top of page

The Vinyl vs. CD Debate, Part 4:  Closing Thoughts   (November 2018)


In this final article on the vinyl vs. CD debate, I’ll present my assessment of the debate, offer some thoughts on intangible digital media, and close with my preferences regarding vinyl, CDs, and intangible digital media.


An Assessment of the Debate

In my readings about the vinyl vs. CD debate, I’ve seen articles and comments from proponents of both media ranging from well-constructed and supported presentations to ill-conceived and confounded nonsense.  From what I’ve distilled from this “literature” and presented in the first three parts of this series, I come away with four assessments of where the debate stands.

  1. The arguments based on technical factors give the edge to CDs.

  2. The arguments based on perceptual factors decidedly overshadow those based on technical factors.

  3. Sound characteristics and the listening experience are perceived differently by the pro-vinyl and pro-CD groups, so much so that there’s little consensus about just what is being argued.

  4. Neither side can be declared the winner, and even though the debate is not winnable, it will continue.


In a larger context, I expect most people acknowledge the technical and perceptual arguments favoring both vinyl and CDs.  And to be fair, there are many who sincerely appreciate both media in their own way.

Playing a CD - High angle - Tight crop.J

The Rise of Intangible Digital Media

Part 1 in this series noted that intangible digital media such as subscriptions, streaming, downloads, and ringtones accounted for about 80% of the music industry’s sales in 2017, a position held by several different media over the past 130 years.  Change is inevitable, driven both by new technology and evolving consumer demands, but is it always for the better?


Factors such as sound fidelity, media durability, and playing time were key components of 78s overtaking wax cylinders and LPs overtaking 78s.  Though the subject of debate, the same can be said of CDs overtaking LPs, at least regarding media durability and playing time.


In the 1960s and 1970s, two other factors emerged—convenience and portability, and these contributed to CDs’ two-decade dominance in the marketplace during the 1980s and 1990s.  They were also central to the success of cassettes and 8-track tapes, though I wouldn’t attribute an increase in fidelity to these two formats.


Convenience, portability, and media durability contributed to the rise of intangible digital media, along with easy and wide accessibility to music, ease of use, absence of any maintenance needs, and the ability to recover corrupted audio files from backups.  Though their success is understandable, it has come with a cost:  The fidelity of lossy audio files is inferior to that of earlier media since audio information is algorithmically discarded in creating smaller files.  (I should mention that intangible digital media’s sound fidelity continues to improve.  Compared to the typical MP3 bit rate of 128, one can obtain files with bit rates as high as 320—touted as CD quality, and new formats such as MQA [Master Quality Authenticated] continue to emerge.)


Improved sound fidelity had been a primary factor in the development of new media for eighty years or so, but more recently convenience and portability have played that role.  In one lengthy but unusually introspective collection of comments, I found some recurring themes among both vinyl and CD lovers.  Both camps mourn the loss of their favorite medium’s status; both miss the experience of browsing new releases in a music store; both express concern but remain hopeful that their medium will survive, even if not as prosperously as in their prime; and both treasure their medium’s tangible nature.  (I have several autographed CDs that I’m unlikely ever to part with.)  And despite their differences of opinion, vinyl and CD proponents realize that both vinyl and CDs can produce better or more enjoyable audio than intangible digital media and are disheartened that at least one generation of listeners is less likely to know there’s a difference.


Where Do I Stand on the Debate?

As a preface, let me reiterate that there are lots of pros and cons for different media, be they vinyl or CD, tangible or intangible, MP3 or high-resolution audio.  Ultimately, one’s choice is a personal preference, often subjective.  And it’s OK to have more than one favorite.


Though I will not dismiss the advantages and benefits of analogue media, I have a definite preference for digital in the form of music CDs and lossless audio files.  My reasons are that I can enjoy music without the noise inherent in records and that I can preserve my music by having copies on both CDs and my computer’s hard drive (and backed up on an external drive).  I also enjoy the portability that MP3 files provide, and the loss of fidelity is acceptable to me because I play them in my car—a noisy environment full of necessary distractions.


I fully recognize that others do not share my preferences, and I acknowledge that those who don’t have good reasons for favoring other media.  Whether others’ tastes tend toward vinyl, cassettes, CDs, high resolution audio, MP3 files, or streaming, they are still enjoying their music, and ultimately that is the most important outcome.


I will close by returning to an implied question appearing in Part 1:  Paul, have you lost your mind?  Regardless of where the music industry is headed, Play It Again, Paul, LLC serves its market by converting analogue media to digital, enabling customers to listen to older media when they cannot find a replacement or no longer own viable playing devices, and preserving recordings—especially personal ones—that otherwise might be lost due to media degeneration.  Offering music CDs, lossless audio files, high-resolution audio files, and MP3 files tailors the deliverables to customers’ preferences.


Back to Paul’s Blog & Contents

bottom of page