Last week’s Stu’s Views blathered on about how much a pain in the fundament vinyl records can be to the avid collector, and the response to it was really phenomenal – we got messages from all over the world and the article prompted one chap in South Africa to put pen to paper (actually, fingers to keyboard) and share his lifelong love affair with records going right back to the days of shellac 78s. Obviously, I’m FAR too short of tooth to remember those kinds of things.

The innards of a somewhat broken Technics 1210

Anyway, in the last article, I touched on procurement of records, accommodating them in the home, organising them, cleaning them, and mentioned in passing actual job of setting up your record player to provide optimum conditions to get the information out of the grooves.

So, is the actual physical reality of vinyl conducive to high-resolution music playback?

Now, as the Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy would say at this juncture, “DO NOT PANIC”. I’m as averse to bringing up figures and measurements as the next man, and anyway, I’d like this to be an entertaining read rather than some kind of adenoidal-voiced textbook narrated by Reginald Mole Husband and aimed at folk who would rather sit with a slide rule, a book of logarithms, an Emile Berliner microphone dating from 1877, and all connected to a WWII era oscilloscope whilst they wear a pair of Biggles style goggles for just the right effect. That’s not to say that measurements can’t be important to many, but that’s a whole different topic and for another time…perhaps. The question I asked above is, if we break it down into its essence, along the lines of ‘Is hauling a tiny gemstone through a minuscule furrow that has been stamped on to a chunk of polyvinyl chloride really the best way to get the best reproduction of our cherished musicians’ output? Surely, given the mechanical nature of lugging that little precious stone through the record’s groove leads to all kinds of issues?

Indeed, there are countless problems associated with getting this mechanical element of the whole system right – the record player itself playing no small part in popping a spanner in the works by way of sabotaging the whole experience. As an aside, and I don’t know if this is Breton folklore or not but I thought it worth sharing; the word sabotage comes from the wooden clogs Breton people traditionally wear that are called ‘sabots’. If the myth is to be believed, during the industrial revolution Bretons were rounded up, taken from their fields of turnip, parsnips and other delicious vegetables and put to work in factories in the cities of France. Quite rightly infuriated by this less than ideal situation, and begrudging their French overlords, the Bretons would throw their clogs (sabots) into the cogs and pulleys of the machinery rendering it ineffective, if only for a short respite from the drudgery of factory life. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you sabotage!

I digress! Sorry!

So, one thing that we will have all heard of if we assume a passing interest in records is ‘wow and flutter’ For those of a dirty-minded persuasion this may sound like something that may go on by way of preparation for the filthsome deed on an adult movie set…but in actual fact, it’s something completely different – well you live and learn! Wiki says we now tend to lump wow and flutter into a combined meaning that “quantifies the amount of ‘frequency wobble’ (caused by speed fluctuations in a turntable in this case) present in subjectively valid terms” (in other words, measurable terms). In essence, wow and flutter are the effects of a record being spun at an incorrect speed. It’s well audible and, to my ears at least, the easiest way to hear it, unless you are a fan of the band Test Tones, is to play piano-based music – it’s pretty obvious if the speed is off if you listen closely, or, indeed, not really that close at all.

Turntable manufacturers have different methods of trying to eliminate speed discrepancies that lead to wow and flutter. I’ll talk about the two turntables I have at home (I know, I know! That’s clearly not enough turntables and I really ought to have a word and buy some more for fear of being mocked mercilessly for my woefully poor vinylista-audiophile credentials) and they are a direct drive Technics 1200G and an Origin Live Resolution that is belt-driven (with a twist).

The belt drive Origin Live spinner uses a technique they call ‘Light Speed Control’ whereby the speed of the platter is controlled instead of the speed of the actual motor that drives it (which most other manufacturers seem to favour) – or rather, it is the speed of the platter that is constantly monitored and corrected via correcting the speed of the drive motor. Essentially, there is a light in the motor unit that shines on a reflective silver strip on the underside of the platter that reflects light back to a sensor. That light is constantly monitored and fedback to the motor, and then some clever jiggery-pokery regulates the speed accordingly and at a lightning-fast speed. Origin Live publish speed drift figures of 0.0001%, and wow and flutter figures of 0.05%. Oh no, I’ve drifted (excuse the pun) into the land of parroting numbers which I said I wouldn’t do, but for the purpose of this piece, I will continue…a bit.

Our Origin Live Resolution Turntable

Forget what the Encyclopaedia says, this is a time to PANIC if Stu is getting the numbers out for the lads and lasses!

On the other hand, we have a Technics 1200G that uses direct drive to spin the platter. A direct-drive turntable uses a motor to directly drive the platter and does away with belts altogether. Technics publish wow and flutter figures of 0.025%. Interestingly, the vast majority of esoteric turntables still use belt drive to turn the platter on which your record sits, but I’m not sure why that would necessarily be – perhaps someone more clever than I can elucidate. I’m not even going into the world of idler drive turntables…just yet!

The Technics 1200G

But it doesn’t all stop there, and there’s even more to getting the best out of the grooves of your vinyl than just ensuring the platter spins at the right speed.

Oh, god this stuff is complicated, isn’t it? Why on earth do people bother?

When I first got a record player, I’m using the term record player very loosely as it was an Amstrad all in one thing, there was, if I remember correctly, a switch that was marked ‘rumble’. But what is rumble then? Surely not more stuff to worry about, I thought we’d got all the problems of vinyl playback out of the way! (Oh, no, we’ve barely scratched (pun intended) the surface!)

Back to Wiki I trundle. So, rumble according to Wiki is a low-frequency sound emanating (or caused by) the bearings inside the turntable, with ball bearings causing more rumble than slide bearings, apparently.  Rumble can also come from drive pulleys and belts, but also from the record itself. All this low frequency ‘noise’ is picked up by the stylus and fed to the amp where it is amplified and there’s where the problem becomes evident. The effect is heard most on systems that go low down in the frequency range. By the way, if you see a bloke in a white coat with a stethoscope attached to a record player then he’s more than likely listening for rumble – but don’t disqualify that he may be using the turntable/stethoscope as a decoy and that they’ve actually come to take you away with nice rooms full of lovely soft walls by way of room treatment (that’s what I was told it was anyway!).

I once bought an LP12 that stayed in the house only for a few days (not because I didn’t want to keep it, no, it was part of a full Linn system I bought but at the time I had very few records) and I ventured to play one of the few records I had on it  – from memory, it was Hot August Night by Neil Diamond. Obviously, the record player wasn’t set up correctly and you could physically see the speaker cones pumping in and out with the rumble generated by the badly set up spinner. I feared for my speakers and turned it off within seconds. Heavier platters and low-frequency filters on amps and phono-stages can help deal with rumble by all accounts and it’s no wonder that serious turntable manufacturers of a more engineering-bent go to what at first glance seem to be outrageous lengths to eliminate the effects of rumble from the vinyl equation.

There’s so much more involved too by way of cartridge choice, tonearm resonances, external vibrations getting to the needle and much, much more. But that will have to wait for another time, too. There’s also all the ancillary kit you will need to fettle and set up your turntable and keep it spinning optimally.

So, why would you bother with a turntable? I know that a good few people have abandoned the format in favour of streaming hi-resolution files, and whilst I too have embraced these new-fangled technologies I still have a place in my heart for the much more problematic method of music playback. Indeed, it seems to be a bit of a thing at the moment to buy a record player and the associated discs. Statista reckons that “In 2020, 27.5 million LPs were sold in the United States, up 46 percent compared to 2019 and more than 30-fold compared to 2006 when the vinyl comeback began.” The same company reckon that record player sales in the US have gone from a low in 2012 of 49 000 units to 72 000 units in 2019. We are not alone fellow vinylistas, they walk among us!

Getting it right with regards to playing your records, you can, and let’s be honest, go a bit daft with it all, and end up spending inordinate sums of money just on a record player! The AV Design Haus Dereneville VPM costs, according to Digital Trends, $650 000 (that’s  £475 777.25 – don’t forget that 25pence, it’s important) and there are other turntables costing hundreds of thousands too – plenty of them. Let’s put this into perspective and having done a quick online search; £475 000 will buy you a 4 bedroom, 3 bathroom, 3 reception room detached house in the Highlands of Scotland with unrestricted views over Loch Linnhe… and it comes with an enclosed garden that surrounds the property, a bothy and two self-contained letting units. And you’d still have 25 pence left to put towards a Tunnocks wafer, a tin of Irn Brew, or a deep-fried Mars bar. Now, there is an obvious downside to this property, and that is that it won’t play your £25 slab of vinyl. On the other hand, should you prefer to spend your dosh on a car you could have a 2020 Ferrari SF90 Stradale in Grigio Silverstone and with just 129 miles on the clock for £469 950, leaving you £5 827.25 for road tax, petrol, and the no doubt horrendous upkeep bills. On the downside, this won’t play your records either, though the sales bumph does say it has a premium HiFi system onboard…and don’t forget the “touchscreen haptic buttons and a 16” HD display instrument binnacle.” I don’t know what one is, but I need a binnacle in my life!

At the other end of the scale, we have the likes of the Crossleys of this world that come in at less than £100, though if social media rumours are true, and I have no hard evidence with regards this, these turntables very often plough their very own very deep furrow.

In between these two extremes, the spinners on offer is bewildering. You pays your money and you takes your choice. Personally, I’ve spent what I can afford and what I feel gives a good level of playback. Of course, the laws of diminishing returns start to kick in hard as you move up the price ladder – isn’t that always the case with any pastime/hobby/obsession.

I’ve already gone into why I enjoy vinyl playback and, hopefully, I’ve not repeated myself too much, suffice to say that whatever way you choose to listen to music it doesn’t really matter so long as YOU enjoy your chosen method and the music you play on it.

There’s loads more to ramble on about with regards to vinyl playback and no doubt I’ll touch on these in future dispatches from the vinyl frontline. Stay tuned!

 

 

 

 

 

Stuart Smith

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