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Beyond audiophile walls: perspective on vinyl’s comeback

“I need perspective ’cause I’m facing the wall
I need perspective ’cause I’m not that tall – Peter Gabriel (1978)

Here is the news:

‘Amazon sold more turntables than any other home audio product this Christmas [2015]’music to a vinylphile’s ears.

However – this is only part of a broader picture. Is the audiophile world not walled in by its lack of mass market perspective?

Look over the wall – and into the mainstream. Look at what people bought. The leader of Amazon.com’s seasonal turntable bonanza was a US$50 all-in-one from Jensen – turntables like this are (worse than) the UE Boom or Beats Pill of the vinyl world.

More recent news:

‘The world’s biggest quality turntable maker sees production soar 400%’. A four-fold increase in sales, as recently reportedly by the Czech Republic’s SEV Litovel factory who handle manufacturing for Pro-Ject and Music Hall, sounds super impressive.

Vinyl is back. We’ve heard it time and again. Music to the vinylphile’s ears: he never gave up on the format during its fallow years; and he loves the smell of vindication in the morning.

[Source: Digital Music News]

British turntable manufacturer Rega is now making 4000 turntables/month. SEV Litovel are forecasting that they will produce over 10,000 turntables/month within three years.

This too is only part of a broader picture. Look over the wall.

SEV Litovel’s four-fold production increase took place over eight years.

Furthermore, recent RIAA figures point to a slow down in vinyl sales growth: an increase of 1.8% in unit sales for 2016 is a long way from the 38% annual growth average noted between 2012 and 2015.

Vinyl record sales still represent less than 10% of (the USA’s) total music consumption.

According to the RIAA’s 2016 report, streaming now brings in more revenue than downloads, CDs and vinyl combined.

Streaming is a blue whale to vinyl’s ocean trout.

The bigger picture – perspective –  helps us keep the stories that we hear (and tell others) better anchored in reality.

We should read more than one audiophile publication; pay attention to how our non-audiophile pals listen to music; remain skeptical of those who try to tell us there is only one way to reproduce it.

We should always look over the wall…

Written by John H. Darko

John H. Darko

John is the editor of DAR, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is also an occasional contributor to 6moons and AudioStream and currently resides in Berlin, Germany.

Twitter: DarkoAudio
Instagram: DarkoAudio
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34 Comments

  1. Why let the facts stand in the way of a good story. We’re talking audio aren’t we, after all?

  2. I listen to a lot of Indian music, which is only released in digital form (India is a 3rd world country in this respect – HiFi is not a priority).

    That rules out me using vinyl as my primary mode of music playback, even if I had the money for a ProJect xTension 9, and the space for a large vinyl collection.

  3. It would be interesting to understand the software vs. hardware sales ratio trend. At some point, turntable market saturation should occur and vinyl sales should continue to grow as people build their vinyl collections. If vinyl sales stay relatively flat, we could conclude that many turntable sales are just for room decor.

  4. I do believe that vinyl will once again become the dominant physical form factor over time. Not because the format sounds intrinsically “better” mind you, but rather the uselessness of physical digital formats today.

    But for me, here is the real data point I like to understand: Is this new found surge in vinyl sales having a “halo” effect within the audiophile industry itself? In other words, are first time vinyl owners becoming audiophiles or is that piece of wax simply a statement of fandom?

    I’d like to believe the later and say that interest in vinyl is generally a good “thing” for our hobby as it helps indoctrinate new audiophiles as well as bring back old ones to the fold.

    At least that is what I want to believe but I have no data to back it up.

  5. IMO, the vinyl resurgence ended when they started using digital files to cut lacquers. The reason for buying vinyl is because it was an analog process end-to end. How can any vinyl remastered from digital be worth collecting to purists who buy vinyl?

    Just get the digital files, a good DAC and eliminate many stages of added coloration and loss of detail between the output of the DAC and the output of a phono preamp. And the files won’t get scratched, warped and wear out.

    • Unless one wants the physicality of a format or the ritual of playback or the cover art or whatever, from an SQ perspective, your thoughts here mirror my own.

      • Don’t get me wrong, I’m still for physical formats like digital discs with liner notes and art work. But would like them to be unlocked so I can rip them to my computer. Like back in the day when we ripped vinyl to cassettes. I still collected albums then.

        What I’m against is something that’s not what it appears to be. Using digital files for mastering vinyl is like having up-sampled or transcoded hi-res files. The industry wants to make money regardless of who they deceive. Most audiophiles are too smart for that. And most younger newcomers participating a trend like vinyl probably won’t last.

        I feel the same about MQA. Right now there’s seems to be a controversy among audiophiles and some professionals about what exactly it does and what is lost. IMO, it’s the audiophiles who will make it successful if it’s going to be. Not young kids listening to earbuds on their phones. The blame will be on the record industry if MQA fails because the record industry didn’t suddenly start caring about what they’re supplying to the consumer. But they’re probably happy that MQA process may give them a way to cover up their deception.

      • Hi Larry and John,

        I have particularly felt the impact of both your comments in the last decade or so and it hit home VERY hard when I recently played my newly acquired vinyl copy of Aphex Twin’s ‘Computer Controlled Acoustic Instruments pt2’ EP, albeit not on a good system (Audio-technica LP120 with the preamp removed and Boston Acoustics 2.1 speakers). Sounded OK, but I then played the free (MP3 only) download that came with it through my little Fiio X1 DAP, an Audio-gd headphone amp and decent headphones and it absolutely trounced the vinyl setup. Although I was expecting it to sound better through the DAP setup the difference was night and day…

        Having said that, I am one of those who love flicking through crates whilst record shopping and equally love the ritual of dropping the needle and hearing the gentle thud.

        Thanks again John for your always well written and completely refreshing opinion.

  6. I see streaming and vinyl as complementary revenue stream for now. Of course the better my digital front-end gets, the less I listen to vinyl on my 2ch rig. Will main-stream consumers continue to gravitate towards vinyl? Or with a new focus on sound quality, will they start spending that money to improve their digital playback experience?

  7. Vinyl is a costly hobby particular when you have to ship and in some countries to pay tax .Download gives you sometimes a choice of HR 24/96 or higher and a choice of formate > Wave , Aiff, Flac etc. and avoids shipping and tax cost at least for me . The occasional accidents of Vinyl is costing as well .Last week I listen to vinyl in my friends home an expensive master press ( over 200 US ) and the arm fall onto the record which was badly scratched ! 200 US down the train .As I worked in many countries it is much easier to take your ext..hard drive with you with all your Music files on it and have several back ups as well .It is convenient far less costly and less prone to scratches etc. Again it works for me everybody is entiteld to he’s own hobby – music , format .

  8. I have both vinyl and digital in my 2 channel rig (Quad 66/606 > Tannoy Cheviot), but I’m buying more and more stuff as digital only. As mentioned above, a good DAC and digital setup seems to match the SQ of vinyl and probably surpasses a lot of the poor quality, mastered from digital, vinyl releases these days.

    I pretty much only buy vinyl that’s in good nick and a few decades old or new stuff on 12 inch so I can DJ with it (the tactile thing really comes into play here, I’m not into CD decks/digital DJing).

  9. It’s a life style fad. A decoration for the table. I do vinyl. Don’t you? Of course, doesn’t everyone? “The two things that ready drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.”

  10. Wise comments. What seems to me often overlooked is that vinyl is mostly (note that I said mostly) a reissue market. If you want to hear most music recorded in the last 30 years, it will be on some sort of digital playback system. And I count a digitally mastered LP as a digital playback system. I wonder how many copies of Beetles reissues the market can support, especially as old coots like me for whom that music may be interesting die off.

    Re: streaming and MQA. Streaming data should also be examined–how much of it is comprised of lossy MP3 and equivalent files? Whatever you say about MQA, it does provide a practical way to stream high-resolution files over average Internet connections. And, to me at least, it sounds at least as good as other high-rez formats. I’ve heard it said that other technologies can do the same thing, but I ask: Why haven’t they? I think the answer is: they can’t, despite several manufacturers claiming otherwise. Let’s face it: streaming is not the future of audio playback; it’s the present, and what we audiophiles should be concerned about is whether streaming will support high quality sound. To me, MQA-encoding streamed files is the best way to assure that will happen. And if your enjoyment of music playback requires you to possess something, you can buy copies of MQA-encoded files. Most come with copies of liner notes that are much easier to read on a computer screen than on a CD liner note.

    Vade Forrester

  11. John, this isnt the first time you’ve mentioned the Jensen turntable, but I fully expect an incoming spray from Fremer any time now. He is even less entranced with cheap turntables than most here, but anything that suggests the vinyl resurgence is around factors *other* than its inherently superior sonic capability just seems to rub his zealot genes the wrong way 😉

    McLovin, aint afraid of no Mikey Madness

    PS I wonder how many of those Jensen owners would react if you plugged the Dragonfly Black into their smartphone and told them it cost 99USD ? (OK – 99+the cost of an OTG cable). What am I saying – serious Audiophiles (note the big A to denote seriousness) dont listen to muzak from their phones, ffs – with or without a Chinese-manufactured case hanging off it ……

    • Artie, I once saw a super close-up photograph of a needle sitting in the groove of an LP.
      The groove was jagged and uneven and the tip of the needle was contaminated with dead skin cells or something equally unconducive to so-called ‘audiophile’ sound quality.
      Now HOW on earth can that ever produce a more accurate reproduction of the recorded sound? Well, I’m bodgered if I know…

  12. I equate vinyl to film. We’re seeing a boom in 35mm film sales, while sales of digital compact cameras have practically evaporated (thanks to the smartphone) and interchangeable lens camera sales have mostly flattened out.

    Both the vinyl and film markets will fade away again, but won’t die completely. For vinyl, it’ll be the same people that bought records during the lean years (mostly underground or “nightlife” music) keeping the pressing plants alive. For film, it’ll be the people who kept shooting medium format rolls or 4×5 sheets during the digital photographic boom.

    That’s my take.

  13. Correlation is not automatically causation: most people, in fact, I would even argue that hardly any, who buy vinyl today do so with the intent of becoming “audiophiles”. When I look at the mostly disasetours playback conditions all this freshly minted (and previously owned) vinyl is subjected to, I hold little hope for any sort of crossover into audiophilia or higher quality vinyl playback which would then supposedly lead to crossover HiFi sales, etc.

    People who visit museums don’t become art collectors; our hobby currently suffers from a major branding problem that it needs to figure out at some point.

    D.

  14. I’m shorting beard trimmers and vinyl and going long on razors and streaming. I’m excited by the emphasis on streaming quality and quality headgear. Vinyl done right is magical, but doing it right costs way more than the average consumer is willing to spend. Is MQA the magic potion that pushes quality down to the mainstream listener? Maybe. If not, it at least signals the major labels are looking to raise the bar on audio quality. And quality headgear is accessible at a reasonable price point. And that gets people thinking seriously about kit. A good thing, in my opinion.

  15. Digital for the masses. Vinyl for those who like music from the 50s through the 70s. All vinyl is not better than all digital nor is all digital better than all vinyl. Since the 80s we’ve been recording and mastering for digital. If you only like music from the 80s on, you probably don’t need a turntable. Incidentally, some classical music is being recorded in dsd now, but many people eschew that format as well–without having even listened to it! If you are making definitive judgments on these formats before having tried the best of both worlds, then you really have no argument. If you listen to a digital copy with a decent dac vs the used dirty digitalized wax version on a table with a cartridge that cost less than a hundred dollars, you are not giving vinyl a fair shake. Vinyl, sacd, and dsd will not die anytime soon; they’ll remain a niche market, and will survive because audiophiles love it, are willing to pay for it, and the world has a lot of people and is growing fast. I encourage those with wide musical interests to own both a high quality table and cartridge and DAC. But buy whatever player or source suits your music interests, whatever you can get for a great used price, and build from there. Whatever you do, don’t make these silly statements that digital is better than vinyl unless you’ve actually heard the same file equivalent to the msfl album version of a Miles Davis or Bob Dylan album, or the same file version vs the Analogue Production wax version of coltrane or the beach boys. If you’ve done your due diligence, perhaps you won’t be so quick to proclaim digital superior to vinyl, even when it comes to detail and resolution. Shocking, I know.

      • I think I now understand. However, it’s this comment from you that didn’t seem very clear to me in response to Larry B: “Unless one wants the physicality of a format or the ritual of playback or the cover art or whatever, from an SQ perspective, your thoughts here mirror my own.” But I know you buy vinyl John so you must believe it still sounds pretty good. I too buy both formats.

        • Let me give you an example: I now have a Technics SL-1200G fitted with a Zu DL-103R and running through a PS Audio NPC phono stage. On sonics alone, it doesn’t quite compete with the PS Audio DirectStream DAC fed by their Roon Network Bridge II. The experience however – that’s a different thing. The Technics wins hands down for me! I love buying/playing records. And I’m sure there’s a table/cart/phono combo out there that WILL easily better the PS Audio – the question is: which combination and at what cost? 😉

          • That is a very useful example, thanks. And I love hearing comparisons like that. I would recommend, at your leisure, borrowing different phono stages before switching the cart or table next. As you know, that cart probably punches way above its weight. Not sure if the phono preamp does. Another useful equipment comparison came a while back from a commenter who enjoyed the SQ out of his (less expensive) Yggdrasil over his VPI classic turntable and miyajima cart, I believe. I may feel the same way some day.

    • I don’t think anyone’s saying that all digital is better than all analog. However, pure analog sourced vinyl remasters are become rare. especially with mainstream music. I’ve read reviews by Mikey Fremer where he seems to rave about some digitally sourced vinyl as if it blows away the digital download. IMO there’s no way it can be better than the digital files sans the vinyl process. I think the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s 50th anniv. release is digitally remixed. Probably sounds great and maybe better than any previous release. But I’ll ignore reviews claiming there’s more detail on the vinyl than the same digital files played back though a good DAC. Perhaps more euphonic coloration, but even that’s a stretch for me.

      BTW digitally remixes of some classic rocks albums I’ve heard, sound far better to me than any other versions I’ve heard, analog or digital. Modern technology does wonders. I don’t see how that could sound better on vinyl.

  16. I enjoy 3 formats and all three are great for specific reasons. My SACD and CDs are for when I want to really listen, but too tired or lazy to pull the vinyl out and kick some dust off everything. In an average week I listen to 3 SACDs, 10 vinyl LPs, and unlimited hours on IPhone and IMac with Jriver (which I have never been fond of for playing SACD rips) and ITunes with th files varying from MP3, 16/44 to 24/96 (and a few DSD songs.) all through my Schiit MultiBit BiFrost. Except when I play DSD I use the discontinued Loki. Now we know why Schiit stopped making them since you don’t need one from what I read– DSD feeds through any DAC and the SQ is in the format with no need for processing. Now MQA is a whole other scam, especially anyone who buys a Mytek for its specialness in processing MQA– what a crock and a huge bruise to the community.

  17. I think its just a trend that is bound to die off. It’s cool right now to own vinyl.
    Rangefinder cameras are cool and scrambler motorcycles are cool too.
    Difference is a digital rangefinder camera (ala Fuji), is still a state of the art camera on the inside with a 24MP sensor. And a modern Triumph scrambler may look old but its got ABS brakes, traction control and all the modern tech of a Honda CBR750

    Vinyl doesn’t offer improvements on those terms…. Vinyl apologists say its warmer and richer but I think that is more a Madison Ave. tactic to excite nostalgia than a true statement about format superiority.

    Vinyl offers a big helping of aesthetics and ceremony in the playback ritual. But I personally think its an inferior format of music delivery (all things tolled). There will always be niche collectors and its clearly enjoying a bit of a renaissance but I don’t think it’ll be competing for market dominance anytime soon.

    Moto Guzzi has sold a crap ton of V7’s in the last few years to hipsters, (its sales curve is prolly damn close to that vinyl sales chart) and the lion share of those bikes are sitting in a garages collecting dust because they were vanity purchases and because the MG V7’s is an under-powered, gutless turd of a motorcycle 🙂

    Turntables are not that, but they are often vanity purchases and I’ll bet the lion share are collecting dust same as all those V7’s

    • Imagine you’ve collected vinyl all your adult life and then along come a number of DAC/streamer combos that, when paired with $20/month access to a library larger than your wall of records, sound better in many respects. You’d probably do anything to defend your (literal) life choice. It’s a tough pill to swallow for sure. And is perhaps at the root of the “nothing sounds better than vinyl” mantra.

  18. Hey John thanks for the follow up. Yeah I appreciate the commitment of true collectors. And I tend to think most legit, OG (whatever you want to call them) vinylphiles have some part of their music discovery anchored in vinyl. If I had a library of 500 some odd LPs that had cost me a few thousand dollars and 20 years of searching record stores to acquire, I wouldn’t give that up easily.

    The human emotions that play out through the ritual and ceremony of vinyl playback aren’t something that can be swept aside. It’s as real as the emotional connection to the music itself. I don’t fault collectors. It hearkens back to memories of youth… and who doesn’t want to recapture some of that.

    I’m just not sure how viable vinyl is long term with how expensive the discs are, how expensive it is to get into a vinyl playback system vs. the ease and accessibility of streaming.

    The people I know who went out and bought a TEAC turntable at Fry’s or a cheap Marantz or Sony USB turntable did so with a bit of vanity… They wanted to be “vinyl” heads, they wanted to sit around and spin some wax and drink Makers Mark Old Fashioned(s) but never got past their 1st or 2nd disc before they lost interest.

    Maybe my experiences make me too cynical but I tend to think that fashionable aspect of vinyl’s resurgence is finicky like other trends.

Wyred 4 Sound rattle Sabres with DAC-2v2, DAC-2v2 SE

Activating the entry-level: Vanatoo’s Transparent Zero