As its author put it, "this piece started life as a 6moonbeams installment but then went in a completely different direction. It might put several cats among the pigeons. It's an op-ed on vinyl which I know you don't do yourself." Falling between our format for reviews and industry features, I opted to run it as a review for reasons that might become self-evident. – Ed.

Another vu. Unpopular opinions. The Beatles are overrated. New Order aren’t New Order without Peter Hook. Phil Collins was the better Genesis front man. Being controversial is easy. Justifying such a position takes a bit of consideration and effort. How about this one: better sound quality isn’t the driving force behind the current vinyl revival? Vinyl’s promise of better sound is a meme (largely) propagated by the mainstream press. We don’t have to look far to find evidence of their unflinching love for the black stuff, even when limiting our search to Australia. "Old-fashioned vinyl records still sound best", says the Sydney Morning Herald. Over at ABC Australia, a Melbourne musician compares a digital download to its vinyl counterpart: "It's a lot flatter, it doesn't have that big warm open tone to it that a vinyl would." But ask yourself: is this appreciation rooted in direct experience; or is it received wisdom paid forward but unchecked? Moreover, is the sound of vinyl—if such a thing exists—really as ‘rich’ and ‘warm’ as the mainstream press would have us believe?

Assuming the existence of suitably transparent amplifier and loudspeakers, both Rega RP1 and Pro-Ject Debut Carbon, each set up with supplied cartridge and partnered with an iFi iPhono or Schiit Mani, lack the clarity and dynamic snap of a MacBook firing directly into a Schiit Bifrost. Are we to infer that music played back from a record is rolled off in the treble; lacks dynamics; isn’t capable of proper transient attack? Perhaps ‘warm’ and ‘rich’ are little more than generous euphemisms for ‘fuzzy’ and ‘indistinct’? Beneath the $1’000 marker, a vinyl system’s qualitative shortfall is fully exposed. Many of my vinyl-loving audiophile pals would peg this threshold much higher. Some say $2’000. Others say $3’000. At the entry-level at least, digital sounds subjectively better. The emperor is at least partially naked.

A turntable’s sound depends on a number of factors: its drive mechanism (direct or belt), plinth and platter weight, tonearm and cartridge. A properly set-up turntable will sound open, clean, dynamic and fully extended at both ends. Flipping it around, I’ve heard my Dynavector 10x5 cartridge show front-foot elasticity with microdynamics when fitted to a replinthed Lenco but serve up greater bass authority and midrange clarity on a Pro-Ject Xtension 10. Only when fitted to a Pioneer PLX-1000 does it sound a little more congealed and warm. Visit an audiophile forum or society/club and you’ll find members queuing up to attest to vinyl’s sonic superiority. However, this is testimony from the margins, from owners of hardware that’s made by some of the world’s most respected manufacturers: VPI, Linn and Rega to name a few. The high-end solutions being championed here cost many thousands of dollars and usually require partnering with phono stages and cartridges that double the cost of the investment.

These high-end vinyl rig owner findings jive with my own. From a purely subjective standpoint, more expensive turntable sources lend music a vitality and presence that similarly priced digital playback systems do not. At least that was my conclusion when reviewing Pro-Ject’s Xtension 10 fitted with the aforementioned Dynavector 10x5 when pre-amplified by Vinnie Rossi’s LIO phono board. Like most things in life, the best stuff will run you some serious coin. Comprising a team of ex-Pioneer engineers, the SPEC Corporation’s GMP-8000EX turntable is a piece of meticulous Japanese craftsmanship but at US$25’000 when paired with an EMT 997 tonearm, it’s strictly for the those with the fattest of wallets or those who’d sooner own a high-end turntable than a family saloon car.

Back to the revival. Music Watch this month reported that half of vinyl record purchases now come from the age set of under 25. Confirming as much is this Billboard article. Taylor Swift’s 1989 is reportedly the number one record in the USA so far in 2015. Swift is as mainstream and youth-focussed an artist as they come. The driving force behind the vinyl revival are millennials who, unable to afford an RP1 or Debut Carbon, will resuscitate a 1980s mini system, mix and match low-end vintage components of dubious quality or buy a Crosley or Walmart-supplied table off the shelf. Feed any of these into an amplifier and loudspeakers that ultimately homogenises both digital and analogue sources and we soon see why, surface noise aside, a record will sound identical (at best) to a lossy digital stream. In other words, vinyl’s audible advantages are erased by low-end hardware. Why then are so many millennials buying records?

The answer lies in the vinyl experience. The ceremony associated with playing a record makes listening to music a much less passive activity of sliding the record from the sleeve, placing it on the turntable and hearing the needle make that satisfying thump as it locks into the groove. When a vinyl record subjectively sounds the same as (or worse than) a digital stream, the bragging rights associated with ownership step in to justify the purchase: "Yeah dude, I’ve got it on vinyl!" Financial commitment to an artist is shown off, especially important when a single slice of wax (one album!) sells for three times the cost of a one-month subscription to Spotify or Apple Music. Moreover, set against the backdrop of intangible media aka digital downloads and streams, purchasing a large physical object from a store is suddenly imbued with renewed appeal. Thumbing through racks in pursuit of a gem only adds to the thrill of the chase. Often located in more out-of-the-way neighbourhoods where rents are cheaper, record shops demand that vinyl lovers travel to more unusual parts of a city. Record shopping has taken me to areas of Tokyo, Berlin [below], Munich, Melbourne, New York and Denver that I might not have otherwise visited. Not every record collector is able to travel internationally. Sometimes knowing what to buy can be tricky, especially to millennials for whom the enormous world of recorded music is only just beginning to open up. Subscribers to Vinyl Me Please receive one new record in the mail each month. Each release is chosen by their team of selectors and is often an exclusive pressing. That’s one way to start a collection. And with each VMP release arriving with an art print and cocktail recipe, the richness is more likely found in the experience than any supposed elevation in sound quality.

My current daily drive is a Pioneer PLX-1000 turntable fitted with a Dynavector 10x5 cartridge. It fires its signal through a Vinnie Rossi LIO as phono stage and preamplifier into a pair of Adam Tensor Delta active loudspeakers.I love finding new record stores. I dig buying records. I really like listening to them too. However, not for a moment do I pretend that the Pioneer --> Dynavector -->LIO sounds as good as a Sonos Connect feeding Schiit Audio’s multi-bit Bifrost. That would demand a far more expensive turntable. Do I mind? Not in the slightest. It’s the experience of vinyl that keeps the enjoyment factor high. The conventional wisdom so often funneled via the mainstream press says that few things sound better than vinyl. This is half truth at best. Getting an analogue front end that’ll provide superior sound to a decent digital streamer and DAC takes thousands of dollars and remains well beyond the financial reach of most millennials and thirty-somethings. Is it therefore not more reasonable to conclude that it is the experience surrounding vinyl’s purchase and playback, and not sound quality itself, which drives its present-day revival?

For more by John Darko, visit his own website.