By Nick Place
When vinyl came roaring back into fashion in some kind of hipster-led lo-fi revolution, it had an impact on those of us who can remember back to when vinyl was the ONLY option for listening to what were then quaintly known as LPs.
I don’t know about you but I’ve definitely rediscovered the love of the crackle of a needle, the grooves between tracks and, of course, the purity of listening to a record in the published order of the songs as the artist intended them.
But I wanted to do this right, and so I went to Damo.
Damo is a guy who knows how to listen to vinyl. Damo is a close mate and somebody who never stopped listening to vinyl. There was no hipster revolution for him. His man-cave has been set up with the best possible equipment, speakers and needles forever.
‘What do you make of those Crosley-style prefab record players with CD-player included and designed to look all art deco retro?’ I asked him.
He stared at me and said, ‘Crosley?’
I shifted in my seat, gulped and nodded.
‘Mate, Crosley is like listening on an iPhone while it’s on speaker,’ he said. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I love the look and the aesthetic, but it’s a gimmick.’
So what, in Damo’s opinion, is not a gimmick? What if I wanted to truly listen to my vinyl albums and have them sound as rich and deep and sweet as they do when I listen to music at Damo’s place?
He told me I had to start hunting, and go back in time. Because the good amps and players are the vintage ones.
‘You’ve got to break it into parts,’ he said. ‘The good turntables? They were made from about 1968 to 1980. That was when the big firms, like Pioneer, Technics and Marantz, were all trying to outdo each other. Vinyl was truly king and this was before DJs arrived so there were no “DJ turntables”, which are different. Macintosh and Harmon Kardon were the best in America and Macintosh was never beaten by anybody, but it became really expensive and high end.’
So what happened in 1980 that the turntable quality fell away? ‘Things went to shit because the big companies moved to the United States and suddenly it was no longer engineers running the companies, instead it was salesmen,’ Damo said. ‘It was a bit like Ford versus General Motors; it became all about sales, not about the engineering. So that’s why Marantz and Sansui in 1982 became crap, and then brands like Sanyo started putting out shit. Technics stopped because the push was all volume.’
So, if you’re hunting for a vintage turntable set-up from the golden age of vinyl, try to hunt down something prior to 1980, Damo suggests.
‘Belt drives were different to direct drive,’ he added. ‘Direct drive was generally better. The Northern European or Japanese turntables are the good shit. Pioneer, Marantz and Yamaha have always been very good ordinary turntables. Put it this way, if Yamaha made cars, I’d buy one.’
Damo said of the European contenders, Thorens or Dual probably led the way.
But that’s only the turntable. We’re only just beginning, but luckily not all the components have to be so targeted.
‘To get set up, I’d say you can get an amp from any era, unless you are particular, and speakers from any era,’ Damo said. ‘To get a good turntable, you need to spend at least 400 dollars, new or old. The better stuff is the old but the newer stuff has to be at least 400 as well to be decent.’
Surprisingly, Damo also said to consider reinvesting in newer pressings of your favourite classics, even if the original is still stashed in a decades-old fruit box in your garage. ‘To listen to newer records, you need to have a good turntable and you need to have a good needle,’ he said. ‘Some cartridges and styli (or needles) are made by people who only make them, not all the other parts. Like Ortofon, for cartridges. So from a specialist, you could get a really good needle but why have one if you are going to play stuff from the seventies or eighties? It wil just wreck the needle. You need to have a good copy of the album, like a 180 gram version of that disc.
‘Have a look at your records and think: even if I really like it, is it worth fucking up a needle if I play it over and over? If the answer is yes, then it’s worth buying a new vinyl copy, I reckon.’
Just in case you’re thinking: who is this guy and where does he get off, let me quietly mention that several very well-known veterans of the Australian music scene lean on Damo for his vinyl knowledge and will take new pressings around to his place for a listen and his technical blessing. They live in fear of his most damning judgement: ‘This record is a beer coaster!’
‘Ideally you want something pressed in Japan,’ he said. ‘The Japanese had high ideals, to go with the turntables they were making. It’s a bit like whisky: the Japanese manufacturers were late to it but onto what’s good when they arrived. American pressings are usually good, and then it would be the UK.’
One part of the vinyl set-up that is crucial is the speakers, he added. ‘I have three good sets of speakers at home. Otherwise, without really good speakers, you can’t tell if the rest of your gear is any good.’
It all sounds like a lot of work but Damo doesn’t blink. ‘Hearing the crisp sound of a good needle on vinyl is very addictive,’ he enthused. ‘Seeing the blood flow back into the needle, it does what a lot of people adore.
‘I heard Steve Kirby interviewed the other night and he said that he listens to cassette tapes of albums in his car because he said you have to be able to hear the needle drop and get that authenticity of music. I mean, let’s face it, CDs do sound the best, technically, but it’s not always about that.’
Amen, Damo. GiantsAmongMen’s hunt for a quality 1970-something turntable starts … Now!