History of the Record Player Part III: The Modern Era

In the previous two chapters of History of the Record Player, we peered into the past to see how records and record players rose to popularity and then fell with the advent of the CD. But what about the present? What about the future? That’s what we’re going to be examining in the last segment of our History of the Record Player series.

Of course, the technology included in both turntables and the record evolved in tandem over time. Advances in playback technology beginning in the late 19th century gave rise to better-made mass-produced records and forced the speedy development of technological advancements in the record player during the first half century of its existence.

At this point, however, the life of the turntable has become inextricably dependent upon the resurgence of vinyl. Despite the technical deficiencies that became apparent during the ‘80s, nostalgia and a variety of other factors are driving people back to vinyl records and, consequently, the record player. After all, if you’re going to start collecting vinyl, you need something to play it on.

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The Turntable through the ‘80s and Beyond

As a proponent of maintaining analog recording and playback, as well as an early dissenter against the digitalization of music, Doug Sax, president of Sheffield Records, may have said it best in a 1983 article initially written for Billboard:

“What I have heard on many players, and on more discs than I would ever care to listen to again, is mediocre sound … I have been on record, since I first heard a digital master tape, that there is an enormous price to be paid, in musical terms, for the noise-free performance of digital.”

There is an enormous price to be paid, in musical terms, for the noise-free performance of digital.”

Sax’s words have been echoed by musicians and audiophiles alike for decades.

However, there was a reason for the move to digital and CDs, and it’s not entirely about the ease with which one can record, transfer and playback music. Part of it has to do with the low quality of budget turntables available in the ‘80s, which modern record players, such as Crosley, now are replicating. Many people once relied on all-in-ones and rack systems constructed primarily of plastic, which did very little to shield against playback-quality killers like vibrations and electrical interference. Of course such flimsy constructions resulted in pops, jumps, skips and hisses galore.

ELP Laser Turntable

Even the development of the laser turntable in the ‘80s, which essentially eliminated physical wear on your records, couldn’t save the dying medium. Though dissatisfaction with records and record players generally was the fault of the less-than-stellar gear listeners were using, the mainstream population scrapped records and turntables in favor of CDs throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s.

The Vinyl Revival

Although the benefits of digitized music and playback haven’t really diminished, people have recently started flocking back to turntables and manufacturers have taken notice. In fact, the number of companies manufacturing turntables and components, such as tonearms, cartridges and phono stages, has never been higher. The revival has even borne Record Store Day, a day where artists can release limited editions of singles, collections of B-sides, and albums for avid vinyl collectors.

Just to give you an idea of the industry’s growth, let’s crunch some numbers. Record sales in the United States have grown 260% since 2009. In 2012, new record sales were up 17.7% to nearly 4.6 million units, while CD sales dropped 13.5% from 2011. In 2013, 6.1 million units were sold, skyrocketing to 9.1 million records in 2014. A Nielsen report states that, from January to March of last year alone, vinyl sales were up 53% from the first three months of 2014.

Crosley CR7007A-MA Patriarch

The ever-growing demand for records has put pressure on companies to produce more record players and turntables, whether they’re building innovative machines or the retro styles of old.

In the 2000s, turntable manufacturers began to offer players that rely on the vintage appeal of the record itself, releasing retro-looking models echoing those of the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Of course, if you’re an audiophile, these aren’t going to be your first choice. Many, in fact, are staunch opponents of these record players as they quite likely harm your records during playback. However, this hasn’t dampened their popularity.

Panasonic Technics Prototype

Higher-end manufacturers have been ramping up production as well. Panasonic has just announced its relaunch of the Technics turntable series, one of the most popular and famous turntable series of yesteryear. Their new designs will reflect some classic models like the SP10 and the SL-1200, a DJ staple. An all-new line is in the works as well, including the SU-G30 Grand Class Network Audio Amp and the SC-C500 Premium Class All-In-One. A direct-drive turntable can be expected between April 2016 and March 2017.

Though vinyl and turntables are becoming far more commonplace, the question that’s on everyone’s mind is: why? There seem to be technical components, but quite a few cultural and social factors are doing their part as well.

Vinyl: The Active and Social Experience

The first thing that comes to mind when comparing the record-playing experience with the digital listening experience is the warmth and clarity inherent in analog sound. This is what makes gear-heads so crazy over tube-driven amps and analog effects pedals. Of course, the true importance and depth of these differences are up for debate. To audiophiles, analog sound may be more appealing and the quality of sound far more important, but they constitute just a small percentage of the listening population.

Some believe the increase in popularity has to do with the experience that comes with playing records. There’s a certain amount of involvement and investment that goes into choosing your record player or constructing the perfect setup, searching online or finding hole-in-the-wall record stores to buy your albums, and then getting up to place the record on your turntable or flip it over.

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New listeners are diving into the audiophile world for the first time every day, and they’re hungry for knowledge as well as the experience of analog sound. With more audiophiles sourcing and refurbishing old equipment, the demand for vintage gear seems to be higher than ever. Tweaking and fixing up old systems lets tinkerers, audiophiles or those into old vinyl commit themselves to knowing the ins and outs of their rig. All of this connects them to the music and the experience of listening to it, as well as the apparatus through which they’re playing it.

The rise of hipster culture may play a part as well, particularly in younger demographics. Rejecting societal norms is often seen as the central tenet of hipster culture and, ironically, the more mainstream hipster culture becomes, the more mainstream many of its fads and fashions become. In rejecting digital music like CDs and streaming services while seeking out less conventional methods of music consumption such as listening on a record player, this culture has boosted the popularity of vinyl amongst younger listeners. In fact, Urban Outfitters, a clothing store known for its fast hipster fashion, has become one of the biggest vinyl retailers in the U.S.

Finally, there seems to be an increasing interest in things from the past. Whether it be music, movies, fashion or tech, the nostalgia boom is in full force. In returning to turntables and vinyl records, many listeners are experiencing the medium for the first time and feel a connection to past eras or older loved ones, or to the days of their youth. Sharing in the event of listening to something on a turntable brings human interaction to the nostalgic experience.

Advice for Turntable Enthusiasts

There are some caveats for the vinyl boom, however. It isn’t all flowers and rainbows for record and turntable manufacturers. The ratio of music listeners using record players to other listening methods is still diminutive, and sales of turntable parts are heavily reliant on small, online retailers.

It’s also possible that, due to the popularity of the same kind of cheaply-made all-in-one systems that factored into the downfall of the record player in the ‘80s, vinyl as a medium may recede into memory once more. To protect yourself from a less-than-optimal vinyl experience, make sure you clean your records and replace your stylus and cartridge once per year.

Regardless, the sales of new and old turntables, as well as new and old records, are surging. It’s becoming more and more likely that you’ll find a turntable or a growing stack of records in your friend’s living room rather than tucked away in their basement. Now, how about dusting off that old Dual 1019 and spinning your favorite record?

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