For years, a wonderful and really obscure song, Bobby Woods's Love is My Business, would often pop into my head. Woods recorded the song in 1959, and I found it on a vinyl record compilation of songs from his label, Ace Records, in a London shop about 20 years ago. But as I switched from records to compact discs, Bobby Woods vanished from my collection. The album never made the transition to CDs, iTunes (AAPL), or even file-sharing networks, and my copy was relegated to a box in the basement.
Then I took ELP Corp.'s Laser Turntable home for a spin. This $15,000 gizmo plays old vinyl records much the way CD players read compact discs. Slip a vinyl platter into the Laser Turntable's tray and a laser reads the grooves. After an easy 15-minute setup, I ran down to my basement to dig through boxes of old records. In a few minutes, I was listening to Woods croon about trying to win back his love.
Of course, turntables never really went away. Retailers and Web sites catering to audiophiles continue to stock the limited number of models that remain in production. Their owners often brag about the "warmth" of the sound they get from analog vinyl recordings that they claim has yet to be reproduced with digital technology. Perhaps they're right.
But in the 1980s I joined the masses, discarding my turntable for a CD player. I got tired of replacing the belts and needles. I also fretted about cherished albums becoming too scratched or warped to play. Most record stores stopped stocking LPs as interest waned. CDs were easier.
The Laser Turntable makes vinyl viable again. What's so slick about the device is that it makes records just as easy to play as CDs. It's a snap to skip from one track to the next and even pause in the middle of a song or scan through it. What's more, you can do it with a remote, sitting in a lounge chair across the room. Try that with your old turntable.
The device uses five lasers to detect the grooves, position the other lasers, and pick up sound. And unlike a traditional turntable stylus, it doesn't wear on your records. The lasers can even adjust for warps and scratches so records don't skip or repeat.
BIGGER THAN A BREAD BOX
The technology was actually developed 20 years ago but never found a market because of technical challenges and its prohibitive cost. Each machine is made by hand, so don't expect the falling prices typical in consumer-electronic products. ELP, based in Saitama, Japan, has sold about 1,000 units, 80% of them in Japan. It recently found a U.S. distributor, Audio Turntable Ltd. (laserturntable.com).
As nifty as it is to reacquaint yourself with your record collection, a few caveats are in order. You'd think ELP would have come up with a sleek design befitting this audiophile's dream, which costs the equivalent of a downpayment on a small home. Instead, it's a bulky box, nearly 19 inches square and towering 7 in. high, with altogether pedestrian buttons.
While the Laser Turntable can play 78 rpm records and 45s in addition to the standard 33 1/3 rpm platters, its lasers can only read black vinyl. I was really eager to play a limited edition Elvis Costello promo disc that Stiff Records released in 1977. But it was pressed on clear vinyl and the Laser Turntable had no clue what to do with it.
Last, remember that a laser reads everything. That means a bit of dust will sometimes come through your speakers with a pop. For the review, ELP provided me with a $500 record vacuum, which seems a must-have for the turntable.
With a clean record and an array of lasers to read it, Bobby Woods never sounded so good.
By Jay Greene