Record players regaining their timeless groove

January 16, 2003|By Janet Eastman | Janet Eastman,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Record players, those churning fossils buried by cassette tapes and compact discs decades ago, are back making noise.

Step into most department, home electronics and furnishing stores, and you'll see brand new portable "suitcase" versions selling for a C-note or two. They don't pump out the listening quality of a turntable tied to a sophisticated audio system, but they do play LPs and singles evenly.

And, more important to those who paid half a buck for "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to spin at a patio dance party in 1964, they deliver sound waves of nostalgia.

The portables are part of a long tradition of record playing that dates to the 1920s.

In the 1950s, teen-agers who were tired of waiting for Mom and Dad's 78s to play out on the family hi-fi laid down a few bucks to get their own lightweight record players-to-go.

The early versions were designed for 45s, but by the '60s the portables could also handle the long-playing 33s.

As hot as records were for most of the 20th century, many were consigned to boxes in the garage or closet after compact discs crashed the scene in 1983. But the love of vinyl never went cold. For auditory purists, a record's rich sound is incomparably sweet. And the technology was simple - a skip could be overcome by an eraser strategically placed on the tone arm.

"When you got a new record and played it, it sounded great," says Kenny "Hi-fi" Bowers of the Needle Doctor, a mail-order company that sells turntables. "And it still sounds great."

When CDs were outpacing vinyl 3 to 1 in the mid-'80s, most people got rid of their record players, but many held tightly to their LPs and singles.

Since then, platter-philes have hunted for copies of old records, particularly material unlikely ever to be converted to the new format. As a nod to the enduring allure of vinyl and the prevalence of DJs, some new music is also released in record form.

Last year, retailers tested the market for a return to record players by offering them as a gift item around holidays. The Consumer Electronics Association said 177,000 non-DJ turntables sold out quickly, and this season retailers are turning up the volume.

What merchants realized, says Katherine Borgfeldt of Sharper Image, is that many people have stacks of records and no way to play them. This month, the company added a portable record player-CD-radio combo to its lineup. "We have sophisticated entertainment centers in our living rooms, but we still need some way to enjoy our albums on the patio or at a vacation home," says Borgfeldt.

Janet Eastman writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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