Turning The Tables

A new breed of record players puts a 21st-century spin on decades-old technology, with astonishing price tags as well.

In an age dominated by iPods and digital downloads, it may come as a surprise to learn that turntables continue to flourish. A resurgence of albums issued on vinyl has triggered a wave of new high-end record players that are breaking dramatically out of the box.

The return to turntables isn't just another nostalgic fad— for serious music fans, it's about a desire for a more authentic sound. Vinyl records contain all the musical information cap-tured on the original master tape, while digital playback devices often leave certain bits out. "A CD player is basically a computer designed in 1978," says Harry Weisfeld, co-owner of VPI Industries in Cliffwood, New Jersey. "With CDs, you're screaming for more information. But with vinyl, the detail is incredible. Your brain doesn't have to fill in the spaces. Frank Sinatra sounds like a human being again."

VPI is one of the companies feeding the trend that has produced turntables of increasingly extraordinary beauty, craftsmanship, and expense. It makes one of the most innovative models on the market, the Hot Rod Experimental, or HR-X, priced at $10,000. Like other turntables in its class, the elegantly balanced silver-and-black player (it weighs 140 pounds) is aimed at audiophiles who combine their love of music with an appreciation for fine mechanical engineering. VPI sells just over a hundred of the HR-Xs per year worldwide.

Unlike mass-produced, vibration-prone players of yesteryear, today's upscale turntables treat vinyl recordings as seriously as a saint's last breath. The HR-X's record platter, which spins with the aid of a flywheel driven by either of two motors (one for larger, 33-rpm records, the other for the smaller 45-rpms), is made of acrylic to prevent resonance. A special suspension system allows the platter to float in space, protecting records against even the most minute sound-distorting vibrations. The record, meanwhile, is secured by its edge with a steel ring to ensure that it stays totally flat.

Atypically for turntables on this level the HR-X comes with a tonearm, which is a bit longer than usual to enhance stability and reduce tracking errors. However, the cartridge that houses the needle must be purchased separately. And buyers should know that the best tonearms and cartridges can cost almost as much as the turntable itself.

Exquisitely designed turntables are objets d'art in and of themselves, but in the end the sound is what matters most. "There's something about playing a record that's not the same as playing a CD," remarks Weisfeld. "It's just more seductive." For information, call 732-583-6895 or visit www.vpiindustries.com.

More Spin

1. Acutus by Avid This British-made turntable sports a chrome finish and an arresting tripod design for enhanced stability. Every part is crafted in-house by Avid. $13,000; 800-449-8333; www.avidhifi.co.uk

2. Work of Art by Basis Audio Hand-built in New Hampshire, this 400-pound heavyweight has the name (and eye-popping price tag) that says it all. Its acrylic platter is suspended by hydraulics, while a unique vacuum pressure system ensures that records lie perfectly flat. $69,000; 603-889-4776; www.basisaudio.com

3. Master Reference by ClearAudio Highlights of this German-made player include a platter carved from a single block of acrylic and an unusual linear tracking tonearm designed to eliminate any distortion. From $19,000; 510-547-5006; www.musicalsurroundings.com

Put the Needle to the Record

These days, most music stores carry at least a limited selection of new vinyl releases and reissues, priced similarly to CDs. Of course, used-record shops also sell LPs. But if you're looking for hard-to-find original copies of, say, Charlie Mingus's 1958 Weary Blues or The Edward from 1972 (featuring Mick Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts playing with Nicky Hopkins and Ry Cooder), some of the best sources are on the Internet. EBay is always an option, and there are specialty Web sites such as Acoustic Sounds (www.acousticsounds.com), Esprit International Limited (www.eil.com/features/chartsvinyl.asp), and Data Records (www.superecords.com).