Industry data indicates that vinyl is on the rise, outpacing other forms of physical media such as CDs in no small part due to an influx of young listeners.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) released a report which stated that vinyl sales rose 22% in the first half of 2022, vastly outperforming CDs in both percentage growth and total sales.
According to Billboard, Taylor Swift attained an astronomical 575,000 vinyl sales in the first week of the release of her album “Midnights”, easily breaking the former weekly record of 187,000 held by Harry Styles with his album “Harry's House.” This indicates that vinyl is not dying out, on the contrary, it is becoming more popular than ever as it attracts a younger audience.
Ron Roloff, owner of the Madison record store Strictly Discs, believes vinyl has a distinct if sometimes intangible appeal. In one sense, vinyl appeals to people as a physical object, something you can hold and look at that brings you closer to the music. He also explains vinyl as
a way to be more engaged with the process of listening to music.
"The thing about records is that you are an active participant in it," he says, "Vinyl is a very ritualistic and habit-forming way to play your music and there's a lot of reward that comes from that."
Vinyl also has a different sound than a digital recording due to it being an analog medium where sound is created through the vibrations between a record player needle and the grooves on the record itself. This is in contrast to digital, where a recording consists of a number of distinct samples put together in such a way as to create the illusion of continuous sound.
“Analog is one continuous journey," Roloff says. "People will say there is a warmer sound to that versus anything digital."
Some audiophiles, such as Karl Hahn, a student, and host of the WSUM radio program “The Trip Chamber” at UW-Madison who makes his own custom guitar pedals, are vinyl skeptics.
"Vinyl is a somewhat inaccurate representation of the source recording. The sound it produces is affected by physical inconsistencies in the material, and distortion can take place if the record is not in perfect condition." Hahn says, "A 320kbps MP3 file sounds better than a vinyl to me."
Whatever your position on the digital versus analog debate, it is undeniable that many young people are taking the plunge into the world of vinyl records. However, many of these young people might feel lost and not know where to begin or how much to spend.
"If you spend a grand, or thereabouts, a thousand bucks, I think that's a really good place to start. You don't have to spend that kind of money to get some decent playback performance, because you can also buy stuff that's secondhand, and so you get a little bit of a bigger bang for your buck," Roloff says.
One of Ron Roloff’s amplification devices. Photo taken by Ron Roloff.
It's also important not to spend unevenly. Roloff explains that if any one piece of the setup is significantly worse than the rest, you could be limiting your playback performance.
"It's really key to make sure that you are matching equipment that works well together," Roloff says, "the more you can align each piece, the turntable, the right cartridge... the right amplification or pre-amplification, and the right speakers, you don't want anything to be too far out of whack either way."
However, while each piece is important and a weak link will always put a limit on how good the playback quality can be, some components of a good system tend to be more important than others.
"Some will say that it's speakers, some will say that it's amplification," Roloff says, "It is debatable, but in general terms, people seem to think that the speaker is where you want to start.”
Roloff says that all of this work crafting a sound system is to reduce the noise floor, to "get the hell out of the way of the recording." Essentially, you want the record to be unaffected by the conditions of the outside world and as close to a perfect representation of the original sound as possible.
One of Ron Roloff’s speakers. Photo taken by Ron Roloff.
Maintaining a pure sound is incredibly important to audiophiles like Roloff, who will go to great lengths to make their listening experience as perfect as possible. This means Roloff pays attention to every detail. His turntable weighs 145 pounds because he knows that something as simple as walking around near your record player could harm your listening experience as a result of those vibrations traveling through the record and out the speakers as audible noise.
"[When] You walk across the floor, pound on the table, that vibration is going to go right through that needle, cartridge and tonearm, and right into your speakers, you're going to hear that sound," he says. "Isolation, everything is about isolation."
While problems like this can be partially solved by buying better equipment, there are also things the listener can do to improve their listening experience outside of purchasing gear. While better equipment will always result in a better sound, being aware of your listening environment can be just as important. Little changes such as closing the drapes can help stop sound waves from bouncing off of hard surfaces and around the room, ruining your audio. This application of materials to the surfaces of a room in order to reduce the number of sound waves bouncing around inside and interfering with the original sound is called acoustic treatment.
“One thing to consider would be if you have a lot of hard surfaces, wood floors, lot of windows, stuff like that, is at a minimum having some sort of window treatments. Drapes help a lot with acoustics, rugs help a lot.” says Russ Vance, owner of the Madison audio shop the HiFi Haus, “
The location of a set of speakers can also improve the experience tremendously. Vance advises that people should find some way to elevate their speakers and make sure they are at least six to eight inches away from the wall because the higher frequencies sound better at ear level and the bass will sound muddier the closer the speaker is to the wall.
One last tip from Vance to new vinyl listeners is to make sure to clean the record before playing it. This is because, as he explains, the process behind the creation of a vinyl record can be likened to how a waffle maker makes a waffle. To form a record, the vinyl material is pressed down into a disc, similar to how a waffle maker presses batter into the shape of a waffle. Much in the same way, both the waffle maker and machinery involved in pressing a record are coated in an anti-sticking agent that allows for the record to come off cleanly.
Sometimes this agent can remain on a record even after it is shipped out and purchased, and this substance can interfere with the record playing back as it ought to. So it is best practice to make sure your records are clean before you put them up for a spin.