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Home Electronics: Platter Matters

Ken Kessler

Eighteen years after the prediction that CDs would kill off vinyl, the turntable is still spinning. Whatever the reason—romance, cachet, or sheer recalcitrance—we continue to support an analog format that is susceptible to wear, requires kid-glove treatment, and dates back almost 50 years. Records, and by necessity, turntables, are simply more evocative of quality music and of serious hi-fi than a no-moving-parts box playing CDs.

Although LP sales are a fraction of what they were in the early 1980s, vinyl continues to survive all manner of obstacles, including the diminishing number of pressing plants and the scarcity of manufacturing material, such as stampers. But the difficulty in getting records pressed has not lessened quality. Sundazed Music and Classic Records use only virgin vinyl to stamp records. (Virgin vinyl is unused, raw vinyl rather than recycled vinyl, which is usually made from old records.) And today’s records weigh 180 grams rather than the 120 grams the major labels released so many years ago.

The range of vinyl pressed today consists of more than reissued milestones due for replacement, aimed at those old enough to remember 45s. Although companies such as Sundazed and Classic concentrate on masterpieces and rarities (the former having rereleased early Bob Dylan albums in mono, and the latter having resuscitated the Led Zeppelin catalog in LP), they sell alongside brand-new dance, rap, hip-hop, blues, and heavy metal.

To play these new pressings, plenty of turntables, tone-arms, and cartridges are at the ready. The constituent parts of a record-playing system—the cartridge, which makes contact with the record, the tonearm, which carries the needle across the disc, and the turntable, which rotates the disc—have evolved over the years to incorporate materials and technologies that did not exist during vinyl’s prime.

Wilson Benesch, for example, uses a large amount of carbon fiber in its turntables and arms. Space-age synthetic rubber materials have found their way into numerous companies’ suspension systems and improve isolation from external vibration. Better use of acrylics, less dependence on wood, improved oils, more precise bearings, and even a better understanding of the wiring in the arm have all contributed to the arguable superiority of today’s record decks over the best in compact disc players.

The mortality rate for analog hardware manufacturers has been high, especially among the makers of tonearms and cartridges, but the choices are still plentiful. From Great Britain we have Rega, Linn, Loricraft/Garrard, Michell Engineering, and numerous others; Germany’s finest include Clearaudio and Transrotor; Italy produces V.Y.G.E.R. and Omicron; and the United States is the home of Rockport, Basis, VPI, and Immedia, to name only four. The prices range from a few hundred dollars to around $75,000 for a Rockport System III Sirius.

If any doubts remain that our love for records and turntables will sustain the industry, listen to SME’s Alastair Robertson-Aikman. SME, which is celebrating 40 years as the world’s leading tonearm manufacturer, also makes three turntables: Models 10, 20, and 30. Robertson-Aikman, however, uses the entry-level Model 10 in his personal system rather than a top-of-the-line Model 30 for a good reason. “We are back-ordered for 400 turntables,” he says. “I thought it would be most unfair to deprive one of our customers.”

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