The Pros and Cons of Vinyl Records

AvatarMarc Henshall
Culture & Industry, Tech Talk8 Comments

Few debates in the audio world create such a large divide as the analog vs digital question. Vinyl vs CD/Digital is the classic battleground, where passionate enthusiasts on both sides of the argument often partake in heated exchanges with no real conclusion.

The question itself is undoubtedly oversimplified  – there are far too many variables to draw a line under such a broad debate, and at the end of the day, audio quality is such a subjective and personal thing. There’s no doubt digital audio comes out on top across most specifications on paper, but there’s also no denying that many listeners still prefer vinyl. For me, it’s less about making a choice between digital and vinyl, and more about understanding the pros and cons of each format.

In fact, when you look at recent consumer statistics released by the BPI, it would appear the ongoing surge in vinyl sales could be less about choosing vinyl over digital and more about adding something tangible to our digital lives. This concept, was perhaps summed up best by BPI Council member, Vanessa Higgins in her comments accompanying the BPI’s 2016’s report:

“Fans are listening to music in so many ways now – we’ve definitely entered a multi-channel era. Millennials, who’ve grown up digital, are increasingly choosing to experience both current and heritage artists on vinyl also. Meanwhile older baby-boomers are embracing streaming alongside their record collections. And, impressively, in between all that, there is still more than enough space for the CD, which remains popular both with upcoming artists, who need an attractive physical product, and consumers, who still like to gift, collect and own the recordings they love.”

Very often, we see the vinyl vs digital debate as a binary choice, yet the figures published by the BPI, and the supporting comments above would appear to suggest consumers simply don’t see it this way. Music fans are investing in multiple formats to draw from the pros and cons of each experience. But what exactly are the pros and cons of vinyl? Every format has them, some of it is subjective, here’s my take on it:

The Benefits of Vinyl Records

The Ultimate Physical Format

For me, if you’re going to own a physical copy of your favorite records, there’s just nothing quite like vinyl. I grew up collecting CD’s, but I was always drawn to my parents vinyl record collection. There’s just something about the presence of vinyl: the large artwork, the musty smell, the ritual of flipping a disc from one side to the other – it has a tangible quality that just can’t be replicated in the digital realm.

The Sound of Vinyl

It’s a cliché, but those who love vinyl often talk about the warmth of sound. There’s a lot of debate about this aspect of the vinyl sound, with many factors at play – far too many to cover within the scope of this article. What I can say is this, there’s a lot of emotive factors at play when people talk about the supposed superior sound of vinyl. When it comes to the “warm” factor, it’s most likely that people are describing the inherent distortions in the vinyl format that result in a unique, characterful sound some people prefer. I liken it to the sound of overdriven guitars through a real tube amp; as good as digital amp simulators get, there’s just something organic and comforting about the real sound of an all tube amp run hot.

Some Vinyl Records are Mastered with Better Dynamics

Do a little digging on the web, and you’ll quickly encounter many forums debating the proposal that many vinyl releases of certain albums are mastered with more dynamics than their digital or CD counterparts. And it’s true, some records are, which is horribly ironic given digital music is capable of much greater dynamic range (96dB for CD vs 55-65dB for vinyl). It’s difficult to measure the dynamics of vinyl accurately, but there are notable examples of major releases with better dynamics on vinyl if you dig around the web. See one such example below:

Download Cards

It’s no wonder consumers aren’t seeing vinyl vs digital as an either-or choice when most newly released albums on vinyl come with a digital download code. Admittedly, it’s a shame more of them don’t supply lossless formats, but in most instances a high-quality 320 kbps MP3 file is supplied, which in many cases will already sound better than streaming on a platform like Spotify. For the record, Spotify only reveals 320 kbps when enabling “Extreme Quality” on a premium account (otherwise, the standard is 160 kbps).

Vinyl Demands Attention

I’ve expressed this point time and time again; our listening habits as consumers have become increasingly fickle in the digital age. There are so many demands on our attention as we live our switched on lives, and subsequently, fewer listeners make time to give 100% of their attention to music. I was reminded of this phenomenon very recently when reading an article published on Linked-In by CEO and Found of Twibble, Marc Hoag who praised the purchase of his new turntable as a means of disconnecting – here’s a snippet from his article on the benefits of owning a record player for Entrepreneurs:

“… I didn’t buy a record player just for its nostalgia or audio quality. While arguably important and legitimate reasons, without more, they were important, necessary even, but not sufficient. I bought it for something else entirely. I bought it because it enabled me to disconnect. From everything. And to just listen to music and do nothing else at all.”

The Disadvantages of Vinyl Records

Maintenance & Care

There’s no denying it, vinyl records require a great deal of care and attention to maintain in great condition. If you want your music maintenance free, vinyl probably isn’t the format for you. To properly maintain a record collection you’ll need to understand how to store your vinyl records to prevent deterioration or damage, you’ll need to perform some routine cleaning form time-to-time, and, you’ll need to get a grip on some basic turntable setup and maintenance tasks. No one said it would be easy, but in my experience, nothing worth doing ever is. To learn the basics vinyl record care and maintenance, check out our previous article.

Easily Damaged

Our British readers of a certain vintage might remember some of the more obscure early presentations of the compact disc back in the 1980’s. Check out the clip below featuring a breakfast TV presenter spreading honey over a new CD to demonstrate the apparent resilience to skipping. It seems laughable now, but at the time damaged vinyl records were a real headache for consumers. Of course, the vast majority of skipping happened because of a combination of poor maintenance and low-quality playback equipment, but it’s easy to see why the CD seemed so appealing at the time — despite how ridiculous this demonstration might be.

Surface Noise

While surface noise can be mostly eradicated through record care and cleaning, some measurable surface noise in the form of clicks, pops, and minor hiss will always be present on an analog medium like vinyl. You just have to ask yourself if this bothers you; clearly, most listeners will be deterred by excessive pops and click on a highly worn-out record, but a little surface noise is often actually desirable to listeners who love the character. There’s a quote I love from the late Radio One DJ, John Peel, which speaks to this:

“Somebody was trying to tell me that CDs are better than vinyl because they don’t have any surface noise.  I said, “Listen, mate, life has surface noise.”

Tracking Errors

It’s a simple fact of geometry, turntables with a pivoting tonearm can only line up correctly with the grooves at two points across the record surface. This inherent misalignment results in tracking errors that are heard on played back as distortion. The problem is compounded further by the progressive reduction of linear resolution as a record progresses. In other words: there is more vinyl per second available at the large-diameter beginning of the record than exist at the smaller-diameter toward the end of each side. The distortion heard at the end of each record side is referred to as end-of-side distortion (or inner-groove distortion). It’s worth noting, however, that a well-configured, high-quality turntable with a minimum 10inch tone arm can reduce tracking errors significantly, but some error will always remain – it’s the nature of the beast. It’s highly likely, as mentioned earlier, that much of this inherent distortion actually plays a part in the warm, natural sound advocates often describe.

Expensive

Let’s face it, collecting vinyl records isn’t a cheap hobby. $40+ price tags on new records are not uncommon, and the equipment required to get set up with a decent playback system can soon add up. Ok, so you could just go out and buy an all-in-one record player for under $100, but I wouldn’t recommend doing so if you actually want to get any real benefit from vinyl. For a recommended starter system that sounds good and won’t break the bank, check out our previous article on getting started with vinyl.

The Bottom Line

With vinyl record sales reaching a 25-year high last year, it’s clear to me there must be more to the vinyl revival than hipsters and nostalgia. There are clearly pros and cons to any format, but in our new multi-channel era, you don’t have to choose between one or the other. With streaming surging by 500% since 2013, vinyl is becoming an increasingly attractive way to own a physical copy of your favorite music. It’s a great time to be a music fan; consumers have never had easier access to the music they love, but it’s also clear the physical copy still matters. Ten year’s ago, I used to fear the loss of music in physical form altogether as CD sales plummeted; who would’ve thought it would be vinyl records that would come to rescue.

BONUS: FREE e-Book “Top Record Cleaning Tools Every Vinyl Enthusiast Should Own” when you subscribe.

  • Avatar Vince Moran-McHugh says:

    I do love vinyl and hardly ever buy CDs anymore. New albums I will get on vinyl/high res download.
    I find that the high price of vinyl is getting to me though and I often feel I am being taken for a ride. A few times in the last year I have bought an album for over £20 where there is no download card included. You may think that is fine as I am buying vinyl, not a download, but I want to listen on the go and only have time to put on a record at the weekend. Added to that hardly any of the albums have proper inserts to protect the discs and only come with cardboard slips. The static buildup when you play it for the first time makes you hair stand on end! This means there is extra outlay, admittedly minimal if bought in bulk, to buy these protectors.
    I just feel we are not getting value for money with what is priced as a premium product.
    The ideal? Gatefold covers, cellophane/paper disc slips (back in the day all vinyl came with these, why not now?) and either a CD version of the album or a hi-res/WAV download card. I can see where my £20-£25 was going then…

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Hey Vince, thanks for sharing your experience. I’d agree, there could definitely be more done to increase the perceived value of records. I’m sure the high-price tag is a combination of supply and demand (there’s still a huge bottleneck in the production process of vinyl), and the price big labels think they can get away with.

      For me, one of the big selling points of new vinyl has always been the included download card. I too have experienced a couple of purchases that didn’t include one recently – it would be a shame if this trend continues. As recent figures suggest, however, our consumption habits are fast moving away from downloads and over to digital streaming; I wonder if this is could drive manufacturers away from download cards? I certainly hope hot.

      As for the static build up on new records, I would highly recommend cleaning your new records (if you’re not already) to help remove this, along with any nasties from the manufacturing process. Here’s a previous post on the topic: http://www.soundmattersblog.com/why-should-clean-new-vinyl-records/

      Hope this helps – thanks again for your comment.

  • Avatar Skyprogress says:

    Well first of all, wonderful essay Marc.

    Having worked with analog and several waves of digital audio, I am confident that current digital technology fundamentally beats vinyl for music delivery. Grr, fightin’ words. Please stay with me.

    With this said, the vinyl-vs-digital debate is quite valid due to the creative choices of those producing the music, and to a lesser extent the cost and limited availability of high-resolution digital content and playback systems.

    When I say “current”, I refer to technology and products that literally have appeared in recent months, just in time for the 2017 trade shows. A year or two ago, digital modeling of analog was promising; today it is truly jaw-dropping. I can produce a warm, full, analog-sounding mix that is fully digital, without the undesirable artifacts. I can also adhere to emerging loudness standards that reward dynamic mixes and penalize squashed ones, rather than vice versa.

    But will I? It is up to creators to record and deliver music that sounds really good, and up to manufacturers to sell high-resolution products and players. If this continues not to happen, then the case for vinyl is easier to make.

    Ultimately, it is up to consumers to vote for high-resolution music with their dollars as well as constantly communicating their interest to manufacturers. For starters, buy an artist’s FLAC file from CD Baby or Bandcamp, rather than the compressed version from another service.

    Or, if you are one who buys vinyl because you believe it sounds better, keep doing it and let your opinion be known. At some point, companies will respond by offering better digital products intended to compete with the vinyl market. They have the technology to do this today and just need a nudge from us to do so.

    • Avatar Marc Henshall says:

      Hey, thanks for your kind words and comment. Interesting stuff. I’ve heard a little about the emerging loudness standards, and I’m encouraged by it. I think, in many ways, this will make a bigger difference to audio quality than any preference for one format over another. Out of interesting, which current playback systems would you say achieve the current digital standards?

      Totally on board with consumers voting with their feet. I just hope they do, and that great quality doesn’t end up relegated to a niche status. Some might argue it already has.

      Cheers!

      • Avatar Skyprogress says:

        Agree Marc. It feels odd to complete a mix that sits 16 dB below what might be considered full scale. But if I increase loudness of my mix by squashing the dynamics, Spotify will immediately drop the volume by a few dB to meet their published standard, so I’ll end up with a mix that sounds less alive on Spotify, playing at the same volume as everybody else. But if I submit a clean -16 dB mix, Spotify will simply increase loudness by a few dB to match. With these new standards in place, the loudness wars are effectively over.

        I’m the wrong person to ask about high-res playback options, as we just bought a modest bookshelf setup for casual listening in our living room lol. However, I can mention a few names on the production side. UAD has an exceptional product line of DSP-based emulations of classic studio gear: Neve, API, Chandler, Ampex, etc. More recently, DMG and Nugen have offered leading edge processing plugins that don’t try to be strict emulations of classic studio gear, although they can be used that way. DMG EQuilibrium, for example, implements filters that were impossible to achieve as products a few years ago due to computer limitations. Artists are recording at deeper bit depths and faster sampling rates, which enables digital processing with very low artifacts. All good.

        I think a big challenge moving forward is the room itself, whether the living room for playback or the studio for recording. While this sounds like a digression from your topic, it all adds up, on the way from the musical performance to the final product. Great player, great room, great mics, great engineers, great mix and master, great delivery method. If all these ducks are not in a row, then the potential advantages of digital over vinyl becomes much less apparent. Sky

  • Avatar Rob McCabe says:

    This is a great summary. There are so many factors at play in a signal chain, it’s difficult to explain the differences to people without their eyes glazing over. In terms of pure sound quality, digital beats vinyl by some margin for a fraction of the cost. But lossless streaming isn’t nearly as fun as collecting and playing records. As someone who is too invested in the format to go back, I would try to dissuade anyone from pursuing vinyl, unless they have money to burn.

  • Here are my take on the pros and cons on vinyl records.

    PROS:
    tracks that are not available on CD

    CONS:
    everything else

    disclosure: I spent 22% of my 2017 music budget on vinyl. I would love to buy more. All of the vinyl I desperately want is generally affordable 30-40 year old material, but the shipping costs from Europe are absolutely crippling. Plus – I will never stream.

  • Avatar Still_Mantis says:

    I love playing vinyl particularly if the music was recorded on an analog tape recorder, but I also love owning CDs so I can always have access to legit, lossless digital audio of stuff too. I’m into multi formats baby.