Starting Over

Photo: John Atkinson

In the excellent My Back Pages essay that closes this issue, Londoner Phil Brett writes, "I bought my first albums in my teens for £2 then sold them off years later for 50p each."

Why did he sell his records? "[I]n those days, most vinyl had the thickness of a butterfly wing without the quality. As I grew older, I went through—ahem—several relationships hence several changes of residence. The hassle of carting boxes of records around grew wearisome; CDs were so much lighter, and often, they sounded better."

Phil predicted Stereophile readers would be horrified by what he did those many years ago. Maybe so—but for many, the horror will arise from regret—at the memory of doing the same thing themselves back in the day. As I did.

I was in my 20s, in graduate school, living with my girlfriend (now wife) and another roommate in a tiny green concrete block house with cracks between the blocks in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Rachel and I combined our collections and headed up to Schoolkids Records on Franklin Street to sell them.

Why did we do it? We were poor. I'd be lying if I said we were hungry—you could buy ramen four for a dollar; that and a head of cabbage could stave off actual hunger. But pizza was a luxury we could rarely afford, and beer money was in short supply.

Do I regret selling those records? Of course I do, but not as much as you might think. Sure, I wish I still had those original US pressings of U2's War and The Replacements' Let It Be, and the early punk records on Dischord and SST. For my wife, it was her prized collections of King Crimson, David Bowie, and early Genesis. But even combined, the collection was small, a few hundred records, maybe. Neither of us was meticulous; the records, while quite playable, were not in collectible condition. What's more, with the itinerant way we were living, it seemed possible that we'd eventually abandon them in the hot attic of some temporary rental house. We might as well get a few sixpacks out of them.

In retrospect, what Phil Brett wrote is exactly right. Collections of records may be heavy and hard to transport, but in those days, individual records—popular records at least—were thin and lightweight. Little attention was given to proper engineering, and even less to pressing. Those who, heroically, continued to advocate vinyl often gloss over this point. Early CDs had issues, but at least they weren't pressed on warped, noisy vinyl.

But yeah, those early CDs. They did have issues.

I remember my first CD experience. I was in high school. At a Service Merchandise store, I bought a cheap, mostly plastic Magnavox player to complement my cheap, mostly plastic Technics turntable. Both fed my latest $300 Japanese receiver (Onkyo? Aiwa?), which powered a pair of Polk Audio Monitor 7B loudspeakers—for many years my only respectable hi-fi possession. My first CD: Brothers in Arms, which I'd practically worn out on vinyl. On the CD, the absence of noise was a revelation. That by itself was enough to keep me engaged, for a while at least. I listened to it over and over until I started to notice how glassy the music sounded. I cannot remember that sound exactly—aural memory is short—but I can remember how hearing it made me feel.

However modest my music system was, it wasn't that much of a bottleneck, considering the quality of the media I was playing. Sure, I could have gotten better sound with better-quality components, or I could have stopped buying mainstream LPs at The Tape Deck and the store at the mall, instead choosing all my records from among the 200 or so audiophile LPs on offer at my local hi-fi shop, The Sound Shack. But my modest system was not dramatically outstripped by the potential of the recorded music. The sonic potential of those records (and CDs) was limited.

It is often said, correctly, that we live in a golden age for music lovers. Most people who say that are thinking of quantity and accessibility—of the abundance of music available with a streaming subscription. Then there's a casual nod to the quality. I'd like to flip that around.

Maybe pristine, first-issue Blue Notes sound better than brand-new Tone Poet vinyl reissues; after all, tapes deteriorate, and the tapes were fresher back when the records were cut. But who has a collection of pristine first-issue Blue Notes who is willing to play them routinely? Tone Poet Blue Note reissues are superb. Other vinyl series being issued today are similarly excellent.

Much more important, though, is streaming. Millions of Qobuz tracks are available in the best quality that exists except for those precious master tapes, which are (or should be) locked in climate-controlled chambers. Many streamed files are hi-rez masters or direct, hi-rez transfers of those master tapes. Tidal is starting to do standard hi-rez PCM FLAC to complement their MQA offerings, which, though many prefer them, may be going away. News recently leaked that Spotify, which hasn't commented in years about their hi-rez plans, apparently will move forward soon; see this month's Industry Update.

Better software changes everything. Back when our choice was between badly pressed vinyl, badly recorded/mastered CDs, and a handful of audiophile recordings, a system like the one I had—estimated value a few hundred bucks—made sense. There's stuff in those grooves and bits of today's discs and files that only well set-up, revealing systems can extract. In such a music climate, a true high-end system makes a lot more sense than it did back then. There's almost always more to hear.

It's a common phenomenon in, eg, science and medicine. Technical advances lead to new discoveries and eventually to new treatments. Nothing so important is happening in hi-fi—we're merely aiming is to get more pleasure from our music—but what's happening is parallel, a sort of arms race. Better recordings and better music-distribution formats call for hi-fi equipment that can extract the most pleasure from those recordings. Here's hoping manufacturers keep answering the call.

miguelito's picture

And although a fun trip to the past, most of those records don't sound very good at all. I grew up in Argentina, and pressing plants there were not of high quality. But I nonetheless enjoy them.

jimtavegia's picture

Moving is always the hardest part of collecting anything, i.e. vinyl, CDs, your audio gear and my wife's Steinbach Nutcracker collection the packing of which was always a chore, but always done with care.

This may be the one advantage of streaming in that what ever you lost in moves you now can easily find with a simple "search". No warps, scratches, ticks or pops, just the music you thought you lost forever. The liner notes are gone, but not the music and the memories.

I did lose my late father's collection of 78's on our last move south and I'm not sure how that happened...movers or me? Arthur Godfrey, Les Paul and Mary Ford, Johnny Lane...that bothered me as it was not a sale just a pure loss.

Great writing as always.

JRT's picture

Rather than storing and perhaps moving a large collection of physical media, it may be better to put most of that large collection of audio data into a more easily moved physically small server of sufficiently high capacity, no?

A cursory Google websearch found this:

(text below was copied/pasted without further editing from non-copyrighted US government information from the web address included further below)

Using 2007 ACS data, it is estimated that a person in the United States can expect to move 11.7 times in their lifetime based upon the current age structure and average rates and allowing for no more than one move per single year. At age 18, a person can expect to move another 9.1 times in their remaining lifetime, but by age 45, the expected number of moves is only 2.7.

Enter the total population 1 year and over and the number of nonmovers from table B07001 in columns I and J. For 1-year age intervals, the ACS public use microdata sample must be used.
The number of movers will automatically tally in column L. The average rate will automatically be calculated in column B.
Enter the age specific “Number surviving I(x)” in column C and the “Person-years lived L(x)” in column D from the NCHS – Life Tables.
Expected movers (this age and cumulative) will be automatically calculated in columns E and F.
Number of expected moves left at that age will be automatically calculated in column G. This number will be calculated to 2 decimal places.
Data Tool
Explore Census Data
This new platform on is based on overwhelming feedback to streamline the way you get data and digital content from Census Bureau.
Excel Worksheets
Estimating Migration Example Worksheet [<1.0MB]
Estimating Migration Blank Worksheet [<1.0MB]
Long, Larry H. Migration and Residential Mobility in the United States. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1988, pp. 295-310.

Long, Larry H., and Celia G. Boertlein. The Geographical Mobility of Americans: An International Comparison. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976. Current Population Reports P23-64, pp 12-19.

Page Last Revised - December 3, 2021

Ortofan's picture

... move left - to the cemetery.

Anton's picture

I see you only mentioned cemetery; have you also compared that to a crematorium, catacomb, polyandrium, or charnal house?

And it's not just a cost comparison, you should also review the different situations of each and how they relate to each other.


Ortofan's picture

... cremation.
My 40-year+ collection of Stereophile magazines will serve as kindling.

jjljr's picture

I grew-up in Phoenix ... in 1985, I hauled my 500-600 LP collection to the Bay Area. I had to box-them-up for a 13-month sojourn to Southern CA in 1996, and upon returning to the Bay Area in 1997. We bought our current home in 2003, when I unpacked them ... and have been adding-on ever since (collection is now around 800).

The Wife and I will be selling our home and moving overseas next spring, planning to live in EU for 12-18 months. We'll be keeping a 10x15 storage unit; the records will be waiting when I return.

I'm never giving them up ...

Lars Bo's picture

Thanks, Jim.

I believe we're roughly the same age*. My take on history is somewhat different than yours, though. My generalized experience - as in not mentioning abundant exceptions - is:

On recorded music before ca. mid-80's, I find, that 1rst US, UK, and occasionally German vinyl pressings (e.g., early Genesis or Bowie you mention) are superior in pretty much every significant way, to this day. This include remastered vinyl reissues, which typically are, at best, musically interesting due to alternative mixes (e.g., "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" 2008 and "Diamond Dogs" 2016), and digital format reissues.

The big vinyl slump, really, was ca. early 90's to early/mid 10's, when increasingly scarce vinyl mostly was poorly sourced, processed, and pressed. Customary 180gr. instead of 140gr. is pretty insignificant. Supply of excellent vinyl was tiny and niche. Meanwhile, digital recordings - feeding most of the new vinyl issues, too, of course - and CDs got a lot better.

In recent years, excellent AAA-reissues have become rather usual (sporadically by bigger labels, too), and the average new vinyl issue is mostly of good/very good quality, and digital recording and playback have come quite a long way. Compression is a common problem, though. Music accessibility via streaming is fantastic for the explorative music lover.

All in all, methinks, one must have a slight touch of either neophilia or archaeophilia to view today as a simple matter of unequivocally better or worse. Actually, this goes for hi-fi as well. Now, on whether we are in the best of music times...

Thanks again.

* I with-own-money-bought my first record in '79 as a young teen. The album was Manfred Mann's "The Roaring Silence". It wasn't a brand-new release, but the cover was fascinating, and from radio I knew and loved the song "Blinded...". I still think it's an excellent album, and on occasion I play that exact pressing (German 2nd), but I spin my 1rst UK, bought some 15y later, far more.

Thousands of records have followed through the years to present day, the albums close to my heart often in several pressings - all still with me - alongside CDs, largely from the slump-period, streaming, and a splash of hi-res files.

I must say, I feel that fine records do the ordered arrangement of sounds and silences, which constitutes music, more right. Just do it more credibly human and musical. It's not easy to pinpoint, but it's way beyond a matter of "pleasant sound"; rather it's an aesthetic, organisational phenomenon: A "clearer", apprehensible conveyance of emotional entities inherent in musical sound - from a multitude of single, emotive pieces to clusters of pieces in communicative oneness, through to one big "puzzle" of coalesced, expressive wholeness. I fail to describe the phenomenon better, and it’s far from comprehensive, but these entities, to me, is fundamental to audio musicality. Almost sort of an "emotional transparency". The experience is intuitive; one of being more authentically addressed by human artful action, and it's definitely a right-brainer.

In the following months after my first record-buy, I went to my first big concerts: Journey (having bought and felt the harmony-pull on the “Infinity” album (but not yet "understanding" it)), and next a big time rockin' Thin Lizzy (having taped friends' "Bad Reputation" and "Live and Dangerous" albums on cassettes (BTW, "Bad Rep" is also audio commendable, 1rst US/Sta.M.)).

Journey was okay, but already off to new things. The Lizzy-concert was stopped twice by security, because we were dancing and jumping up and down in our seats. Mainly jumping. But they gave up eventually.

In those early days, really, I had not quite yet discovered Genesis, Bowie or King Crimson... or Miles or Mahler... in a very, VERY big world of music magic.

Rethep's picture

I never regretted selling my LP's. I always hated the 'campfire sounds' which joined the playback of, even sometimes new, LP's. So for me the introduction of the CD was a big relief. And the sale of the LP's supported the purchase of CD's.

Also my taste of music changed a lot over time. So i bought some music i had before, back on CD, but not so many.

Unfortunately i also developed some hearing loss because of visiting many concerts, back in the days, so the high quality music files are of no use for me (anymore). The 'advantage' is that for some time already,256k AAC files (iTunes) are sufficient for me.

richfo's picture

But not for the reasons that you'd think. I'm an idiot because I kept my albums. The only thing that I miss about albums is the cover art, some of those were pretty cool. Sonically, I just don't think that they are so great. Sure, a brand new 180g record, on an expensive turntable, with an expensive cartridge can be pretty awesome, until they wear down or get dirty. I just don't think that the cost, inconvenience, space for storage...... is worth it. I'll take a Hi-res file any day. Of course it has to be well engineered for the format, but that goes for all formats. I see the push for records by the artists and record companies, but c'mon, that's a dollars thing. CDs and audio files are easily duplicated, and distributed illegally, records, not so much, it's a process. So, why do I still have those 5-600 albums, that I've moved about 10 times, when I don't even have a turntable? Like I said, I'm an idiot.

Anton's picture

You are hanging out with the wrong audiophiles!

Record collectors with no record players and like wine collectors who don't own any wine openers.

It's like people with two feet collecting only left shoes.

Cookware aficionados with no stove.

Barbie Collectors, in general.

Glotz's picture

What's wrong with my Barbie collection?!

Glotz's picture

Eagles On the Border and Blondie Parallel Lines as gifts as a kid. The Who It's Hard was the first I spent my cash on.

I flirted with selling them in 1986 until I realized I loved my collection and so did my friends. Again, buying them all over again with CD's that SKIP MORE THAN LP's (!) was not a smart proposition.

I saw how early digital created 'stable' playback but couldn't throw together the overall gestalt of a performance nor produce the air of a recording very well. Getting a superlative turntable of the day was the deal maker. Hearing real kick drums and space between performers was a huge ear-opener and I've never looked back. Hearing a full ARC system including a Linn LP12 with AQ cabling in the early 90's sealed the deal. With Qobuz and Tidal, that still hasn't changed, but my DAC is runt and I need to upgrade to something worthy of my turntable/phono playback. I know a DAC can compete with analog, just the right one is the question.

I am eyeing up the SMSL SU-10 despite my stern adherence to non-Chinese playback (for both political and customer support reasons/fears). The limited reviews are pretty superlative in their love for it's Swiss-Army knife approach to all things digital (MQA-CD and USB-C!). I wonder if HR or someone else could be bothered to review this, despite other reviews of similar products?

barfle's picture

My earliest collection was probably a dozen or so 78s (state of the art at the time, as far as I could tell). When we moved, my mother gave them all away. I remember about half of them, and have either found replacements or digitized recordings of them.

When I started buying records on my own (Beach Boys in concert?), I kept all of them except for a few turds that simply didn’t float my boat. I’ve moved those records (now about 1300) fout times, including twice across the country. They are in better shape than my playback gear, which didn’t fare so well the last time in the hands of “professionals.”

Lots of other projects in the way of getting all that old gear working together, but at least I’m getting closer.

barfle's picture

Or you’ll double post.

barfle's picture

Maybe I understand how I double-posted, but it wasn’t intentional. I hope there’s only one of this one.