The resurgence of vinyl as a “high-fidelity” music playback medium is becoming more and more recognized in popular culture. “Hipsters” and true audiophiles alike are quickly starting a new-age vinylphile scene, largely because of a small but noisy backlash against digitally distributed music.
First things first: this phenomena isn’t new – the anti-digital audio movement was alive and well in the early days of compact discs and digital mastering, two phenomena that took off roughly contemporaneously in the 1980’s. By the 90’s, both had improved by leaps and bounds in terms of quality and consistency, though numerous music artists like Neil Young decried the rise of digital production and the “ones and zeroes” of compact discs, compared to the warmth, character, and high fidelity of analog vinyl records at the time. But the Walkman and in-car CD players made the compact disc a consumer smash-hit, and cassettes quickly fell by the wayside as the better-sounding and more reliable CD took over the marketplace.
With the rise of the iPod, things changed again: MP3 and other digital audio formats rapidly eclipsed compact discs in terms of total distribution (even if much of that distribution was illegal), and personal audio entered a new age.
In the early aughts (00’s), the quality of digitally distributed audio wasn’t exactly stellar, but nor was the playback equipment. Laptops and desktop computers had middling audio reproduction to start with, but this was something of a blessing in disguise: low expectations set by computers and laptops (and those old iPod earbuds, yuck) meant that digitally distributed music could be encoded at low bitrates without having an extreme impact on the perceptible quality of the audio. A 64 or 48Kbps MP3 was not uncommon to see in these early days, perhaps ripped from a scratched CD using a sketchy drive, and encoding tools were not nearly as standardized or effective at compression. This is where ire toward digital really started, even if those problems are basically nonexistent today.
But with huge amounts of digital distribution happening extralegally during this time, there was no real concern for preserving quality or the effects of burning/re-ripping/re-encoding on lossy audio formats – people simply didn’t care. While Apple was distributing comparatively very high-quality 128Kbps AAC files by 2003 on iTunes, that still comprised just a tiny amount of the music being distributed around the internet. Who wasn’t illegally downloading music in the mid to late 2000s?
Today, things are rather different. Even the lowest of the low streaming services generally stream at 128Kbps MP3 over Wi-Fi (though they do go down to 96 or even 64/48Kbps over mobile – see: Pandora), and if you’re actually buying digital music, it’s all but guaranteed to be at 192-256Kbps MP3 or higher. I have still yet to see real evidence that even 192Kbps MP3 sounds better than 128Kbps MP3, by the way – which should tell you something about all the FLAC and lossless weirdos out there.
In this context, listening to music on vinyl makes little sense. Vinyl is, by its nature, an imperfect medium – all the “warmth” and “character” vinyl lovers describe of their records is generally attributable to the natural sonic qualities of vinyl playback, qualities that will come through on a $100 Pyle turntable pretty similar to a $1500 Marantz. Yes, a nicer turntable / stylus will produce much nicer audio than a much cheaper one, but that’s not really the point here: the point is that the “vinyl effect” is basically psychological – these people have come to associate “quality” with the inherent characteristics of vinyl playback, and that’s an entirely inappropriate conflation.
Vinyl is a carburetor in a fuel-injected world. Yes, a properly tuned, calibrated, and expensive vinyl setup can sound and perform much better than many digital setups, but that’s missing the point: most vinyl playback today happens on cheap turntables with cheap or old records and cheap or old needles and goes through cheap or old speakers. It is far easier and cheaper to make a digital setup that sounds as good or better than a very carefully tuned and much, much pricier vinyl setup. Vinyl love is nostalgia, plain and simple.
Much as the man driving a ’69 Mustang Boss 302 may proclaim that his underrated V8 puts out 350-plus horsepower and was one of the most potent vehicles of its day, that doesn’t mean a $21,000 2014 Ford Fiesta ST with a scant 197HP won’t spank it in essentially every measurable performance metric while being more reliable and far less expensive. Could you make the Boss faster than the Fiesta by throwing huge sums of money at it? Sure. But claiming that the Boss is the better car because you can make it better is an obvious fallacy. This is the argument vinyl-heads will have over and over with nonbelievers – vinyl can sound better than MP3, you just have to know what to buy and be willing to spend. And clean your records. And your needle. And set your tracking force. And your pitch. And balance the turntable.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s look at the records themselves. Let’s say you have a mint condition, unopened copy of CSNY’s Deja Vu on vinyl, original pressing. And then let’s say you have the remaster from 2006 in 192Kbps MP3. The vinyl already has a disadvantage: the MP3 has been mastered for digital to remove analog hum, hiss, and other artifacts of the production process that weren’t possible in 1969. Some remasters do end up ruining records, but most are careful exercises in restoration and utilize new technology to more effectively present the music as the artist originally intended while eliminating problems in the original mastering. Right out of the gate, the MP3 is almost certain to sound superior – while the vinyl has the appeal of “originality,” this advantage is rooted – like almost all vinyl arguments – in nostalgia. Original does not sound objectively better, no matter what vinylphiles will try to tell you. Then let’s look at money: how much would such a record cost? Well, for a truly original copy, you’d be looking at $100+ for an unopened record. A later high-grade reissue in excellent condition would run you more like $15-35+, so let’s say you use that. How much does the 2006 remastered MP3 cost? About $10. Or it’s included as part of a music subscription service and costs you nothing but your monthly fee.
So, which is going to sound better? That, of course, is almost entirely contingent on the setup. With the digital file, $330 will buy you a great DAC, headphone amplifier, and very good set of Grado headphones quite easily. At that point, you’ll probably have 95% of the perceptible audio quality money can buy in the realm of digital audio.
The record? Well, let’s start with turntables. If you go cheap, a fully-manual Pyle that’s serviceable but not great will set you back $70. A good but cheap AudioTechnica needle, maybe another $30. You’ll also need a phono preamp, say $25 for that. Then you have the same cost for the headphone amp and headphones. A grand total of, we’ll say, about $325.
Which sounds better? I would know, because I have this exact setup, and it’s the digital audio every single time, without a shadow of a doubt. No vinyl hiss, cracks, pops, or hum. No dust to contend with. No adjusting tracking force. The digital sounds fuller, with superior bass, channel separation, and fidelity. Maybe if I had a $300 turntable, $200 needle, and a $300 small tube amp with some open-back Sennheisers, I could get the full vinyl experience. Oh, and pay the insane cost of getting all the music I want on vinyl. And to do it right, that means chasing down audiophile high-weight reissues, which run anywhere from $30-100+. Why would I do this? I don’t know, because there is no truly justifiable reason for it from the perspective of sonic quality. It makes no sense.
Now, it’s easy to say “that’s not a fair comparison – the digital reissue is a new master, of course it sounds better” because this allows vinyl-heads to postulate that if the digital version was the exact same master as the vinyl, the vinyl would be superior because the digital is lossy. Except this is a moot point: half of the advantage of digital is in having the newest, cleanest master of the song. Now, sometimes true originals are interesting to hear, but no one is listening to them for fidelity! There’s historical value, there’s nostalgic value, and that’s really it – for sheer listening pleasure, I will take the digital remaster of nearly any album any day of the week over the analog original. They sound better.
Anyway, the real point here is that in almost no real-world setting will vinyl sound better than a legitimate MP3 of the same song or album when played through the same equipment (aside from the record player, obviously). It’s an absurd thing to argue. If you throw the same money at a DAC as you would at a high-end turntable, stylus, and preamp, you’d struggle to even find a place to spend all that cash. Like a lot of the high-end audiophile market, though, it’s very easy to find a company that’s happy to convince you of whatever it is you want to believe about how to get the “best” sound, and the sudden demand for vinyl has made a $1500 turntable a viable business model again. Make no mistake: this phenomena is cultural, not technical, in nature. Audiophiles with deep pockets love to be told that what they like is what is also objectively better: modern, high-end vinyl gear merely caters to a demand of the market, not some rediscovery of vinyl’s obvious superiority. Vinyl is cool again, and so people, even audiophiles (unsurprisingly), want to be in with what’s cool. That’s all this is really about, at the end of the day.
If you’re really serious about sound, you should also be serious about getting value for your money, and high-end vinyl is the antithesis of value. Vinly is fashion – it is tasteful, classic, and calls back to a time when we consumed music differently. That doesn’t make it better. If anything, it serves to discredit it.