Vinyl records, both new and used, have become increasingly popular over the last several years and though I own a turntable and a modest vinyl album collection, I rarely actually play any of them. I don’t have any kind of expertise at all when it comes to sound but I will agree with many fans of the format that vinyl albums do indeed sound better than digital audio or CDs; and yes I do still own and buy CDs as strange as that might seem, but it’s not really all that unusual in reality.
The Recording Industry Association of America released its 2017 year-end revenue report recently and vinyl revenues were up 10 percent to $395 million in sales while the supposedly dead CD market did decrease 6 percent to $1.1 billion; that’s still a lot more CDs sold than vinyl. One very surprising fact in the RIAA report is that both of these older formats outsold digital downloads for the first time since 2011. Paid music subscription services like Spotify and Apple Music are the real big winners with $5.7 billion in total revenue, up 50 percent, making up two-thirds of the music industry’s revenue.
But getting back to vinyl, I’ll occasionally pull out some albums to listen to on my dusty turntable and early Black Sabbath classics like Paranoid or Master of Reality sound much, much better on vinyl than on CD or digital to my ears. Why is that? As I stated I am not an audio expert by any means but the main reason for the difference in sound what from little I have researched is the difference between analog and digital recordings; a vinyl album’s grooves captures the analog sound of the original recording while a digital recording takes samples of the analog signal at a certain rate. A digital recording is not capturing the complete analog sound wave, hence the difference in quality, in a nutshell; this is a simple, incomplete explanation but I don’t want to get too technical.
So if vinyl records sound so much better why don’t I listen to them more? The main problem I have with vinyl is that you can’t take it with you; you can’t listen to your vinyl albums in your car, most people can’t listen to them at work, and you can’t take them with you to the beach or out for a walk. Digital files or just so convenient to take with you anywhere that you go and want to listen to music; also the digital files sound just fine to me for the most part for everyday music listening. They don't sound that terrible to me as some people claim.
To be a listener of vinyl, you have to make a commitment. Sweet Spot Audio & Records owner Nigel Harrison believes that vinyl is the superior format for listening to music. “It’s more tactile; you can touch it, you can feel it, you can read it, you’re more engaged with it, you’re interconnected with it, you have to be attentive to it, and there is just more presence with it,” Harrison explains. “And personally, I do think it sounds better.”
“I think you’ve got to have the ability, the space, the room, the time; you’ve got to be willing to park yourself,” Harrison adds. “You can be in your car listening to digital, you can be anywhere, you can be at the park; it’s hard to take vinyl anywhere but at your house. But if you want to do serious listening where you’re really focused on that experience, kind of like going to a concert, you need to listen to vinyl.”
All of that is true and yet I find most of the time even when I’m at home it’s just so much easier to play songs I want to listen to digitally; if I want to listen to one particular song on vinyl I’ll have to flip through all of the albums, pull out the record, put it on the turntable, then find the song I want to listen to and put the needle down on it. It’s just so much simpler to play the digital file or CD track; I guess you could say in my leisure time I like to be a little bit lazy. I also don’t like the idea of spending a lot of money to replace my current music collection on vinyl, plus the additional cost and time involved with cleaning the albums, buying needles, etc.
Have you noticed the price of used and new vinyl is skyrocketing? Back around 2003 or so I bought a huge stack of vinyl albums at a garage sale for like 5 bucks; nobody wanted vinyl albums much back then. Going back further, young collectors today would be horrified to know many people practically gave away or threw away all of their albums in the '80s and replaced them with CDs.
I am actually a '80s kid and even back then when vinyl albums were much more prevalent I never listened to vinyl albums much or even CDs; I listened to all of my music on cassettes at that time. And as horrible as cassettes may have sounded, looking back I have more nostalgia for them than vinyl because that is the format I grew up listening to music on; interestingly enough even cassette tapes are making a mini-comeback with more local bands selling their music on cassettes at shows and the prices of certain vintage cassettes rising on Ebay auctions.
I do have some fond early childhood memories of playing my parent’s record collection and some kid’s records they had bought for me and my siblings on the family stereo system; my brother and I got a kick out of the “old” music my parents liked such as Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Elvis and other 50s rock and roll. Of course it was always amusing to play records at too fast of a speed so they all sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks on speed; we also had some actual Chipmunks singles on 45.
One of the cool things I do like about vinyl records is that there is a lot of music and other material that was released on that format back in the day that you simply can’t get anywhere else, at least legally; one of my favorite music artists is Neil Young so it was great to find copies of the Journey Through The Past movie soundtrack and Time Fades Away on vinyl since they have never been released on CD or digital download. Young for his part hates the traditional digital formats and created his own format called Pono that he claimed was of superior quality in January 2015 to combat this which has since folded. He would undoubtedly be horrified by this article; you can now listen to most of Neil Young’s music on his new website neilyoungarchives.com incidentally.
I will admit that I do like the pause between side one and side two when listening to an entire vinyl album, when you have to get up and flip the record over; I also like the sounds of the cracks and pops on old albums though I’m not sure if most vinyl fanatics always care for that themselves. I actually have a program that allows you to transfer your vinyl albums to MP3 and other digital formats but ultimately found it to be pointless so I never used it; I mean I can actually listen to the vinyl albums occasionally instead of making cheap digital copies that don’t really sound like either vinyl or good quality digital.
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It has to be noted that the bigger artwork on the front and back covers as well as the interior stuff and extras included with vinyl albums is a big plus over CDs; you don’t get any free posters with digital downloads either.
I have actually listened to more vinyl while writing and thinking about this article than I have in years. Maybe I’ll have to make more of an effort and the rewards of vinyl listening might outweigh my intentional reluctance and laziness about routinely using the format. I’ll have to get some long headphones though because the neighbors banged on my wall when I cranked up my KISS Alive II album. I really don’t like the idea of all the space and clutter a huge record collection would entail though; maybe I’ll just get a few more 5-star albums for my collection. In reality though I’ll probably just spend most of my time listening to my music like I do now; laziness is its own reward someone once told me.