Here and there, the cyberchatter has been registering the news: Panasonic finally pulled the plug on its venerable Technics SL-1200 turntable, which has been around since striped bellbottoms and jewfros* were popular.
Some reports are treating the event as if it were significant. It isn't, really. The old Technics, a true dinosaur surviving from the Cretaceous Period, a.k.a. the early '70s, is just an old, outmoded product that stayed alive way past its natural retirement date. The only reason it survived as long as it did was that it's been the default choice for wedding DJs (some SL-1200s come complete with DJ travel cases) and scratchers, both of whom like the fact that direct-drive turntables get up to speed quickly. Hi-fi aficionados left direct-drives behind for belt-drives several geological eras ago. (I've owned several direct-drive turntables, including one gorgeous and expensive one, and they're good in every conceivable way a turntable can be good except one: they don't sound great.)
New vinyl section at local Best Buy. I'd buy the Smiffs.
Vinyl resurges...to 4%
Actually, although it's still only a small fraction of the music market (and will never again be anything more than that), vinyl sales have been rising for several years in a row—I recently came across a whole big display of vinyl records at my local Best Buy (see above), and Amazon has a dedicated vinyl record portal.
And there are lots and lots of great turntables available at every price point, from the Music Hall MMF 2.2 ($449, a lively if somewhat rough-edged cartridge, I believe made by Goldring, included) to the Rega P3-24 and P5, to the Clearaudio Concept and the current darling of the high-end press, the made-in-the-USA VPI Classic. Or try the Sotas, made somewhere in the vasty reaches of Chicagoland, as featured on the TV show "House." Sota makes an unsuspended budget model called the Comet as well as a number of higher-level models with suspensions such as the Sapphire.
(By the way, if you're wondering how to suspend an unsuspended TT like the MMF 2.2 or the Regas, here's what you do. Go to the plumbing section of your local hardware mart and look for 1 1/2" pipe end caps in the plumbing section—the ones I found are made by Fernco and are called "Qwik Caps"—and then get some standard racquetballs. The racquetballs fit nicely in the depressions in the end caps. Multiply by four, and presto—a Q&D turntable suspension. Of course, a solid support underneath everything helps a lot. Believe it or not, there are custom "isolation bases" audiophiles pay hundreds of dollars for that are based around...you guessed it, plain old racquetballs.)
Personally, I like the MMF-2.2 as an entry-level model (I owned one and liked it), and I currently use the Rega P3-24 with a PSU, modified with a Groovetracer subplatter.
Another thing the mainstream press gets all wrong is the constant repetition of the old saw about how all you have to do to get great records is to head out to flea markets and garage sales where you'll find thousands of collectible records going begging. That might have been true twenty years ago, but not any more. If you're lucky enough to find a few records you actually want at a yard sale or a Goodwill, chances are they'll have dog-eared and water-damaged covers and surfaces trashed by too many playings under heavy, bad, dirty "needles." Nope—the appeal of records these days is to buy new ones, which are essentially lovingly made, remastered, deluxe replicas of great masterpieces. On the bad side, they're expensive as hell—$25 to $50 each. On the good side, they're made to a breathtakingly high standard all but unknown back in the days when vinyl supposedly ruled. Check out Music Direct, The Elusive Disc, or Acoustic Sounds to see what's available.
Currently on heavy rotation chez TOP. It's a 10-incher, with four cuts. Part of a small custom pressing for a special order from Japan; I got one of the leftovers on closeout for $12. Bought a handful of 10-inchers at that price and am making my way through them slowly.
I think vinyl records have captured as much as 4% of the current music market...and I probably spin vinyl records 4% of the time. (The rest of the time I listen to the computer through a USB DAC. What I don't have is a CD player. There's no need; if I want to listen to a CD I just pop it into the computer and copy it to the hard drive, and listen to it from there.)
One of the things I like about vinyl these days is that I tend to leave the same record on the 'table until I've played it many times and have gotten to know it thoroughly (which I obviously couldn't do if the TT was my only source). No reason to do anything like that with computer music, much of which I tend to listen to once or twice and then...er, well, lose. It's not lost literally, it's just that I forget about it and it goes into extended hibernation somewhere on the hard drive.
If I had my latest return to vinyl to do over again, I probably wouldn't bother—it's involved and expensive, even if I do find happiness in it. In any event, there's really no need to mourn for the old Technics. If you have one, you can continue to enjoy it, and if you happen across someone preaching on the internet about the deep meaning of its demise, haul out the old salt lick. Vinyl has reached equalibrium in its little niche (just as film will one day, I'm convinced) and will continue to survive just fine.
"Open Mike" is a series of off-topic posts that appears only—but not always—on Sundays.
P.S. I was going to include a list of favorite records I've bought recently, but only about a third of the list I came up with are still readily available. Vinyl tends to come and go, which is only appealing in that I'm not a serious collector. If one were, new vinyl would be a dangerous thing to get obsessive about. On the other hand, if anybody knows where I can get a copy of Howe Gelb's "'Sno Angel Like You"....
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Jeff: "Still going strong with my Sota Sapphire (with Cosmos arm board) and Wheaton Tri-Planar arm (now known without the Wheaton). I bought the table at a shop near Wheaton, Maryland more than 25 years ago and the arm was personally set up on my table by Herb Papier, the late Tri-Planar founder. Several Lyra cartridges later and the music sounds as wonderful as ever. Maybe even better with the quality of some new vinyl, remastered recordings and the improved cartridges."
Mike replies: I met Herb Papier a time or three. Never could afford one of his tonearms; still can't. As with cameras, though, I envy those who got good stuff and stuck with it. A few years back I knew a guy who was still using Marantz Model 9's he'd bought new. Price those on Ebay! A suitable occasion for that most overused of words: awesome.
Featured Comment by Rene Hermanides: "Tip of the day: The DVD It's a Vinyl World After All by Michael Fremer. A lot of information about vinyl manufacturing, cleaning, collecting etc, but also a report of a mastering session at Blue Note. Gives a nice overview of the 'vinyl world.' "
Featured Comment by max: "On the relevance of the 1200s, there is one displayed at the London Museum of Science and Technology, as one of the defining tech objects of our times."