My Triumphant Return to Vinyl

I recently started buying records again after a 30-year hiatus, thanks to my youngest daughter. She was 9, and I was gutting it out through the implosion of my first marriage. I was invigorated by the challenge of outfitting a new apartment on the cheap. I'd walk the aisles of Value Village in search of serviceable kitchen gear, and she loved to come with me, sifting through used books and house dresses while I assessed the quality of a skillet or stovetop percolator. She'd leave wrapped in threadbare pastel, cradling an armful of books by Lemony Snicket and Geronimo Stilton.

One afternoon, as we passed a stack of George Foreman Grills, she saw the record player, a mottled beige-brown box familiar to any Gen-X kid who spent time in their elementary school library. It had the reinforced metal corners and industrial clasps of a steamer trunk and a thick green handle made of indestructible Cold War plastic. Written across the top in black marker: #0027. How this piece of surplus ended up in the wayward-housewares section of a suburban thrift shop was surely an interesting story but not my concern. There it was, shut tight and resolute, perhaps since the 1970s. The price: $8.

"Dad!" she gasped, "Check this out! I thought it was a suitcase!"

She had thumbed back the silver clasps holding it together to inspect the turntable and tonearm. "You said you used to have a record player, right?"

Her question was transportive. I had had record players, or access to record players, since I could remember—first a bright orange and blue one made by, what, Mattel? Fisher-Price? I had a shoebox of my dad's old 45s and played Bill Haley's "See You Later, Alligator," Chuck Berry's "Maybellene," and the Beatles' "She Loves You" again and again and again.

My dad had what was at the time a solid home system: Giant (to me) Jensen speakers, a beastly Kenwood receiver with mesmerizing meters, and a thick-sided Fisher automatic turntable that dropped records down on the platter with satisfying mechanical authority. I remember stacking the White Album on the record-changer turntable to play in the proper sequence because sides 1 and 2, and thus 3 and 4, were on separate LPs.

Sometime in junior high, I got my own system, a Sanyo JX 4404, which combined a receiver, turntable, and cassette deck on the footprint of a large pizza box. This was the platform from which my love of music and appreciation for decent audio gear was launched.

My daughter's question slapped me back 45 years, to sitting on shag carpet scalloped with Zeppelin, Rush, and Yes, the Sanyo in front of me, a sunken-chest geek endlessly flipping sides, lost in liner notes, making clumsy mixtapes for girls he was too scared to talk to.

Thanks again to a musically minded father, I had already amassed (or more accurately could plunder at will) a fantastic record collection. The treasures included that White Album, a first pressing that still had the headshots! There were first pressings of Are You Experienced, Willy and the Poor Boys, and more. There was plenty of Frank Sinatra, along with Bob Willis, Willie Nelson, Cat Stevens, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and of course Steely Dan. Blue Note, Motown, Stax, and Atlantic were also well-represented. I absorbed it all and augmented it with summer-job pocket money, walking to the nearby mall at least once a week to hit the arcade, Orange Julius, and record store in that order. I never walked home without an album under my arm.

The collection grew quickly and steadily until I left for college. By then, the world was converting to Compact Disc, and I followed, moving like so many to the new, crackle-free format. In my 20s, with fresh discretionary income, I amassed piles of silver discs and built my own system. The biggest splurge was an elegantly imposing pair of Polk Audio LS70s that would enchant me and infuriate neighbors for a decade.

Then, for reasons intricate and unhealthy, I fell into a marriage that did not condone compulsive music acquisition, regardless of format. LPs were sold to astonished collectors. CDs were boxed and stacked in a damp basement corner. Components and speakers were relegated to the attic with the empty promise that one day they might fit into an interior decorating scheme that would never come together.

Fast-forward a decade, then another. There's my daughter and that school-library record player serving up a crazy combination of emotions: nostalgia for my lost collection, pride in her observant nature, anger at circumstances that let a stack of good gear gather dust and a massive amount of music get sold off or sequestered.

I bought the turntable, of course. My beaming daughter carried it out of the thrift store. I assured her we'd hunt up some records right away. The next day I found a milk crate full of random '70s and '80s LPs on Craigslist for $50. Teaching her to play air guitar to "My Sharona" was alone worth the price. Then the renewal really took hold.

Within a few weeks, I'd bought a rebuilt Sugden turntable and mounted its beautiful wood plinth on squash balls. I bought a used Rotel integrated amplifier. I spirited that pair of LS70s from the attic and brought everything together on cinder blocks and milk crates in the living room of the new apartment. The sound was glorious, liberating, and rejuvenating.

I've since returned to the record shops—those that remain—and upgraded the turntable with a Grace 707 tonearm and Sumiko Blue Point cartridge. Each tweak brought a bigger smile to my face. I'm now on the hunt for new speakers. Meanwhile, I'm reliving those long afternoons in my room nearly 45 years ago, lost in Physical Graffiti or Permanent Waves, my face set with the same smile (though I know my face doesn't look the same), my mind in the same place of engaged ease.

All this because my daughter spotted a piece of once-ubiquitous audio equipment and because of her seemingly innate, perhaps inherited sense of how music can impact who you are and who you can become. It's a feeling I loved and let slip away. I can never thank her enough for bringing it back.

cognoscente's picture

When I was fourteen in 1980, I bought my first audio equipment, a Dual record player, a Marantz receiver and Technics speakers, through sales and with money from several small jobs. A year later I bought a Sony cassette recorder. I thought that was a huge improvement in terms of user-friendliness. I was able to put together my own cassettes, in other words my own playlists. The arrival of the CD player was the next step forward. The arrival of iTunes and the iPod perfected user convenience. I put all the cd's I bought on my Mac and create my own albums, or as Apple calls it: playlists. And that's how I still do it, even though I've been buying from Qobuz for years now, everything in uncompromised AIFF and often the Hi-Res versions if available. But certainly not always. And many years ago, the iPhone replaced the iPod as storage. I still use iTunes (Music) to make playlists. The advantage is that I have the best possible music files and listen in a closed system (without all the negative side effects of streaming like noise and most of all the lower quality music files - and the iPhone is connected by a cable, I do not use compressed AirPlay).

It is the generation before me who see albums as a musical journey that you have to listen to from start to finish. I've never seen music/albums like that. I preferred to make my own musical journey with individual songs from different artists combined into a new whole, a new album or as we now say, into a new playlist.

Buying a record player again is indeed very tempting, I admit. I still have all my LPs from the early 80ts. But as mentioned in the article, vinyl is nostalgia. I'm affriad I'm too rational to be sensitive and open to that. And I see mostly people younger than me who didn't grow up with LPs going back to them. Anyways Specials, Seventeen Seconds and Movement just sounds better in 44/16.

justmeagain's picture

Hey, if you want to just go with playlists or random play, that's your choice. I am sort of surprised to see that kind of "hey, you're the old generation who listened to albums" ageism from someone who's about 58. You're not exactly a spring chicken, to not coin a phrase! And plenty of albums really were meant to be listened to as a whole, or as one side of an LP. Breaking up Movement into single songs is reasonable, but Ziggy Stardust, Dark Side of the Moon, Sgt. Pepper's, Tommy and many others make no sense when dismantled.

ok's picture

and industrial clasps of a steamer trunk and a thick green handle made of indestructible Cold War plastic" this was a good one!

AllanMarcus's picture

It's like the old comic says, there are two things that really draw people to vinyl: the expense and the inconvenience.


Anton's picture

Times change, the crazy way we spend money doesn't!

Take digital, please!

Streamer/Transport/Bridge/DAC/Power supply for each/7-10 speakers/multichannel amps/multi channel whatevers......I just can't swing that amount of cash.

AllanMarcus's picture

Yep, tone arm, platter, table, isolation, cables, preamp is much easier than an integrated streamer/amp and two speakers for the non critical listening rooms.

Anton's picture

Yes, two speaker digital desktop is great for non-critical listening!

Your point is spot on.

Non-critical listening is digital’s domain!

justmeagain's picture

your cheap earbuds and old Android phone. Convenience is everything.


MLP's picture

"Then, for reasons intricate and unhealthy, I fell into a marriage that did not condone compulsive music acquisition, regardless of format."

Good lord, man!

Archimago's picture

Hellscape indeed.

Sometimes, a guy's gotta put his foot down... (Although "compulsive music acquisition" might not be a reasonable state of being.)

Glotz's picture

If you want 'better than digital' vinyl sound... (great system matching needed as well)-

Cost approximates: products from any reviewed in SP, AP or TAS, others.
$2000 cartridge
$5000 turntable / arm combo
$3000 phono amp
$2000 cabling for such
$1000 for upkeep accessories

Sad but true. Doing it right requires process and money. For many, I recommend sticking with digital and streaming. Especially if you do not have an existing LP collection.

If you hope to get your 80's LP's rollin' with a vintage turntable and accessories to match, you will not get what others in SP and AP are talking about. Not even close, not even in the same solar system.

Analog is a huge investment, but it is not inconvenient. It's the accessories to make LP's play cleanly and it's upkeep. Vinyl is also way expensive to collect. But if you have an existing collection, it can be a way to flesh out your existing collection.

But beware, you will find that remasters do sound massively better than old issues. Obviously there are many examples of original pressings being king in SQ, but it is a crapshoot and really a per artist basis.

It is far easier and less expensive to 'find' FLAC files on the net and use your favorite R2R DAC and leave streaming to music browsing.

I do all three, but the high-res files are ear-opening for sure and remind me that the best recordings in both digital and analog sound more alike than different, but again it requires a huge investment vs digital to get there.

Ultimately, from $20K to $200K investment, analog destroys digital. Anything below, it is a fight for different elements of superior playback.

While buying and sharing vinyl is fun in and of itself, one needs to reduce one's expectations of vinyl playback when working from a budget.

teched58's picture

According to everything I've read at SP, including and especially from departed contributor Mikey, $13,000 is both "affordable" and at the very low end of what one needs to get decent vinyl sound.

One wonders how we survived the '70s and '80s with our legacy turntables and M91EDs.

Ortofan's picture