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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.