1. Why should I buy vinyl?
There are two basic answers for this: You are an audiophile, and fetishize the sound of analog recordings, or you simply like the aesthetics of vinyl records, packaging, and turntables. It can absolutely be both! But the aesthetics, the physical aspect of it, is pretty key to its appeal. These records are more beautiful and substantial than CDs, which mostly have the look of office supplies, and they're the best way to make purchasing music feel like something. Vinyl allows you to have a sentimentality about albums — there's a tactile quality, a ritual to pulling a record out of a sleeve and putting it on and focusing your attention on the act of listening for a side at a time. Even if you still mainly listen to music on your computer or iPod, it gives you the option of having a more special experience with your favorite albums, and an object you can display in your home.
2. Is buying vinyl a wise use of my money?
Buying vinyl records today is the only way to purchase music that is likely to give you a return on your investment. You can't resell a digital file, and in most cases, CDs have almost no value on the secondary market. Vinyl records — new or old — retain a lot of value, and so long as your copy is in decent condition and there's some demand for the title, you can often make a profit if you choose to sell. You probably shouldn't get into buying vinyl as a way to make money — there are much better and easier ways to do that — but it's definitely nice to know that if you had to, you could sell your collection.
3. I know vinyl is analog, but what does that mean, exactly?
Analog means that there is a continuous signal in which the varying part of the signal is a representation of another time-varying quantity. So, when it comes to sound recordings, the instantaneous voltage of the signal varies continuously with the pressure of the sound waves. Basically, the groove of a vinyl record is like a drawing of the sound wave in a single continuous line through the entire side. Your turntable essentially reads that and decodes it in real time, which results in the sound you hear from the speakers.
4. And how is that different from digital?
Digital signals are not continuous. They are discrete, which means that they send a series of samples of an audio signal's power at precise intervals. Sound does not naturally break down, so a digital system subdivides it into bits, the smallest possible form of information. This is binary code, so everything is broken down into one of two directives, which is typically described as 0 and 1. The benefit of binary code is that by breaking down information to its smallest possible form, it can represent virtually anything with only two elements.
To imagine this visually, it's like plotting points on graph paper. This sounds terrible, but the reality is that the end result of an analog or digital signal is exactly the same after it is processed through an amplifier and played through speakers: You hear a continuous sound wave. There is no objective way to analyze the end result to determine whether the source was digital or analog because we cannot actually hear digital code or analog voltage fluctuations.
5. Does analog and vinyl really sound better than digital media?
Sometimes. It depends on a lot of factors, and most of them have to do with the quality of your turntable, amplifier, and speakers, and we'll get to that stuff in a little bit. If you're listening to a vinyl record, CD, or high-quality digital file of the same song on a good stereo system, you probably won't notice a lot of difference between what you're hearing unless there's a problem with the actual physical media — scratches, dust, defects. There have been many studies that show that the untrained ear can't discern these differences, and that those who favor one format have a confirmation bias based on their preferences or values going into the test.
6. Why do people like the sound of vinyl so much?
There are aspects of vinyl records and analog recordings in general that you definitely can notice beyond the pops and crackles of surface noise. Analog aficionados will often attribute a "warmth" to pure analog sound. This sound is actually a result of analog's limitations in capturing and reproducing sound, particularly on the low end of the mix. Digital recordings are far more accurate than analog recordings and can capture a much broader dynamic range. Analog recording is much less detailed, and the gaps in data result in a slight abstraction of sound that is often very pleasing to the ear. You get a very similar difference between images captured on film as opposed to digital cameras – purely digital recording can feel too precise, cold, and clinical, and lose the "warmth" and humanity many people associate with analog technology.
7. What kind of turntable should I get?
This goes back to the question of whether you're an audiophile, or if you just like the look and feel of records. If you care deeply about sound, you're going to end up spending a lot more money. If you just want something inexpensive and/or cute, you can spend a lot less, but the sound will in most cases be only OK. But seriously, don't get hung up on that unless you're an audiophile. It'll be fine.
You are better off buying a new turntable instead of finding something vintage. Old, used turntables will have some wear and tear and will be expensive to fix if something goes wrong. You can easily buy a good new turntable without spending a lot of money, and since most models have a built-in pre-amp, you can sidestep some of the more obnoxious aspects of building a stereo system. (More about that later.)
Here are a few good options, for different needs and varying price points.
8. But wait, what's the difference between a "belt drive" and a "direct drive" turntable?
Belt drive turntables have an independent motor that drives the platter — the thing you put the record itself on — with a rubber belt. Direct drive turntables have a platter that is integral to the motor. Belt drive turntables can't be used for DJing, but you can use a direct drive turntable for that purpose. Audiophiles prefer belt drive turntables because they produce less outside noise and vibration.
9. Do I need a fancy stereo system with speakers?
If you care about sound, absolutely. It is amazing how much speakers make a difference in listening to pretty much anything at all. Bad speakers can distort gorgeous recordings, and great speakers can bring out the best in anything you play. You can go very far down an audiophile rabbit hole when it comes to speakers — there are many high-end models that cost thousands of dollars. If you just want something that will sound good but not be overly expensive or take up too much space in your home, look into "bookshelf speakers," which are usually about the size of a large shoe box. For example, these Mordaunt-Short Carnival 1 bookshelf speakers are fairly inexpensive — they go for about $179 to $249 new — but they sound very good.
10. So, does this mean I need one of these "pre-amp" things?
Maybe. Some turntables have pre-amplifiers built in, but many don't, and so you need a separate device to process the output from the turntable to get a line level signal for your speakers. You should be certain whether or not your turntable has a built-in pre-amp before blowing money on a separate device. You can spot this easily — just look to see if there is an input marked "phono." Any turntable with a USB output will have a built-in pre-amp. If your turntable doesn't have a pre-amp, you will need to also get some RCA cables so you can connect the turntable to the receiver.
11. Do I need to buy a stereo receiver?
Yup. If you are buying a stand-alone turntable, you will need the receiver – or just an amplifier – to process the signal from the turntable and/or pre-amp and line it out to your speakers. This is where the volume and audio control knobs for your system will be. The good news is that you can find a lot of very good receivers for cheap on eBay and other auction sites. Some receivers will have a radio built in, and you can line other things into the receiver too, like CD players and televisions.
12. What should I know about setting up a stereo?
If you have a turntable with a built-in pre-amp, it's as simple as connecting everything with the appropriate RCA cables and stereo wire. If your turntable has no pre-amp, it will be a bit more complicated because you will need to "ground" the system so that electricity flows properly or you will hear a constant low-pitched hum through your speakers. Here's a simple guide for grounding your stereo.
13. What should I know about needles and cartridges?
Most new turntables will come with cartridges and needles installed, but you should make sure of that before you buy one. Unless you're going to DJ or you're a hardcore audiophile, you don't have to think all that much about your cartridge — a pretty basic cartridge will do the trick. Since your needle (or stylus, as it is also called) will gradually wear down from use, you will need to periodically replace it. Here's a good guide for how to do that.
14. What is a tone arm?
This is the rod that that holds the pickup cartridge and stylus over the record. It may not look important, but it's actually crucial to playback, as it controls the tracking and pressure on the needle as it reads the record's groove. Most turntables will have an adjustable counterweight so you can have greater control over this pressure. Most modern turntables will have perfectly fine tone arms, but more expensive models will generally have better, more sophisticated tone arm mechanisms.
15. What is RPM?
RPM stands for revolutions per minute, as in how many times the platter will spin completely in a minute. Vinyl records are produced to be played at one of three speeds: 33 1/3 RPM, 45 RPM, and 78 RPM. You will almost never deal with 78 RPM records, so don't worry about that. Most full-size 12-inch records will be 33 1/3 RPM, though some — mainly EPs and maxi-singles — will be at 45 RPM. The vast majority of 7-inch singles will be 45 RPM, and 10-inch records...well, that's more of a wild card. The RPM of a record will be printed somewhere on the record label, and all you need to do is switch your turntable from 33 1/3 to 45 mode.
16. Whoa, why are records in all these different sizes and RPMs?
Vinyl comes in different sizes mainly based on how much music is contained on the record. A standard 7-inch single is smaller than a full-length album because it contains less music, and is intended to be less expensive. But there's also a limit to how much sound can be crammed onto a side of vinyl of any size before the quality of the audio deteriorates because the grooves are too narrow to contain all of the detail of the sound recording. This is why many records released as a single CD have to be issued as a double album on vinyl — 12-inch sides typically top out around 22 minutes, but albums designed for CD typically spill over 60 minutes — and why many 7-inch singles feature edits of songs that are normally extended over the five-minute mark. But this limitation can be turned to an advantage in that putting less music on a larger side can improve sound quality, which is part of why many singles designed for DJ use are pressed as 10- and 12-inch records to accommodate extended mixes while allowing for excellent sound quality.
17. Where should I buy vinyl?
Oh, anywhere they sell it, really. If you don't live near a record store, you can't go wrong with Amazon since it stocks a wide range of new vinyl at reasonable prices and will ship anywhere. There are other good online shops — Insound, Amoeba, Other Music, GEMM, Turntable Lab — and you can buy vinyl from the official websites of many artists and most independent labels. A lot of Urban Outfitters shops will have a small vinyl section as well. If you do have record stores in your area, by all means, buy records from them! Most record stores will also have used bins where you can buy old albums for low prices. Buying up used records this way, or at record fairs or garage sales, is a great way to build up a solid collection without spending a lot of money. (This holds true of garage sales, thrift shops, flea markets, and record fairs. Just be careful the records aren't scratched up.) If you're looking for specific titles that are either rare or out of print, eBay is definitely your new best friend.
18. What's the deal with colored vinyl?
A lot of new albums and singles are pressed on colored vinyl. Though some audiophiles dislike this and strongly prefer black vinyl because the carbon black added to the plastic used for pressing makes it slightly more durable, it will sound pretty much the same as standard black vinyl and often looks very, very pretty. If you care about aesthetics, colored vinyl is a major bonus, and you might end up going out of your way to get the colored pressing of new albums since they are often produced in limited amounts.
19. Does it matter how thick a vinyl record is?
Most new albums, particularly those released by independent labels, will be very well made and sound great on even a mediocre stereo system. A lot of new records will have some sticker announcing that it's on "180 gram" vinyl, and that's a good thing, especially if you're an audiophile. The thicker, heavier vinyl will degrade more slowly than a thinner pressing and the records will stand up to repeat play a little better. That said, all vinyl degrades a tiny bit every time you play it. That's just the way it is.
20. Is it better to buy a brand-new pressing of an old record?
You should be wary of new reissues of old albums on vinyl. In many cases, the master is made from the most recent CD of the title because the record label does not have access to the original analog master. If you're into the "warmth" factor, this totally defeats the point of having the recording in this format — you are basically just buying a lesser, imperfect version of a CD. If you're unsure about whether a new reissue is sourced from CD, just do a bit of research; you can usually find out online somewhere. If you have the option of finding an original vinyl pressing of the album, you should just do that. If you simply want to have a particular album on vinyl and this is your only option, then you shouldn't fret too much about this stuff, and just go for it.
21. What should I know about buying old records?
If you are planning to acquire vinyl copies of your favorite albums of all time, you should know that many records either were never released in the format, or were released in very small numbers and are now out of print. The latter is especially true of vinyl produced in the '90s through the early '00s, when vinyl sales were at their lowest and CDs completely dominated the market. Vinyl pressings for major-label albums released in this era can be incredibly difficult to find and very expensive to buy on the secondary market, but if you have a lot of patience and money is no object, you can track down a lot of this stuff on eBay. Or, like, you could just wait around and hope that the records you want get reissued on vinyl.
22. How do I store my vinyl collection?
You should always store your records in a cool, dry place, and have them standing up vertically. If you stack them on top of one another, you run a high risk of warping the vinyl. If your records are warped, they will never sound right again, and you can't fix it.
23. Hold on, wait, what is a "warped" record?
A record warps when it bends or melts out of shape. You can play a mildly warped album and it will just sound a little weird. But if a record is severely warped, like the one below, it's totally unplayable. Watch out — this kind of extreme warping can happen if your record is hit with direct sunlight for an extended stretch of time.
24. How do I clean these things?
If your records are clean and dust-free, they will play without a lot of pops and clicks. There are a lot of products on the market for cleaning records, but it's easiest to just buy a record brush and/or a simple record-cleaning kit with a soft towel and a cleaning solution that won't break down plastic.