Tech Rap: Vive La Vinyl!
Posted on October 11 2018
By Peter Skiera
It was a crisp, overcast, rainy morning in October; perfect conditions for Dinosaur hunting. I programmed the final destination into my Garmin GPS and embarked on the sixty-mile (96.6km) drive to The Time Capsule in Cranston, Rhode Island, a used record and comic book store. In anticipation of soon receiving my new Mag Lev turntable, it was time to add some new vinyl to my music diet. After all, vinyl is comfort food for the ears.
The Time Capsule in Cranston, RI: A real trip (back in time).
My current turntable- a vintage Nakamichi Dragon CT (computing turntable) with the unique Absolute Center Search System that gently nudges the glass platter with a small metal “hammer” to ensure the record is dead center.
There’s nothing quite like the experience of flipping through endless bins of dusty records in a used record store. In the case of The Time Capsule, the majority of floor space is dedicated to comic books, but along with comic books and used records they also sell movie posters, VHS movies (remember those?), CD’s, and various collectibles. It brought back memories of the regular pilgrimages I used to make as a teenager to Luke’s Record Exchange in Pawtucket, RI. Luke’s (as it was affectionately known) had been around for over 35 years, until it closed its doors 5 or 6 years ago. Walking into Luke’s was an experience in itself. Part record store, part flea market, there were music-related T-shirts hanging from the ceiling like banners, used records everywhere, and rock music blaring from two large PA speakers on opposite sides of the room. Like The Time Capsule, Luke’s also sold used cassettes, CDs, video games, VHS movies, but also sold random audio equipment, and even a collection of used RCA SelectaVision video discs! It’s also been my experience that all record store owners are legally required to be eccentric.
Luke’s Record Exchange, Pawtucket, RI: Gone, but not forgotten.
If you’re looking for newer titles or new re-issues, check out Amazon, Newbury Comics, Barnes and Noble, Mosaic Records (Jazz), Sundazed Music (re-issues), and WaxWork Records (horror soundtracks), just to name a few. Are you old enough to remember the Columbia House Record Club? Subscription-based services like “Vinyl Me, Please” will help you jump start your record collection. If you’re a bit of a risk taker and backing struggling musicians appeals to you, crowd funding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are replete with album campaigns of various genres. I was a backer of Aural Pleasure Records first campaign. And it was through Kickstarter I discovered one of my favorite Smooth Jazz vocalists, Lindsey Webster.
Peace, Love, and Music from Lindsey Webster.
A B&N exclusive: Willie Nelson’s newest offering on “blue marble-colored vinyl.”
These sites are also a great source for unique record campaigns such as a recreation of the record sent out with the Voyager spacecraft. Incidentally, if you long for the days when vinyl was the dominant music format, check out All Things Must Pass, a fascinating documentary about the life and death of Tower Records. Did you know Elton John used to shop there?
OMG! The only Tower Records left on earth – in Shibuya, Japan. Five floors of music, plus a café.
One of the biggest drawbacks to getting into new vinyl is the price of admission. When compact discs first hit the market, record companies proclaimed they would eventually cost less than records. Except for “budget” CD titles, that never really happened. More than thirty years after the CD debut, it’s finally become a reality…not because CD prices have dropped, but because new albums are so expensive. I just bought Willie Nelson’s new Frank Sinatra tribute record, My Way, at a local Barnes and Noble. The LP cost $20. Granted, this was a limited edition pressed on colored vinyl, but the standard issue still costs almost $16. That’s $6 more than its CD counterpart and breaks down to $1.45 per song! Popular auction site eBay might save you a few bucks on new or used titles, but be very cautious of sellers who don’t know how to accurately grade used albums and won’t accept returns. I’ve been burned more than once buying albums described as “mint” or “looks great,” only to later receive records that looked like they had been cleaned with high grit sandpaper. It would seem some sellers perform their record grading while wearing sunglasses in a dark room. That said, I’ve scored several unique titles on eBay at reasonable prices and in very nice condition.
Some recent acquisitions from eBay: How to Speak Hip, circa 1959; Jean-Luc Ponty Plays Frank Zappa, circa 1970; Paul McCartney’s Ram in mono which uses a different recording mix than the stereo version and was never made available commercially until recently via a limited edition in a plain white sleeve.
Records have been experiencing a kind of revival over the last decade. “Record Store Day” which happens every April around the world, inspires many record companies to issue limited edition special pressings. There’s also “Black Friday” in November which celebrates independently-owned record stores. The UK will inaugurate their first-ever “National Album Day” on October 13. What could account for this uptick in an outdated storage medium? Perhaps it’s because music lovers are discovering (or re-discovering) that vinyl demands you make a physical connection with your music, and it’s a gratifying experience. When you play a record you literally hold the music in your hands, place it on the turntable platter, and que up the stylus. While listening, you can soak up the album artwork and read the liner notes or printed lyrics. Even the occasional “pop” noises during playback make you appreciate the magical transformation of inscribed polyvinyl chloride spiral grooves into beautiful music. Listening to an album is akin to inviting over an old friend whom you haven’t seen in years, not about having a house full of casual acquaintances. It’s about having a long-term, physical relationship with your music, not casual one-nighters. They say you never forget your first love. Many people never forget the first record they ever bought. Today’s music options (streaming, downloads, etc.), though certainly convenient, lack the intimacy only records can provide. If it’s been a long time since you played a record, or you’re a vinyl virgin and you’ve never done it before, do yourself a favor and add it to your bucket list.
"....it was time to add some vinyl to my music diet. After all, vinyl is comfort food for the ears."
Making The Connection
If you’re already a vinyl enthusiast or plan to soon become one, did you know you can connect your turntable to your Como Audio music system – even though there isn’t a dedicated phono input? If your turntable has an integrated phono preamp then all you need is an audio cable terminated with left and right male RCA’s on one end and a male stereo 3.5mm connector on the other. Connect the RCAs to your turntable’s preamp output and the mini connector to one of the Auxiliary inputs on your Como Audio model, and you have your ticket to Jurassic Rock. Note: If your turntable has a USB output, you can’t use the USB input on your Como Audio model, as that USB is specifically designed for a thumb drive or for charging a smart phone, not for a phono signal.
Stuck in the Middle with You: The Phono Preamp
If your turntable is like mine and doesn’t have a built-in phono preamp, don’t despair. There are a plethora of outboard phono preamps for sale on the Internet to suit all budgets and spaces, even some with vacuum tubes. A phono preamp is necessary to take the miniscule signal from a turntable, boost it to a line level signal so it can be used with an audio system, and apply equalization. Some phono preamps are dedicated for moving magnet cartridges, some are for moving coil, and yet others provide a selection for one or the other, so you need to know what kind of cartridge your turntable has. Most preamps also include a ground screw allowing you to connect your turntable’s ground wire (if you need to eliminate a hum noise). Connect the separate preamp between your turntable and your Como Audio system. Play album, enjoy, repeat. If you have multiple Como Audio models grouped together through the free Como Control app, you can listen to your records throughout your home on all the units without any overt latency. Moreover, you can save the Auxiliary input the turntable is connected to as a preset. If by chance your turntable uses a ceramic cartridge, such cartridges have a higher voltage output and thus don't require a preamp. Just connect the turntable directly to the Auxiliary input of your Como Audio system and you're done.
The YAQIN MS23B Moving Magnet phono preamp with vacuum tubes for under $200.
Connect your turntable’s output to the input on the back of a phono preamp if your turntable lacks a phono stage. Select the cartridge type (MM or MC) if such an option exists. Shown: The Rotel RQ-970BX phono preamp.
Coming out of the phono preamp’s output.
Connect the cable from the phono preamp’s output to your Como Audio model’s Auxiliary input. Shown: Musica
Old school music lovers will likely prefer the old-fashioned analog wired connection described above, but if you’re the cord-cutting type, check out turntable models with Bluetooth built-in. Not only will you not need a cable, but you also won’t need a phono preamplifier. Just switch on the turntable’s Bluetooth and place your Como Audio system in Bluetooth mode by rotating the Source knob and selecting the Bluetooth icon. Within about 20 seconds or so you’ll hear a confirmation beep from your Como Audio model signaling successful pairing and connecting of the turntable. Play your record and adjust the volume of your Como Audio system as desired. After this initial pairing, every time you place your Como Audio system in Bluetooth mode it will automatically connect to the turntable as long as its Bluetooth is on. And if your turntable supports aptX, our models will decode it, providing enhanced CD-quality sound.
“…vinyl demands you make a physical connection with your music, and it’s a gratifying experience.”
To return to my hunting trip at The Time Capsule: one of the “Dinosaurs” I bagged on my excursion was an old New Age album. Years ago, after I bought my very first CD player (a pricey, but no-frills Sony ES model) back in the mid-1980’s, one of the first CDs I ever listened to was Shadowfax’s The Dreams of Children, a gift from a close family friend. It’s a relaxing, sometimes hypnotic album. That CD has long passed on, as has that friend, but when I saw the near-mint album for just $3 in the Jazz bin, I couldn’t resist. After I got home I made a warm cup of tea, wrapped myself up in a blanket, and listened to the album through my Musica as the cold rain gently tapped against a nearby window. A smile came to my face. It was wonderful to visit with an old friend again.
Shadowfax’s classic The Dreams of Children album (Windham Hill WH-1038).
Next month: Celebrating Internet radio’s Birthday.
Peter Skiera lives in southern MA, worked in radio broadcasting throughout New England, and also worked for Cambridge SoundWorks, B&W Loudspeakers, and Tivoli Audio for 15 years before joining Como Audio as V.P. of Product Development in 2016. Peter can be reached directly at firstname.lastname@example.org