It’s perfectly fine to play your records….really.

I read in the recent issue of Copper magazine an article written by a gentleman who is one of the leading experts in room and system set-up titled: “LP Playback: Is It Really Reference Quality?”
So I was double shocked when I read the article which was not about the title subject, but more about trashing vinyl as a medium and trying to convince folks that listen to vinyl whether exclusively or not, that they are not hearing all the music as intended. I was also shocked because the article is not in his field of expertise, but should be. In other words, would he go into a person’s home to do a system and room set-up and then refuse if that person wanted to include an analog front-end for vinyl playback? Judging by some of the things he wrote it sounds like there would be much bias. It’s perfectly fine to have ones own bias, but if you are doing a service of any type in audio, including writing about certain things you have to put certain personal bias aside if you want to help someone or at least be up front about it. I use and enjoy many different mediums myself and it would make no sense to focus solely on one. On top of that, considering this site was designed to be about music and a help to those seeking better sound or just starting out in audio reproduction, etc. it would be a disservice if I was bias against all but one medium or music genera, etc. and telling you that you are wrong for considering anything else. If I wanted to do that, my mission statement and this site would look far different.

So the article was supposed to be about whether or not vinyl LP playback can be considered reference quality, but sadly, the author fails to address that almost completely. The article just reads like one of Trump’s speeches, a rant against vinyl LPs and analog gear with a few insults thrown at those who listen to vinyl LPs and contradictions and half-truths twisted to fit an agenda.

First of all, while I have heard many an “audiophile” claim that vinyl LP playback is reference quality automatically and then qualifying that by stating that as long as one is using a five-figure turntable and cartridge in a six-figure system. The irony is that these same “audiophiles” will also claim that digital is the way to go qualifying it the same way. Not being an audiophile myself and being of a more scientific background, if you will, I don’t have such automatic responses. I believe it can be both ways in all media formats, just as there is good and bad in everything. The bottom line though is that it really is in the ears of the beholder. In other words, it is almost all subjective. The problem is that the article in reference does not really address that.

At the beginning of the article the author states that “this article is NOT about vinyl not being worthwhile or anything comparable.” In reading the article three times myself to make sure I was not taking things out of context, I find that it is all about that very thing. The article goes through 11 points to make the author’s argument. The author claims “to have never encountered a turntable that he thought was set-up as well as it could be, never heard one that he thought was delivering all of the music”. He claims to have heard over a thousand turntables. He also states that it includes all audiophile turntables, as well as those set up by most dealers, manufactures and reviewers and even set-up gurus. Yet he also states that he has not heard complete turntables set up by all of the acknowledged gurus, including Michael Fremer. What he fails to state is that turntables only go so far in what one can adjust and set-up with some being more limited than others, but we must acknowledge the physical limitations of turntables as governed by the laws of physics, to be accurate. Secondly, it may come as a shock to you, but most dealers do not know how to set up a turntable, at least properly. Manufactures only do bare basic set up, if that, but by the time it gets to you, it is completely out of whack. As for reviewers, well, I only know one that can set up a turntable under almost any conditions and get it right (Michael Fremer), although I’m sure there may be others who have perhaps taken a lesson from Michael as well. More often than not, some of us common folk can do a better job setting up our own turntables than a dealer or even a manufacture even after reading or watching someone in the know do it once. Turntable set-up has never been an exact science, but requires us to get as precision as possible. That said, the author of the article will never find a turntable that meets his standards and therefore will continue to preach against analog and vinyl LP. Digital is not perfect either and has as many downsides as analog, but he doesn’t want to acknowledge that.

One interesting point the author makes is “who knows what our vinyl replay is really supposed to sound like”? That is an interesting question, but it is also non-sequitur, because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter. The same question can be asked about CDs, MP3s, High-rez files, etc. What matters is what the listener hears and if it sounds good to them, then it is. Again, all subjective. In fact, it is one of the nice things about having an analog rig or analog capable system. One can tweak or change little things to make big differences and get the sound they like. The mastering engineer has his own stuff and set up the way he likes, what if I don’t like it that way? With a tweak here or there, I can make it sound the way I want. You can’t do that with digital. If you want to change something with your digital front-end it always means buying a new piece of gear, which by the way, is one of the downsides of digital.

The author correctly states that “no engineering breakthroughs have occurred that significantly reduces inner groove distortion”. Already, the author is using this to try to make a case against the vinyl record medium after stating he was not doing that. While it is true that no advances have been made regarding inner groove distortion, it is more due to physics than anything else and you can’t change the laws of physics. It is part of the reason there are different alignment protractors or scales out there. Each one such as Baerwald, Loefgren, Stevenson, etc. has a slightly different compromise as to groove track distortion. One favors the inner grooves, one the outer grooves, etc. This “inner groove distortion” is often times not bothersome though if you are used to vinyl playback. Sometimes it is undetectable except by fine measuring instruments. So the author I feel, is trying to make a case against vinyl playback by trying to use the laws of physics suggesting a way to change them should exist thereby building nothing more than a straw-man argument.
He further makes another obvious statement in that “no two phono cartridges are alike”. This is common knowledge. Moving Magnet doesn’t sound like Moving Coil which doesn’t sound like Moving Iron. In turn, no two models of cartridges sound alike within the same make or outside of it. Some cartridges have the bottom end rolled off, some more pronounced, some have the highs rolled off, some pronounced, etc. One merely adjusts for these factors if they are subtle or if more, try a different cartridge. Also no cartridge will sound like it did when you first use it after 30 or 40 hours. Phono cartridges are one of the very few audio gear items that do require break-in time. So again, the author is trying to further an argument against vinyl playback.

He also states that varying thickness of LPs will mean that you often will not be playing your LPs at the optimum SRA (Stylus Rake Angle). First of all, you will never, repeat, never get the SRA perfect. You can get close if you want to invest in an oscilloscope, but it is not worth it. If you are within 1 to even 2 degrees of optimal, your good. Some turntables have no way of adjusting this angle anyway and it is often set at the cartridge manufacture (they are usually within tolerance, but if you have a way of checking it then it’s not a bad idea). The final measurement of SRA or any other aspect are your ears anyway. Most folks do not have a lot of drastically varying LP thicknesses and I’d bet all are not willing to bother readjusting everything every time they want to play say, a 180 gram LP. There really is no reason to fret over this unless you have a lot of 180 gram or heavier LPs. Most standard LPs are around 120 to 130 grams depending on era. Many LPs from the 50s and some from the sixties ran around 150 grams to 160 grams. From the 70s on up the common LP is around 120 grams with the occasional 90 grams (which are awfully flimsy by the way). If you played a 180 gram LP on a table set for 130 gram LPs, I don’t think you would notice much difference, if any. The only reason you would want a table set for 180 grams or more is if you have 100 records or so at that weight and play them a lot or something. Otherwise playing an occasional 180 gram LP on a table set for common LP weight won’t hurt anything.

The author goes on to make the argument that he has made hundreds of master recordings himself both 30 IPS analog and digital and says that “the tape master ALWAYS makes the LP sound broken – lacking in dynamics, presence and tone. What the author fails to mention is that no recorded media will sound right and will sound “broken” if not mixed properly. I’m no super expert, but even I know that there are direct from master recordings in vinyl as well, but they are processed to a degree even if subtle during transfer otherwise it certainly will not sound right even on digital media. It’s just the way things work in sound. The mastering process, not to mention recording process is also different between analog and digital. As the author states, I would expect that he knows this as well, so I don’t understand how he would use this as evidence to prove his points. Both have limitations. This is why one can’t directly press digital files onto analog media, it won’t work. A good example of that is U2’s Joshua Tree LP. They tried to use the same master and mix for CD to press LPs. The result was that the CD sounds great while the LP is horrid with everything clipped, etc. This is not to suggest that it proves LPs are no good because I have plenty of examples where the LP is superior sonically to CD and digital files, even run through the most expensive digital processors.

The author then goes on to make the statement that “anyone who is willing to go to the effort and expense of playing vinyl LPs should have managed to properly execute the basic mechanical aspects of setting up their turntable” and that now days “there are a number of useful tools to make the mechanical set-up task achievable.”  While one should always learn to set-up their own turntable for which I gave the reasons why in other articles I wrote, I feel the need to point out a couple of things about the author’s statement. First of all, “expense of playing vinyl LPs”? Hardly, a decent to good vinyl rig or front end does not have to be expensive. One can get a good turntable for as little as around $600. Even a decent turntable can be had for half of that. A good phono preamp (if needed) will run around $700 or less and as for cartridges, one can easily get away with $100 to start. So, one can have LP playback ability that is very decent for as little as around $700 to $800 not counting records, amp and speakers and you can go from there if you want. A good digital front end will cost at least $1300 to start for CD player and DAC if you are not interested in DSD and MQA and all that. If you want those things you will have to invest more money. There are other somewhat esoteric benefits missing from digital playback as well, such as album art, liner notes and that tactile feel we humans seem to need on occasion to really connect with music or anything. The author goes on to state that he still encounters turntables that fall short and that it is rarely from the mechanical set-up side. This is a contradiction to what he just stated in the statement about people not knowing how to set-up their turntable from audiophiles to dealers to reviewers.
He then goes on to mention some strange “mechanical aspect” to be addressed calling it the “variable-ratio-of-moment-of-inertia of the tone-arm counter-weight and cartridge (when that option is available), claiming it to be an important aspect that is never discussed. As a former student with more than a full year of physics courses, I can tell you that this sounds like a made-up concept he is trying to use to dismiss vinyl LPs again. What he is talking about here (if it has any foundation in reality) is a law of physics that is automatically addressed in basic turntable set-up alone before you even get to alignment, tracking force and SRA and when you get to anti-skate adjustment. It also falls under correct selection of cartridge to tone-arm mass. (For example, you don’t want to stick a low mass cartridge on a high mass tone-arm. Don’t worry about figuring that out either, it’s easy).
Oh, there’s more. (See next page)