January 11, 2004
In praise of vinyl

It's nice if somewhat quaint to read that old fashioned vinyl albums still have a share of the music market, even if it is a tiny one. The reason why is clear to audiophiles.

For sound purists, the distinction between vinyl records and digital CDs is all about math and science.

Digital music re-creates a sound. Analog music is sound.

In a digital recording, a wave of sound is sampled at a rate of 44,100 cycles per second. That sample is copied in digital bits. A vinyl record is imprinted with grooves that actually create a sound wave similar to the original performance.

The result, audiophiles say, is that vinyl produces a more complete, more authentic sound.

"The sound you hear on vinyl records is truly what the artists intended you to hear," Sara Childress, of UsedRecordAlbums.com, another Internet LP site, wrote in an e-mail interview. "It is the preferred media for the connoisseur of recordings because it was recorded exactly the way the artists performed it (with or without errors); and without someone else adding their interpretation through digital electronics."

Music companies have tried to address the shortcomings of CDs. New formats, such as Super Audio CD and DVD audio, have improved the sampling rate and sound. But, as has been the case before, neither of the conflicting formats has taken off.

"They've made a lot of improvements to digital sound," said Galen Carol, a home audio dealer and consultant in San Antonio, "but a lot of people still feel digital will never sound as good as analog."

For most people, the difference isn't significant. But for audiophiles, it's noticeable.

Carol cited as an example a violin note that's struck in a recording session. In a digital recording, because there are a finite number of digital bits defining that sound, it will abruptly end. But with an analog recording, that sound will trail off more gracefully and actually disappear.

Those nuances allow an analog recording to better re-create a concert setting, Carol said. With a top-notch turntable, running $3,000 and higher, and correctly tuned and placed speakers, it's possible to replicate the sound exactly.

I've never had a turntable anywhere near that good. Hell, I haven't had a turntable of any kind for several years now. My stereo doesn't even have an input labelled for a turntable. All I recall is hisses and pops and skips. The only thing I really miss about albums is cover art. Call me a heathen, but I'll be keeping my CDs.

Posted by Charles Kuffner on January 11, 2004 to Music | TrackBack

I have my doubts about the deep technobabble explaining why people prefer vinyl. But I know quite a few musicians who do, including a good friend and frequent musical colleague in years past who is by no stretch a technophobe or antiquarian. The sound is... different. Some prefer it.

I keep all my old vinyl because it would cost me a fortune to replace it all on CDs. I admit, though, that I gravitate toward CDs for their sheer convenience.

As legally downloadable music emerges, another musician friend, one who plays jazz, tells me that it is the best way for someone to compare and study a dozen versions of the same song without emptying the wallet paying for a dozen CDs. Sounds good to me.

Posted by: Steve Bates on January 11, 2004 7:01 PM

I have to say that I to say that after listening to a album and then a cd, the cd comes out heads above.
I cherish my old albums, but the could get screwed up so easily and cause all the skips and jumps. I used to record them on 8 tracks, and then later cassettes just to protect them. Now a days I can not even find the needle for my turn table. To many parts to worry about on a turn table. I will keep my cd collection

Posted by: Marcia on January 11, 2004 11:46 PM

I haven't bought a record in forever but this is because they don't sell them for the music I buy, not because I won't. If you take care of an album and replace your stylus at reasonable intervals, they last, not forever, but a reasonable time.

I don't have a trained ear but I can tell the difference: the analog sound is warmer and much less brittle. Listen to something with extreme dynamic ranges, the end of 1812 for example, to see this. The CD 44.1k sample rate is good for top 40 stuff. Anything more challenging suffers.

Incidentally, I'm looking to replace my cartridge - I still have a turntable - and found one on www.needledoctor.com for over $9000 (I didn't buy it) but the market still exists.

Posted by: Charles M on January 12, 2004 12:23 AM

A friend of mine in LA used to be a record producer, he has one of those $3k turntables to go with his $40k stereo rig, and he's a vinyl freak. His current affliction is Jazz, I hate the stuff he plays for me but I can hear the quality over CDs he plays. BUT it should be noted, he collects Direct To Disc recordings, I think they're from the late 1950s and 60s when DTD reached its peak. These are the absolutely most-faithful analog recordings ever made, in fact, you could make a case that DTD records are the ONLY analog recordings. And nobody does DTD anymore.
And there's the rub. There is no such thing as analog recording any more. It's all digital preproduction, so even if you press it to vinyl, the original master is still digital.
The biggest effect on the quality of the recording is the ability of the producer in doing the mastering. I was surprised to learn that there are some people who collect early CDs from the first year of production, before they figured out proper mastering techniques. As I heard it, the first couple of years of CDs were all mastered incorrectly, precisely to an incorrect standard, and were all remastered and rereleased (or just dropped). Those records are collectors items, like 8 track tapes.

Posted by: Charles E on January 12, 2004 12:48 AM

Mr. M: Forget the $9k carts. My audiophile buddy buys that stuff, but he made me go buy a Grado Green (only about $50) for my moderately-crappy turntable, Grado is widely considered the best cart for the money, and the Green sounds damn good to me, better than anything I ever bought in the all-analog days. If your turntable is good enough, you might want a better model like a Grado Gold, which costs about $150 and that's more than I ever spent on a turntable.

Posted by: Charles E on January 12, 2004 12:56 AM

Every time you play a record the needle literally scrapes the encoded waves off of the surface. Over time the sound degrades noticeably (hiss and pops). I've always maintained that maybe the first play sounds better than CD, but it's all downhill from there.

Vinyl sounding better is a myth, particularly in light of the majority of recording now being done digitally. I believe what people really remember as a warmer sound is not the vinyl but the production of the recording in the first place. Everything is so over-produced now it tends to be very lifeless.

Posted by: kherr on January 12, 2004 9:42 AM

I can hear the difference with a $3000 rig, but not with consumer grade gear. Lots of CDs were poorly mastered, and actually many still are (overly normalized to cut the dynamic range).

But the $3000 turntable needs a $40,000 stereo and a $alot listening room to get that perfect sound.

On certain recordings, vinyl is like vacuum tube audio equipment: it introduces pleasing modifications in the sound. Mostly, these days, I listen to CDs in my car, which is not a naturally excellent listening environment and also not suited to vinyl...

Posted by: Michael on January 12, 2004 7:50 PM

As a DJ, I'm in love with vinyl. Spinning CDs is so..artificial and boring. But the records that are pressed today are made of low quality, recycled wax. They wear very noticeably in 20-30 plays; it really sucks. I've spent a lot of money on top-of-the-line tables and carts, and it hardly helps. Really unfortunate, because my favorite tunes last a few weeks. If anyone has secrets for getting better sound out of your wax, for longer, I'd love to hear them.

Posted by: Jay on February 16, 2004 6:47 PM

my cd player sounds as good if not better than my vinyls but there is something extra that vinyl has that CD can't muster. In all it's wider frequency range, louder, clearer sound, it cannot reproduce the "warmth" and life that vinyl can/

Posted by: Geryon on January 19, 2007 9:04 AM