Vinyl (pop) Always (tick) Sounds (skreetch) Best (Part 2)

Oct 28th, 2015 | By | Category: Back to Vinyl, Essays

headacheHere’s a riddle for you: How is it that this year I have bought many more LPs than in any recent year, and yet the size of my collection has stayed almost the same? And no, I haven’t sold (or given away) any of my old records.

Give up? Well, it’s actually simple: Most of the records I have bought have been thoroughly defective. So bad, in fact, that I gave up hope of ever getting non-defective replacements for most of them. Some recent examples:

  • After reading glowing reviews of the vinyl reissues of Broadcast’s catalog, including several testimonials to the great pressings and sound quality, I dipped my toe in the water and ordered Broadcast’s collaboration with The Focus Group, Broadcast and The Focus Group Investigate Witch Cults of the Radio Age. I figured that would let me ascertain that the LPs were a significant improvement over the CDs I already owned. Turns out, adding incessant surface noise to the album didn’t really improve my listening enjoyment. So back it went, and ImportCDs did not make the process easy.
  • I was so excited to find out about the limited double clear vinyl edition of Max Richter’s From Sleep that I spent a massive amount of time scouring international eBay and other sites to find a copy. Fortunately, the best deal came from Barnes and Noble – fortunate, because like the Broadcast album, the stunning transparent vinyl was a noise-fest and I could return it locally. It was so bad that I decided not to take my chances with a standard black edition and instead get the digital download.
  • Months after its release on CD and digital, my preordered triple vinyl box of Kamasi Washington’s The Epic finally showed up on my doorstep. I was disappointed to find that the record was mastered at a very low volume — to fit all that music onto just three LPs — and I was even less happy when the ticks and pops started shortly after Side One began. When Side Two introduced even louder POPs caused by physical scratches (circular ones — how do you even do that?) I decided digital was the way to go with this one, too.
  • The David Bowie Five Years box that inspired our September review series arrived in a wave of user reports of silent vinyl. But my copy of Hunky Dory was ruined by noise, and the spaces between tracks on The Man Who Sold the World sound like jet fighters taking off. Initially the seller offered only a discounted price, but eventually I was able to have them send a second set so I could cobble together a good one. A spot check of the second box showed that not all was well on the other records, though. But hey, what do you want for $250?
  • One each of the recent reissues of the Red House Painters and Air catalogs were defective messes — about a 20 percent defect rate.

I don’t expect records to be perfect, even though companies like Music Matters show that they can be (albeit for $40 each). But I do expect them to be listenable. And I don’t enjoy spending money to have to return defective products, which most online sellers require. (Thanks to UPS’s never-ending price increases, it can cost nearly $10 to ship a single LP across the U.S. these days.) Even a local return can be a PITA, with time for traveling, waiting in line and sometimes arguing that the item is indeed in need of replacement.

But today the music lover almost has a better chance of getting a defective album than a non-defective one. There is a perfect storm of problem areas:

  • Pressing quality is poor because of too much demand on too few presses (which also causes other serious problems). Even some of the best albums I have recently bought have noise in the runout groove, which might not affect overall listening but indicates persistent problems.
  • Handling is sloppy and careless. My Kamasi box set is far from the only example of LPs being sent out with physical scratches. Sometimes they are caused by cheap paper sleeves, but in other cases — who knows what?
  • Operations are rushed. The recent Bowie and Queen vinyl boxes, long anticipated, often included records that had drops of glue on them, apparently from putting things together before everything was ready.

All of which raises the question: Who are modern LPs being made for? On one hand, companies seem to spare no time or expense to create facsimile sleeves, posters, books and boxes — and seemingly use some of the thickest, flattest vinyl available. But on the other hand, the key component of the albums should be the records — and they often are dreadful to listen to (not even taking into account the problems I recently discussed). I remember reading years back that most CD box sets were played once and then stuck on a shelf. I have no idea how prevalent that is with vinyl boxes (though I am guilty of it, largely because I just don’t get that much vinyl time these days). So maybe the companies and many consumers are happy to just have a nice status icon for their $30 or $100 or $400 — as are eBay speculators who eagerly scoop up LPs only to sell the still-sealed copies for inflated prices after they go out of print.

But I am getting worn down from the battle against defects. I rarely can just sit and listen to a new LP (after taking time to properly clean it, of course). Typically I have to follow up by contacting the merchant, packing and shipping it back, cleaning the replacement — and then sometimes having to do it all over again. Fortunately, my vinyl and digital players are comparable, so I can usually come pretty close to the sound of LPs with CDs and digital downloads. But I do like the traditional tactile experience of vinyl — just not enough to give up listenable sound.

How have your vinyl experiences been recently? Have you thrown in the towel or considered it?

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