The magic of vinyl records like most forms of magic, is hard to rationalise, especially in 2017. Many will say that the unique warmth that accompanies the vinyl sound is immortal. However, with lossless digital audio formats steadily enticing even the most seasoned audiophiles, it’s easy to see that there is a lot more to the vinyl experience than just what our ears can savour.
At a time in history when you’re always just two clicks or screen taps away from your favourite song, the effort required to listen to a vinyl record is strangely appealing. Spending hours scouring through record collections in search of a gem always feels worth it. The sensation of holding a record, physically being able to touch your music as an artist or a listener, is an irreplaceable one. Even the sleeves that shelter these records are works of art, existing as far more satisfying canvases than the little square album cover on your phone’s music player. And then there’s the exciting matter of setting up your very own audio system that can play records. Vinyl still has a very niche audience, which often means that those who join the club pay close attention to the nuances of every component they indulge in. There is no magic formula for the right setup, as it will depend on what kind of music you listen to, how you want that music to sound, and decisively, your budget.
Let’s start with turntables, otherwise known as ‘record players’. When buying a turntable, a key factor to keep in mind is upgradability. The cheaper ones will usually not be upgradable, whereas the high-end turntables for serious vinyl listeners will have several upgrade options. It is vital to understand that replacing components like the tone arm that swings across the record, or the needle that touches the record can have a dramatic effect on what the music sounds like. You may also want to ensure that your turntable is capable of playing records at all three speeds – 33 RPM, 45 RPM and 78 RPM.
If you’re contemplating whether your fascination with vinyl is just a passing phase, Jensen has a series of budget turntables below $50 that are perfect to start off with. The JTA-230 3 Speed Stereo Turntable is one of them. It comes with built-in speakers and a USB port that lets you commit the blasphemy of converting your old vinyl records into MP3 for portability. It also comes with tone controls, which is rare for a low-end turntable.
A more intermediate investment at $299 would be the Audio-Technica ATLP120-USB Direct-Drive Professional Turntable. For slightly more experienced vinyl listeners, this is a pretty good buy. Its S-shaped pivoting tone arm comes with an adjustable counterweight that lets you adjust downward force on the records. And the in-built preamp lets you connect directly to a set of powered speakers.
But if you’re looking to spend a serious amount of money on a turntable (about $1600 to be exact), look no further than the Clearaudio Concept, with the pre-mounted MM cartridge. This is an easy to setup, beautifully designed turntable that utilizes its innovative Verify tone arm to deliver some exceptional sound. Clearaudio goes as far as to factory set the counterweight to provide the correct tracking force, making it remarkably simple to plug-and-play.
As you delve deeper into the vinyl world, an amplifier will be one of the key expansion areas for your setup. The higher-end turntables won’t include the phono-preamp that you will require to increase sound levels to that of your other audio components. So it is ideal to look for amplifiers that come with a built-in phono stage. The Arcam FMJ A19 is one such solidly built amplifier that delivers a rich, dynamic sound.
The final grand pieces of your audio setup are the speakers. Every other component you choose, no matter how expensive or well strategized, will sound disappointing if you pick underwhelming speakers. You’ll want to assess how versatile your speakers are across the bass, midrange and treble spectrums. Great speakers will pick up the nuances of intricate music, like a Hans Zimmer score, far better than low-end speakers. The soundstage capabilities of speakers (the ability to recreate where instruments/voices are, as though they were on stage) also make a huge difference when listening to vinyl records.
Bookshelf and floorstanding are the two popular speaker categories, the latter generally being larger and more appropriate for bass-heavy music. The Bowers & Wilkins 600 Series 685 S2 and the Klipsch Reference Premiere RP-280F are two of the elite speakers from either category, but expect to do a lot more research and auditioning before you find the pair that perfectly fits your needs.
After you’ve planned your setup, it’s time to acquire records, a fairly simple task in India these days. Iconic stores like The Revolver Club in Mumbai and the New Gramophone House in Delhi now have websites that deliver across the country. Mahatobar Distribution on MG Road is pure heaven for audiophiles in Bengaluru, while a stroll down Free School Street should suffice for avid vinyl listeners in Kolkata.
These records require fairly basic maintenance. You shouldn’t expose them to extreme changes in temperature and humidity. When they require cleaning, use a carbon fibre brush to dust them off before wiping them down with a damp micro-fibre cloth. As for your turntable, ensure that the needle isn’t worn out and the tracking force is correctly adjusted, or you could end up permanently damaging your records.
And after all that is done, it’s time to sit back, relax and appreciate the magnificence of the experience you’ve put together. As the first notes travel from the speakers to find you, consider it your warm welcome to the incredible vinyl club. Trust us when we tell you this – it all sounds good here.