I was pondering (and it would not be the first time) the cost and commitment of continuing to enjoy music with an analog turntable. As a matter of fact, the analog system is not inherently superior to the digital system. Sound quality depends on the original recording, its mastering, and how the copy we enjoy was created, whether it is a vinyl record, a CD, or a file. I have vinyl records that sound worse than the MP3 files of the same tracks! I have a subscription to Tidal HiFi, and for 10 euros a month I get all the music I want in CD quality (even more since broadband streaming today runs into fewer errors than reading data from an optical disc). So is it really worth the efforts?
Perhaps one reason is that I grew up with records and still have several. Of course, buying more is quite an expense and every time you have to think it through, also because the records of yesteryear were made well (always with the variable of the quality of the original recording and mixing). The vinyl record was the medium, and people who knew how to work with it could actually be found; nowadays it is not certain that an LP is produced with all the standards. Often the same master used to create the digital files is used for the vinyl pressing: knowing this beforehand one would avoid the analog copy of that record – it is necessary to create a master specifically for vinyl, it is not the same as digital. The problem is not that the master used for vinyl would be digital, that’s perfectly fine, but it has to be remixed for vinyl, you can’t use the mix from digital and get pressings of sufficient audio quality. But how do you know beforehand? You end up spending 20-30 euros and then the album sounds better on Tidal!
I use the Tidal app in “exclusive mode” (che isola al meglio la app dai normali processi nel sistema operativo) from an old MacBook. Its optical output goes to the DAC, an honest ProJect DacBox E. It sounds very good and there is much room for improvement. The limitation of streaming is that old albums have often been remastered horribly, and the original record beats streaming unmercifully, even (and perhaps especially) as far as dynamics are concerned: today dynamics are heavily compressed on almost all “popular” music productions (perhaps for jazz and classical there is more attention). The remastering of old hits often suffers the same fate, and the result is, for me, significantly inferior to the vinyl record of the time played in my system.
If this absurd craze for exaggerated dynamic compression (a little is due, it has always been there, it is necessary) were abandoned, we would have no choice but to say that the digital medium is inherently superior to the analog one (I say this begrudgingly). In digital you don’t have the limitation of dynamics imposed by the size of the groove of a vinyl record, the background noise of records acts as a contraposition to the quantization noise of the digital recording process but modern software controls it very well. In theory there would be no comparison, but the area where analog is unbeatable is the mode of enjoyment. It is more cumbersome but the charm of the record, of its big sleeve, of the needle magically reading the music from the grooves, is undoubtedly fascinating. It’s a different kind of pleasure, especially if you spend your days working at a computer: at the end of work putting yourself back in front of a screen to enjoy the music may not be the best thing.
But it also comes down to personal preferences. Young people enjoy music distractedly, mostly from mobile devices; with Bluetooth earbuds the HiFi resolution, that of the CD, is not available, the data transmission protocol is not compatible. And in any case with earbuds the higher audio definition is hardly perceptible, it takes a real HiFi system and young people rarely buy one – but they do buy vinyl records for their cool factor and play them on modern stand-alone players, also cool but certainly far from being HiFi!
Let’s say I am still not making the decision to resell my turntable and vinyl collection. But the market is making things more and more difficult for me: records cost a lot and we know that. In 2015 I bought my 1973 Thorens TD160 for 150 euros. It was a great price then; today it is barely enough to buy its headshell! That’s an absurd price, if you’re lucky it takes at least 400 euros to get a used TD160. That is just too much. The cool factor mentioned above has driven up the prices of everything analog-related.
I paid 70 euros for my Shure M97 Era IV cartridge (1970s) and it also had a stylus included (not very compatible since it was for the newer M97xe version, not for the vintage M97). Try to get one today! Not to mention a Shure V15! And these are cartridges no longer in podution, Shure doesn’t make phono cartridges anymore! The Japanese Jico makes very good styli for the old Shure but the costs are no joke (even 200 euros). Some time ago I had bought an 1986 Grado 8MX for $100. The replacement stylus today is the 8MZ, still made by Grado specifically for the old Signature cartridges still in circulation. Years ago I had paid $100 plus $30 shipping for the 8MZ new. Today it takes 180 plus shipping! I bought the new Grado Prestige Blue 3 for less but didn’t like it with the included stylus. My 8MZ is broken and doesn’t perform at its best. So I resold it and very bitterly because I was really hoping that the latest Prestige series would have styli more similar in performance to the now expensive 8MZ.
One comparison I use to make is with photography: today a smartphone takes great photos. I have two beautiful 1980s aluminum-body Nikons and excellent lenses to go with them. I also have a wonderful Rolleiflex that shoots in 6×6 format. The last time I shot film I spent 10 euros for the roll and 35 for developing and printing! 45 euros for 36 photos of which few are really good. Put this way, striving to remain analog sounds really pointless. Really, why should I keep doing it?
As a consequence, is there any sense today in spending this kind of money to keep phono cartridges from the 1970s and 1980s in use? The same argument would apply to the turntable. Changing my 1970s Thorens to a modern turntable, however, could result in a bloodbath since the oldie still performs so well that to get comparable performance I would have to spend a lot. Then I might as well pair it with a vintage cartridge of its time. Or what? Difficult to figure out the best way: Ortofon, Goldring, Audiotechnica are still active as cartridge manufacturers, as of course is Grado (a Prestige 3 cartridge works much better with the 8MZ stylus, or you can invest in one of their superior cartridges, the wooden ones). However, I need to figure out which of these manufacturers offers a cartridge with the sonic qualities I want (for starters, a neutral, flat response) and at prices compatible with both my wallet and the level of my system.
I don’t know–giving up on analog doesn’t feel like it, I don’t think I could really give it all away without regretting it later. Sometimes I think that my suspended vintage turntable requires constant checks and adjustments, my favorite cartridges are no longer in production, and when I have to change styli it will be expensive. I could get a more modern and comfortable turntable like a Technics SL1200 or a Rega Planar 2 or 3 (but they don’t come cheap and they don’t necessarily sound better than mine, it would just be a matter of convenience); I could get an Audiotechnica or Goldring cartridge and forget about vintage, since both analog and vintage stuff in general are two modern day high price craze. Let’s see:
Thorens TD 160: 400-550 e
Shure M97: 200-250 e
Grado 8MX: 100-150 e
Total: 700-950 euro for buying a modern turntable with a cartridge.
Would they be enough for a Rega Planar with Audiotechnica? Maybe yes…would I regret it? Maybe so… Ideally, I would like to be able to make a comparison before deciding. But it is not possible for me, at least now, to buy another turntable without first selling mine. And then, after writing this article, I did some listening tests on the Thorens, changing cartridge, either with the original mat or with the foam PVC Achromat. The Shure M97HE with the Achromat are the best match. Could a modern turntable with a modern cartridge give me less to do (certainly) and more sonically? It is not certain. And maybe one day I will find out….