If you have been with Vinyl Me Please long enough to have received any of the monthly releases, you will be aware that these are good times to be into analogue. The quality of pressings and breadth of material available to us is better than it has been for thirty years- in fact in terms of getting the material you want if you happen to live outside a major city, it may be better than it has ever been. The number of times I have purchased a pressing with issues has declined over the last few years too- and the problems are hardly new anyway. My father will tell anyone prepared to stand still for long enough about the time he bought a copy of Back to the Egg in 1979 that had two holes punched in it, neither of which was actually in the centre of the record. The reintegration of vinyl into popular consciousness has been an amazing achievement and it doesn't look like the momentum is slowing.
Despite all this, I am slightly uneasy. Some of this can probably be chalked up to me being a cynical thirty something with a slight sense of British melancholia- if something is going brilliantly, I'm generally the one wondering how the wheels are going to come off eventually- but as someone from the hardware side of the industry, I am a little bit concerned that a gap is opening between what the media promises and what it can actually deliver when the needle hits the groove.
Not if you've got some serious cash to spend of course. Mid and high end analogue is flying at the moment. There's a phono stage sitting in my equipment rack as I write this which can genuinely lay claim to being one of the best I have ever experienced and if you happen to have about $2,000 kicking about, you can experience it too. I can't blame dedicated turntable manufacturers for concentrating on higher price points, smaller volumes and a more boutique approach to building turntables. At one point not too long ago, it wasn't simply the best business solution, it was the only solution that gave them any chance of survival. For the best part of twenty years, vinyl didn't exist as a mass produced commodity and this had to be reflected in what manufacturers were building
In some ways, I am impressed that these brands have responded to vinyl's resurgence as quickly and effectively as they have. The choice of good quality, standalone turntables at a fairly affordable price is pretty good by all accounts and more arrivals seem to be pitching in all the time. The issue remains though that these are front ends to be attached to a partnering system of components. The costs entailed in doing this need not be astronomical but they are present. The resulting systems have a price tag and general complexity that is not in the truest sense of the word entry level. Over the recent holiday season, the real traffic in hardware terms was in the 'one box' category of turntable- the real entry level- and it is here, at this point that we have a problem.
Any critique of these affordable decks will risk accusations of snobbery so let me first state that I don't actually have much issue with the sound performance of many of them. The only fair comparison you can make is to other all in one systems at a similar price and under these terms, they acquit themselves pretty well. Almost without exception, they do enough to create some of the joy of owning, using and listening to vinyl. There is some interesting and entertaining industrial design at work too. The issues however lie in the small print.
The basic hardware that underpins these decks seems to come from a fairly small number of sources- perhaps no more than three or four factories. This means that almost regardless of the brand and model you choose, they will have a relatively fixed point of origin and make use of many of the same parts. The result is that many of these simple decks are making use of an arm arrangement that is tracking at weights of between five and seven grams. This is in part down to the claims of portability- it means that it will track on an uneven surface or even on the move- but it also means the level of wear and tear that they put on records is uncomfortably high.
This isn't a new phenomenon- it is in fact as old as the hills- but historically it was the side effect of using the default media of the time (and why mint copies of some fifties and sixties singles command such high prices). When vinyl has arrived back in the market as the premium option and often people's only physical format, it means that having paid extra for your music on vinyl, if you don't choose hardware carefully, you run the risk of it being a rather short lived exercise. I can't be alone in worrying that people buying into analogue for the first time are going to be less than enamoured by this.
So how do we improve this situation? Telling people they need to spend more is unlikely to win you many friends. Simply put, in the not too distant future, we need a higher quality all-in-one player built in the quantities required to come in at an affordable price. Thus far, the response of a number of big name brands to the vinyl resurgence has been a little underwhelming. It's excellent to see the Technics name back but attached to a $4,000 rework of the SL1200, it probably isn't going to change the world. Similarly Sony has returned to vinyl but with a device with the main selling point that it can rip to DSD rather than its actual ability to play records.
There's a fundamental lack of confidence from some manufacturers to really embrace analogue on its own terms and it's creating a gap in the market that the specialists can't fill, leaving the floor open to equipment that isn't always a great representation of what the format can do. This is a puzzle given that many large brands have already identified that audio equipment is an area which hasn't been price hacked to death. The actual components that form a turntable are bespoke in themselves but not unrelated to casting, vacuum forming and machining processes required by existing products.
Vinyl is a mechanical medium. There's no real scope for a 'Raspberry Pi moment' but equally no reason why a well thought out player that tracks at a reasonable weight and makes use of a company's existing amp modules and speaker designs to deliver a performance that puts some clear air between it and slightly less expensive rivals would not have the potential to clear up. If the hardware side can't match the ambition, determination and willingness to take a chance that the software side has shown, it risks leaving the first rung of the vinyl ladder looking too wobbly to encourage people to get on board in the first place. The time is right for a little boldness if only someone is willing to step up.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.