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The Vinyl vs. CD Debate, Part 1:  The Arguments  (August 2018)


Some months before pursuing the details of starting a record-to-CD conversion business, I was enjoying coffee with some friends.  One asked me if I had considered that vinyl was making a comeback and that CD sales were slumping.  It was—and continues to be—an interesting question (though it implied another question:  Paul, have you lost your mind?).  Undeterred and deciding that my sanity was more or less intact, I read numerous articles and discussions about vinyl vs. CDs and which is better.


This is the first of four articles addressing the vinyl vs. CD debate.  It presents background information to help place the debate in a proper context, followed by arguments from each side of the debate.




Vinyl vs. CDs, not Digital Media

The debate sometimes fails to differentiate between CDs and downloaded audio files, which are inherently different even though both are digital formats.  These articles primarily consider tangible media (things you can hold in your hand like LPs and CDs) rather than intangible media like downloads.


Trends in Vinyl and CD Sales

It is well known that CD sales have fallen off dramatically over the last several years.  In 2006, CDs accounted for roughly 84% of music industry revenue.  As industry sales fell sharply between 2006 and 2010, the portion attributable to CDs took a disproportionate hit, dropping to about 50%.  Though overall industry revenue has been fairly stable from 2007 through 2017, CDs’ contribution has continued its decline.  According to the Record Industry Association of America’s report of 2017 sales, CDs accounted for only 12%.


Sales of vinyl LPs, on the other hand, have grown steadily from 2006 through 2017, gaining ground on CDs (14.8 million LPs sold in 2016 compared to 97.6 million CDs, and 15.6 million LPs sold in 2017 compared to 87.6 million CDs).  Nevertheless, LPs accounted for just 4.5% of industry revenue.  It seems unlikely that LP sales will surpass those of CDs, let alone become the primary source of revenue.


In contrast with tangible products, the 600-pound gorilla in the music industry is the collection of intangible digital products:  subscriptions, streaming, downloads, ringtones, et al.  Intangible digital products have enjoyed a steadily increasing share of sales from 2006 through 2017, accounting for $7.0 billion of the industry’s $8.7 billion in 2017 sales—about 80%.


Important Factors Affecting Sound Quality Other Than the Medium

Before exploring the arguments favoring vinyl or CDs, I’ll offer some caveats that should be kept in mind while evaluating the arguments.


Is a recording analogue, digital, or a combination?  To produce an analogue recording, sound is typically captured by microphones or other transducers in a recording studio, sent to the control panel, possibly routed through “outboard” equipment to alter channels’ sounds (e.g., equalization, compression, added effects), and captured by a multi-track tape recorder.  The tape is used in a multi-step process that winds up with stamping vinyl records.  All these steps are analogue, at least nominally.


However, some of the outboard equipment may be digital, and the device capturing the mixed sound may be a Digital Audio Workstation instead of a multi-track tape recorder.  Just as CDs are sometimes produced from an analogue master, LPs can be produced from a digital master.  The upshot is that an LP may not represent a purely analogue series of steps, nor will a CD necessarily reflect solely digital steps.


Is your recording all that it could have been?  Another thing to keep in mind is that audio quality relies on the recording equipment used and the expertise and skills of the sound, mixing, and mastering specialists.  Nothing will improve the quality of a poorly created or overcompressed audio track, regardless of the medium or sound system it’s played on.


How good is the playback equipment?  Equipment is crucial in rendering good audio quality, regardless of which medium you’re listening to.  LPs’ sound will be affected by the quality of the stylus (and its proper alignment), tonearm, turntable, and preamp; CDs’ sound will be affected by the player or player software, the digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), and the DAC’s internal clock.  Both media are influenced by the amplifier, cables, speaker wires, speakers, system-generated noise, and electromagnetic interference.


Enthusiasts will spend hundreds of dollars—and audiophiles thousands—in pursuit of equipment that will deliver the truest sound.  Residing at the other end of the continuum are Amazon’s four top-selling turntables (in early 2018), three of which listed at less than $100, and two of which were record players that included an internal amplifier and speakers and sold for between $40 and $50 (audio enthusiasts spend more than this on a single cable).  Vinyl devotees might cringe at this, knowing that the sound quality won’t be particularly good.


Are you listening under optimal conditions?  The listening environment is also an important factor affecting sound fidelity.  Sound reproduction will be markedly different in an acoustically designed listening room, a more casual environment such as a living room or den, or an inherently noisy setting.  Additionally, the presence of external distractions and whether you’re attending to things other than listening will affect how you perceive sound quality.


The Arguments


Reading articles on the debate and the comments they accrued was an interesting experience.  Many of the postings were thoughtful, supported by evidence, well-reasoned, and respectful of all readers’ preferences and opinions.  But at the opposite end of the spectrum, some comments were flaming tirades, blatantly disrespectful of preferences other than their own, offered without adequate support, and occasionally confounding issues (e.g., overgeneralizing from low bitrate, lossy audio files to include all digital formats, lossless CDs among them).  In presenting the arguments from both camps, I’ve attempted to follow the former route, though some phraseology from originators has been preserved to provide a sense of the divide (note in particular the first, bolded sentence in each section below).

Aggregated Arguments for Why Vinyl Is Superior to CDs

Technical FactorsVinyl is the ultimate physical audio format!  An analogue sound medium is technically accurate, while a digital representation is compromised.  Quantization errors (digital samples of an analogue signal are almost always just a little different than the true value of the signal) are inherent in digitization, and therefore sound waves reconstructed from digital samples are imprecise.  Analogue recordings are not subject to aliasing artifacts (fragments of hypersonic waves that appear in the audible range) and therefore do not require removal of frequencies above 20 KHz.  Analogue media are not subject to jitter (degradation of sound quality caused by timing inaccuracies in the DAC).  Waveforms in an analogue system that push the maximum amplitude are rounded, producing a soft distortion that is musically pleasing (at least in the right context); conversely, waveforms in a digital system that push the maximum amplitude are truncated (“clipped”), invariably producing harsh and objectionable distortion.


Perceptual Factors:  Vinyl recordings are warmer, richer, lusher, and more natural sounding. In contrast, digital recordings are colder, harsher, thinner, tinny, and more clinical sounding.  Vinyl’s slight imperfections and variations provide additional character and variety to the recording.  All the little rituals one must do to listen to an LP—selecting an album from one’s collection, cleaning it, placing it on the turntable, queuing the tonearm, and flipping it at the end of the side—contribute to an enhanced and engaging listening experience.  Vinyl demands attention and allows one to just listen to the music and disconnect from other demands and activities.  The experience is enriched by the jacket’s large art work, liner notes, and inserts like lyric sheets, booklets, or posters, and even the musty smell contributes to the involvement.

Aggregated Arguments for Why CDs Are Superior to Vinyl

Technical FactorsCDs are technically superior to vinyl!  While CDs’ frequency range is nominally comparable to that of vinyl, it’s better because there’s much less variation in the ability to produce sound across the frequency range.  Unlike vinyl, there’s no need to cut out frequencies below 20 Hz to avoid mechanical noise like turntable rumble.  CDs’ dynamic range (the difference between the loudest and softest sounds that can be produced) is much greater.  CDs are not subjected to the RIAA equalization pre-emphasis and subsequent de-emphasis required in the production of LPs (see Equalization) that might alter what one hears.  Tracking errors and inner-groove distortion (both described in Part 2) affect sound reproduction from vinyl, but these do not occur with CDs.  Finally, CDs don’t require constant maintenance, nor are they as vulnerable to damage by accident or from neglect.  And since there is no direct contact between a CD player and a CD’s data, there is no cumulative physical damage resulting from repeated playing.  CDs can be ripped to lossless audio files and backed up, and replacement CDs can be burned from these files if the original CD is damaged.  One can also convert ripped audio files to a smaller (though lossy) format like MP3 and load those files onto a portable player or phone.

Perceptual Factors:  CDs provide better clarity than vinyl and are free of the vinyl’s surface noise that detracts from the fidelity of the music—noise from friction and the crackle, ticks, clicks, and pops that come from dust and dirt.  CDs are not susceptible to static pops that can occur when an LP is played in a dry environment or pre-echo or post-echo (vibrations from neighboring grooves that are picked up by the stylus).  Playing CDs doesn’t require nearly the same amount of effort as LPs do.  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.  Though smaller, CD cases contain art, liner notes, and occasional booklets.


What’s Next

Now you have the gist of the arguments.  In the ensuing articles, we’ll delve more deeply into the points made in the arguments.


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