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Why turntables and vinyl are big hits at CES 2016

CES 2016 is dominated by virtual reality, self-driving cars, and the Internet of Things – but Sony and Panasonic also introduced new vinyl record players at the show. Here's why a 68-year-old audio format is enjoying a resurgence at the world's largest tech show.

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    The Sony PS-HX500 turntable, shown here, is one of a handful of record players being introduced at CES 2016.
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CES 2016 is a look into the future ­– a chance for tech companies to show off the very latest, most advanced hardware and software they’re working on, which may eventually seep their way into our everyday lives. But in between the virtual reality headsets, the huge curved TVs, and the light bulbs that connect to the Internet, CES 2016 has a surprising amount of tech that was cutting-edge in the late 1970s: vinyl record players.

Sony announced the PS-HX500, a high-resolution turntable that can both play records and convert them to digital files. Panasonic announced the Technics SL-1200G, a direct-drive turntable based on a model that’s been popular with DJs for years. (Neither Sony nor Panasonic announced prices for the turntables, which will be available in the spring and summer, respectively, but the previous iteration of the Technics SL-1200, discontinued in 2010, goes for hundreds of dollars on eBay.) Smaller companies such as Flexson are demoing turntables on the CES 2016 show floor, too.

Vinyl records were supposed to have been made obsolete with the introduction of the audio CD in 1982. CDs take up less space, can hold more music, and are more resistant to scratches and warping than records. Yet vinyl sales have grown for 10 straight years, hitting a new high of almost 12 million LPs sold in 2015, according to Nielsen Soundscan.

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That may be because of nostalgia, or because vinyl fans praise the format for sounding warmer and more authentic than digital files.

A vinyl collection has a tactile quality that an iTunes library or a Spotify subscription can’t match, either. Lots of music fans say they love being able to flip through albums, read liner notes, and see album art displayed large on the front of a record. (Turntable sales haven’t been climbing along with LP sales, so some people are probably buying records for their visual appeal alone.)

With the PS-HX500, Sony is trying to offer the best of both worlds: the sound of an analog record that can be converted to a high-res digital format and enjoyed on any device. In addition to discussing vinyl, the company used its CES 2016 keynote on Tuesday to show off a cylindrical glass Bluetooth speaker and a light bulb that plays music – putting high-quality audio front and center at a show that’s usually more devoted to video content and the screens it plays on.

Vinyl isn’t going to replace music streaming any time soon, not least because the Sony and Panasonic turntables announced at CES 2016 are likely to cost hundreds of dollars. But audiophiles and record collectors should be encouraged by that fact that the format has a place at the world’s biggest technology show, nearly 70 years after the LP’s introduction.

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