Vintage turntables make a comeback among analog lovers

The Sacramento BeeMarch 6, 2013 

Vinyl Revival

These days, analog sound born from vinyl-playing vintage turntables, receivers and speakers is making a comeback, and finding an ear with both young and old music lovers.

TROY MABEN — ASSOCIATED PRESS

“This is my technical hobby and passion.”

Those words greet whoever reads Marion Halecker’s Craigslist ad under the title: “Vintage Turntables.”

Indeed, stacks of vintage turntables, receivers and speakers line the garage of Halecker’s Granite Bay, Calif., home, evidence enough that this 51-year-old is passionate about analog sound.

These days, analog sound born from vinyl-playing vintage turntables, receivers and speakers is making a comeback, and finding an ear with both young and old music lovers.

The result is a growing cottage industry in the repair, reconditioning and sale of vintage components – whose typically wood-framed and solid-metal construction and electronics offer a feel, look and sound different from today’s sleek digital machines.

It’s an industry that has less to do with money than with love for analog’s deep, rich, vibrant sound, an experience that eludes those who indulge only in digital music.

Joe Flanagan, the owner of Audio Exchange on Hillsborough Street, has seen the trend toward analog grow among Raleigh high school and college kids.

“One of the things that you’re starting to see is that a lot of high school and college kids have grown up listening to MP3. That’s absolutely miserable sounding. They are throwing all that audio information away to make a little, teenie file size, and it’s horrendous sounding.

“That’s all they’ve known, and they think digital sucks because that’s all they are hearing. So then they hear a turntable and boom, they hear this warmth and all this detail and everything there.

“So really over the past four years or so, you are seeing more younger people coming in looking at turntables.”

Demand for old turntables

Because new turntables are costly, Flanagan says, most are buying older turntables and trying to get them serviced.

Back in California, Halecker works as a Kaiser Permanente health care worker by day, so she’s no big-time seller. Yet she’s dedicated to her side project.

“This is not a business. I want to help people get back into analog,” Halecker said. “I don’t part with my ‘babies’ to just anyone.”

Typically, she sells a unit every six weeks. The cost can range from $80 to $200. She vets customers closely by phone to assess their interest. A love for analog and a respect for vintage equipment must come through, otherwise the sale is off.

Flippers and dilettantes do not pass muster.

Young adopters with a curiosity for analog sound? Those she eagerly welcomes.

“Now younger folks are getting their parents’ old-school equipment and they think it sounds really cool, the way we did,” said Halecker.

“They notice the sound is really good and they’re getting into vinyl.”

Increase in vinyl sales

The most striking evidence of how people are getting into vinyl and into vintage equipment is the large jump in vinyl sales in 2012 recorded by Nielsen Soundscan. For the fifth year in a row, more vinyl albums were sold than any other year since Nielsen first tracked such sales in 1991. In 2012, vinyl-album sales reached $4.6 million.

Album numbers are tiny compared with digital. Jack White’s vinyl release “Blunderbuss” took the top spot in 2012 by selling 34,000 vinyl copies. The top-selling digital album in 2012 – Adele’s “21” – saw more than 1 million downloads. While the numbers pale in comparison, the vinyl-sale increases suggest a strong niche market.

And that is bringing customers to Halecker’s garage door. Many of them are revisiting the musical charms of their youth, she said. These include the appeal of album cover art and liner notes, and the different aesthetic of listening to a whole side of a record rather than jumping from one single to another as is done on digital devices.

Learning to refurbish

For Halecker, who grew up in Irving, Texas, the passion for refurbishing vintage units is a return to her past, too.

“My dad and I used to sit together splicing reel-to-reels and listening to music when I was younger,” she said. “I would watch him interact with his stereo, customizing the sound, recording and editing – tweaking it just right for his taste.”

She began tooling around with speakers and reel-to-reel units as a hobby only five years ago. She drew heavily from her job as a cable-company technician in the 1980s. Once she felt confident, she moved on to refurbishing turntables – which can be tricky affairs.

She wanted to be sure she could educate others properly about turntables, especially the crucial factors of how to properly align cartridges and needles and how to select the proper pickup for the tone arm.

Her stock in trade is the sale of entry-level and medium-level turntables, receivers and speakers.

Halecker is also seeing a growing interest among women in the cabinet-size consoles – as both music player and design choice.

“If they (women) go vintage they truly want vintage,” she said. “They want the wood and the lattice. They want that decor. They want the midcentury modern look.”

Staff writer Andrew Branch contributed to this story.

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