There were several tech surprises at CES 2016, such as the eight-prop Ehang 184 personal drone, the Razer Blade Stealth laptop and LG’s 18-inch rollable OLED display. But few expected some of the world’s biggest companies to showcase new vinyl-spinning turntables.
Sony launched the PS-HX500, a jet-black, high-end player that comes with an integrated A/D convertor. Hook it up to a PC via USB and you’ll be able to capture every aspect of a vinyl LP, ripping the audio into either high-fidelity DSD or a 24-bit, high-res WAV file.
Panasonic, meanwhile, resurrected the Technics brand it iced in 2010, unveiling the beautifully re-engineered Technics SL-1200G turntable and a limited edition, 50th Anniversary Technics Grand Class SL-1200GAE model. There’s no analog to digital converter on offer here. But a new direct-drive motor has been installed to reduce vibrations, eliminate cogging and improve playback quality.
These joined other turntables by Crossley Radio, House of Marley and Audio-Technica at CES 2016, swinging the audio focus away from new digital formats and back to analog.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. Vinyl had a big 2015. According to the BPI’s end-of-year Music Market Report, LP sales rose by 64 per cent to 2.1 million, a 21-year high. CDs still account for two thirds (66 per cent) of all album sales in the UK, but sales dipped again by 3.9 per cent compared to 2014’s numbers.
A 19th century technology is beating its 20th century replacement.
What’s driving this renaissance? There are several things to consider. BPI/ERA research points towards the rise of the ‘multi-channel’ music listener. Dedicated fans might stream digital music for “discovery, curation and convenience”, the research suggests. But they are also buying physical media to “own and collect the music and artists they love.”
The BPI/ERA research surveyed 1,000 music consumers and, when asked what drives vinyl purchases in an on demand digital age, the responses included: “paying a one-off price to own [music] permanently,” “the sound quality of vinyl,” “owning something tangible,” “buying vinyl helps to support the artists”, “cover artwork” and “building a collection.”
Of these, quality is arguably the most important factor. With vinyl, it’s arguably not about perfection, but imperfection. Vinyl buyers praise the ‘warmth and depth’ of the format, embracing the crackles and the distortion. “I love the sound, which has a different quality,” says vinyl fan Will Salmon. “I love the big format art and the ritual of it all. I interact with vinyl, whereas I rip CDs then never look at them again.”
Surprisingly, it’s not just nostalgic baby boomers who are buying vinyl albums and investing in smart, new turntables to play them. “My 13 year-old moved to vinyl last year,” says Sanchia Pegley, “which is interesting as all she’s known are CDs in her much earlier years, then digital music. She said you can hear things on LPs that you can’t on CD/digital files and that it feels more authentic to own the physical, tangible album.”
So forget MP3, high-res DSD and Tidal’s lossless FLAC, because 2016 could be the year that vinyl gets its groove back. — Dean Evans (@evansdp)