Sunday 18 February 2018

Count me out of your vinyl gang, hipsters: it doesn't make sense

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

You can count me out of your vinyl revolution.

Sorry, but it's simply not cool enough to justify so great a compromise on quality, time, money and basic common sense.

I couldn't agree more with Ben Watt, the DJ who is one half of the British pop band 'Everything But The Girl'.

"£25 for vinyl," he tweeted last week. "Now £2k for a 'relatively cheap' deck. A £7 CD on a £300 player would get you closer to what I meant in the studio."

Bravo, sir. Finally someone has the guts to say it.

A New Yorker cartoon from last year made a similar point.

"The two things that really drew me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience," says one bearded middle-aged man to another in the sketch.

Don't get me wrong. I get the aesthetic appeal of vinyl. It's beautiful.

I also get the appeal of equipment-lust, of researching, building and adding to a rig. There's even a social element, consulting with fellow hi-fi enthusiasts.

But it doesn't give better quality. And it's outrageously priced, comparatively, at €25 to €30 a record.

In reality, vinyl is all about fashion, not high fidelity.

"Album as lovingly packaged artefact is fine," wrote Watt. "But vinyl as more superior audio on the average domestic rig is a myth."

From everything I've experienced with vinyl equipment collectors, this is completely true.

While an expensive vinyl setup clearly bested digital MP3 playback a few years ago, that gap has disappeared. For those with a realistic budget (under €1,000), digital music wins for clarity, quality and musicians' intent every time.

But that's not really the point for vinyl collectors, is it? They want to nerd out on equipment or use their vinyl as art in a room.

A friend of mine spends hundreds on cabling leads between his amp and his turntable (each of which costs several thousand euro). He has his rig set up in a small living room in his three-bedroomed semi-detached house. He's not allowed play it loud, as it irritates his wife.

But he doesn't mind: he has the gear he wants. And he upgrades his equipment every year.

For him, it's the acquisition and the display that seems to be the key.

This isn't hard to understand. It's like the watch trade. Talk to a jeweller and they'll tell you that their (predominantly male, middle-aged) watch customers have four, five or more watches, each of which costs a couple of thousand euro. None of them really tell the time any better than then next model. Nor are they more robust or blessed with additional extraordinary functionality.

They're simply pretty.

And that's the story of vinyl. It's an expensive romanticisation of the purpose it was invented for - to share and relay music.

Even as I write, I can feel the withering eyeballs and contempt rising in hifi aficionados.

"He just doesn't get it," some will say. "What do you expect? He's just a flag-waver for tech companies and their cheap commoditisation ways," others will add.

But I assure you, that's not it. I have plenty of analogue tendencies in me.

I'm a camera enthusiast who's way more interested in a device's physical glass optics than its megapixel counts. And I, too, love the idea of sitting down to listen to some beautiful sounds on a beautiful, pure hi-fi record player.

But there are just too many limitations. And the quality gap now looks like it is evaporating.

Choosing vinyl over other formats is like choosing an Aston Martin over an Audi. It's not quicker or more responsive. The materials aren't better, nor will they last longer. But it gives the owner a different identity. And for some, it is more beautiful and a celebration of what it means to be alive.

But what of the argument that big money rigs do actually produce better audio than the latest high resolution audio player? Or that vinyl has a distinctive sound of its own?

Even if both of those arguments were true, it wouldn't be enough.

When I think of the moments I have been happiest in my life listening to music, not one has been dependent on that final 5pc (or even 15pc) of pure quality. Nor has been in looking at the chrome or wood of the device playing the tune.

And that, for me, cuts to the quick of the matter: what is music for? Reflection, relaxation, inspiration, bliss, joy, sadness. It's there to connect you to something, to make you happy (or triste or some other feeling).

For me, this isn't dependent on an artisan device to spin a large disc on. The best camera is the one you have with you, not the Leica sitting at home in the display cabinet.

I honestly don't mean to belittle those who espouse the merits of vinyl. If putting on a record adds up to a magical moment for you, then that is all that matters.

But as much as I'd love to join the vinyl gang, I can't do it. It just doesn't make sense.

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