I am a reformed audiophile. A hybrid type of sound geek, with one foot in the strange world of excellent sound and the whackos who populate it, and the other among the great unwashed normal people who get along just fine with, you know, anything you can buy at Target and factory stereos in their cars.
That’s not saying much apropos to vinyl, yet, except that I do have an ear — and appreciation — for geeky “audio-synchrocies” between the formats. For the record, my ears cannot take any normal, mass-produced computer audio system; I rolled my own rig with a 250-watts-per-channel 1980s Adcom power amp hooked up to my Mac, which serves as a preamplifier through which I pump my MP3s out to Cambridge Soundworks Newton M80s. In the man-cave — our house’s half-finished basement has a stone foundation, which isn’t magic, acoustically, but it’s not bouncy like the usual rec room — I have a vintage ’80s EV club PA I bought from a DJ off Craigslist suitable for a 300-capacity. Plug my iPod right into a tiny mixer that an ex-wedding DJ gave me. Crown amp, 600 watts a side. Freakin’ loud for weightlifting time, I tell you.
I settled on this gear after years of experimenting, thousands of dollars down the tubes, and hundreds of hours squandered at hi-end audio shops sampling different systems and musics to figure out that most of the audiophile products are a lot of hot air to part you from your hard-earned income. No doubt this stuff sounds better, but incrementally so: To get what I would consider a couple hundred bucks’ worth of incremental improvement, you gotta spend thousands more. And nod in appreciation when the salesperson asks how great it sounds.
Sure, you can do better than Target. The trick is, investing the same amount of money in used high-end gear on Craigslist, eBay, and other outlets where the people who dropped full retail on gear dump their components after the Next Big Thing catches their fancy. Spend any more, and you might as well be shredding it. As they upgrade into a financial stratosphere that real adults with real children dare not spend on sound systems, hardcore audiophiles’ leave-behinds truly are good enough for the rest of us who are tired of Korean, Chinese, and Taiwanese audio gear that turns good music into something sounding akin to my 4-year-old beating on a steel garbage can with a couple sticks.
Still not saying anything about vinyl–except that normal music fans should rightfully beat on me for having egregiously overpowered systems, basically the audio equivalent of Ford Excursion SUVs. While some in the audio-clique think like me, more snobby audiophiles will poo-poo my hubris. Especially if they’re vinylphiles (an especially nerdy subcommittee of the audiophile geeks) and their dorkier cousins the speakerphiles. Because despite all that purty, clean wattage, I’m still using for speakers what they would consider crude implements of audio cavemen. They’ll say my source material, MP3s, is the weak sister of vinyl. Warm, beautiful vinyl. Vinyl, which cannot be enjoyed without a thousand-dollar needle suitable only for playing properly cared-for, pristine platters.
And that’s where me and the audiophile upper crust part ways: I can’t abide by vinyl’s charms. There are no charms. It’s all in your head, guys. Or if there is an incremental difference, it’s so incremental that it makes your thousand dollar (for the cheap ones) turntable with its thousand dollar (for the cheap ones) quality cartridge seem to me like a grossly ill-conceived investment that could have been spent on some great soul, jazz, blues or R&B MP3s long out of print but popping up here and there for sale at legitimate outlets on the Web. And yeah, I’m not going to drop four figures (or more) on speakers if I am using MP3s for source. My Neanderthal ears have a hard time telling ripped MP3s from source CDs in blind tests most of the time, anyway.
Don’t get me wrong: If you’ve got some out-of-print vinyl and can’t find digital equivalents, play those puppies and enjoy them. I have no beef with you. Hell, for a time there was this live Supertramp record I loved but could only find on 8-track. That doesn’t mean I was lording the media over all the cassette people, saying they sucked because their format was so much inferior to 8-track. Like the vinyl people do to everyone else.
(Pssst–on those old records, $80 and a twitchy bid finger will get you a USB turntable on eBay, and the lovely freeware program Audacity will help make even worn vinyl sound pretty clean when converted to MP3, if you’re patient and are willing to, uh, RTFM.)
Furthermore, everyone who saved a record or two because the cover graphics were so great–and perhaps went the extra mile to get a frame and hang them on your wall–that’s awesome. Because in 2008, that’s what lost beauty the vinyl format holds: Graphic design and commercial art at its best, at least in rock-n-roll terms. Except when it forced us to admire David Lee Roth’s chest hair.
Don’t try to tell me, like a former college roommate of mine did, that the new Mudcrutch is better on vinyl. It isn’t. If it is to you, I think you’re trying to justify your investment in some well-marketed hi-fi gear. Digital is better. Digital is closer to the original sound the performers made in the studio. And when it’s piped though something like those silly $20,000-a-pair B&W Nautilus speakers in a room tuned for proper acoustics, audiophile-grade digital recordings of acoustic jazz will make me weep, it sounds so good. Rolls-Royces ride better on the road, too. Doesn’t mean I’ll ever own either.
Vinyl is an unfaithful medium that degrades almost from the first play. There is no magic in the grooves. It’s a sentimental nostalgia trip, and for anyone who tells me otherwise, you can have my audiophile pressing of Journey’s Dream After Dream I was suckered into buying back when I was in middle school. I think the clerk didn’t even blink when I paid twice as much for this collection of B-sides and other crap pressed on extra-thick vinyl…for gosh sakes, I was just a naive little paperboy, and she knew the truth. It set me on a two-decade romp that ended up in a lot of bad buys–thankfully, eBay was there for me to launder the ill-conceived purchases I made and at least recoup some of those lost Benjamins.
I stand before you not to mourn vinyl, but to bury it. The only fly in the ointment is all that great music still marooned out there on vinyl, never released digitally. Hopefully, it will all get rescued before it’s too late. That’s where our pals at MP3-sharing blogs come in. Don’t download those files, ever. Just play them at the sites. Never, ever download. That would be illegal. I’m serious. Plus, the vinylphiles will poo-poo your subjecting your ears to those bastard MP3s. Tsk, tsk.