Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

by Marc Phillips
Part LXX: The Vinyl Bandwagon Redux
(June 2009)

Back in October, I commented on the mainstream press' acceptance of the so-called comeback of vinyl and the flood of articles that resulted from these somewhat delayed observations. More than six months later, this journalistic trend has yet to ebb. I'm still not seeing a lot of original conclusions drawn by these reporters. We're basically seeing three types of articles: "Wow, Young People Like Vinyl!", "Wow, Retailers Like Vinyl!" and "Wow, Here Are the Actual Sales Figures That Show People Like Vinyl!" Maybe it's just sour grapes on my part, that I'm kind of miffed that I've written 70 columns on this subject over the last 11 years. But I'm getting kind of bored with these guys.

My biggest complaint stems from the fact that few of these journalists are insiders. For instance, this article from Digital Music News (how's that for unbiased reporting) concerns Best Buys' recent decision to start carrying vinyl. "Will This Comeback Ever Quit?" they ask snarkily. For once, I'd like to see one of these articles mention the fact that vinyl never really went away- it just became a specialist hobby. The sales numbers for LP's have been hovering steadily around 1 million copies per year for at least a decade; this sudden spike to 2 million happened just in the last year or two. Five years ago, very few mainstream reporters wrote stories about the fact that vinyl will still holding strong well into the 21st century. Perhaps it's because they didn't see all those LP's being sold at record stores until Best Buy and Piggly Wiggly jumped on the bandwagon.

I prefer articles such as this one from the LA Times which uses lots of facts and statistics to support the evidence about the health of the vinyl industry. Still, the reporter couldn't help but complain about the cost of 180-gram audiophile pressings, which is $25. I see more and more vinyl newbies balk at these premium prices. But unless you've invested in a high-quality analog rig, do you really need to spend the extra dough on the audiophile pressings? Are you really going to hear the differences on your plastic $129 Ion 'table that you bought just for needle drops?

Yesterday, I went down to my favorite record store in the world, Music Millenium in Portland. I bought two brand new sealed LP's. Both were priced at $19.99. At the register, another $5 was taken off each one due to some in-store promotion (I didn't even notice any signs). Now I don't know about you, but the last time I bought some new CD's, they were closer to $20 than $15. I took these two LP's home and played them, and the sound quality was exquisite. I would say that my $30 was well spent.

Yes, there are plenty of audiophile record labels such as Mobile Fidelity, Pure Pleasure, Speakers Corner and Classic Records charging anywhere from $30 to $60 on some LP titles. But those aren't for mainstream vinyl lovers. They're for the crazy audiophile who has five, ten or even fifty thousand dollars tied up in his analog rig. So I think it's a little disingenuous for these articles to focus on the "high cost" of returning to the vinyl fold.

My favorite example of the gap between vinyl insiders and outsiders, however, is the recent article that appeared on the Gizmodo website entitled "Why We Need Audiophiles". This is a profile of Michael Fremer, the Stereophile columnist, editor and the head cheerleader for the whole Vinyl Renaissance. Writer John Mahoney visited Fremer at his house in New Jersey and was treated to the sound of vinyl played on a $350,000 system.

I have to give Mahoney credit for a couple of things. First of all, he refrained from making too many negative comments about the very existence of a $350,000 hi-fi. Second of all, he sat down and listened for himself, and he came away convinced that there's a point to this sort of gear, and it doesn't involve "snake oil" or unnecessary class distinctions. As Mahoney concluded, "It's crazy and I've never heard anything like it."

When this article appeared, Fremer's colleagues and contemporaries in the world of audio journalism gave him a bit of a ribbing for those photos of his messy, cluttered listening room (as a fellow equipment reviewer, I know all too well how hard it is to find a place for all of the extra gear). But for the most part, the audio insiders felt it was a positive article about high end audio--for once.

The perspective was a bit different on Internet discussion groups, however. The reaction to this article was overwhelmingly negative. First of all, people felt that in this economic climate, a $350,000 stereo system was downright immoral. Second, Fremer's own integrity was called into question when people asked how he was able to afford such a system on his "reviewer's salary" (not that it's anyone's goddamned business, but most of us have day jobs).

I honestly have to wonder about these reactions. More and more, I see angry, almost violent discussions on the Internet about--get this--listening to reproduced music on sound systems. I know... I've been party to some of the more twisted ones over the years. But there's a point where you have to ask yourself, "Am I having fun anymore?" Whether you're into vinyl or MP3 downloads or Edison cylinders, you should be enjoying yourself, not attacking the reputations of complete strangers over something that's ultimately about subjective opinions and personal preferences.

A few weeks ago, I felt particularly stressed and agitated about an argument I was having with someone on an Internet newsgroup. I looked out the window and noticed the sun was shining- a rarity here in the Pacific Northwest. I went out on my back deck, sat down in my Adirondack chair, lit up a Davidoff Anniversario cigar I'd been saving. I listened to the wind blowing through the redwoods and cedars and the distant yet steady tapping of a woodpecker and I thought, "This is the best sound system money can buy."

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