There isn’t any doubt about that. In the mainstream, vinyl is back. It’s never left to audiophiles. With the advent of the digital age, the warm sound of the old school vinyl records that the overwhelming majority of customers discarded in favor of convenience has been touted by audiophiles. Yet vinyl is no longer only for audiophiles. It looks like we lost something in the digital comfort. Beyond sound quality, many value physical presence as an essential component of the experience of listening to music.
Today, most artists worth their salt release their new albums on cd, and Target, Walmart, and other mainstream big box discount stores grace the shelves with vinyl LPs. Newly released vinyl albums is coming with a renewed interest from the masses.
In recent years, readers who have bought an album have probably noted that many new releases and newly released re-issues of time-honored classics tend to have a small sticker on the front that reads “180 Gram Vinyl.” Even if you don’t know exactly what this means, the more frugal of you have probably noticed that 180 gram vinyl records tend to come with a substantially higher price tag. So what is 180 grams of vinyl exactly, why does it cost more, and what particular advantages does it offer?
In short, it is about weight. The overwhelming majority of records of 12 inches that were pressed in the 20th century weigh between 120 and 140 grams. In comparison, 180 grams of vinyl is considerably thicker and heavier, producing a commodity that is generally considered to be “audiophile quality.” But the 180 gram limit is not capped on heavy-duty albums. On platters as large as 200 grams, some new releases and re-releases are pressed.
Even among the very audiophiles that these specs are supposed to attract, there are many generally held myths regarding audiophile grade records. It is important to understand, first and foremost, that there is nothing intrinsically special about 180 grams of vinyl. 180 grams of vinyl, including noise reduction, lower bass / higher treble, and enhanced stereo imaging (the perceived spatial positions of different instruments, vocals, and other sonic elements in comparison to others), are credited to a whole host of sonic advantages. Although it is undoubtedly true that many releases of 180 grams go hand in hand with these and other sonic advantages, the main cause of these changes is seldom the mere weight of the album.
In comparison to vinyl releases of standard weight, there is an implicit consistency standard associated with audiophile grade vinyl that clearly does not exist. In short, record companies who take care to release an album on 180 grams of vinyl often take care to use quality source material (such as original material tapes) and advanced processing methods when it comes to the entire mastering and manufacturing processes. They also prefer to use “virgin” vinyl, which removes recycled plastic that can contain impurities that contribute to noisier playback in the end.
Forget about any misconceptions about deeper or more polished grooves that you might have learned. While styles (or record “needles”) require the same grooves to operate correctly on all record grades, there are distinct advantages to heavier records. For instance …
There are better and more robust 180 gram vinyl albums, so they appear to last longer and avoid breakage. Since they are heavier, vinyl records of 180 grams often resist warping better than traditional weight records. (The music pressed on them may be distorted by twisted, or bent, records and cause the stylus to jump / skip.)
Heavier vinyl offers a more robust stylus and cantilever suspension platform that provides additional protection from excessive vibration that can cause micro-level sound degradation.
There are some advantages in the end, but the weight alone does not necessarily make it easier to press vinyl. There are plenty of bad 180 gram vinyl pressings. It is simply a publicity tactic for some record makers to excite you with a fresh press. These pressings still have positive advantages, but the glossy sticker on the dust jacket should not be the only determining factor for the purchase of a new $45 record.