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Friday, June 2, 2023

How My Record Player Helped Me Feel the Music

Before the pandemic began, I had one record. It sat atop my red Ikea bookshelf, collecting dust. The Great Ray Charles. I picked it up at an event I attended a little more than a year ago, in the Before Times. I figured I'd find a way to play it at some point. But then, in mid-August, a turntable arrived at my doorstep.

My colleague and WIRED audio nerd extraordinaire, Parker Hall, recoiling after hearing I use a pair of decade-old, $30 computer speakers for my TV's audio output, loaned me a pair of Klipsch speakers and a Fluance turntable. And just like that, four months later, my once pathetic record collection has swiftly grown to 16 pieces.

I don't think I can forget the day I finally peeled the shrink-wrap from the Ray Charles album, choking from the mist of dust that sloughed off it. I had just finished setting up the Fluance RT80, which, by the way, was very easy. That surprised me. I always had this idea that turntables had a complicated and involved setup process, but I had it up and running in 10 minutes.

Inspired by the ease of it all, and with a manual by my side, I put the record on the spindle. I pushed the cue lever down. I moved the stylus to the edge of the vinyl, and I flipped the knob to 33.3 rotations per minute. The record began to spin. The minute a barrage of hurried piano keys began barreling out of the speakers, I turned to my partner and said, "It's like magic."

I Remember Touch

I'm no stranger to physical media. I had a Sony Walkman when I was a kid. Up until 2015, I drove my mum's squeaky 2004 Toyota Sienna equipped with a stereo that didn't have Bluetooth or an aux input. I just relied on the music I burned onto seven or so CDs to get me through my commutes to and from work. (It was that or WNYC, depending on the mood.)

Since then, I haven't touched music in a similar fashion. My fingers have gotten used to tapping my phone's screen to cycle through my digital library on a streaming service, but holding a record has brought back a sense of connectedness I haven't felt in years.

I've gone down the rabbit hole of hunting for some of my favorite albums in a vinyl format, actually paying attention to album names, song titles, and artists again. It's a stark difference from my digital music listening experience of late, where I've found myself picking a random playlist and streaming an endless river of tunes as I work from home. That's a rather lazy way of listening, but it's a quick and easy way to drown out ambient sounds and help my mind focus when I need to write.

But the physicality of picking up a record and placing it on a platter—and the need to get out of my chair to flip it when it hits the run-out groove on side A—has me appreciating each song all the more. Plus, the wonder of seeing a spinning disc with grooves producing harmonic sound never fades. My partner and I even slow-danced to Zooey Deschanel's "The Christmas Song" from A Very She & Him Christmas, which only felt natural surrounded by the warmth of our miniature Christmas tree (and our dog nestled in two thick blankets).

A part of this has to do with the fact that I sort of have to give the turntable my attention. I can't watch my TV when the turntable is in use, since both devices are connected to the same speakers. And my headphones finally come off when work's done and the record's on, which means I'm also away from my desk and more in tune with my surroundings. The music isn't hiding in the background, as it is when I'm streaming digitally. Instead, it's front and center.

There are subtle ironies too. We're living in a time when we have to avoid physical touch with others outside of our quarantine bubble. I can't hug my parents, brother, or sister. But I can flip a record after listening to “Touch” from Daft Punk's Random Access Memories, or after Sinatra wraps up “It Was a Very Good Year.” (It was not.) A turntable in no way replaces the feeling of being very close to my loved ones, but it does, if ever so briefly—records go by really fast!—make me think about something other than the pandemic.

An Addicting Hobby

The last thing I'm going to tell you to do is to buy a turntable and a pair of powered speakers, especially in the middle of a pandemic and an economic crisis when millions of Americans are facing eviction at the start of the new year. The equipment I was loaned amount to a total of $1,050. That's without factoring in the cost of records, which often sell for about $20 each.

The Klipsch speakers are largely to blame for the high price. The RT80 is $250, which is affordable as far as turntables go, but it's not the turntable audiophiles will recommend if you're chasing music fidelity. But music quality isn't why I've been so enamored by this new hobby. It's that physical experience of using a turntable; the sensation of the soft crackle before a track begins; along with finding, curating, and seeing a stack of records grow in my media console that's made the most dramatic impact.

When I joined a streaming service, I stopped buying albums. Instead, I just add artists to my library faster than I can listen to all their tracks. I can't mentally place the songs on an album in their correct order, let alone remember all the titles, as I once was able to do listening to the same few CDs in my mum's car over and over again. I think that's partly what's prevented me from feeling a deeper connection to the musicians I really like. That's changing now.

We recommend a record player as low as $150 in our Best Turntables guide. After getting one of those, all you need is a set of speakers to plug it into. (Back in the day, record players used to require an external preamp; today's models ship with all the necessary electronics built in.) I'd recommend getting a pair of powered speakers with an RCA connection, like these $100 Edifiers. It's still spendy, but if you share my feeling of disconnection with digital music libraries, and you're craving a new hobby to distract yourself as we await large-scale vaccine deployment, dive into this vinyl world. The first record you spin will have you grinning ear to ear.

Check out WIRED's Best Turntables guide to see all our top picks.

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