Number one, they can ask you questions about your listening habits and recommend the correct cartridge to match with your turntable and level of sound quality you are looking for. The second reason is that most cartridge salespeople will also be able to properly mount a new cartridge on your tone arm
There are two types of cartridges available. The most common is MM or moving magnet. These can be entry level or high end. Another type is MC or moving coil. These are usually quite expensive and provide superior sound. Keep in mind most phono inputs on receivers only handle MM cartridges and you would need a separate phono preamp for a MC cartridge.
Keeping the stylus and records clean and the cartridge and tone arm properly aligned will make your records last longer. Over time the stylus will eventually wear down and need to be replaced, but if properly set up and take good care of it, you should get good long life out of your stylus
How should you treat the records themselves?
Eric Smith: Store your records in a clean dry environment and do not expose them to excessive heat. Records can warp if they become too hot. Leaving a record in a hot car on a sunny summer day has ruined many an album.
Before playing a record, clean it first. There are a wide variety of products available to help keep your records clean. You can buy automatic record cleaning machines if you wish, but the most common method is a record cleaning brush or pad with a special record cleaning liquid. There are also dry cleaning brushes available if you don’t want to mess with record cleaning solutions every time you play a record. Also periodically check the condition of the stylus to make sure it isn’t holding any dust. There are of course special stylus cleaners that clean the stylus without damage.
Any final tips on how to get the best sound out of your turntable?
Eric Smith: Setting the tracking force and anti-skate of a tonearm are critical in having a well-tuned turntable. Not only will it provide the best audio, but it will provide better longevity of your stylus and records. When you set up the tracking force of a tone arm you balance the tone arm using the weight at the back. You then look at the recommended tracking force of the cartridge and dial that number into the tone arm weight. Set the anti-skate to the same number. Instructions are included in most turntable manuals, or your salesperson can do this for you. Now you need to listen. If the sound is a bit muddy or muffled there may be too much tracking force. Ease up a bit and listen again. If there is too little tracking force it may sound like vocals or cymbals are too sibilant. Once properly set up you will get the best sound quality and longevity out of your turntable and records.