It’s no longer a secret; records have been making a comeback for the past few years. There are plenty of reasons to explain the return of the famous LP. Whether it’s a vinyl collection brought down from the attic, a remastered edition of a classic, or a new release, records are once again enjoying an esteemed place in the hi-fi universe. Already prized by audiophiles, the LP is today making a new name for itself.
120g, 180g and HD records
Countless artists have re-released their most popular albums–and even their entire catalog–in the 180g format. In the past, records were pressed in a 120g or 140g format. Since 180g discs are thicker and heavier, they last longer and guarantee enhanced playback stability (and consequently less wow and flutter) while minimizing vibrations. 180g discs are also known for offering a better stereo image, clearer sound, and a wider bandwidth… a debate dividing even die-hard record connoisseurs.
Today, the Austrian brand Rebeat is stepping up to the plate with a new spin on the most popular analog format of the moment. Holding a patent filed in 2016 for a state-of-the-art approach to record pressing, the brand is planning to bring HD records to the market by 2019. The company recently stated that it has invested 4.8 million dollars in HD record pressing equipment. The news has garnered plenty of attention from the specialized press, as well as from audiophiles, sceptics and curious bystanders.
HD records, hype or reality?
Record collectors may rest assured: this isn’t like that time when CDs took over from cassettes, or when Blu-ray discs rang the death knell for DVDs. Completely backwards-compatible, HD records are the fruit of a new approach to pressing which implements state-of-the-art technologies to optimize the manufacturing process as well as the structure of each disc. Standard records are made using an acetate or copper stamper placed on a spinning platter, and a heated sapphire or diamond chisel is used to cut the groove. The stamper then undergoes a galvanizing process involving a chemical wash used to create a negative (“master” stamper) which is then used to cut polyvinyl chloride discs. For its part, the stamper used for HD records is created by laser cutting a 3D topographical map on a ceramic disc. This process is more efficient, less expensive and more environmentally friendly (no chemicals) than the standard record-making process.
The advantages of HD records
Günter Loibl, the director of Rebeat, claims that HD records can contain 30 to 40% more music than a standard record. They also guarantee higher sound levels, an increased dynamic range, and superior clarity. Should we trust Rebeat on its word, or is there proof to back it up? The answer resides in the manufacturing process. Much more precise than a chisel, a laser may be used to optimize the structure of the grooves and increase the amount of information the disc can contain. The ultra precise grooves cut by the laser dramatically improve the signal-to-noise ratio, which in turn ensures clearer and more detailed sound. The surgical precision of the laser also allows more information to be added to the disc, consequently allowing for a wider dynamic range and a more efficient use of available space.
Another notable benefit of HD records is that ceramic stampers are much more resistant than standard stampers, which are progressively worn down with each pressing. Simply put, the quality of the first record pressed with a standard stamper will be superior to that of the thousandth, since the template will suffer wear and tear in the process. HD records are not subject to the same wear and tear and thus ensure a more consistent result. Each disc is a reproduction of the original recording, right down to the smallest details.
If this isn’t convincing enough, Pro-Ject and Grado have expressed interest in HD records in recent interviews. Rebeat is currently putting the final touches on its first factory dedicated to the production of HD records and plans to create 5 ceramic stampers by the summer of 2018 in order to present its first HD records at the Making Vinyl trade show in Detroit in October.
Does a new format mean new equipment?
HD records will be backwards-compatible with today’s turntables and hi-fi systems. It’s possible that specially made cartridges and styluses will be introduced in order take advantage of the full potential of HD records if there seems to be a market for them, but Rebeat claims that all hi-fi installations will be poised to reap the benefits.
Beyond enhanced sound quality, HD records are assuredly more environmentally friendly, as well as less expensive and faster to make. They also ensure minimal wear and tear for a more consistent result. In order to truly cash in on the potential of HD records, record pressing plants will need to invest in the necessary equipment.
Are HD records a true step forward? Only time will tell, but we can already observe a will to improve pressing techniques in order to truly bring the LP into the 21st century and guarantee the most accurate sound possible. The question that needs to be answered now is, are listeners ready to say goodbye to the crackling so closely associated with the vinyl record experience?French