A UAE beginner's guide to buying and listening to vinyl records

Vinyl sales are the highest they've been in three decades, so if you're thinking about diving into the hobby, here's a crash course on what you need

The British Phonographic Industry (BPI) has reported that more than five million vinyl albums have been bought in the UK over the past 12 months. By the end of 2021, vinyl will have accounted for almost one in four album purchases, the highest proportion since 1990 according to BPI estimates. Photo: Getty Images

Vinyl sales are booming.

In the era of Spotify and Apple Music, where millions of songs are only a thumb flick away, vinyl records may seem like a perplexing, if not antiquated, form of consuming music. In fact, less than two decades ago the medium was almost obsolete, but was saved by a few dedicated enthusiasts.

But things seem to have come around for records.

According to an annual report by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), purchases for vinyl LPs in the UK made up for 23 per cent of album sales in 2021. The figure is impressive, especially considering it’s the highest it's been since 1990.

Dubai, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - FEBRUARY, 18 2019.

Records sold at Dubai's vinyl record store – The Flip Side, in Al Serkal Avenue.

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

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So what has inspired many to get back in the groove?

The Covid-19 pandemic seems to have helped the recent surge of vinyl sales, but a new-found appreciation for the medium and its warm sound was also aflame in the years leading up to lockdowns and travel restrictions.

It isn’t necessarily that vinyl discs sound better than digital formats. A lot depends on what equipment you use, and even then, while the medium easily trumps mp3 files and most streaming services, CDs and lossless digital are still superior from a sound quality perspective.

Vinyl offers a much more fun listening experience, though. The sleeves are artworks in themselves and look great stacked in a book shelf or displayed on a wall. Removing a disc from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable platter, brushing the disc for dust, and setting the needle along the outer groove, offers a unique tactile interaction with music. Treat your records well, and their analog voice will be all the warmer.

If you have been thinking about dialling into the hobby for some time and live in the UAE, here’s a guide to get you started. Be warned: the rabbit hole is deep, and can be quite expensive.

The player

To make the most out of your vinyl, you’ll need to invest in a good record player.

Try to get a turntable with an adjustable counterbalance weight and anti-skate.

The counterbalance weight is an integral feature. It ensures that the needle is meeting the groove with the right amount of vertical pressure. Too much pressure will damage your record. Too little and the record will skip. The anti-skate adjustment will keep your tonearm from moving towards the record’s centre as it turns. It also minimises distortion and ensures that both the left and right channels have an equal volume.

As you shop for a player, you’ll find some are direct-drive, whereas others have a belt-driven platter.

Direct-drive turntables, which have the rotary motor located directly under the platter, are generally favoured by DJs. They have a quicker start-up, speed controls and allow you to spin your discs in any direction without risking damage to the motor. But because of where the motor sits, vibrations travel to the platter and are then picked up by the cartridge, resulting in some distortion.

In a belt-driven turntable, the motor is off-set from the main platter and connected to it via a belt. The belt mitigates a fair amount of the motor’s vibrations. Belt-driven turntables are generally the type to go for if you’re only interested in listening to your records. One disadvantage to belt-driven turntables is that the belt can stretch over time, causing fluctuations to the speed of your platter, meaning it won't turn at the desired 33 or 45 RPM. Though they generally last for years, you will need to replace your belt if it becomes too loose, which is as simple as unstrapping the belt from the motor pulley and removing the turntable platter.

While each type has its advantages and drawbacks, you can’t go wrong with either. A good direct-drive turntable to start with is the Audio Technica AT-LP120, which will set you back about Dh1,400. The Audio-Technica AT-LPW40WN is also a decent belt-driven you can find here, great for its elliptical stylus and the speed stability feature on its motor. It will cost you about Dh1,500. The Thorens TD 201 is another robust belt-drive option in the same price range.

You can get a decent record player from Virgin Megastore or the Dubai retailer Raw Music Store.

All of the aforementioned models have a built-in phono preamp, which allows you to hook them up directly to speakers without needing to buy a standalone. A pre-amp is required to amplify the signal from a turntable.

The speakers

A pair of good powered speakers are essential for a solid listening experience. Of course, a lot depends on your budget and where you plan on putting the speakers.

Thankfully, you don’t need to splurge on the most expensive speakers to ensure your music sings through. Audioengine makes great speakers, but they are generally hard to source in the UAE. Klipsch is also a go-to brand, and you can buy a pair of their coveted R-41M for about Dh900 on Amazon.

Raw Music Store has several dependable speaker options, including models by Elac and Kanto.

If you’re looking to dish a pretty penny on a premium listening experience, the Raw Music Store website currently has a bundle offering that includes Audio Technica AT-LP5X direct-drive turntable, Elac Debut speakers, and a Marantz PM6007 amplifier for a nail over Dh5,000.

But you can also just go for an Audio Technica LPW30TK for just more than Dh1,100, and pair it with some Dh700 Pioneer speakers and enjoy your records all the same.

If you’re looking for bluetooth compatibility, the Sony PS-LX310BT, which goes for about Dh1,000, can be a solid choice. However, if you’re getting into vinyl for the allure of analog, do you really want to stream your records over bluetooth?

The records

Now for the fun part.

If you’re unsure of what you’re looking for and want to go crate digging in person for your records, The Flip Side is a great place to start.

The record store in Dubai's Alserkal Avenue houses a sprawling collection that spans divergent genres from jazz and ambient to hip-hop and classical. You’ll also find relatively niche titles and Arabic records that are harder to source elsewhere.

If you’re looking for more mainstream works, Virgin Megastore also has some impressive offerings. However, their collection varies greatly branch to branch.

Raw Music Store also has a fantastic collection of new and used records. The store, located in Dubai International Financial Centre, holds frequent sales and sports an intuitive genre-based categorisation system on its website, making it easy to click through their collection.

Bandcamp is also a great online resource for discovering new music and vinyl records. As much a record store as it is a music community, the website allows you to support and connect directly with independent artists from across the world. Vinyls you buy from Bandcamp will almost always also come with their digital files so you can listen to the tracks while on the go.

Lastly, if you’re looking for rarer or out-of-print titles, Discogs is the way to go. The website’s Marketplace allows you to connect with other collectors to buy and sell your records. Discogs also touts itself as the “largest online database”, housing information about audio recordings as well as boot-legged and off-label releases.

Updated: December 31st 2021, 5:57 AM