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Rumble on the Turntable: Vinyl vs CD

Published: 25 Jun 15, 12:39pm  |  Author: Pembroke Tenneson

Vinyl records are back from the dead. A decade ago, only a few hundred thousand sold in a year but in 2014 vinyl record sales hit 1.3 million in the UK alone. We have to ask: is vinyl better than CD?

What's going on? Ten years ago my father chucked out his whole collection.

Vinyl sales have increased 100-fold in the last two years, and the growth has come so fast that the industry is struggling to keep up. In some cases there are 6-month waiting lists for new albums to be pressed. It doesn't help that the technology to produce vinyl records has been mostly abandoned!
 

Neumann LP Cutting Machine

A Neumann vinyl cutting machine.

The biggest sellers are the Arctic Monkeys, Jack White, Royal Blood, with artists from the golden age of vinyl like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd also in the charts. The numbers aren't huge - Jack White's 2014 album Lazaretto shifted 74,000 vinyl units - but they're growing every year.

Third Man Records

Jack White's Third Man Records label has a focus on vinyl.

What's the attraction? Why has a seemingly dead medium come back so strongly, and when CD sales are crashing, why is vinyl on the up?

Enough questions. Which is better, CD or vinyl?

Well, that's a toughie. Let's rephrase the question to be a little more specific. If we were to ask if vinyl or CD was a better recreation of the sounds actually made by the artists in the studio, the answer is simple: CDs produce better-quality sound.

The question was settled pretty early on, in fact - back in the 1980s when CDs first arrived, hi-fi magazines ran exhaustive comparison tests to establish which format was better. In every metric, CDs came out ahead: they separate channels better (isolating each stereo track from the other), introduce less noise, can produce actual silence (vinyl always makes subtle background noise as the needle moves, and of course makes familiar crackles, pops and hiss as it deteriorates), won't degrade over time, and in every other measurement, create superior quality sound. The most noticeable difference is in dynamic range: the difference between the loudest and quietest sounds in the music is much greater on CDs than LPs.

So CDs win then?

They more accurately reproduce sound, yes. But though they were popular for a while, CDs never lit the same fire among enthusiasts as LPs did, and some of the CD's technical abilities actually set the stage for a modern backlash.

Plastic Jewel Case

Brittle plastic cases lack the soft touch.

Their smaller size and plastic packaging made them less pleasant to own and handle. Producers found they had fewer technical limitations, and started pushing the volume louder and louder. Making an album louder than competitors makes it easier to capture listeners' attention, but in the rush to push the volume, nuance, range and dynamics suffered. The trend continued when digital files spread with the advent of filesharing. Strangely, tracks mixed for vinyl might sound like they have more dynamic range than the CD versions - even though the vinyl medium has less range overall.

Loudness war mastering

The same track, mastered first in 1983 and again in 2003. The bottom version sounds much louder but is less nuanced.

Let's say that the backlash isn't the fault of the format - CDs are brilliant in their design - but the trend towards mastering noisy records, and modern popular opinion lumping CDs with 'digital' files like MP3s which are often low quality to reduce file sizes to make downloading faster means that the CD just isn't well-liked.

It's more than that though. Many listeners do prefer the sound of vinyl records to CDs, even when the CD is mastered to a high standard.

What's going on here? Why vinyl?

The answer lies in vinyl's physical qualities. As an analogue medium, vinyl has some inherent bugs that can't be ironed out and these go a long way to making vinyl the format of choice among die-hard music enthusiasts. It sounds a bit counter-intuitive, so stick with us here.

One of vinyl's most popular traits is that it's said to sound 'warmer' than CD, a trait LPs have thanks to their distortion. This mostly occurs in the low end; bass is very difficult to reproduce accurately on vinyl, and at the top end, trebly highs sound less bright, resulting in a punchy midrange sound. The signal processing, imperfections and dust on the vinyl itself and on the record player all contribute to the sense of warm, subtle distortion. 

Vinyl grooves

Grooves and dust on a vinyl record.

Besides the sound itself, there are other aspects of the vinyl listening experience that many people prefer. A vinyl LP is a beautiful object by itself and the large sleeves they come in are more satifying to feel and hold than a plastic CD case. There's more room for high-quality pictures and text too. The act of putting on a vinyl record has a certain something to it as well - having to stand up to flip discs over gives the listener a personal stake in the musical experience. It might not sound like much, but an LP involves listeners in the music in a way CDs can't.

Commodore record shop, 1947

Commodore Record Store, 1947.

That doesn't make either format better or worse. In the CD vs vinyl debate there are no winners - only preferences. Some listeners will favour accurate reproduction and full bass while others will want the experience an LP offers.

It's not better, just different. And we like that. Have any vinyl you want rid of?

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About Pembroke Tenneson

Pembroke is a singer-songwriter, copywriter and editor. His first loves are music and words.

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