Vinyl Records are Back

Sound engineer Kazuo Nada gives us a sneak peek at Sony's new turntable

It’s 2016, and retro technology is getting its second wind. Vintage film cameras, typewriters — and yes — vinyl records are spinning back into our lives. This penchant for old-school analog gear has been steadily increasing over the years. According to Nielsen’s 2015 U.S. Music Year-End Report, LP sales hit a new record of nearly 12 million units in 2015, marking the 10th consecutive year of vinyl sales growth. What’s the reason for this vinyl revival? It’s not just nostalgia. Listeners are pining for higher-quality sound, and vinyl offers a uniquely rich, warm sound quality that you won’t experience while listening to CDs and MP3s.

To meet this growing demand for vinyl, Sony launched a new turntable that will appeal to audiophiles, vinyl collectors and music lovers alike. The sleek PS-HX500 turntable promises the best possible vinyl sound and is capable of playing your favorite records like a dream. But what differentiates Sony’s PS-HX500 from other high-end contemporary turntables is the fact that it lets you record your vinyl discs to create audiophile-quality digital files. The PS-HX500 is equipped with a high-quality A/D converter, so you can simply connect the device to your PC with a USB cable and record your vinyl as High-Resolution Audio tracks. This is the perfect way to back up your extensive vinyl collection digitally, or even take tracks with you on the go (while vinyl sounds incredible, it’s not exactly pocket-friendly). As an added bonus, the turntable will also be accompanied by a mobile and desktop app that allows users to edit their converted files. 

Want a behind-the-scenes look at the new turntable? We spoke with Kazuo Nada, the Sony sound engineer behind the PS-HX500, to find out what inspired this unique twist on the classic turntable and his thoughts on the vinyl trend.

Q: What inspired you to build a new turntable in 2016?

It’s been seven years since we released the PS-LX300USB turntable, which features a USB output for importing your favorite records to a PC. While the PS-LX300USB continues to fly off the shelves at consumer electronic stores and the number of units sold is still growing, we wanted to take the original model one step further. Our customers want quality audio equipment that can record with a higher resolution quality than that of CDs. The PS-HX500 is our way of showing our customers that we’re listening. It features a high-quality DSD native converter that allows you to record your vinyl to digital files in High-Res Audio quality. 

Seeing the PS-HX500 turn into a reality is also a personal dream come true for me. I was a real audio kid growing up. Collecting audio equipment was my favorite pastime. I used to peruse catalogs and then head off to “Akihabara Electric Town,” a district in the Chiyoda ward of Tokyo that is known as a major shopping center for household electronics. 

Q: Did you anticipate that the PS-HX500 turntable would be so popular at CES 2016?

When we were at the CES product demo, we played back DSD files that had been recorded from vinyl records. Crowds of attendees gathered around to test out the sound quality. I anticipated that this turntable would be of interest to colleagues, audiophiles and people within the industry, but I never expected that such a wide range of people would be curious about the PS-HX500.   

Q: What was the first vinyl record you played to test the PS-HX500?

It was a record that was provided to us by the Quality Assurance (QA) department. Designers are always a bit nervous when it’s time to listen to the first sounds of your product being played back! Once you get past that stage, then you can play your own favorite records. I chose a recording by the Oscar Peterson Trio. I love jazz, but to fully test out a product, we evaluate sound quality by listening to a wide range of music genres, including classical, dance music and pop.

Q: What’s your opinion on listening to music on vinyl records versus a CD or MP3?

Some people prefer CDs, and some people prefer MP3s. It’s our job as engineers to design an array of products that will satisfy our customers’ individual preferences. But vinyl records are unique in that they possess this warm, organic sound that you just can’t get in a digital file. 

Of course, vinyl also requires more up-front investment. It takes time to build a vinyl collection, and it requires its own unique equipment and maintenance. But that investment also adds to the joy of owning vinyl records.

Q: Why do you think people have been gravitating toward vinyl records in the past few years?

Simply put — buying records is a lot of fun! There are so many record shops in Tokyo, and it’s an adventure to spend the day browsing these shops and discovering new records to add to your collection. There’s something magical about having to hunt down a tangible record. Whether you’re looking for a new release or a used record, if you find it in a store and don’t buy it right then and there, you never know if you’ll come across it again. It’s a world of once-in-a-lifetime encounters. Vinyl records offer a deeper, tactile connection to music that you can’t get with digital music. When I buy a used record, I can feel how the previous owner treasured it. 

Q: Why is High-Resolution Audio important?

I’m so excited that our turntable allows consumers to record their favorite vinyl records to high-res digital files. High-Resolution Audio allows you to fully capture the entire range of sound in a recording, making it possible to detect the warmth, the organic tones and the core of the sound. Formats with a low volume of information (like CDs and MP3s) provide a stiff feeling, revealing only “the outline” of the sound. 

Q: How do you create a product that balances sleek design and high-quality sound?

The key to getting great sound quality is to make sure that the shape and structure of the product is firmly established even before you start designing. For example, from the very beginning, we decided that we wanted elements like the straight arm, a structure that places the needle at the center of its axis and the circular headshell (the head piece attached to the end of the turntable’s “tone arm”). These are all important design components that the designers were able to bring together in one beautiful, harmonious form. 

For the cartridge to do a good job — that is, for the needle to be able to accurately trace the grooves of the record — we had to make sure that the arm was designed to be light and strong. The PS-HX500’s arm uses an integrated-cartridge straight arm structure that is light, rigid and strong, allowing us to achieve amazing sound quality. As you can see, we truly prioritize design and sound quality equally. 

Q: What’s the favorite vinyl record in your own collection? 

Anyone who is a fan of jazz should listen to Ray Brown’s recordings, including his work with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Whether you prefer digital or analog, there are so many high-quality recordings out there for you to enjoy. 

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