Analog audio making comeback thanks to turntable restorers
02/25/2013 12:00 AM
02/26/2013 11:10 AM
'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 home, evidence enough that this 51-year-old is passionate about analog sound.
These days, analog sound born from vinyl-playing vintage turn- tables, 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 a love for analog's deep, rich and vibrant sound, an experience that eludes those who indulge only in digital music.
Halecker works as a Kaiser Permanente health care worker by dayso she's no big-time seller, but 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. And she won't sell what she calls her "reconditioned beauties," which include brands like Technics and Pioneer, to just anyone. 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."
The most striking evidence of how people are getting into vinyl, and into vintage audio equipment by proxy, 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 what's sold in the digital realm. 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 a 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.
"Folks come to me wanting to reconnect with their memories, and with that sound," said Halecker. "They often state that it sounds better, warmer, fuller, more dynamic – more like listening to the artist on the stage."
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."
But it would be decades before Halecker would re- enter that world. She began tooling around with speakers and reel-to-reel units as a hobby only five years ago. She drew heavily from her prior incarnation working as a cable company technician in the 1980s. Once she felt confident working on these machines, she moved onto refurbishing turntables – which can be tricky affairs.
"You have to do a lot of studying," she said. "There are many physics and mathematical factors involved in addition to the mechanical and electrical properties."
She wanted to be sure she could help 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.
Nowadays, her stock in trade is the sale of entry-level and medium-level turntables, receivers and speakers. The high-end audio equipment she leaves to others.
Another who is thriving in this niche market and who repairs high-end equipment is Luis Galvez, owner of Sacramento's Stereo Advisor – a go-to destination for such repairs, located on J Street.
Like Halecker, Galvez works on analog units because he loves their warm sound. After owning three repair stores in San Francisco for 20 years, Galvez decided to retire to Sacramento.
But he "got bored to death at home," Galvez said, and decided to get back in the business.
Like Halecker, Galvez took to Craigslist to advertise his wares. His first posting saw 35 responses. Soon so many customers were calling or coming to his home with repair orders that he stopped advertising. In 2009 he opened up his midtown shop.
Galvez believes he's seeing a big move into analog because customers are realizing that their modern surround-sound receivers are not meeting expectations as audio units. And he believes many new components are not worth fixing because parts are hard to find and when they are found, the repair often matches the price of a new component.
"Surround-sound receivers have a few problems," he said. For many, the units are also difficult to operate, requiring close manual reading.
"But the key thing is sound quality," he said. "Surround sound has a harsh sound, and when people hear their old records again (on analog equipment) they say there is a huge difference. The sound in the record is more natural and you feel that the instrument is right there in front of you."
At his shop 30 percent of the repair work he does now is turntable repair – a new trend.
"When I had a shop in San Francisco I had very few turntable repairs," Galvez said. "I did one every two months. Now, I receive between three to 20 turntables a day."
The most unexpected trend Galvez is seeing at his shop is a growing interest in the repair and buying of the big console record players that were popular in the '60s and '70s.
Those players usually combined a turntable, receiver and speakers into once piece of furniture. Until recently it was almost impossible to get rid of one.
"I'm repairing three to four of those a week now," he said.
In Granite Bay, 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 décor. They want the midcentury modern look."
Analog audio a growing niche industry ...
2010 vinyl album sales: $2.8 million
2011 vinyl album sales: $3.9 million 2012 vinyl album sales $4.6 million
2011 turntable sales: $7 million
2013 projected turntable sales: $10 million
Amount of 2012 vinyl purchased at independent music stores: 67%
Best-selling vinyl album of 2012: "Blunderbuss," Jack White, 34,000 units
sources: Nielsen Soundscan; Consumer Electronics Association
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