Vinyl vs. Digital: Which Sounds Better?

Featured Image by Gavin St. Ours

We’ve all heard it from that one friend who is a die-hard fan: that records sounds better, and that analog is better than digital. Ask anyone who loves to shop for vinyl and they will surely volunteer some personal intuitive feedback regarding their favorite records.

As records were standard for most of the 1900’s, it’s not terribly shocking that music tailored in its production to be heard through a record player would continue to be enjoyed today. The same can be said for albums recorded for mono before stereo sound was commercialized around 1957-58. The opportunity to listen to these records as they were meant to be heard is an appealing one that draws music fans such as myself and many others to frequent shops like my personal favorites Amoeba Music on Sunset in Hollywood or Repo Records on South Street in Philly, where I have spent hours exploring the $1 vinyl basement uncovering buried musical treasures. Record-lovers often blissfully cite the ‘warm’ sound of vinyl as well as value for having a ‘physical’ LP to be major selling points that support their habit. After all, High Fidelity author Nick Hornby may have phrased it best:

A little record store wisdom from Nick Hornby. #RSD16

A photo posted by Amoeba Hollywood (@amoebahollywood) on

For enthusiasts who share similar sentiment, the third Saturday of April now annually carries significant meaning. We saw this mass celebration take place as Record Store Day 2016, an event in its ninth year, drew music fans of all ages to their favorite local shop for some vinyl favorites, new music, and special finds. The value of records in terms of physical music sales is at an all-time high. With Nielsen year end reports for 2015 showing that sales of the medium posted gains for the 10th consecutive year as indie and major label goodies take their place along side one another for vinyl’s big day!

However, digital music stole the show from vinyl once before when it began to be used in music recordings as early as the late 1970’s, with the compact discs becoming the commercial standard and format for music consumption in the early 80’s and lasting for most of the next twenty years. As the digital MP3 download took off in the early 2000’s, a new era was born that has most recently seen the booming rise of digital streaming platforms and a steep decline in physical music, raising many interesting questions along the way regarding everything from sustainability to legality and value. Yet over this extended period prior to these changes, digital music and the compact disc had time to develop in terms of capability and sound quality, leaving many to question… Is vinyl indeed superior to digital?

Amidst a modern streaming-era in which industry pundits brashly have declared physical music sales to be dead, records continue to grow in popularity. On Record Store Day, artists and labels offer special exclusives in the hope of capturing the type of recordbreaking lightening-in-a-bottle and unique features that Jack White did in 2014. From the casually committed to the deeply devoted among a vinyl-infused culture, local privately-owned record stores have once more become primary destination shops for physical albums as music communities seek out the era-appropriate medium for their favorite recordings, including rarities and coveted editions of music they would be hard pressed to part ways with…

While loyalists swear by the quality of analog sound, their are musicians, studio producers, engineers and journalists that raise an interesting point as to why CDs may actually sound better than vinyl, presenting a case for digital music in the compact disc format as being superior in terms of listening quality. Eighty-three year-old Washington inventor James Russell may not be a household name, but he probably should be. Russell built a turntable himself as a student at Portland’s Reed College in which he used a cactus needle sharpened with sandpaper for the device over a standard needle out of dissatisfaction as he had noticed a sound “disintegration” on LPs after the tenth or twelfth spin. Having transitioned from work on nuclear reactors to researching optics and how the use of light could provide applications for the improvement of recording and reproducing music, Russell’s motives stemmed from his desire to improve the accuracy of the recording as far as being true to the performance. Eventually, he would develop the digital optical storage and playback technology that would be used and formatted into the compact disc, which was, ironically, often cited as being of inferior sound quality…

With the idea that CDs were a compromise in quality for convenience and that they sounded industrial and brittle, the rise of the digital download and streaming platforms have resulted in a steady and continual decline in the compact disc. To be fair, much of the ‘poor-sound’ sentiment towards the CD came about in its early days on account of the disc’s ability to exceed volume; a feature that was abused by acts looking to sound ‘louder’ as a means by which to capture the attentive ears of listeners. Meanwhile, vinyl records have simultaneously enjoyed a progressively steady increase and boom in sales, reaching a new peak of popularity despite various trends in musical formatting or consumption.

CD’s had begun to improve in their analog-to-digital conversion when better, higher quality converters started being invented beginning in 1985. Interestingly enough, the quality of MP3’s and digital audio in music streaming has not been a deal-breaker for music consumers despite the way that compressing the music to fit the format cuts out ‘highs’ and ‘lows’ in the sound spectrum- Though this pattern in digital music has followed-suit in further developing as seen in the efforts of artists such as Neil Young and music services like Tidal… Though even Young has said “I don’t think [Pono] can sound better than vinyl.” Ironically, one of the hiccups of vinyl is its inability to reproduce bass or capture the low end of acts recordings, editing work on high and low ends that get cut out in the transfer to the vinyl format, its limits in dynamic range (from the groove cuts touching) as well as the additional surface noise(s) such as ticks and pops that emerge in the sound, especially when vinyl is recorded at a lower volume to fit extra music. Audio Technician Pete Lyman’s observes that “In the 1960s and ’70s, when artists were recording specifically for vinyl, they recorded and mixed to fit the confines of the medium… They kept sides below 20 minutes, and put loud songs on the outside tracks and quiet ones toward the center to account for the natural deterioration of sound that occurs when the needle gets closer to the middle of the LP… albums that are optimized for digital downloads and CD but are too long for vinyl, with track sequencing that fails to account for the medium’s natural limitations. To get an album longer than 40 minutes to fit onto one… high frequencies and bass are the first things that go. There’s also extra distortion because he has to cut the master lacquer at a lower volume to fit all that extra music onto the LP.” He also points out that current “audiophile-quality 180-gram vinyl” is kind of just ‘for show’ and has no benefit, stating that it just adds weight and increases the shipping and sales cost.It is the ability to excel in providing dynamic range that sways the case for the once mighty compact disc.

Personally, I grew up on tapes for the first stretch of my life, then joined the BMG Music Service mail-order CD-purchasing club (which sadly came to an end in 2009) when I was in my early teens, allowing me to begin to collect some early CD’s as they gradually became my primary format. Back then I was the last person to make the switch from cassettes to compact disks and from VHS to DVD’s. I had been meaning to get my vinyl collection started in recent years prior to moving to Pennsylvania, and began to collect records here upon arrival, beginning with a copy of The Beatles Abbey Road acquired from The Mad Platter in West Chester, PA. Once living in the City of Philadelphia as a University of The Arts student on a college budget, I frequented the aforementioned basement of Repo on South, steadily building a broad and respectable vintage collection of music. It wasn’t until recently that I purchased anything on vinyl that had been recorded during the compact disk era. I acquired Nirvana’s Nevermind and Green Day’s Dookie, two favorite albums that I had grown up on and was used to listening to on CD… Although its worth noting that my first copy of Dookie was a cassette that I secretly bought in 8th grade as I was only allowed to listen to Pop radio… I still have it. While I look forward to listening to these two albums to gauge any differences, I have always intentionally focused on purchasing older records that were specifically cut for the vinyl format, especially ones that were custom recorded for Mono. Even organizing ones collection truly and frequently becomes a passionate endeavor within the collection-building process…

It may just a matter of when, not if, these issues and inconsistencies with vinyl are corrected… If for no other reason than the music industry’s need and desire to be profitable along with the proven track record of revenues from re-formatting, the business cannot afford to ignore the continued booming increase in record vinyl sales. The need here was simply for vinyl to return to a level of consumer relevance to warrant and justify putting the time and money into developing a better quality of recording in that format. Recently it was confirmed that patents have been filed for new “High Definition Vinyl” technology, suggesting that this possibility is growing ever closer to becoming a reality. So, while compact discs sound may have been better for a period on the basis that some albums were recorded and tailored to that format, this was simply the same as records previously recorded specifically to the specs to the vinyl format, the longest tenured format of all physical music storage formats for most of the 1900’s. For what it is worth, the quest to improve the oft-chided sound quality of digital music has ultimately led, it seems, towards opening the door for upgrading the sound quality and capability of the vinyl format that preceded it. After all, there are few experiences as special as building a record collection. It is a passion that seems to only grow, as both the music and the feel of the record and sleeve itself can at times put to words what we cannot, in a way that feels inexplicably liberating…

As we ‘wait and see’ what the future holds for high definition vinyl in order to get a better read or basis for comparison, as comparing the vinyl record and compact disc is a bit like comparing apples and oranges. As two different formats made in two different methods (analog versus digital) there is a bit two broad a divide between the technologies for comparison in many ways, although in the minds of music fans and their expressed preference and passion for vinyl records, the verdict may already be in!

Please tell us in the comments section below, which format do you think is better… Vinyl or digital?

 

1 Comment

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