LP Playback: Is It Really Reference-Quality?

Written by Jim Smith

Is it truly superior if it has not one, but two iterations of eq; an extra gain stage; a signal-to-noise ratio that is definitely not so superior; inner-groove distortion; variable performance; and it is especially prone to errors in set-up?

The reason I ask is that – despite the issues above and many more below – many LP lovers present the sound from their LPs as the ultimate in reference quality playback.  But is it?

Please note – this article is NOT about vinyl not being worthwhile or anything comparable. But hey – since it’s most likely that a number of Copper readers are vinylphiles, I thought it’d be a good idea to make them angry. NOT!   

However, I do want to say a few things that might make some readers unhappy. So please consider this a thought piece – another viewpoint.


In my travels, attending and participating in shows, dealer events, and countless voicing sessions, including those going back for over 35 years, I have almost never encountered a turntable that I thought was set-up as well as it could have been. That’s right, I’ve hardly ever heard one that I thought was delivering all of the music!

This includes all audiophiles’ turntables, as well as those set up by most dealers, manufacturers, & reviewers, and yes – tt set-up gurus.  Although, to be fair, I’ve not heard a complete turntable set-up by all of the acknowledged gurus, including Michael Fremer.

I realize that somewhere in audioland, there have to be some turntables that are performing as well as they should.  It’d just that I haven’t encountered them.

The bad news is that – in my experience (over a thousand tts), almost all of them could have been better. Some ‘tables needed just a bit of help – and sadly, some required a lot.  The good news is that — at least in recent times (thanks to more knowledge & equipment available to effect proper mechanical set-up) — typically, it didn’t take much time nor effort to bring about a significant improvement.

When I had the opportunity to experiment, it always proved to be the case that I could make that vinyl-playing-rig sound better. And it often didn’t take long to do it.

Maybe that’s why I cringe when I see audiophiles claiming their ‘tables sound so good.  They might sound OK, but are they playing at the level that they could?  Probably not.

To be fair, who knows what our vinyl replay is really supposed to sound like?  The truth is, none of us have that information, and (with a few notable exceptions) that may include the mastering engineer.

Turning it up to 11

1) Most of us fancy ourselves as purists who wouldn’t sully our rigs with EQ – analog or digital.  I can recall very few audiophiles ever answering YES to this question: “Would you use a full-range equalizer in your system?”

Yet every time we play an LP, the sound has gone through not one, but two levels of EQ! First, the RIAA mastering curve is introduced to the LP itself, and then we must play the LP back through a phono preamp stage that contains (hopefully) the mirror image EQ to get us back to “flat” response.

This situation assumes precisely mirror-imaged curves (recording & playback), which, truth be told, occurs less frequently than we might think.  Different labels introduce slightly different emphasis.  Earlier, pre-RIAA recordings used their own “in-house” EQ curves. So we have two levels of the dreaded EQ, and they may not be accurately EQ’d for some of our recordings anyway.

2) Most audiophiles pay attention when they see a design that has managed to dispense with an extra gain stage, but for some reason, we give the additional – relatively high-gain – phono-stage a pass.  Additionally, especially if we have moving-coil cartridges, then we may opt to purchase a high-quality outboard phono-preamp.  Same EQ concern, only now we’ve introduced even more variables – probably even more gain required, plus we’ve added additional cables and connections into the equation.  Of course, this is totally against what we attest to believe is best – fewest gain stages, fewest connections & cables, but, hey, this is analog, so fuggedaboutit!

3) Sadly, no engineering breakthroughs have occurred that significantly reduce inner groove distortion – it’s simply a part of the vinyl LP package.

4) You do know that no two phono cartridges ever sound the same, right?  Question – is the one that you own the best of its breed?  Have you compared it to other cartridges of the same manufacturer and model number?  Just asking… ☺

5) The varying thickness of LPs will mean that you often will not be playing your LPs at the optimum SRA. In other words, variable performance is guaranteed. Are you going to readjust for every record, or simply live with the resultant degradation in sound?  There is a way to address this issue, but do you know about it?

6) As someone who has made hundreds of master recordings – both 30 IPS analog and digital – this needs to be said: The tape master ALWAYS makes the LP sound broken – lacking in dynamics, presence & tone. As an example, consider the well-deserved reputation for excellence that Peter McGrath’s digital master recordings always receive at various audio exhibits.

No turntable – at any price – can bridge the inherent gap between the master tape and the mastered LP. It is HUGE – and that comparison assumes the use of a correctly set-up turntable/phono-stage rig.

7) These days, anyone who is willing to go to the effort and expense of playing vinyl LPs should have managed to properly execute the basic mechanical aspects of setting up their turntable.  And now, there are a number of useful tools that make the mechanical aspect of the task achievable.  When I mention that I still encounter turntables that fall short, it’s rarely from the mechanical set-up side – overhang, azimuth, etc.  That’s good news indeed.  The one mechanical aspect that often can still be addressed is turntable isolation.

8) One more mechanical aspect that can sometimes be addressed would be the variable-ratio-of-moment-of-inertia of the tone-arm counterweight and cartridge (when the option is available). An important aspect, yet rarely discussed.

9) The areas that seem to consistently benefit from a bit more work are phono cartridge loading (for moving coils), vertical tracking force, VTA/SRA, and anti-skate.  I do NOT feel that gauges can get this job done – you need to LISTEN to the effects of all of them.  And they are inter-related – as is room temperature(!)

10) If the main system hasn’t been dialed in to properly “play the room” how can the vinyl lover possibly know if his/her adjustments are going in the right direction?  This reminds me of a few RoomPlay Reference clients who come here, and at some point, ask to hear their CD, because – as they say – they “know it”.  IMO, they almost certainly do NOT know it, but I try not to say that – at least not right away.

11) Finally, need I mention LP surface noise?

A finyl word

When a digital system is done right, or at least pretty well, the music can flow and pluck your heartstrings.  Although I love to listen to my vinyl, I haven’t in several years, preferring for a number of reasons to pursue making my digital archives the medium of choice.

FWIW – many RoomPlay Reference visitors who come here assume – and often mention – that one reason the sound is so listenable here is that I am playing “Hi-Rez” digital, but no, it’s simply 16/44.1 material.  This news usually comes as a big surprise to them.

No one ever complains or expresses a desire to hear vinyl.  Most say it is the best sound they ever heard, and more than a few are vinyl enthusiasts.  Maybe it’s just an unusually polite crowd, who knows?

It would be nice if some audiophiles would stop and think before declaring that their vinyl playback is the superior/more accurate/higher resolution music playback medium.  Maybe it is – IF they have overcome the 11 issues listed above.

Finylly, many of the current digital product offerings are definitely worth the effort of exploring, if for no other reason than archiving your beloved analog LPs. And yes, in some cases, better sound.

There, I said it.

Surely, everyone agrees, right?

[This is an edited/updated version of an article that Jim wrote for  Copper #26. That piece provoked so much comment that I asked him to take another look at the subject of vinyl playback. You can also read more of Jim’s writings here. —Ed.]

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