Some things are just plain wrong…

Why record replay EQ matters – and why it might well matter to you.

By Roy Gregory

There I was the other day, reading a review of an expensive phono-stage, when I came across the words, “I’m increasingly convinced that – unless you have a collection of original early 1950s mono LPs – having different EQ curves is more about audiophilia nervosa than it is about real-world vinyl history…” Our intrepid author goes on to opine that, “To see a product like the XXXXXXXXX be dismissed for its absence of Decca curve by someone who has precisely zero records that would benefit from a Decca curve is absurd.”

At first I was puzzled. The author in question knows better than this. I know that he knows better than this – because I’ve demonstrated to him the importance of EQ curves myself. But then I got frustrated, because the two statements also confuse the issue of just what the benefits of switchable EQ are and who might appreciate them. More to the point, it’s an issue that matters. At least, it’s an issue that matters if you are one of those record collectors who could benefit.

It matters because with the right record the differences can be sonically and musically substantial.

It matters because properly applied, EQ curves can open up a world of exceptional recordings and performances – and they can do it at bargain prices, precisely because those records sound so downright lousy if you play them with the default RIAA EQ curve.

So the real question becomes, which records were cut RIAA – and which were not? Or, to flip it, do you actually own any records that weren’t cut RIAA?

Depending on your musical tastes and what kind of record buyer you are, you might be surprised by the answer. More importantly, access to switchable EQ might just change the kind of records you buy – and buy you a lot more music for your money.

It’s on the record!

But if that’s the case, where’s the controversy? There’s a widely repeated claim that every record pressed after 1956 was cut using the RIAA EQ curve. In much the same way, the phrase, “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted” is widely attributed to Albert Einstein, but simply saying it lots doesn’t make it true. In fact, on a purely practical level, the idea that the global record industry adopted a single standard by a given date – because their marketing departments thought it was a good idea – makes less sense the more closely you examine the proposition. Quite why some people are so invested in this idea is a mystery to me, but their fervour makes the average conspiracy theorist look balanced. They wheel out licensing agreements and accords, quote anecdotal evidence or claim to have spoken to “the people that know.” All of which is even more baffling as you don’t actually need to rely on historical materials, the vagaries of human nature or long buried memory to discover the truth or otherwise of this particular claim. We have the records. So, all you actually need to do is listen…

Bending things back into shape…

But before you do that, let’s digress into what replay EQ actually does to the sound you hear. A quick and dirty history… When record production switched to Microgroove LP, it was to achieve longer playing times. For the first time, the new format allowed even the longest symphonic movements to be pressed on a single side and thus played without a break. But the narrower groove meant that it became necessary to reduce the level of low frequencies in order to accommodate them, while increasing the level of high frequencies produced a cut that was actually traceable by the stylus. None of which is a problem, just as long as you boost the bass and cut the treble back to the proper levels when you replay the disc. The values required are enshrined in the EQ curve and, to start with every record company had its own ideas about just what worked. Which is why, if you look at early pre-amps, they offer a range of phono inputs, identified by record label. Clearly, it was in everybody’s interests to unify around a single standard and between 1953 and 1956, a number of major labels agreed to use RCA Victor’s New Orthophonic curve, which subsequently became the RIAA (Recording Industry of America Association) standard. However, a number of major UK and European labels were either slow to adopt the new standard, or failed to adopt it at all, while adoption within the RIAA signatory companies was patchy and slower than planned. None of which is particularly surprising. Meanwhile, electronics manufacturers were quick to drop the cost and complexity of switchable EQ and soon RIAA was all that was on offer. However, the upshot of this is that some labels were still producing records cut to their own curves well into the 1970s, while those curves had all but disappeared from view, supplanted for replay purposes by RIAA.