HOW TO PLAY A RECORD 


;As the preferred music-delivery device for most of the latter half of the 20th century, the vinyl LP is nowadays made out by some people — usually obsessive audiophiles — to be the central element in a sacrament, rather than merely a way to listen to some tunes. A complex combination of equipment and a perfectly tuned listening environment are deemed near-requirements for getting that lusty "warmth" so often crowed about.

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;But if it takes that much work to get "quality," no wonder so many people are content to pop in a data disc of MP3s and get on with it.

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;To be sure, one can easily spend many thousands of dollars on gear and accessories for a vastly improved listening experience, but at the end of the day, all you need is a clean record and a decent turntable to make for a thoroughly enjoyable session of music-playing.

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;1.SELECTING A TURNTABLE. What you need first is a record player. While you can (amazingly) still pick up turntables at big-box stores, those models are only a few steps above the Close 'n' Play you had as a kindergartner. Why spend almost $150 on a thin-sounding Sony with a crap cartridge/needle (the PS-LX250H runs $139 at Best Buy) when you can get an audiophile table from the respected British manufacturer Rega for the price of an 80GB iPod?

;;The newly introduced Rega P1 runs $349 (at www.musicdirect.com) and comes ready to plug-and-play. (If it needs any adjustment, the folks you bought it from will certainly be happy to walk you through it.) Rega turntables have a sterling reputation among audiophiles, and the company's top-of-the-line decks can cost as much as $5,000. The P1 utilizes many of the same components as Rega's higher-end turntables, with some corner-;cutting to achieve that desirable price point.

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;Even less expensive is the highly rated Pro-Ject Debut III series, which runs from $299-$329, depending on which color (!) you want. Both the Pro-Ject tables and the Regas come with quality Ortofon cartridges. If you're going to buy a new turntable, you may as well buy a good one.

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;While good deals seem to abound on used, "vintage" turntables, it's advisable to avoid buying one unless you trust the seller; shipping can wreak havoc on a record player's delicate internal balances, and many older tables require a good deal of pre-use updating and maintenance. If you're a TLC/DIY kinda music-listener, it might not be an unpleasant or unrewarding project getting a '70s Thorens up to snuff, but it will be a project.

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;2.RECEIVERS. Once you've got a turntable you're happy with, you'll need to make sure your receiver has a phono input; turntables don't typically have built-in line-level amplification (any that do typically sound pretty bad) and depend on the receiver/amplifier to bring the output signal up to an audible level with correct equalization. If your receiver doesn't have a phono input (most modern receivers don't), it's not a problem; the folks at www.phonopreamps.com have a wide selection of tiny boxes that you put between the turntable and the receiver which will process the signal properly. They come as cheap as $29.95, but the TC-750 they have on offer for $43.50 is a solid midpriced recommendation.

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;3.CLEANING. Now that your system's ready to accept some vinyl pleasure, you need to make sure of one more thing before you plop that platter: Your records need to be clean. There's a debate among record people about the best way to clean a record, but nobody questions that it's imperative to get rid of both the surface dust and the in-groove messiness that plague the medium.

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;The cheapest record-cleaning machine around is your hands, and for nearly 20 years that's what I've used. A solution of 90 percent distilled (not mineral!) water and 10 percent isopropyl alcohol (unless you're cleaning 78s), a handful of very clean 100 percent cotton cloths and a little bit of elbow grease is about all you really need to get the vast majority of records up to an acceptable level of cleanliness. Just spray the "solution" onto one side of the cloth, wipe the record in the direction of the grooves (not out from the middle) until the grooves are soaked, flip the rag over to wipe up the moist remnants and you're done. When you start to see dirt on the cloth, get a new cloth, otherwise you're just grinding dirt back into your records. A carbon-fiber brush (you can get a good one for under $20) is also a great tool to have around to take care of any pre-listening dust that's settled on the record since you hand-cleaned it. Keep your stylus clean and the dust cover down and you're good to go.

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;4.STORAGE. Records will always need to be recleaned, but not very often if you keep dust away from them. By using plastic outer sleeves to cover the jacket while the album's being stored, you go a long way toward keeping dust from making its way back on to your record. Oh, storing your records: You should do that. Records left lying around out of their sleeves are sonic disasters. Always store them upright in a reasonably temperate room. Don't pack 'em too tight and don't pack 'em too loose, or they may be damaged.

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;This is a little more complicated than popping a CD into your clock-radio while you cook dinner, but music can be a lot more than a background. The investment is minimal and the payoff substantial, and anyone who tries to make listening to vinyl more complicated than this is probably trying to sell you something.

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