The words "180 Gram Vinyl" have been the cause for many misunderstandings and debate among the audiophile and vinyl records community. Unnecessarily so, I would say, there is nothing magical about heavyweight vinyl, and certainly some myths float over those shiny 180g stickers on the record covers, but that doesn't mean there are no benefits from pressing 180g or even 200g vinyl LP's.
Vinyl record weight has very little to do with the sound quality of the music engraved in the grooves. The technical standard by which grooves are modulated and cut on the record surface is exactly the same on all vinyl records regardless of weight grade, the dimensions of the grooves can only be cut within the scope of that standard, and we are talking about extremely small dimensions at the micro-metric scale with such tiny variations that any vinyl weight above 100 Gram (probably even less) provides the necessary physical support for pressing sound grooves according to the standard industry specifications.
Sound quality on vinyl, as well as any other audio format, depends mostly on the type and quality of the source that was used for mastering, and ultimately on the quality of the mastering process itself as well as equipment used to execute the mastering / cut of the lacquer.
That being said, why are heavyweight vinyl records, above 140 Gram weight grade, usually considered better? What are the real benefits of heavyweight vinyl? Why is it so well regarded by the industry and by most consumers? Here are a few possible answers to those questions:
- The disc, the object itself, is more robust and durable. A 180 Gram LP is not only more satisfying to handle and place on the turntable, but it also offers more resistance to a more aggressive manipulation, adverse storage conditions and other possible abuses that can be inflicted over the years or decades. I'm not referring to groove wear from being in contact with the stylus, that is just the same for any vinyl weight grade, but still there is an obvious advantage to the robustness and durability of the vinyl disc as an object.
- There are mechanical advantages (well, mostly advantages) from using heavier vinyl on your turntable, basically it provides a more stable platform for your stylus and cantilever suspension, and probably better isolation from unwanted vibration that can actually cause some sound degradation at this micro-level where the pickup is working. This effect is not much different, from a technical standpoint, from changing the platter material or increasing the platter mass on your turntable, or using a different platter mat... you can see the heavier vinyl record as a type of physical upgrade to your turntable, that will make a difference similar to other upgrades.
- Thicker (taller) vinyl profile might change the sound characteristics of your cartridge, for the better or worse, by changing the VTA (Vertical Tracking Alignment) of the tonearm in relation to the record surface, this can be audible or not, and it can change sound to the better or worse depending on how your turntable is setup.
For these reasons, heavyweight 180 Gram and 200 Gram vinyl pressings are usually better quality products associated with limited editions, audiophile editions, and better releases in general. Unfortunately this is not always the reality of all heavyweight pressings, in fact some of the worst record labels making terrible vinyl today are pressing 180 Gram LP's from poor mastering jobs using low quality (mostly digital) sources. Pressing bad records on 180 Gram vinyl doesn't make them good records, even less so does it make them audiophile records... not at all! So what is happening with all these lower quality 180 Gram pressings flooding the market today? These are some of the possible answers for that:
- As part of the vinyl market resurgence that has been going on since 2005 (and growing steady), most labels felt the need to make the vinyl record more attractive for consumers, as if they were justifying the vinyl release (or reissue) with the heavyweight grade and that Quality Standard perception that I mentioned before. There's nothing wrong with this, on the contrary it shows a genuine effort to push forward the vinyl comeback by offering higher quality standard that consumers value and enjoy.
- The somewhat unexpected growth of vinyl sales, and that effort to make vinyl releases more appealing by making 180 Gram pressings, resulted in many pressing plants being much more specialized in pressing heavyweight vinyl records for the last 10 years or so, actually the 180 Gram pressing has now become the standard pressing for most factories, meaning that cost is no longer a determining factor when a label chooses to press on 180 Gram vinyl. It is more expensive because it uses more raw material, but the perceived added value by consumers more than compensates the marginally higher investment.
- Since cost, and technical expertise, are no longer determining factors, this has opened the door for almost any label, good or bad, big or small, to press heavyweight vinyl records. With the added bonus that "180 Gram Vinyl" is usually perceived by consumers as higher quality, specifically higher sound quality.
So, where does that leave us? Well, right at where we started... 180 Gram Vinyl is not magic, and it's really not a solution to any major problem. It's additional value, and can represent higher quality production standards, just as well as it can be used by labels with extremely poor quality standards. It is very important to focus your attention on what really counts: Who mastered the record? Where was it mastered? What sources were used for the mastering process? Where was it pressed? And only then, secondary factors such as Vinyl Weight Grade become additional value and a good reason to buy a vinyl LP.
Don't let the 180 Gram sticker alone put you off buying a great LP... but also, don't let it alone be the major deciding factor when buying a record. It's not magic, but it's not to be dismissed as "gimmick" because there are in fact many benefits to heavyweight vinyl pressings when that is part of a bigger picture of quality production that includes quality mastering from the best sources to achieve a result that is a better product in all areas.