Narrative: Technics SL-B2
You Spin Me Right Round
What is the appeal of collecting records? This is something I ask myself every time I put an album on the turntable. Is it the convenience? With some of my albums being divided over four to six discs, absolutely not. The cost? Sometimes you can find a decent sounding record at the thrift store, but you are destined to sift through piles of gospel and country records that nobody remembers. By any real measure, collecting vinyl is excessive, exhausting, and frankly old fashioned. Digital music is way easier, cheaper, and depending on the service, better sounding than vinyl. So far it may seem as if I am advocating against vinyl, but despite all of this I am fully invested in the lifestyle. Vinyl is something tangible and is just cool.
Collecting is hardwired into the primitive hunter-gatherer portion of our brain that still believes that every shiny thing will come in handy one day. I imagine many of my ancestors obsessed over discarded animal bones and monoliths much like primitive man in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Without the need to compulsively hold on to anything in case it may be useful later, humans have instead turned to collecting to assign meaning to our hobbies. I am not just a music fan, I am a record collector. The prestige of collecting plastic discs inside of paper sleeves and cardboard boxes is far greater than anybody wearing wireless headphones listening to Spotify.
Cool comes at a price.
While it is no secret that I have spent several months rent checks on rare records, there are other costs associated with the hobby. The cornerstone of any record collection is the turntable. My turntable is a Technics SL-B2. It’s the Toyota Corolla of the vintage turntable world. It is affordable, has timeless styling, and performs like an iron man. While it lacks the premium looks and features of a higher end Technics or any of their higher end contemporaries, it gets the job done.
My table made its way to me via Goodwill in May 2017. It clearly saw better days when I stumbled upon it; broken dust cover hinges (a common problem with this model), no belt, missing a few feet, and no stylus. If I were to wager how it ended up here, it probably did so by somebody who had forgot of its existence. The neglect sparked my instincts to repair it, and less than $10 later it was mine. The belt and stylus arrived in the mail within a week and I could barely contain my excitement to try it out. After a tutorial video taught me all I had to know about replacing the belt and stylus, I rashly connected the turntable directly to my speakers and threw on Afterman: Ascension by Coheed and Cambria on the table. This is the moment I had been waiting for; that WARM ANALOG SOUND. I just bought my way into the vinyl revival, I can finally play all those records I had stored away for all those years. The needle dropped and the electricity in the air became palpable.
Then all of the sudden it died.
The sound from the turntable was so faint it could barely be said to have played at all. Discouraged, I turned up my speakers to their loudest settings and all I got was distortion and fuzz. I sighed deepyly and with that breath my excitement had left too. I packed up the turntable and decided that I had enough for the day.
After a few hours my curiosity got the better of me and I opened an incognito window on Firefox and searched “turntable low volume” to see what could be the culprit behind my low volume. Turns out I am not the first amateur vinyl enthusiast that has had this problem, as indicated by the first three pages of results on Google for preamplifiers. After doing some reading on enthusiast forums, I settle on a preamp that will do the job well and keep me from eating ramen for a week. The day arrives and I again become a child on Christmas morning. The consumer packaging is no match for my knife, which was sharpened for this moment. After briefly skimming the instructions, I connect the preamp to the wall outlet and lead the RCA output and ground cable to their respective inputs. This is too easy, I think to myself. The RCA output goes to the speaker, and I give the table a redux first spin. This time it is Three of a Perfect Pair by King Crimson. The hissing and buzzing that plagued the first launch were no longer present as the motor got up to speed. I slowly guide the needle to the record and after five agonizing seconds, the first harmonized notes are perfectly hit. A success. I never turned back after that moment. I was hooked on a feeling. After my Dr. Frankenstein moment of reanimating a dead turntable, I began buying up records left and right.
This joyous time period lasted until December 2018 when the motor began to die. No longer did my records play consistently at 33 1/2 RPM. They warbled and warped like a drunk slurring his speech desperately trying to convince himself and the officer he is perfectly capable of walking in a straight line. Much like that drunkard, the table struggled to keep any semblance of balance and stuttered over everything. I had a choice to make at that moment. I could be pragmatic and spend $300 on a new turntable with better sound and features that would last me the rest of my life. Or I could continue being the sentimental fool that I am and pay the same price to fix it. This will not come as a surprise to anybody, because I am sentimental after all.
On New Years Eve, I searched the internet for repair videos for my turntable. After realizing that I had neither the skill nor patience to do this by myself, I stumbled upon a business in the area that promised they can fix any vintage audio equipment. That evening I emailed Wooster Vintage Audio, telling them in great detail about my table and the problems I had been facing. On New Years Day I received a two word reply from the owner – “Call me – 419-XXX-XXXX.” So I did. This is a service I need and I will play by their rules. Brian and I had a conversation on the phone and I set up a drop off time for my turntable.
First I had to secure a temporary table so I would be able to still listen to my records when my other one was in repair. Easy enough – I simply bought an AudioTechnica table from Best Buy with full intention of returning it as soon as possible. The AudioTechnica is everything that one could want in a table. Direct drive, clean platter, nice cartridge and headshell, and beautiful machine. The preamp is built in, saving me a connection in my setup. If I were not paying to have my old machine fixed, I could see myself keeping this.
The comforting interior of Wooster Vintage Audio.
After work I begin my drive down to Wooster, which is exactly 55 miles from my front door. The freezing January afternoon juxtaposed with the gorgeous setting sun that turned the sky pink and white. The roads became treacherous the further east I drove, clearly these roads are not meant to be cleaned during any snow, just the big ones. After I connect with US HWY 30, the open road lets my engine sing. The growl of the inline six is soothing as the road becomes stranger. After a few detours and misread directions, I finally arrive at my destination.
Wooster Vintage Audio is a cornucopia of audio. The preamps and speakers on display are worth more than my car. Getting to know Brian is simply delightful. He has devoted his life to audio to the point where he infects others with his enthusiasm. After we draw up the estimate, he speaks freely with me, saying that the cost of the repair will far exceed what the table is worth. He even suggests a few tables in his shop that I could take home today and have better performance and sound. I respectfully decline and tell him that there is something special about the table that cannot be replaced. He respects this and we sign the agreement and I put down the deposit for the work to be done. After the work was done, I excitedly drove back to Wooster. My table was connected to a McIntosh preamp selling for $10,000 (!) and giant theater speakers that I dare not guess the value. Brian plays Sinatra, and tells me about the merits of analog to analog transfers, and how he owns no records pressed after the 1980s. I am too euphoric to really care, my turntable is fully functional and incredibly clean. I have no regrets over this. There is no price one can put on love, but in this instance it cost me approximately $300.
The receipt from the repair. I truly could have just stuck with the new machine.
Driving home during the sunset on that cold Ohio evening allowed me to feel satisfied with my decision. The work did take a while – which was no big deal since I had an informal rental – but keeping the most important part of my record collection is worth it. Record players are tools to be used, but humanity finds was to communicate and connect with our technology in ways no other species can. We start this at an early age when we imprint on toys, blankets, or books. It continues through our lives, and it allows us to assign meaning to our lives that are full of routine and repetition. The ritual of vinyl slows down the day and allows us to connect with just the music, in ways no streaming service will ever be able.