Positive Feedback Logo

Yes, There Really is Music After Vinyl

09-01-2020 | By Rushton Paul | Issue 111

Rushton Paul

Well now!

I'm pleased to say that we've gotten my friend Rush Paul back for another article here at PF. Longer-term readers may remember his article in PF Issue 88, September/October 0f 2016, "My DIY Approach to the Ultrasonic Cleaning of LPs" and his decades-long love for vinyl. But as you will hear from him below, life changes, and we all have to roll with it. In Rush's case, it's been retirement and downsizing, which resulted in a journey to explore the digital side of music reproduction. This is a voyage that he has agreed to share with us, to our benefit.

I should also note that not only has Rushton agreed to write this article, but (better yet!) has agreed to join Positive Feedback as a music reviewer. He has a very long experience with recorded music, and will be applying it to this brave new world of high-resolution digital recordings, especially DSD and DXD. 

I welcome Rushton to the merry creative community of Positive Feedback!

Dr. David W. Robinson, Ye Olde Editor


Yes, there really is music after vinyl…

Some people had already figured this out. Not me. I'd been a diehard, off-the-deep-end vinylholic for over 40 years. I'd always thought I would be playing vinyl until I could no longer lift a tonearm. And my system matched my obsession: vinyl only, "to the nines."

Back in the 80s and 90s, when so many people were getting rid of their records because they'd found the holy grail of perfect sound forever, I was buying them up. I was buying selectively, to be sure, but accumulating all the time. For my listening partner and me, analog simply sounded better. We developed our system around high-quality vinyl playback. We were happy.

You've noticed I'm writing in the past tense, have you? Well, life happened and we had to make a change. We're not getting any younger and the time had come for us to move into an apartment – in our case an apartment in a retirement community. And nearly 8,000 records, a 300-pound turntable, and big tube amplifiers driving floor standing speakers were simply not going to fit in 1400 square feet.

What to do? I hoped we'd find a way to keep 2000 or so select albums, perhaps downsize to a turntable with a smaller footprint, perhaps shift to smaller stand mounted speakers. I know other apartment dwellers have nice audio systems like this. But the more we considered our options, the more we became convinced that, if we're going to live in a world of shared walls, we didn't want to be the ones who would annoy our neighbors with our loudspeakers.

My listening partner for all these years (you know, the one with the radar tuned hearing who can always tell me within 30 seconds what I'll only start to hear after 15 minutes) led the reality check for us. There simply was not going to be space for records or turntable.

Clearly outmatched, I acquiesced:  no records, no turntable, no large speakers, no 200W tube amplifiers. We were headed for digital purgatory with headphones…

Have you been here? With heels dug firmly into the dirt. Really don't want to go, but know you have to? Yep, that was me.

And here is where I called my friend David, "Ye Olde Editor" of Positive Feedback, in full angst mode.

I needed a shoulder. I needed someone to tell me it would all be okay. And David, in his ever gentle and thoughtful way, tells me: "There really will be good music after vinyl. Trust me. Digital today can be very good indeed."

And so, my journey into learning about digital playback began. With guidance from various friends, I learned about DACs, bit depth, sampling rate, PCM, and DSD. If I was going down this road, I'd do it the way I've always done audio:  go as far off into the deep end as needed to get the best sound quality I could manage, at a cost I thought I could afford. As with any partnership, my wife and I share duties. I do all the research. She tells me whether something sounds good and tells me when I'm being an idiot.

The first step in our transition was a promise to ourselves: No Comparing to Vinyl!

Digital is a different medium with its own set of sonic signatures, distortion variables and potential goodness. Just don't make comparisons. We've always found this to be true with reel-to-reel tape versus records. The two simply sound different, so don't beat yourself up trying to compare them. Instead, focus on how to make each of them the best they can be.

And today, this is our system… All digital sources, a DAC we find exceptional, two pairs of matching headphones (only one shown in the picture), and a headphone amplifier.

The HeadAmp Blue Hawaii Reference Electrostatic Headphone Amp (left), the Playback Designs MPD-8 DAC (right), and the STAX SR009S Reference Electrostatic Headphones, on Walker Audio Valid Points

Yes, some hard drives sit around the corner. But for all practical purposes, this really is the footprint of our system today.

And the sound quality? Oh, yes. David was right. There really is music after vinyl. So much so, that my listening partner and I will swear that some of our best digital recordings are now sounding better than the best of our vinyl. Wait! No comparing, RIGHT?? Eh, audiophiles…just can't help it.

In another missive, I'll share more about the choices we made and why. And how we chose to set up our digital audio system, how we chose to keep everything safe and backed up (since we no longer have any physical media – only files), and what music we're finding and listening to. We'll talk again soon if David permits.

[He does.]

All images by Rushton Paul

Yes, There Really Is Music After Vinyl - Part 2

Yes, There Really is Music After Vinyl - Part 3

Yes, There Really is Music After Vinyl - Part 4

Downsizing Journey Update: Four Years with the Playback Designs MPD-8