August 25, 2008

Audiophiles’ Delight: Vinyl LPs Still Sell

Rising LP sales are proving that every fashion comes back if you stick around long enough. The Recording Industry Association of America [RIAA] reports that shipments of vinyl records, measured by dollar value, increased 36.6% from 2006 to 2007. But, while demand for albums has increased, record sales remain significantly lower than those of compact discs and digital media. More than half a billion CDs were purchased in 2007, compared with about 1.3 million vinyl LPs.

"Demand for records has grown, but it's kind of like the dandelion in the weed patch," says Geoff Mayfield, chart director at Billboard magazine. "Growth is high because the base is so small." The RIAA declined to comment.

Despite the minuscule retail figures, the format's popularity has never wavered over the decades among audiophiles, LP enthusiasts, and serious music collectors. Vinyl is often praised as the medium of warmth and richness, delivering playback that most closely represents a live musical experience. Purists sniff that digital routinely registers as cold and antiseptic. CDs can also suffer from a reduced spatial sense in a listener's soundstage. "Digital audio systems are mere easy-to-use devices for people who have yet to discover the joy of live music. It can be said that such systems are deflating music," according to the Web site of Samurai International, a Tokyo company that distributes high-end turntable tonearms and cartridges.

Ear Addiction But for audiophiles, the sonic warmth of analog vinyl often comes with a hefty price tag. Some state-of-the-art turntables, such as Goldmund's Reference II model from Switzerland, sell for as much as $300,000. No matter -- for some people, good audio is worth any price. "When you hear a song you know that sounds better than you've ever heard before, it's addictive," says Robert Harley, editor of The Absolute Sound, a monthly magazine covering high-performance audio. "You have to have it."

When it comes to the cutting edge of vinyl playback, the sky is truly the limit. A turntable can soar into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. A needle cartridge designed by Japan's Koetsu can set an audiophile back $15,000. Even the records themselves are subject to higher prices. Retail rates for heavier, and therefore more durable, albums weighing 180 to 200 grams start at $18.99. But, with the addition of art and specialty packaging, the cost of a 200-gram, limited-edition Japanese import of The Police classic Ghost in the Machine or Bob Marley's Burnin' can go for as much as $60, plus shipping costs.

While the higher tiers of advanced sound playback can induce wallet-clutching shock and awe, music lovers of modest means don't have to take out a second mortgage to enjoy a fine vinyl experience. "High-end buyers represent the extreme tip of the market," says Jonathan Atkinson, editor-in-chief of SourceMedia's That's not to say that great sound cannot be had with a pair of $600 speakers, a $500 turntable, and an amplifier costing less than $1,000, he adds.

Different audio media, such as eight-track and cassette tapes, have come and gone. And, as compact discs are increasingly supplanted by digital downloads, some speculate that even the mighty CD could one day fade into obscurity. However, if unit sales are any indication, vinyl, it seems, may indeed be forever.

See's slide show for more on high-end turntables, needles, and LPs.