Where is the innovation in turntable technology?
How music is recorded and played back has changed dramatically. The Walkman cassette player gave us the ability to take our music with us. The CD gave us huge sound quality improvements at home and on the go. MP3s may have given up some quality, but the sheer volume and compact nature of the players made this format a CD killer. Enter streaming music and we see MP3 sales plummet.
The anomaly in all this is the resurgence of vinyl. Not portable, not compact, really not especially convenient and selection is limited. There is certainly an argument for sound quality and engagement with the format. That’s what draws me in. But if you’re looking for innovation, not too much has transpired in the way record albums are manufactured and played back. I’ve got to give props to Viryl Technologies here for their development of the WarmTone. This does represent significant innovation in vinyl pressing technology that had not seen any changes in five decades.
On the playback side, there have been incremental changes and improvements, but the basic technology is still the same – a platter spins at 33 1/3 rpm while a stylus tracks a single grove transmitting signals to an amplifier.
There have been a few recent enhancements to turntables. I’m referring to these as enhancements because they really are not changes to the basic way the platter spins the record so the stylus can track the groove. These enhancements include some Bluetooth enabled turntables that convert your analogue signal to digital and send it to a Bluetooth device and USB turntables that do the digital conversion and transmit using a wired USB connection.
Some turntable manufacturers have also started to sell turntables with a built-in phono stage and headphone amplifier like the VPI “high-end entry-level” Nomad. The VPI web site does not mention this new offering, but What HiFi has an advance review. There is something appealing to being able to plug your headphones directly into the turntable without the need of a separate amp, but at the price of this unit, I suspect those with that amount of cash for a turntable may either have a dedicated headphone amp or want to be more selective and purchase one separately.
Now there are a couple of innovative turntable designs. The LOVE turntable is an Indiegogo funded project that has the stylus revolving over the record while the record remains stationary. The music is transmitted via Bluetooth to any enabled device like headphone or Sonos speakers. The device can be controlled by a smartphone app or directly with a single button of the device. while the promo video states that the music does not change when transmitted to your Bluetooth device, I’m not sure that is possible. It may not be an obvious change in musical quality, but I believe the subtle differences between high quality analogue and digital are still the draw to vinyl. But for those with money to experiment ($329 USD plus shipping) and a desire for the unique, this is a pretty cool device.
Another unique Indiegogo product is the MAG-LEV . This turntable uses magnets to elevate the platter when it is rotating. the stated advantage here is no physical contact thus eliminating potential unwanted “noise” and feedback. As the promo for the MAG-LEV states, ” Air is the smoothest medium with least amount of friction” – tough to argue with that. Like the LOVE, this is a beautifully designed product and should have a good quality of sound since it uses a Pro-ject 8.6 tonearm and an Ortofon OM 5E cartridge. At $1,030 plus $200 for a dust cover, I would expect some pretty high-end audio quality. The MAG-LEV is scheduled to ship in October 2017, so we can wait for the reviews.