New York Times discovers turntables


You Say You Want a Revolution (at 33 1/3)

Angela Jimenez for The New York Times

Melissa Walker of Brooklyn discovered vinyl records in crates, and she has made playing them part of her life.

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Published: December 1, 2008

WHEN Melissa Walker, 31, was growing up, vinyl records were nostalgic artifacts. But when three crates of LPs were left in an apartment she had rented, a $10 thrift store record player turned those records into a kitschy novelty. And when her boyfriend bought her a Rega P1 turntable and a Bill Evans jazz album for her 30th birthday, playing the records became a daily ritual.

“Dave brought it home, and we dimmed the lights and sat on the couch with a glass of wine, and I felt like we were in a jazz club,” Ms. Walker said. “I could hear the musicians breathing. It felt like I could hear them smoking.”

Now she holds listening parties in her Brooklyn apartment, introducing friends to the rich sound of vinyl. “There is something I like about the process of listening that way,” she said. “Having to listen to it in the order the musicians intended, and turning it over. There is something social about it.”

Sales of new LPs show that Ms. Walker isn’t the only one rediscovering vinyl. While CD sales dropped last year, sales of records were up 36 percent, although they are still a minuscule part of the music market.

All those records have to be played on something. And when it comes to turntables — no one would dare call them record players these days — there are many options, from bare-bones $99 models to ultra-high-end audiophile equipment with price tags of $100,000 or more.

There are so many choices, in fact, that it can be tough for a shopper to know where to begin. “You can buy too much turntable or too little turntable for the rest of your equipment,” said John-Paul Lizars, marketing director at Sumiko, which imports and distributes turntables. He recommends investing about a third of your equipment budget in a turntable. “I urge people to get the best turntable, cartridge and phono preamp as they can,” Mr. Lizars said, “because if you don’t capture the content at the source, no other component can enhance it.”

A turntable is a basic piece of equipment — a motor turns a platter on which the record sits, and a tone arm holds a needle and a cartridge. The needle wiggles as it rides the record’s groove, and the cartridge converts those vibrations to electrical signals that go to an amplifier.

But in those few parts lies a world of variation.

Modern turntables are usually either direct drive or belt drive. Direct drive has been popular with radio and club D.J.’s because the record gets up to speed very quickly. The downside is that motor rumbles can be audible on lesser models.

Belt drive is more common, with a rubber belt insulating motor noise from the platter. Belt drive turntables can require maintenance (belts occasionally wear out), and they can be less precise, causing speed variations heard as wow and flutter. But that is not a problem in audiophile-quality equipment, said Ed Dorsey of Soundscape, an audio boutique in Baltimore. “The wow and flutter is so small, the average person isn’t going to hear it, only the musician with perfect pitch.”

Less expensive turntables, like the Denon DP-29F, which lists for $150, and the Pioneer PL-990, which lists for $130, generally come with permanently installed cartridges. That means no souping-up the turntable with aftermarket parts.

But adding a new cartridge is the most common way to improve a stock turntable. “Most of the time turntables come with an entry-level cartridge,” said Ken Bowers, manager of Needle Doctor, near Minneapolis. A better cartridge will get more information from the record groove for more detailed sound, he said.

As prices go up, the quality of the parts improves. The turntable bases, instead of hollow plastic, are made of metal or dense wood, which dampen vibrations. “You’ll get tighter bass, better imaging, more detail,” Mr. Bowers said.

On high-end equipment, motors tend to be heavier and more precise, the bearings in the tone arms present less friction, and the level of craftsmanship is higher. “You are buying build quality, you are buying precision,” Mr. Lizars said.


Once again, more precision means more detailed sound. The price of turntables with solid bases and replaceable cartridges generally begins around $300. Ms. Walker’s Rega P-1 and the Pro-Ject Debut III, which is imported by Sumiko, both list for $350 to $400.

To those audiophiles returning to vinyl, that may seem like a small price for high-fidelity quality, but like all things technological, turntables have become cheaper and better. “The $300 turntable of today is vastly superior to the $300 of 20 years ago,” Mr. Lizars said.

Those who want to spend more can do so easily. “Our turntable lists at $46,000, but we are far from being the most expensive,” said Lloyd Walker of Walker Audio in Audubon, Pa., who handcrafts the company’s Proscenium Black Diamond turntable. “They go up to a quarter of a million.”

For $46,000, Mr. Walker said, you get 250 pounds of turntable with a platter and tone arm that float on a nearly frictionless cushion of air. And Mr. Walker comes to your listening room to tweak every setting for optimum performance. “Setup is extremely important,” he said.

That is also true of less expensive turntables. The cartridge must be correctly aligned and the tone arm weighted properly. Some cartridges or tone arms come with an alignment tool, but they can be bought separately for $5 to $275. Likewise, a stylus force gauge, which measures the pressure of the needle on a record, can cost $25 for a weighted balance or $450 for a precision digital model.

To check your work, there are test LPs that play a series of signals that let you hear, for instance, whether both channels are equally loud. Such recordings can cost from $30 to $100.

Of course, for a fee you can usually get the shop that sold you the turntable to set it up.

Among the pleasures of turntables are the tasks and rituals that surround preparing to play a record. That means cleaning off dirt and dust and removing static. Mr. Walker said that nothing less than a machine that vacuums a cleaning fluid from the record would remove the manufacturer’s release agent — a lubricant that makes a record come out of a mold. “It will sound 30 to 50 percent better,” he said. “It’s a big difference.” Such devices can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars.

Others may be satisfied with an inexpensive carbon fiber brush or the classic Discwasher cleaning fluid and pile brush for $20.

But Mr. Bowers warns against fixating on minute technical details. Better to spend your time at thrift stores finding music that will never appear on a CD. “Playing records,” he said, “should be fun.”

Buena Vista Social Club – At Carnegie Hall

A decade ago, a global phenomenon took off. A group of ageing  musicians, practically unknown outside their native Cuba, were exposed to the world by that well known collaborator, Ry Cooder. Intensely popular for their musically brilliant, yet appealing easily to the mainstream western audience, take on Cuba's native musical style. Despite their respective ages, imbued throughout their music was a cheeky romance and intense love of living. They released one self titled album and film which each sold millions and played this concert at Carnegie hall. Many excellent solo albums followed from the members after but no more were released as a group.

Noy, very belatedly, that concert has also been released as an album. In this case, its a double vinyl LP pressed on HQ 180g vinyl and housed in a triple gatefold with sleeve notes galore. Those sleevenotes alone are nearly worth the price of admission, containing as they do modest quotes from the band members and a general outpouring of love by their fans.

The first three songs start off exactly as on their album proper. Indeed, I guess obviously, many of the songs are the same as on their main album. Playing like a succession of greatest hits. There are some axtra tracks including a version os Quizas, Quizas(Perhaps, Perhaps), but the flourishes, embellishments and general joy of playing in front of a live audience and the joy of the audience shine through. The notes and quotes only server to bring both a smile to your face and tear to the eye. 

There will be no more studio albums from the Buena Vista social club. If you are at all a fan, you need to buy this album. 

Its not as natural sounding as the first album. No doubt its a digital recording, but its well recorded, particularly for a live album and Bernie has done a fine job of transferring it to vinyl and the pressing and packaging are simply superb. Its a beautiful record to own and to hold.

Shearwater – Rook

Linked with Okkervil River, from what I've heard they sound very different. Shearwater are masters of the melancholy and disturbing fascination with the cruelty of nature. While the album is Rook, the song Rooks is the most powerful on the album building like an Ingmar Bergman film to an uneasy climax which we are unable to pull ourselves from, addictive in its quality.

The music is stripped back to its, mainly, acoustic essentials yet is rich and full bodied in tone, making use of, but never overusing Harp, Hammond Organ, Vibraphone, Tuba, Cello etc. etc. johnathan Meiburg is the creative force behind Shearwater and and on this album his voice is a plaintive cry, a morose mourn, an angry curse.

Like the solo album from Mark Hollis, the silence here is as important as the music. You await each note, each breathed vocal with intense concentration and fascination. Its brevity means only one thing, that you switch sides to play the other, again and again. There is no repeating of one song here. No changing the album to another. You want to hear every song, every plucked string, every depressed key, to feel every tear as it drops from the platter. Saltwater or something thicker?

The imagery on the record is stark, from dark grey to light brown to light grey, an image of a man or scarecrow(?) covered in, defeated by(?) the rooks? Behind is a bleak bleak landscape, far from cities or the electric luminesence we surround ourselves with.

Stunning album.

Usual high level of Matador product. Great sound from Greg Calbi and RTI. 180gsm vinyl in a thick card gatefold with excellent protective inner. Nice feature is the vinyl only hidden traclk. Side two ends and goes into a repeating rut. To hear the hidden track you have to lift the needle and move it past the nominal end of the record.

Bon Iver gig

So I got to see Bon Iver at the National Stadium in Dublin the other night. The national stadium is a funny place. Its mainly used as a boxing ring and seems a throwback to the 1980s and the days before our Celtic tiger and economic boom. Now that we're heading back into a recession its seemed appropriate to be heading along here for a gig. The place itself is bare and a little bit grim but strangely likeable. The icing on the cake for me is that you can buy a cup of tea at the back of the venue.

I missed fleet Foxes, it was sold out, at one of the premier venues in Dublin, so I was delighted to see Bon Iver. Justin Vernon did ask if we were disappointed at there not being any boxing before, during or after. Naturally we all said yes. 

I was surprised at Vernon's appearance. I expected someone malnourished, hairy and a little bit nerdy. He was hairy but was also well built and seemed fairly sure of himself. There was some rapport with the crowd but not a huge amount. Not like Richard Hawley who is more like a stand up comedian from Blackpool who sings a few songs on the side. 

Musically it was pretty much what you expected. He played the wonderful songs from For Emma which didn't deviate much from that recording. These were interspersed by four new songs from an EP called Blood Bank which will be out in January and was actually on sale on lovely 12" vinyl at the gig. I bought it but haven't actually listened to it yet. In the concert teh songs seemed inferior to the tracks taken from his album but that coudl be just lack of familiarity. I'll review it soon. There was some harder rocking from the EP.

The unexpected highlight of the evening was a cover of 'Spirit' from teh magnificent Talk Talk. Talk Talk themselves refused to tour their last two albums as they claimed it would be impossible to recreate that music and ambience in a live atmosphere. Listening to their music and reading the credits, you'd be persuaded to agree. So Bon Iver's version, sung by the drummer, was inferior but was a delight simply to hear this sing in a live setting.

After the 'last song' Justin asked if we minded if they didn't actually head off the stage for a fake encore and so just stayed on and played their last two songs.

A very good gig but not approaching greatness. Bon Iver is still one of the albums of the year though.

Guns N’ Roses – Chinese Democracy

It has  been 17 years since the last Guns N' Roses Albums, Use Your Illusion one and two, not counting 1993's The Spaghetti Incident? covers album or 1999's live throw together Live Era;'87-'93. But is this a true Guns N' Roses album or a Axl Rose solo album with a Guns N' Roses logo? Being that Rose is the only original member left in the band, it is a Axl Rose solo album. So how does it stand up, well it's a bit of a let down given all the hype, but it is not a bad album either, it has its moments, "Shackler's Revenge is Hard Rockin' track, it is being featured in the new Rock Band game. "Better" is the album's best track, but the lyrics as with most of the album center around Axl's loneliness, sadness, and bitter feeling. Axl has lost the rage that made the first four Guns N' Roses albums so great, That  in your face style that made the band so great has been replaced with reclusive front man, who hasn't even been heard from to promote his own album. But all that said, I guess it's better to get something from Axl than nothing at all.
Pressed on two 180 gram LP's and packaged in a gatefold Sleave, sold only a Best buy in the U.S., Solid press for a major label releas.


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