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Yesterday, I spent the better part of an hour disassembling a $7,500 turntable stand. And I looked at not one, not two, but three record cartridges (the part that holds the needle) worth more than $2K — a pittance compared to another “cart” I recently inspected, an $8K beauty made from certified 23,000-year-old wooly mammoth tusk.


I can name a handful of turntable manufacturers whose “entry level” models begin at two grand and go up from there. I’ve seen and played with linear tracking arms, floating magnetic feet, massive metal record clamps, laser pickups, vacuums which suck the record onto the spinning table, turntables with three arms and six motors … it really just goes on.

And last Thursday, I finally made it over to my friend Colin’s house with a subwoofer in tow. We’d been meaning to replace his subwoofer, and at the same time try to dial in his speakers and record player and get the most out of his system. We should have done it sooner: when I got there I learned that his old sub hadn’t been working for a very long time, and I find that a serious sonic tragedy.

Side note. Everyone needs a subwoofer. An 8-note musical octave down in the bass region spans far fewer frequencies than it does in octaves at the top of the spectrum, so down low, every Hertz counts.

Your speakers may claim to go down to 40Hz (or 40 vibrations per second), but that figure is always plus or minus 3 decibels (a unit of loudness measurement), if not more. Down 3 decibels at 40 means it’s half as loud as the rest of the speaker at that low note. Without a sub, with today’s movies and music, you’re just missing out.

Back to Colin’s situation, I used my computer and a streaming music service to dial in the positions of the speakers and subwoofer using songs that I know well. The sound was improving, smiles were out, wine was flowing and we were taking turns throwing on music we love.

Once we remembered to set up the turntable and replace the 5-year-old cartridge, we could clearly hear the improvement with the new cartridge installed. A huge difference, actually, as all of the cymbals came back to the Thelonius Monk LP we were spinning.

But. As a vinyl-only guy thus far, Colin quickly came to the realization that despite the new cartridge, a new pair of cables leading to the amp and even a new subwoofer in the mix, dang it, the digital still sounded better.

So much better, that it was the difference between just hearing the sound and the music bringing us to life.

It may seem like I’m bagging on vinyl, and I sort of am, but I’m also not. Vinyl record playback can be truly transcendent, and can even eclipse the ultimate sonic ability of digital rigs. But digital has just come so far that you may have to spend an arm and a leg on vinyl to get it close to your average entry level digital equivalent.

Food for thought.

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