Vinyl: The format that refuses to die
Sales of premium audio equipment that allows listeners to fully appreciate the rarefied quality of analog records have been experiencing a boom as a certain segment of music fans rediscovers a passion for high-fidelity sound.
In addition to a rise in the number of audiophiles who enjoy listening to music on such systems at home, cafes offering private booths equipped with record players have also appeared.
Soji Nagase is one such audiophile. At his home in Moriya, Ibaraki Prefecture, the 65-year-old doctor has a 45-square-meter soundproofed listening room lined with speakers, amps and other kinds of audio equipment. A record player is a recent addition to his hi-fi line-up, Nagase said.
Nagase started collecting vinyl records when he was young. His interest in the format was reignited this spring after attending a music event at which the organizers played records produced by "direct-to-disc" - a recording method in which the audio is recorded directly onto master discs without using magnetic tape.
"I was surprised by the range of sounds I was able to hear," Nagase said. "When listening to [direct-to-disc records] on high-end speakers, it's as if the ceiling disappears."
Nagase uses a high-end speaker produced by U.S. audio equipment maker JBL - the model 4350A - through which the silky vocals of a chanteuse were reproduced so clearly it sounded like the singer was standing directly in front of him.
"Buying needles is difficult and records aren't cheap, but it's worth the effort," Nagase said.
Electronics manufacturer Panasonic revived its Technics audio brand in 2015. In response to calls from fans, Technics last year relaunched its premium SL-1000R record player, priced at ¥1.6 million excluding tax.
The record player has a sturdy, machined aluminum housing, and its tonearm - to which the needle is attached - is made from lightweight but strong magnesium.
Technics Product Manager Yasunao Uematsu said: "The enjoyable thing about analog [record players] is that you can customize the setup by changing the tonearm of the player or needle as you like. We use the best materials and technology for those music fans who want to listen to audio of exceptional quality."
The number of places where music fans can listen to premium audio systems is also increasing.
About 340 record sleeves adorn the walls of Billboard Cafe and Dining in the Tokyo Midtown Hibiya commercial complex, which opened in 2018. The cafe includes private rooms equipped with high-end audio units by Technics among other brands. "Audiophiles sometimes meet here to listen to records together," cafe manager Sachiko Tanabe said.
As Tokyo Midtown Hibiya also houses a movie theater, the cafe said it often receives requests for songs that have featured in films, especially during the screenings of last year's standout hit "Bohemian Rhapsody," when staff members were being asked to play Queen songs on an almost daily basis.
"While record sleeves, like works of art, are beautiful to look at," Tanabe said. "They're also becoming popular among people who appreciate their retro appeal."