Wednesday, October 14, 2015

180 Gram Vinyl... What are the benefits? Heavyweight Vinyl Records Explained

 

The words "180 Gram Vinyl" have been the cause for many misunderstandings and debate among the audiophile and vinyl records community. Unnecessarily so, I would say, there is nothing magical about heavyweight vinyl, and certainly some myths float over those shiny 180g stickers on the record covers, but that doesn't mean there are no benefits from pressing 180g or even 200g vinyl LP's.

Vinyl record weight has very little to do with the sound quality of the music engraved in the grooves. The technical standard by which grooves are modulated and cut on the record surface is exactly the same on all vinyl records regardless of weight grade, the dimensions of the grooves can only be cut within the scope of that standard, and we are talking about extremely small dimensions at the micro-metric scale with such tiny variations that any vinyl weight above 100 Gram (probably even less) provides the necessary physical support for pressing sound grooves according to the standard industry specifications.

In fact, the mastering (or cut) to vinyl doesn't change or vary in any way depending on the weight or thickness of the vinyl discs that will be pressed, and there is no specific mastering for 140g, 160g, 180g or 200g vinyl... Because of the way the vinyl grooves are formed, the relative depth that exceeds the technical standard, has limited relevance since the point of contact of the stylus tip in the groove (basically a triangle shape with one of the vertices pointing down) does not allow the needle to read any deeper, anything below that point is ignored as if it didn't exist... the relative vertical position of the groove in the disc profile depth is also something that has no impact on the stylus performance. In order to make groove depth beyond the current standard make a difference, or to make the vertical position of the groove in relation to disc thickness have some kind of impact, it would require a complete change of groove geometry, such as the standard angles and other characteristics, that is, it would require a new different vinyl cutting standard and different cartridge design, and so on...

Sound quality on vinyl, as well as any other audio format, depends mostly on the type and quality of the source that was used for mastering, and ultimately on the quality of the mastering process itself as well as equipment used to execute the mastering / cut of the lacquer.



That being said, why are heavyweight vinyl records, above 140 Gram weight grade, usually considered better? What are the real benefits of heavyweight vinyl? Why is it so well regarded by the industry and by most consumers? Here are a few possible answers to those questions:

- The disc, the object itself, is more robust and durable. A 180 Gram LP is not only more satisfying to handle and place on the turntable, but it also offers more resistance to a more aggressive manipulation, adverse storage conditions and other possible abuses that can be inflicted over the years or decades. I'm not referring to groove wear from being in contact with the stylus, that is just the same for any vinyl weight grade, but still there is an obvious advantage to the robustness and durability of the vinyl disc as a physical object, offering more resistance to breaking or to becoming warped, and other potential damage.

- There are mechanical advantages from using heavier vinyl on your turntable, basically it provides a more stable platform for your stylus and cantilever suspension, and probably better isolation from unwanted vibration that can actually cause some sound degradation at this micro-level where the pickup is working. This effect is not much different, from a technical standpoint, from changing the platter material or increasing the platter mass on your turntable, or using a different platter mat... you can see the heavier vinyl record as a type of physical upgrade to your turntable, that will make a difference similar to other upgrades.

- Thicker (taller) vinyl profile might change the sound characteristics of your cartridge, for the better or worse, by changing the VTA (Vertical Tracking Angle) of the tonearm in relation to the record surface, this can be audible or not, and it can change sound to the better or worse depending on how your turntable is setup.

- Historically, there is an implied quality standard associated with 180 Gram vinyl, or 200 Gram vinyl. When these heavyweight pressings first appeared, they represented a higher quality standard being applied to the entire mastering and manufacturing process, so in the end it usually resulted in much better sound but not only because of the heavier vinyl, it was just like today a matter of using better sources (Original Master Tapes) and improved mastering techniques.

- Some labels, namely Classic Records with their Quiex SVP (Super Vinyl Profile), and Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab with their UHQR (Ultra High Quality Record) that was manufactured in Japan by JVC, have developed pressing techniques using 180g and 200g heavyweight vinyl where the dies used for pressing were designed in a way to make the record surface more flat than regular record pressings. The uneven surface effect where the disc thickness varies from outer edge to center point is a well known issue studied by many engineers and entities related to audio mastering and vinyl manufacturing, the benefits of a more perfectly flat surface for the reading of the grooves are real and undeniable, however the relation of this factor with total vinyl weight and thickness is dependent of the use of dies created with such design, and that might vary from label to label and between different pressing plants.



For these reasons, heavyweight 180 Gram and 200 Gram vinyl pressings are usually better quality products associated with limited editions, audiophile editions, and better releases in general. Unfortunately this is not always the reality of all heavyweight pressings, in fact some of the worst record labels making terrible vinyl today are pressing 180 Gram LP's from poor mastering jobs using low quality (mostly digital) sources. Pressing bad records on 180 Gram vinyl doesn't make them good records, even less so does it make them audiophile records... not at all! So what is happening with all these lower quality 180 Gram pressings flooding the market today? These are some of the possible answers for that:

- As part of the vinyl market resurgence that has been going on since 2005 (and growing steady), most labels felt the need to make the vinyl record more attractive for consumers, as if they were justifying the vinyl release (or reissue) with the heavyweight grade and that Quality Standard perception that I mentioned before. There's nothing wrong with this, on the contrary it shows a genuine effort to push forward the vinyl comeback by offering higher quality standard that consumers value and enjoy.

- The somewhat unexpected growth of vinyl sales, and that effort to make vinyl releases more appealing by making 180 Gram pressings, resulted in many pressing plants being much more specialized in pressing heavyweight vinyl records for the last 10 years or so, actually the 180 Gram pressing has now become the standard pressing for most factories, meaning that cost is no longer a determining factor when a label chooses to press on 180 Gram vinyl. It is more expensive because it uses more raw material, but the perceived added value by consumers more than compensates the marginally higher investment.

- Since cost, and technical expertise, are no longer determining factors, this has opened the door for almost any label, good or bad, big or small, to press heavyweight vinyl records. With the added bonus that "180 Gram Vinyl" is usually perceived by consumers as higher quality, specifically higher sound quality.



So, where does that leave us? Well, right at where we started... 180 Gram Vinyl is not magic, and it's really not a solution to any major problem. It's additional value, and can represent higher quality production standards, just as well as it can be used by labels with extremely poor quality standards. It is very important to focus your attention on what really counts: Who mastered the record? Where was it mastered? What sources were used for the mastering process? Where was it pressed? And only then, secondary factors such as Vinyl Weight Grade become additional value and a good reason to buy a vinyl LP.

Don't let the 180 Gram sticker alone put you off buying a great LP... but also, don't let it alone be the major deciding factor when buying a record. It's not magic, but it's not to be dismissed as "gimmick" because there are in fact many benefits to heavyweight vinyl pressings when that is part of a bigger picture of quality production that includes quality mastering from the best sources to achieve a result that is a better product in all areas.

www.vinylgourmet.com
your Music... served right!

36 comments:

  1. I'm convinced that 180g are primarily designed for online sales where shipping lightweight vinyl in the mail is less susceptible to warping and damage. Also provides a since of quality due to the extra weight.

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  2. I have to say I just like the weight, feels solid for my $60

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  3. Just cut the damn thing correctly and press it at a reasonable 120gm. 180-300gm pressings are often riddled with non-fill, which makes a ripping sound in the left channel on playback.

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    1. Hello, non-fill usually affects the sound on the right channel, at least that has been my experience with all non-fill affected LP's. I've had many cases of non-fill issues with pressings of all weight grades, from 120g to 200g, and I've never found a correlation between non-fill and record weight. I do find a correlation between non-fill and when the record was pressed... it is more commonly found in new pressings (any weight) and not so much with vintage pressings. This is probably related to the overloaded manufacturing capacity from the last 5 years or more, with heating/cooling cycles that might not be ideally timed. Issues like non-fill seem to be disappearing from the best factories as years go by now and things progress to a more stabilized production schedule and method, I've not found any non-fill issues for some time now (maybe more than 2 years) with LP's pressed at RTI, QRP, Pallas, Optimal... and even MPO, Record Industry and others have been pretty much free from such issues. Things are improving :) But of course there will always be some exceptions and cases where things go wrong... but the point is, I've heard a fair share of 120g-140g records with non-fill noise in the last 10 years...

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    2. Hello,
      and what about the material itself, recucled vynil vs. virgin vynil. As far as I know, in the later seventies only some clasic music labels pressed on virgin vynil and above 120 grams. Since early seventies, the industry started making thinner records to increase profits, then After 1973 OIL crisis, the record industry begins to use recycled vynil compromising quality and become worse with the 1979 oil crisis (Iran) where the cost of a barrel was many times the cost that have pre 1973. Recycled vynil tends to have more surface noise.

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  4. I've always found the whole 180gm thing to be yet another way for record companies to try and justify overcharging for vinyl.

    Especially today, since vinyl has become some sort of weird status among people leaping on to a trend who are more than happy to overpay in order to show off how cool they are.

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  5. I live in Canada and i bought a lot of vinyls in my earlier life . The country where it was press used to make a substantial difference and Canada had the worst quality then US pressing were better and the best came from the UK ...

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    1. Indeed; UK records are the quietest, best pressed in the world (in general, not talking about audiophile releases mind you)

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    2. Japanese pressings have always been, by and large, clearly superior to UK pressings. So have those from Holland and Germany.

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    3. In terms of physical pressing quality, yes Japanese pressings were the best. Unfortunately the same is not true for mastering quality...

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    4. U.K pressings are some of the worst. Japanese are much better but a bit thin in the sound compared to like US pressings which usually are the best. But in the end the old pressings such as when they still used mastertapes as a source then the best pressings might be where the original mastertapes were. They would usually ship a copy of the mastertape to europe and that goes for worse sound. I have experimented a lot with this and it proves me right every time.

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  6. There is no durability advantage. Heavy vinyl is more likely to be defective because it requires a longer cooling time. And it's not more immune to vibration--it just resonates at a lower frequency, and for longer. It takes up more space, is more likely to cause seam splits, and costs more to ship. I wish it had never been invented. Give me a well pressed 120-140g any day.

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  7. Like Chris, I live in Canada and being the owner of over 19,000 LP's you're dead wrong over the quality of records pressed here in this country. I will concede, the best are out of the UK but, Canadian and U.S. pressings were equal - good when they were good and bad when they were bad. In fact, when it comes to the early Beatles pressings and the last gasp for Capitol - the "retro rainbows" they were superior.

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  8. 180 Gram Vinyl? This device always attracts my attention.

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  9. Referencing weights of records today back in the 1970's Japanese pressings of American LP's at the time felt heavier were desirable, were they in fact heavier than 140 grams. There was also a rumor that the virgin vinyl to recycled vinyl ratio was higher any clarification on this

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  10. Ah, i'm loving this blog, many interesting comments

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  11. Interesting discussion; I just wish some of you had better grammar and new how to spell 'vinyl'.
    The sense of perfection seems to be limited to one genre. lol.

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  12. You refer to VTA as Vertical Tracking Alignment - I think the correct term is Vertical Tracking Angle.

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    1. Hi Biff, you're right, sorry it was a mistake, I will correct it. Thanks for reading and thank ou very much for letting me know about that mistake!

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  13. A little history for you. "Records" originally were pressed on rock hard thick shellac. The amps and and turntables were one unit. The main point here is shellac will give you the best sound reproduction because there is no ware on the peaks and troughs in the record grooves. The media was stable. 180 g is just a fat 33 rpm soft plastic disc that produces mudddy bass, and eventually sawed off peaks. It's basically a rip off. But as some of you have said, a lot depends on the source.

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  14. I have found that the big gram records scratch and skip easier than the old school lower weight records...At least it's been my experience on my old school Technics or Fisher turntables...I think the higher gram records are designed for the crappy "all in one" portable record player that you buy from Urban Outfitters with your favorite pair of jeans. Those things SUCK!...My daughter has ruined many a good classic rock original record on that piece of crap. The best vinyl comes from the 1960's and 70's....Greedy 80's were in mass production and trying to make as much profit as they could and are super thin and warp easily....All vinyl is precious and needs to be cared for. "It's Only Rock n Roll"...But I LIKE IT

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  15. Is it still true that the industry, as a whole, is still pressing all this new vinyl on record presses that are 40 and 50 years old? Has anyone started manufacturing a modern vinyl record press?

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    1. Hi John, yes most of the factories are still using refurbished vintage machines. But there are alternatives, check this out:

      http://blog.vinylgourmet.com/2016/02/the-return-of-vinyl-records-from-fashion-to-confirmed-reality-2016.html

      Viryl Tech and Newbilt Machinery are doing it :)

      As the vinyl market grows, the type of investment required for new equipment starts making more and more sense for manufacturers... the future is bright for vinyl records.

      Just a couple of days ago Sony announced their return to vinyl pressing in Japan! How cool is that?

      Cheers!
      Sérgio

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    2. Yes. Ive read that Sony Japan will be opening two pressing factories. Great news for vinyl lovers. But will they be Japan only plants. Still good news for vinyl lovers. Cheers Digi !!

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    4. Yes, Sony is now back not only to vinyl mastering at their main studios in Japan, but also back to vinyl pressing in Japan. This is extremely relevant and industry changing event, let's see how it all works out in the coming years... wouldn't be surprised to see Sony use a similar approach in the USA and Europe. One thing seems certain, from small to huge companies, everybody is investing in vinyl records in a way that sets a growing trend for many more years :)

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  16. What about that a thicker record can contain more resonanses?

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    1. Sure, different mass has different reactions to energy. But remember that there is no "disc only" mass, it will always be a combination of disc and everything else it is in contact with, possibly a mat, a platter, the turntable, what the turntable is sitting on... and so on. So, in fact, it is very unpredictable if different LP mass will result in more or less resonances being transmitted in a good or bad way, for all playback systems...

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  17. QRP has upgraded their presses. Computerization has allowed them to control heating and pressing times to an exact measurement. In the US I consider them the finest pressings available. There are rarely any records they distribute that have errors. The name QRP is leading the way with innovations that put their release head and shoulders of many.

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  18. Congratulations for the article!!! I totally agree!!

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  19. Great article. Of course it's a sturdier product but I'm glad this puts some people quiet who believe ALL 180g vinyl is "better".

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  20. Great post, top of Google so I hope it's still being monitored despite it being a bit old. I was wondering why recent heavyweight vinyl releases seem to split albums over 2 discs rather than the 1 you get for pre-renaissance/2005 records.

    Based on your post it seems that there is no technical reason so is it likely to be for marketing purposes? Does mean more trips to the turntable to complete the album...

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    1. Hi Jonathan,

      There are many reasons for releasing albums on 2LP instead of just 1LP, for new music and reissues.

      Usually the main reason is sound quality, there is indeed a huge technical difference, specially if the album running time is long or has very intense dynamic range changes and/or strong bass peaks. Lateral spacing for grooves does vary a lot and is crucial for sound quality. Also, usually going for 2LP's allows the mastering engineer to keep the bulk of the music cut on the outside of the disc where the sound quality/fidelity is higher.

      This however has nothing to do with records weight ;)

      Kind regards,
      Sérgio - www.VinylGourmet.com

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