Back in the 1980s when the Compact Disc first hit the market there was great excitement in the high fidelity and audiophile world anticipating the arrival of crystal-clean digital sound that would be unmarred by the vagaries of analog playback long suffered by music lovers. Whether vinyl LPs’ clicks and pops or cassette tapes’ hiss, never mind the inconvenience of turning over sides (auto-reverse cassette decks were still a rich man’s luxury), CD not only promised markedly improved sound but the additional convenience of playing a full 74 minutes of uninterrupted tunes and the ability to skip tracks with the push of a button.
Yet, even as much of the audio, electronics and mainstream press swooned over the new digital audio technology, CD had its critics, too. One of the most famous early attacks came from record producer Doug Sax, published in Billboard and Stereophile magazine in 1983. Sax wrote, in part,
[W]hat I have heard on many players, and on more discs than I would ever care to listen to again, is mediocre sound, sound that is often unappealing and fatiguing. …
I have been on record, since I first heard a digital master tape, that there is an enormous price to be paid, in musical terms, for the noise-free performance of digital.
Reading these words today one should hear their echoes in much of what’s been written about the resurgence of vinyl LPs in the last few years. Of course, now music lovers aren’t just dissing CDs, but pitting LPs against the MP3, which is arguably sonically inferior to the CD it’s coming to replace.
Now a generation after the CD’s introduction we have a vinyl revival, which includes a veritable renaissance in the availability of not just new LP records but turntables and record players. I remember searching for a new turntable back in 1996 to replace my aging plastic Onkyo ‘table that I bought in 1987. Even in small hi-fi shops catering to a audiophile crowd I found it difficult to find any turntables under $1000 or so that would offer much improvement over my 80s vintage Onkyo.
The problems of noise and poor sound quality with cheap turntables in the 80s is what ostensibly drew people to CDs in the 90s. Back in the 80s a lot of people relied on inexpensive compact stereos sold at discount stores. These stereos typically had a turntable, cassette deck and radio, paired with speakers, all for one or two hundred bucks. While capable of playing music, these systems didn’t tend to have outstanding quality in any element of playback, especially vinyl. You’ll still find these stereos in thrift stores and at garage sales, and if you look you’ll find that almost universally they have very flimsy, all-plastic record players.
Even the more expensive so-called rack systems of the day often didn’t feature turntables of much higher quality, even at price points of $500 or more. Those ‘tables would usually be separate components, but still made of 75% plastic. If you were lucky the platter and tonearm might contain some metal.
Playing records is a completely physical process that is very susceptible to the basic forces of Newtonian physics. If you’ve ever stomped around a turntable playing a record then you probably know how easy it is to make it skip. But it’s not just blunt force that takes its toll. So does vibration and electrical interference from other devices, including other stereo components. The prevalent plastic turntables and stereos of the 80s and early 90s have very little in their construction to shield against these quality-killers — most of the time you were lucky if the turntable had some little rubber feet providing some modicum of insulation.
For the average record listener in the 1980s and 90s, the usual listening experience was littered with surface noise, pops, clicks, skips and jumps that was unfairly blamed on the medium of vinyl records, when much of the fault lay upon the cheap, flimsy playback apparatus. So it was a revelation when these listeners first heard the unfamiliar silence between tracks on a CD where before they’d expected hiss and scratches. Instead of having to listen through the noise for the music, CDs sounded as if the fog of analog grunge had been lifted.
Unlike the enormous difference between the typical plastic turntable and a truly high-fidelity model, by the 1990s even relatively inexpensive CD players delivered on the fundamental promises of noise and skip-free sound.
I’m sure it’s like the shift from black and white to color TV, or from AM to FM radio was for previous generations. For those of us who remember the first time we heard CDs it’s not hard to understand how they quickly took over. Most folks who didn’t spend thousands of dollars on stereo gear truly did experience a step forward in quality and convenience.
Still, Doug Sax was not alone. A minority of music lovers chose to stick to vinyl believing it to sound better than CDs. These audiophiles likely owned turntables costing more than an average person’s stereo, TV and music collection combined, which also delivered on the potential of vinyl’s fidelity. Many others stuck with records for practical reasons–like DJs did–or because they were happy enough with their records. I suspect a lot of people, like myself, stuck with records while also moving to CDs, choosing to enjoy the records we owned while buying new music on CD.
Whatever the reason, those of us who stuck with records are enjoying the vinyl renaissance because it means more turntables, more new records and, strangely enough, some degree of cred. At the same time, I also see a step backwards that isn’t so satisfying.
Now that vinyl is retro-popular again it’s ironic that people are flocking to the same sort of cheap plastic turntables that scared folks away from LPs twenty years ago. Within the last year the gadget landscape has been inundated with turntables that connect to your computer by USB, or are attached to CD burners, or which now even record your LPs as MP3s directly to a thumb drive. But almost every single one of these ‘tables is pretty much a plastic late 80s design with some extra digital electronics tacked on. All the more ironic is the fact that the supposed benefit of these new plastic wonders is their ability to let you convert your precious analog records to digital, extra clicks, hiss, pops, skips and all.
I’m not spitting in the face of utility. If you have records which are rare, out of print, irreplaceable, never released on CD or just of sentimental value then I can certainly see why easily archiving them to digital is desirable. What I don’t understand so much is why you’d want to do this archiving at such a low level of quality.
It’s not just these new digitizing turntables. There’s also been an explosion in 80s style compact turntable stereos dressed up in early 20th century retro clothes. Sure the cabinets might look like wood, but inside the record player is the same crap plastic used in that Emerson stereo someone got for Christmas in 1987. Moreover, because the speakers are in the same cabinet, introducing more vibration and interference into the game, these new retro all-in-ones arguably sound worse than the cheap 80s stereo
The funny thing about this is that it’s possible to get a pretty nice sounding turntable made out of very little plastic for less than $300. While not chump change, this is actually about the same as what a decent turntable would have cost in the 80s. Adjusted for inflation, the quality turntable in 2008 costs about $156 in 1985 dollars — less than what you’ve had paid for a flimsy plastic all-in-one stereo.
If you’re willing to invest a little more time and go used, you can pick up nice quality turntables made out of metal and wood that would have cost more than $300 in the 80s for a fraction of that price. Just add a new stylus or cartridge, maybe a new belt, and you’re good to go.
The same phenomenon is happening with cassettes too. There’s almost a double-irony with tapes, which outsold records in the late 80s, before CDs trounced them in the 90s. Besides the convenience of the walkman and car stereo, one of the reasons many people switched to tapes was because they didn’t skip and have quite as much obvious noise as records did (when played on their cheap K-Mart stereos).
Despite my semi-facetious predictions to the contrary, it doesn’t look like a full-on vinylesque revival is happening for cassettes. Nevertheless, USB-connected cassette decks have started to trickle into the marketplace offering up the ability to digitize your tape memories with relative ease. The tech and popular press reaction seems to be a bit more muted for the cassette revival, at least in part because cassettes haven’t quite faded away as much as vinyl had.
I was just a little bit heartened to read a recent CNet review of one USB cassette deck that clearly revealed the flimsy plastic under the flashy digital veneer:
Aside from the USB port on the back, the TapeLink is no better than the cassette deck you probably had in the 1980s, and lacks conveniences such as autoreverse.
More so than with records, I can understand wanting to digitize old cassettes, especially mix tapes or other custom tapes that are difficult to replace or have sentimental value. I’ll also bet that most home recorded tapes were probably created on a plastic 1980s compact stereo to begin with, so there’s likely not so much fidelity lost when digitized using a new deck of similar quality. Of course, if you happen to have a higher fidelity tape–and cassettes could be capable of fine fidelity–you’d probably want to seek out a better, probably non-USB, cassette deck.
While I’m glad to see the resurgence in vinyl and analog music playback in general, I really wish the lessons of the past better informed today’s record enthusiasts–especially those old enough to remember those tacky Emerson, Yorx and Lloyd’s discount store stereos. I fear that for many new or revived record listeners the thin fidelity of these retro-plastic wonders will cause them to tire of vinyl quickly, making LPs more of a novelty than anything else.
Folks got tired of vinyl in the 80s and 90s for a reason: cheap crap plastic turntables. Avoid them now and you’ll still be enjoying your records when you’re less well-equipped friends have tired of their new collections already.