Monday, August 1, 2016

ARE 180 GRAM RECORDS BETTER THAN REGULAR LPs?


Seeing the words "180 Gram Vinyl" on the front cover of a record usually triggers the same pleasure response in your brain as seeing the words “prime beef” on a menu. The 180 gram sticker hits the bullseye for communicating “high quality,” but are heavier 180, or 200 gram LPs deserving of a premium image in buyers’ minds?

In reality, the weight of a vinyl record has very little to do with the sound quality of the music etched into the grooves. The technical standard by which grooves are modulated and cut on the record surface is exactly the same for all vinyl records -- regardless of weight. The sound quality of vinyl, as well as any other audio format, mostly depends on the type and quality of the source material used for mastering, and ultimately on the quality of the mastering and manufacturing process itself.

So, does this mean that records heavier than the standard 120 Gram weight (used for most of the last century) are just “snake oil” being sold to uninformed consumers? Or, are there actually “premium” audio benefits? Here are some answers:

--There are mechanical advantages from using heavier vinyl on your turntable, because they provide a more stable platform for your stylus and cantilever suspension, as well as better isolation from unwanted vibration that can cause sound degradation. This beneficial effect is similar, though on a smaller scale, to upgrading your turntable platter or using a different turntable mat to realize audio improvement.

--No doubt about it, heavier records are more durable. A 180 Gram LP is not only more satisfying to hold, handle and place on the turntable, but they’re less prone to breaking, cracking or warping. All records degrade the more you play them, but heavier records are sturdier, and will generally sound better for a longer period of time.

--Just like the “prime beef” stamp, there is an implied quality standard associated with 180 Gram or 200-Gram vinyl. When heavier record pressings first appeared in the 90’s, they reflected a new mindset in the record industry geared toward higher quality standards -- in order to attract new customers in a mature market in need of resuscitation.  And heavier records are typically associated with better music sources, like original master tapes, along with improved mastering techniques.

--Sometimes a heavy record is made with "virgin" vinyl, which means no recycled plastic was used in production. Recycled raw materials can contain impurities leading to a noisier record. Older record collectors remember RCA’s infamous cost-cutting “Dynaflex” pressings in the 70’s, which were thin, made from recycled vinyl, and sounded crappy.

--Some 180 Gram and 200 Gram pressing plants use special dies to make the record surface flatter than regular record pressings. An uneven LP surface makes it harder for the stylus to do its best work collecting music information. The benefits of a flatter surface for the reading of the grooves are real and undeniable.

Where does that leave us? There are certainly more than a few 180 Gram LP's in stores that were poorly mastered from low quality sources, which doesn't elevate them to “audiophile” status. So, don't let the 180 Gram sticker alone be the major deciding factor when buying a record. It's not a magical blessing, but, given the information I’ve laid out, it's not to be dismissed as a marketing ploy either.

Heavier records do deliver additional value, and can also represent higher quality production standards. I've rarely been disappointed with 180 Gram record purchases I’ve made. Best advice? Focus your attention on what really counts: Who mastered the record? Where was it mastered? What sources were used for the mastering process? Where was it pressed? Then, secondary factors such as a record’s weight become an additional “value-add,” and a good reason to buy a vinyl LP.


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