Music News & Reviews

To join the vinyl revival you'll need a record player

Dan "Pop" Shorr has a variety of used turntables at Pops Resale on Leestown Road. He says they sell quickly.
Dan "Pop" Shorr has a variety of used turntables at Pops Resale on Leestown Road. He says they sell quickly. Lexington Herald-Leader

A couple decades ago, back in the 20th century, if CD Central owner Steve Baron had a customer who wanted to buy a record player, the next question was pretty easy: How much do you want to spend?

The uses were all pretty much the same. People wanted to buy a player, usually a component turntable, to wire into their stereo system to play records for themselves and their friends' enjoyment.

Now it's not so easy.

"There are so many different approaches," Baron says. "Some people want to make MP3 files from their old vinyl to play on their iPods or burn to CDs. Some people just want to listen to their old records, or buy new albums on vinyl. Some want both worlds. Some have stereo systems, but a lot of people, particularly students today, don't."

Record Store Day 2012, the fifth annual event to celebrate the local record store, finds the recorded music market in a vinyl revival. Nielsen Soundscan reported that in 2011, vinyl record sales jumped 36 percent, while CD sales continued a steady decline at six percent last year and digital downloads surged.

Those vinyl sales figures account only for newly pressed vinyl, which most artists are releasing now. Most of the special releases for Record Store Day are on vinyl, Baron said. Millions more used albums are sold at shops such as CD Central, Pops Resale and other second-hand stores.

A common explanation is that as downloading becomes the dominant music format, many people who want a tangible form of music are turning to records, with their big, artistic covers and often warmer sound than CDs or MP3s.

"There's no comparison between the art on CDs and albums," says Versailles artist Deborah Moore Knittle, who got a record player a few years ago to listen to her old records, including recordings of her high school band. "It's so much larger and interesting to look at."

One thing all those record buyers need is something to play them on. While Some record-player buyers are vinyl veterans, many are young people who have never had or bought a turntable before.

Baron and Pops owner Dan "Pop" Shorr deliver substantial sighs when asked about how to buy a record player, saying they regularly deal with customers who either bought the wrong thing for what they needed or did not get some much-needed accessories.

That has led Shorr and his staff to create a "turntable workshop" including an 11-page guide.

"Most people come in with a lot of questions," Shorr says. "And we have learned that if they don't ask, we need to."

Here are some of the primary questions that the sellers say need to be asked:

How will you use the player? If you want to listen to records independent of any other device, you will want a record player with an onboard amplifier and speakers. If you want to copy your vinyl collection to digital files, you will want a player with a USB cord to plug into a computer. If you have a component stereo system, meaning a primary amplifier into which you plug CD players, video sound and mp3 players, you will want a component turntable.

What else will you need? Stand-alone players usually come with everything you need in the box, and a component turntable will often warrant additional items, including a needle or a cartridge that contains the needle, and these days, even a pre-amp.

The need for pre-amps has even tripped up vinyl veterans, because for several decades, they were largely invisible.

The output of a record player cartridge is not enough to be heard through a basic amplifier, so a preamp is needed. If you just play a turntable into the auxiliary connections on a stereo amplifier, it can be barely audible. For years, when turntables were a standard part of stereo systems, amplifier makers built pre-amps into the connection labeled "phono." But in the 1990s, when people thought vinyl was on its way out, amplifiers began coming without phono inputs and pre-amps. If you are going to plug a component turntable into a more recent amplifier, you need to buy a pre-amp, which goes for about $20 to $30 at Pops, CD Central and other retailers.

For people just wading into vinyl, Shorr will often ask how they currently listen to most of their music. If it is primarily through an MP3 player such as an iPod, the customer will probably lean toward the stand-alone player with the computer connection. Someone with a stereo system would probably prefer a higher-quality component turntable, used or new. There are even relatively inexpensive adaptors to make any turntable computer compatible.

It is a testament to the resurgence of vinyl that now Best Buy, Target and Wal-Mart are carrying record players, many from Louisville-based Crosley Radio, which specializes in electronics with vintage looks. Some Crosley models look like old suitcase-like record players that were common in public school classrooms in the 1970s and '80s. Others are colorful models similar to those once found in teenagers' bedrooms, spinning hits by The Beatles or the Bee-Gees.

"Everything we do is about going back to our roots as a company in the early 1920s and mixing it with current electronics," said Crosley president Keith Starr, a University of Kentucky graduate. "One of the opportunities we saw was record players."

Starr says customers started asking about record players 15 years ago. Crosley started making them, "and it's been non-stop growth. A good majority of our business is record players now, whether it's a turntable or a CD burner where you can take a record and convert it directly to a CD."

Lexington resident Michael Jansen Miller bought a Crosley several years ago to listen to favorite old albums of Broadway cast recordings and disco-era dance mixes.

"I turned 50, and this was cheaper than a red sports car," he says.

CD Central carries Crosley and Audio-Technica, Numark and used turntables.

In fact, for a retailer selling turntables, Baron makes a somewhat surprising suggestion that people who want to get into vinyl check their garages and attics first.

"Often, an old record player or turntable will just need a new belt and needle, and it will be ready to go," Baron says.

That's what happened for Justin Adams, 25, a singer and guitarist in Lexington-based band We Play Music. When a bandmate turned him on to The Beatles on vinyl, he got out his old record player, went down to Pops and got a new needle and belt for about $30.

"Pop himself showed me how to put the belt on, and he knew exactly what needle I needed," he says. "It was great."

Now, Adams says, he has sunk far more money into records than he spent on the player, buying new albums by The Shins and The Black Keys, plus vintage vinyl.

"A lot of these turntables hold up really well," says Shorr, who offers a free turntable cleanup service.

On Monday morning, Shorr had a half-dozen used turntables on his floor and more in stock, going for as much as $300 for a sought after Pioneer PL-530.

Orienting people to record players takes some work, but Shorr clearly enjoys answering the questions and solving the problems.

"I never thought vinyl was dead, or I wouldn't have built my business on it," he says. "But this resurgence has been great."

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