It’s happened before and will happen again. A shiny new invention comes along to replace some clunky old yoke, and everyone rushes to embrace the new technology, tossing out their old machines and charging into the future with nary a look back. Then, some time later, someone gets a bit nostalgic for the old tech, and wishes we could all go back to the way it was before.
But the poor picture quality on that vintage VHS player has got even worse over time, and the old Sony Walkman you dug out of the attic has chewed up your cassette collection. No getting away from it – those old warhorses couldn’t compete with the superior sound and video quality of DVDs and CDs. Eventually, everyone sees sense and accepts that eight-track cartridges (remember those?) are never, ever going to make a comeback.
But one thing that hasn’t faded away, and is unlikely to any time soon, is the vinyl revival. Despite the dominance of CDs over the past 40 years, and the boom in music streaming services, there is a large cohort of music fans for whom LP records and turntables are the only way to listen to their favourite music. Many thought it was just a short-lived fad that would eventually tail off, but instead it has gathered momentum, and over the past couple of years of lockdowns, it has gained even more traction.
Last year was the biggest year for vinyl sales in the UK in 30 years, with sales of long-playing records hitting the £5 million (€6 million) mark in 2021. That might be small beans to a mega-selling band like Coldplay, who have shifted 100 million units in all formats over the past two decades, but for a format that’s been declared dead, five million is a very respectable figure altogether.
In response to the renewed interest in vinyl, record labels are pressing up new, durable 180g vinyl versions of their artists’ albums, designed for hi-fidelity reproduction.
Record Store Day has also certainly helped fuel interest in vinyl. Several Irish record shops are participating in the event on April 23rd, including Golden Discs, Tower Records, Sound Cellar, Freebird and Spindizzy in Dublin, Steamboat Records in Limerick, Plug’d Records in Cork and Rollercoaster Records in Kilkenny.
Due to supply chain issues, which will see some releases not ready for the day, an additional Record Store Day Drops Date has been set for June 18th.
And it’s not just people of a certain vintage who are fuelling the vinyl revival; kids are raiding their parents’ LP collections in search of nuggets, and when they write their letters to Santa, a new turntable is likely to be on the list. No surprise then that this year’s Record Store Day global ambassador is Taylor Swift. The pop star will be releasing an exclusive seven-inch version of her song The Lakes, a bonus track from her acclaimed album Folklore, on the day that’s in it.
With special edition releases from a whole array of artists, from Blondie to Blur, Prince to Polica, and Joni Mitchell, along with releases from such Irish artists as U2, Phil Lynott and The Cranberries, Irish vinyl fans are spoilt for choice on Record Store Day.
But when you’ve snapped up that very collectible disc, you’re going to need something to play it on when you get it home, and that’s where it can all go a bit pear-shaped.
Willing to invest
Often, people don’t put enough thought into the equipment they’re going to use to play those shiny vinyl treasures. You can pick up a cheap turntable at your local electronics retailer, but to bring the best out of that platter, you have to be willing to invest in a decent turntable. Like a well-crafted Swiss watch, a turntable is a finely tuned mechanical piece, and the more you spend on it, the better it will sound, and the longer it will give you good, reliable service.
“As you go up the ladder in the price of good turntables, there is a clear, audible difference,” says Noel Cloney of Cloney Audio in Blackrock, Co Dublin. “People associate playing records with clicks and pops and surface noise, but as the turntables get better, this is not an issue. We’re not saying the clicks and the pops magically disappear, but because the signal-to-noise ratio is better, you’re getting actual relevant information off the groove, and you’re not as aware of the other stuff.”
Thankfully, you can get that decent turntable without breaking the bank, says Cloney. If you’re dipping your toes in the vinyl waters, you can get a good entry-level turntable for under €500 – such as a Rega Planar 1 (€359) or a Dual CS-418 (€499). Of course, you could go all out and get the top-of-the-range Clearaudio Statement turntable, a snip at €150,000. For that you get not only an impressive deck that will be the talking point of your yacht parties, the German company will even send out a technical team to set it up for you. But you don’t have to be an oligarch to satisfy your audiophile instincts, you just have to be willing to go that bit extra to get the hi-fidelity reproduction your LPs deserve.
For anyone wanting to push the boat out without actually sinking all of their savings, the Clearaudio Concept is an excellent option, at €1,390, says Cloney.
“It’s a beautifully made piece of kit, and works with precision. People used to worry when they bought a record player that they’d have to fit the cartridge, they’d have to line everything up. And with some players you do have to do that. With the Concept, when you take it out of the box, all the adjustments are done. You just plug it in and play it. It’s high end, but there’s no fiddling around.”
Amp it up
Once you’ve chosen your turntable, you need an amp and a pair of speakers to play it through, and you may find your old three-in-one system is no longer fit for sonic purpose. Again, though, Cloney reassures me that you don’t need to sell your first born to put together a good home hi-fi system. A NAD C 316BEE V2 stereo integrated amplifier will cost you just €359, while a pair of Bowers & Wilkins 607 S2 Anniversary Edition speakers will set you back €599. Do the maths and you’re looking at €1,200-€1,500 to get yourself a good hi-fi system that will spin your records for years to come.
“That would give you a damn good system which will also accept bluetooth, and a CD player, music streaming and all that sort of stuff,” says Cloney. “Also, if you have, say for example a Sonos Play 5 or something similar, they will have an auxiliary input. Certain turntables, like the Dual, have a built-on phono stage – a pre-amp – so you can play it through your Sonos system.”
Another worry people have about turntables is wear and tear. Will their records start to sound scratchy and will they have to keep changing the stylus to stop it skipping? With a good turntable, this is not an issue, says Cloney, who is of a certain vinyl vintage himself. “I have records going back 40 years, and if I make any improvement to my turntable, whether a better pick-up cartridge, a better interconnect cable, there is a clearly immediate improvement in sound.”
Cartridges have also come on in leaps and bounds – a tone arm fitted with, say, an Ortofon cartridge will give you 2,000 hours of playing before it starts to wear; that’s several years of LP listening without the sound of frying bacon.
I love playing my records; there’s a lovely, tactile feel to it
It’s a little-known fact about Eleanor McEvoy; the singer-songwriter and composer of Only a Woman’s Heart is also a favourite artist of audiophiles, due largely to the care and attention she puts into the production of her own albums. Her 2001 album Yola is a particular favourite.
“It’s used as a test album for speaker companies around the world to demonstrate their products,” she explains. “Sound quality has always been hugely important for me. I don’t understand why more musicians aren’t screaming about the bad quality of MP3s and streaming.”
McEvoy is a self-confessed vinyl head, who thinks in LP form. “When I’m making an album, I always have side one and side two in mind. I think of vinyl as a work of art.”
She doesn’t consider an album project complete until the vinyl version has been cut, but supply chain issues have delayed the LP version of her current album, Gimme Some Wine.
“It’s the first time I’ve had to wait for the vinyl version of my album.”
McEvoy always has a turntable on the go, spinning records from her collection by Billie Holiday, Paul Brady, Steely Dan, Charlie Parker, Joni Mitchell, Loudon Wainwright III and French crooner Jean Ferrat.
She uses a Pro-Ject turntable, and although the sound is “exceptional”, she sometimes wishes the tone arm would lift automatically when the record ends, so she wouldn’t come down the next morning to find the needle still going around the run-off groove. But that’s a small caveat, admits McEvoy. “I love playing my records – there’s a lovely, tactile feel to it – and you’ve got these lovely sleeves with lyrics and all the information about the musicians.”
McEvoy’s 20-year-old daughter has also caught the vinyl virus. “She’ll still download stuff and listen to it, but often I’ll see her leaving the house to meet her friends with a bunch of old records under her arm.”
McEvoy has just released her new single, South Anne Street, and has been touring around the country over the past couple of months. On May 8th, she joins Maura O’Connell, Wallis Bird and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra on stage at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre in Dublin for A Woman’s Heart Orchestrated.
Five great record decks from less than €400 to almost €1,400
Rega Planar 1 (€359 hifihut.ie): Simplicity itself, with a simply gorgeous sound, the Rega Planar 1 has a belt drive, and if you want to switch from 33rpm to 45rpm, you have to physically move the belt to a wider diameter pulley. Rega have put the money into a better tone arm – all you have to do is screw the accompanying weight on and you’re set up. The platter is made of the same material as the records, which is quite a good idea, says Cloney.
Clearaudio Concept (€ 1,390 cloneyaudio.com): Unsure about spending over a grand for a turntable? Be not afraid, because the Clearaudio Concept is pretty much the best a vinyl-head can get at this price, with a clear, expansive sound that’ll knock your bobby sox off. You’ll know you’ve got your money’s worth the minute you stick on your copy of Led Zep 4. Best of all, the Concept comes out of the box all set up and ready to go – all you have to do is plug in and play and prepare to be blown away.
Pro-Ject Debut PRO Turntable (€819 at hifihut.ie): Pro-Ject is leading the way in new turntable technology, and for the company’s 30th anniversary, it’s gone back to its roots to design a new turntable and cartridge that’s simple, uncomplicated and undeniably superb. The precision belt drive and electronic speed switch allows for accurate reproduction in 33, 45 and even 78 (you still have your old 78s? Impressive). The platter is made of precision die-cast aluminium with a notch for the record label.
There’s even an optional Record Puck PRO that will keep your LPs tightly pressed against the platter, for even more precision playback.
Dual CS-418 (€499 cloneyaudio.com): The dual is made of folded MDF with black vinyl veneer, with a removable dust cover, and aluminium die-cast platter with heavy rubber mat to dampen resonance. There’s a handy button at the back, which you can set to either phono, for playing through a standard amplifier, or line, so you can plug it into a pair of active speakers, a Sonos Play 5 or a Bluesound system.
Technics SL-1500C (€995 cloneyaudio.com): Technics has always been a DJ staple, and the classic 1210 has received a serious upgrade, allowing you to channel your inner Tiësto for about €1,500. But for one of the best-sounding decks under a grand, you won’t do much better than the SL-1500C. With its core-less direct drive motor and trademark S-shaped tone arm, the SL-1500 pumps out the big, bassy sound with impressive dynamics.