Colin Kolb has worked in the audio-visual field for five years, coordinating repairs on vintage record players and compiling his own extensive vinyl collection along the way.
A guitar player and a fan of rock and jazz, Kolb, 30, owns two turntables and prefers spinning physical albums because they provide a "more natural, realistic sound" compared to the "tin-can" sounds of digital music.
Nathaniel Kinsey, himself a record aficionado, doesn't hear it that way.
"I don't necessarily think they sound any better," said Kinsey, the big-haired, exuberant assistant manager of Record Connection in Ephrata. "I prefer albums for other reasons. But, you know, I like my music slightly more rickety. I never minded a pop or a sizzle."
If questions remain about the high-fidelity quality of vinyl LPs versus compressed electronic files, at least music fans still have the chance to enter the debate. Sales of vinyl record albums have skyrocketed in recent years, and new-styled turntables - many of them inexpensive and ready to plug and play - are arguably easier to find than at any time since the 1980s.
Americans purchased more than 3.9 million vinyl LPs in 2011, up nearly 40 percent from the year before, according to Nielsen SoundScan. That was the highest number since 1991, when Nielsen started tracking sales and CDs were in their heyday.
But as CDs gave way to MP3s and iPods, a new generation of music lovers questioned whether they'd been trading quality for the sake of convenience.
"We definitely see the trend being that vinyl and record albums have seen a resurgence," said Andy Kamm, owner of the Record Connection since 1984. "People believe records offer a warmth to the music that your digital files just can't capture."
Kamm, a self-described "vinyl junkie" with more than 5,000 personal albums, never stopped believing in vinyl. But his clientele today is more than the classic music collectors who helped carry independent music stores through the lean '90s and early 2000s. Twelve-year-olds are shopping alongside their parents and, in some cases, asking them to buy new turntables for their homes.
They don't have to look far for a starter model, and even high-end models are becoming easier to find. Kolb has worked at Glick Audio and Video in Lancaster for about five years and said shoppers are definitely in the mood to buy.
"When I started, we had one turntable in the showroom and sold very few," he said. "We now have eight different models to demo and always have various models in stock."
First-time buyers who didn't grow up with records likely need a crash course in record basics, but many of today's turntables are designed to get the music playing quickly.
"What you're going to buy depends on if you're into audiophelia or something sick like that," joked Kinsey, throwing around a term for someone obsessed with high-fidelity sound, during a weeknight shift at Record Connection.
Kinsey - who sports a Blue Oyster Cult T-shirt and interrupts an interview to field a call about the death of heavy-metal band Riot founder Mark Reale - takes his music seriously, but he's no snob. After pulling out the band's 1981 "Fire Down Under" to show one of the "scientifically proven best metal records ever," he quickly returns to the boxes of turntables stacked at the store's front. For most people, he said, an entry-level unit priced around $150 will do the job.
Some models are designed to connect vinyl and technology, with a USB connection to aid the conversion of albums to computer files. Others with classic styling convert records to CDs. And other, more advanced systems require a separate amplifier or speaker system, or play into today's sleek design expectations.
For Kinsey, playing records isn't about playing with components or obsessing over calibration. Instead, he prefers records for the clues they reveal about an artist. Liners and covers are crammed with quirky details, art and song lyrics, all things that went the way of the eight-track when CDs' small packaging came along.
And some records offer quirks that you won't find on overly mastered CDs. Kinsey cites Kiss' 1979 "Dynasty" album, which featured a prominent skip on nearly every copy - a quirk that experts might be able to get around by pressing down on the needle or grinding the vinyl down.
Kamm said some record companies are recognizing that consumers want the best of both worlds and have begun packaging full-size LPs with CDs or digital downloads that listeners can take in the car or upload to their iPods.
Record Connection stocks some 30,000 albums ranging from pop to progressive to heavy metal to soul and disco. And although The Beatles' "Abbey Road" remains the No. 1-selling vinyl album nationally with 41,000 copies sold in 2011, a new crowd of turntable owners has welcomed newcomers to the top of the vinyl charts. Last year, according to Rolling Stone, Adele, Bon Iver and The Black Keys all made Top-10 appearances.
Kolb listens primarily to rock, jazz and classical on his turntables, which include a new Hi-Fi Pro-Ject Debut III and a vintage Thorens TD160, with a wooden plinth, or platform, and a vintage look. He prefers the way drums sound on vinyl, and his collection - started by his father - numbers in the hundreds.
"Records have a warm, more natural sound with more ambient space around the music," Kolb said, allowing that how individuals hear music may help determine what platform they prefer. "The uncompressed sound is what audiophiles love and kids used to listening only to MP3s don't understand."
Expert tips for taking care of your turntable investment
Although record players are experiencing a resurgence, not much has changed beyond styling. "The mechanics are the same," Kolb said. "A motor turns the platter at a set speed, so generally not much can go wrong."
To protect your investment and get the best sound from a player, owners should follow these tips:
• Review your buying power. In-store prices run from less than $150 to as much as $3,500. Before buying, you'll need to determine whether you want an entry-level table or something that costs more up front but can be upgraded. Visit a local store or look for dependable product reviews online at websites like Stereophile.com.
• Keep your records and your platter, the part of the turntable that turns, dust-free. If you handle carefully, they're no more likely to get damaged than a CD. "Records are like your friends," said Record Connection owner Andy Kamm. "If you take care of them, they'll take care of you."
• Replace needles and belts occasionally. Kamm said how often depends on your "mileage." You may sometimes need to replace a belt or stylus, and calibration can help maximize sound quality.
• Consider repair of a vintage machine before buying new. "It's the best option for many people because the build of many tables from the '50s, '60s and '70s is better than most $500 players today," Kolb said.
Vinyl Top 10, 2011
1. The Beatles - Abbey Road (41,000)
2. Fleet Foxes - Helplessness Blues (29,700)
3. Bon Iver - Bon Iver (27,200)
4. Mumford & Sons - Sigh No More (26,800)
5. Radiohead - The King of Limbs (20,800)
6. Adele - 21 (16,500)
7. Bon Iver - For Emma, Forever Ago (16,200)
8. Wilco - The Whole Love (14,900)
9. The Black Keys - Brothers (14,200)
10. The Black Keys - El Camino (13,800)
- Source: Nielsen SoundScan