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The Vinyl vs. CD Debate, Part 3:  Perceptual Factors   (October 2018)


Listening to music requires two major elements.  The first is the collection of components that create and affect sound, including both the medium and the system that plays it.  Part 2 of this series addressed this element, delving into the debate’s technical factor arguments relating to vinyl and CDs.  All points raised by proponents of both media are factually correct, though their relative importance differs depending upon who is considering the argument.


The second element, and topic of this article, is the person who listens to the sound.  Listening to the same piece of music, two people may hear the same thing but perceive it very differently.  Perceptions are shaped by background and experiences, how one attends to and processes the sonic information, the salience and importance of various characteristics of the sound, and attitudes and beliefs.  While the introduction of new objective evidence might change someone’s mind about a technical factor, these “perceptual factors” can be highly resistant to change, even to the point of trumping technical arguments altogether, or at least those that run counter to how one perceives sound and believes it ought to be experienced.


With this perspective in mind, let’s explore what each group is saying.  After presenting the arguments, I’ll offer comments that provide some additional information.


Perceived Sound Characteristics

From Those Favoring Vinyl

  • Vinyl recordings are warmer, richer, lusher, and more natural sounding than CDs. In contrast, digital recordings are colder, harsher, thinner, tinny, and more clinical sounding.

  • Vinyl’s slight imperfections and variations, including tracking error and inner-groove distortion, provide additional character, variety, and charm to the recording.


From Those Favoring CDs

  • CDs provide better clarity than vinyl and are free of vinyl’s surface noise, clicks and crackle, static pops, and pre- and post-echo that were never part of the original recording and detract from the music.


Regarding the first pro-vinyl statement, this was probably true during CDs’ early years, as the processes involved in creating a CD had a lot of room for improvement.  For instance, CDs were very likely made from analogue masters, which often don’t translate well to digital (the same is true of making an LP from a digital master).  Digital recording has improved over the years, and the differences described may be less of a significant factor.  (The resistance to change I mentioned in the introduction to this article was evident in a conversation I had with a prospective customer.  She preferred her 1980s cassettes over CDs because CDs at that time sounded “tinny” to her.  Her opinion had not changed in the decades that followed.)


A further reflection on this same point is that while technical factors can be objectively observed and tested, the same cannot be said for perceived sound characteristics.  Terms like “warmth” and “lushness” are subjective descriptions, hard to define and harder to quantify.  A double-blind experiment—where neither the participants nor administrators know which medium is being played—to determine how participants would characterize vinyl and CD renditions of the same work would be difficult to design and conduct.  Using an analogue master for the CD version introduces characteristics that wouldn’t normally be there if a digital master had been used, and the same is true of using a digital master for the LP version.  And if one matches the master with the medium, differences between the masters would confound the experiment.


As for the statements in the last two bullets above, they are diametrically opposed.  The presence of noise in vinyl and its absence in CDs is a given, but one group considers it a benefit while the other considers it a distraction.  Neither is likely to change its position based on the other’s arguments, which they deem irrelevant.


The Listening Experience

From Those Favoring Vinyl

  • With vinyl, all the little steps involved in playing an LP—selecting a record, cleaning it, placing it on the turntable, queuing the tonearm, and flipping it at the end of the side—set the stage for demanding one’s listening attention, and this allows one to just listen to the music and disconnect from other demands and activities.


From Those Favoring CDs

  • Playing CDs entails selecting a disc and inserting it into one’s player, but none of the other steps required to play an LP.

  • A properly handled CD needs to be cleaned only occasionally (if ever), and one doesn’t have to periodically replace a stylus or align a cartridge.


My first reaction to the statement in the first bullet was that I’m perfectly free to clean and play an LP as background music, as well as to select a CD and become thoroughly engrossed in listening to it—but without the additional activities.  Upon further reflection, though, I might recast that argument as follows.  Given the intent to actively listen to and become engrossed in an LP’s music, the preparatory steps set the stage and serve to heighten one’s anticipation; listening becomes the reward and reinforces the behavior.  Kind of like getting your popcorn and drink, turning on the television, and turning off your phone before putting your feet up and watching a movie.


In the previous section, arguments regarding perceived sound characteristics were in direct opposition, and we see the same thing in the first two bullets regarding the listening experience. Irrespective of anticipation and reward, those favoring vinyl do not consider the activities before playing an LP to be a burden, while those favoring CDs view them as a burden they can avoid.  Without the common ground of what constitutes a burden, each group views the other’s argument as irrelevant, and this applies equally to the final bullet above.


What’s Next

From the discussion above, the vinyl vs. CD debate would appear to be at an impasse.  Part 4 of this series presents my assessment of the debate, some comments on intangible digital media, and my own preferences.


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