Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Music Technology Comes Full Circle


Rik Stoet High End Audio is the premier store for phonograph turntables in The Hague. Slightly north of the city’s main shopping district, it is a cosy, messy place that offers a choice of dozens of new record players, friendly but frank advice (“We don’t believe in USB ports”) and a cappuccino if you ask for one. In the back room are thousands of vinyl discs for those with time to linger.

It is a place where customers can spend as much as 8,000 euros, or $9,962, for a turntable in stock — and up to €100,000 for a customized order. Frits de Korte, a veteran salesman in the store, says he has noticed a resurgence in the popularity of vinyl records and the machines that make them sing.

“It has always been a niche market, but it hasn't stopped growing,” he said, pointing to the many turntables lining the walls.

It is not only those who still pine for the golden age of vinyl who are buying, but also those too young to remember a time when recorded music was routinely stored on a physical medium. Now that digital music has become ubiquitous, listeners have started to miss the physical aspects long associated with recorded music, said Paul Rigby, a music journalist who reviews turntables for the magazine Hi-Fi World.Photo

“You can hold it, it has weight, you can tap on it, you can see it — you’ve got a 12-inch piece of art in front of it — it actually looks beautiful,” he said.

According to Mr. Rigby and other industry watchers, the renewed popularity of this old-school technology reflects a creeping dissatisfaction with the availability of too much free music at diminished quality.

It also comes at a time when customers — accustomed to hearing music through headphones — are increasingly yearning for the shared experience and the physicality of music that was common a generation ago.

“It’s not an insular experience,” said Sean Murphy, an industry analyst at the Consumer Electronics Association, an industry trade group. “There is a cultural slowing-down where people can sit in the same room at the same time and have something playing that they all can listen to.”

Rik Stoet, the owner, says three types of people shop at the store, which he has run for 20 years, with a special focus on turntables for the past seven.

The audiophiles tend to be more than 30 years old and to spend money on expensive turntables, he said. Another group — mostly older than 50 — buys turntables to play old collections, many asking for USB connections to transfer their records directly onto digital media. The third group is the young, who may never have seen a record or a record player before, except in a movie.

“Young people — they discover suddenly what vinyl is, that you have music on both sides,” Mr. Stoet said. They typically start by buying used records and inexpensive record players, he said.

While manufacturers in North America and Europe say they have noticed a distinct growth trend in the past five to 10 years, numbers are hard to come by. The market is highly fragmented: Besides several large and midsize companies, many small firms make custom-built turntables — even Mr. Stoet’s small store makes its own line, the Takumi. In addition, many units are bought second-hand or found in attics and refurbished. “A lot of people are getting their old turntables and blowing the dust off,” Mr. Murphy said.

Still, the Consumer Electronics Association estimates that shipments of new turntables in the United States alone will have grown by 5 percent this year over last, to about 84,000.

“The resurgence is genuine, both in terms of sales and in terms of consumer consciousness,” Mr. Murphy said.

At the Rega Research factory in Southend-on-Sea, in the southeast of England, each turntable is assembled by hand.

A single worker accompanies the turntable all the way through production, which can take as long as two days for the company’s flagship model, the RP10, priced at $6,495 on the American market.

The factory, which now also makes some speakers and compact disk players, started in 1973 with the Rega Planet. In 2013, the star designers Jonathan Ive and Marc Newson included the company’s RP 8 turntable in their collection of best-designed objects that were auctioned off by Sotheby’s to raise money for an initiative to fight AIDS in Africa.

Because of its simple design, great sound quality and longevity in the market — the Rega Planar 3 was produced for some 20 years — the brand enjoys a loyal following.

However, Rega has seen changes in recent years, according to Paul Darwin, the company’s head of British sales.

“The audiophile market has always been strong and consistent, but in the last two years we’ve noticed a lot of younger consumers,” he said.

Since the company introduced the RP1 in 2010, an entry-level turntable priced at $445 in the United States, much of its business has come from first-time buyers.

This September, it celebrated 5,000 turntables sold in a single month, the most since the company was founded 41 years ago.

Last year the company sold 15,936 RP1 turntables worldwide, a significant increase from the 5,936 it sold in the model’s first year.

“The RP1 hit the ground running — it seemed to coincide with a renewed interest in vinyl, which has really happened in the past five years,” Mr. Darwin said, estimating that the model now accounts for 60 percent of all turntables made by Rega.

Since designing the RP1 at the beginning of the decade, Rega has started to go after a new market.

While it used to pride itself on simple design and clean colors, it has now introduced a limited-edition “British” version of the player, decorated with a large Union Jack print (which it says sells especially well in America).

It has also introduced pre-phono amplifiers — a necessary piece of equipment to make the turntable work with sound systems not designed for record players — that feature USB ports to make for an easy transfer between analog and digital.

Still, experts say that turntables are mostly bought to listen to music in pure analog form. “Younger people are getting into vinyl, playing them and realizing that it really sounds much better than MP3,” Mr. Darwin said.

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