Every now and again an audio-centric person on social media raises the specter of hatred towards the much beleaguered — and simultaneously much loved — form of long playing records commonly referred to these days as simply “colored vinyl.” These are discs molded from vinyl variants beyond basic black (which itself is a color added in to the basic non-colorized formulations). Sometimes they are standard weight, other times they are 180-grams heavy or more.
Some of you who are new to collecting records often ask me “why all the hatred toward colored vinyl?” I thought I’d take some time to share some stream-of-consciousness thoughts and reflections (ie. shorthand for this isn’t tightly edited!)
In short: “it’s complicated,” as they say…
Many audiophiles prefer so called “virgin” (non recycled) vinyl which is more likely to be “dead quiet” and sonically transparent. The underlying concept is that you want the “noise floor” of the disc to be so silent that the sense of playing the physical record itself effectively disappears, leaving just the music to tempt your ears.
There is a perception — some of it well deserved and based in fact — that colored vinyl is noisier than black vinyl, thus making the noise-floor unacceptable for some listeners. Indeed, I have spoken with engineers at vinyl pressing plants who have confirmed that some colored vinyl variants can be noisier.
This is especially noticeable if you have a super-duper high-end turntable with a very fine stylus. Heck, I don’t even have a super-duper turntable as far as many audiophiles are concerned — yet it is a very respectable Music Hall MMF 7.1 — and I can certainly notice differences in pressing quality on this unit very clearly (actually, I can notice differences on all of my turntables and cartridge variants but I’ve spent many years listening intently and experimenting with how these things interact)
But here is the rub and this is where the “rule” of black vinyl only falls apart for me: these days, I get many brand new black vinyl records that are often as noisy as colored vinyl.
So what gives?
Well, like everything in the universe there are multiple causes. Part of it comes down to the pressing plant, the quality of the vinyl formulations they use and quality controls employed in production. Entities such as Quality Record Pressing (QRP), Record Technology Inc. (RTI) and Pallas (based in German) are generally highly regarded and thus are used by many of the best labels. These records can cost a little bit more (a lot more if you go to very high end limited editions) but are generally worth it as you can hear on recent releases on the Blue Note Tone Poet and Verve Acoustic Sounds reissues.
Opaque vs. Translucent?
Lately I’ve been noticing that the color of the vinyl isn’t quite as important as is it’s clarity, at least as far as modern vinyl pressings go. Opaque colored vinyl tends to sound pretty much just as nice as black vinyl for the most part. Transparent colored vinyl tends to be pretty quiet to but there again, lately I’ve notice that some can give the recording a somewhat harder-edged sound.
This was very apparent in the deluxe edition of the newest album by The Flaming Lips, American Head, which came as a two LP set in two different colors. The opaque purple disc sounded quite nice (as modern, probably digital, recordings go) and fairly round, nearing an almost warm sonority. The translucent teal-colored disc however gave the music a somewhat harder edged sound. As I also had a black vinyl variant of the album on hand I could compare and hear that both discs there sounded pretty much the same as the purple one. (click here to read that review)
Clear vinyl pressings tend to sound good without any outward issues impacting the music negatively.
One of my earliest colored vinyl purchases, a late 1970s UK edition of The Beatles’ White Album still sounds quite fantastic! It has become quite a collector’s piece these days (click here).
A few years ago I found one of the rare 1976 promo copies of ELO’s A New World Record which sounds excellent, arguably better than the regular copies of the album as pressed by United Artists Records at the time. I just learned as I was finishing up this article that early copies of ELO’s Out Of The Blue (including the blue vinyl editions) were half-speed mastered by Stan Ricker who later went on to work with Mobile Fidelity! (who knew!?)
If you can find clean original copies of Fantasy Records pressings from the 1950s and ’60s, some of those can sound great. The challenge is finding a good one. Stereo pressings were often pressed on blue vinyl and the Mono ones were red. I found an incredibly clean copy of Dave Brubeck’s Brubeck A La Mode (from 1960 which apparently was issued in Stereo in 1962) and it sounds wonderful, rich and warm and even pretty quiet as far as noise floor issues go!
Vince Guaraldi’s albums on Fantasy were often on colored vinyl but the challenge these days is finding those elusive nice copies as his most desired titles were popular party records (Black Orpheus, A Charlie Brown Christmas) or were just very early in his career (such as Vince Guaraldi Trio, his debut from 1956)
I have been collecting original UK editions of Elton John’s early albums and many of those are on a rich red or dark green colored vinyl but you can only really tell when you hold them up to the light (note: the vinyl color can vary depending upon what sort of light you hold it up to, fluorescent, LED, incandescent, etc.).
In the 1980s, Warner Brothers Records issued many of its promo editions on “Quiex” vinyl, some of which appear purple when held up to the light. A&M Records also issued a number of releases on Quiex including some of the later albums by The Police. Quiex vinyl generally sounds excellent, quiet and it doesn’t seem to color the sound of the recording adversely from what I’ve heard.
Recent opaque vinyl pressings I’ve been sent for review courtesy of the Vinyl Me Please subscription club have been mostly excellent, pressed at RTI with strong attention to quality controls. I reviewed a fine super deluxe box set of theirs — The Story of The Grateful Dead — and was generally very happy with what I heard from a noise and pressing standpoint (or perhaps I should say, wasn’t hearing!).
I’m just starting to explore new editions from the Jazz Dispensary subsidiary of Craft Recordings — which come pressed on colored vinyl in conjunction with Vinyl Me Please. So far, these seem solid including Sorcery by Jack DeJohnette and Where I’m Coming From by Leon Spencer. Reviews to come!
In Part II of Yes… No… Maybe… we’ll look at multi-color and picture disc variants and then offer a list of some good sounding albums you may want to look for….