Vinyl vs CD vs Streaming
Perhaps you have visited some audio forums or attended spirited debates in audio or just read a few opinions from contributors to audio magazines where the discussion got heated around the question of which is better, without reproach 100% of the time, Vinyl records, CD, Streaming or downloads or ?
In my opinion, it is a false argument designed to work against engaging with music and drive a wedge between folks. That is to say, that is how it is used. I have seen discussions on this turn into religious wars and for what?
Are there differences in sound quality between the mediums? You bet there are. Are any of them able to claim a monopoly and be the very best? The short answer in my opinion is “no”. It really depends on the recording in the first place, a bad recording will be bad on any medium and like it or not, it also depends on a person’s preferences and means and there is nothing wrong with that. Trying to claim that only one medium is always and forever sonically superior no matter what, is being too over-general and not accurate because I can attest that there are some CDs that sound better than their vinyl counterparts just as in reverse. It’s like trying to generalize about women based on the utterings of a disturbed individual like Trump. In my opinion and experience, some recordings sound best on vinyl and some sound best on CD, it depends on the method or methods of recording used, the engineers, etc. I’m not an omniscient expert able to articulate every finite detail, but I’ll try to break it down as I understand it from a music lover’s point of view, if you will.
Vinyl: Back in the day it was the only medium widely available to folks to get their music. The first records were not vinyl, but metal and then lacquers or shellacs as they were called. (I also know this because my parents had some). Most of us have a pretty good idea of what those sounded like. We also have to keep in mind that the equipment for both recording and playback back then was nothing like the following decades up to now which was also a huge contributor to the sound quality.
Forward to the 50s, 60s and early 70s and you have vinyl records (technically Polyvinyl Chloride or PVC). Sound quality was improved but largely due to better recording techniques, methods and playback gear, even back then in the heyday of vinyl you could still get a bad pressing or recording that would make you plug your ears. That said though, bad pressings were rather infrequent and often times mistakes. These days they can be more intentional such as a result of get it done quick and cheap. For example, Rhino records put out a remaster of The Yes Album on 180 gram vinyl and it is inferior even to the original U.S. pressing. It could be how it was sourced or the quality of the plates themselves or the lacquer from whence the plates were made or any combo therein. The point is that it is a bad pressing done intentionally as in a rush job.
Then there is the original recording methods. Back in the heyday it was analog to analog, no excessive compression or anything. For music of that era, vinyl is king in my opinion and original pressings at that, although these days there are good, correctly sourced re-pressings around. These days all too often, record companies/distributors are trying to press digital recordings onto vinyl and it doesn’t work. They are taking an already severely compressed digital recording and pressing it to an analog medium with limited room and dynamics in matching to the digital recording. As a result you get more floor noise than what is naturally inherent in vinyl plus distortion and a thin tinny sound with no dynamics sounding worse than a bad CD or an MP3. Pretty much unlistenable in my opinion. Now fairly recently there are different digital recordings being pressed to vinyl called High Resolution (usually 96 kHZ/24 bit or 192 kHZ/24bit which is native frequency and bit rate and it’s reported to be better than a CD digital recording,44.1 kHZ/16bit). Technically, it is, but as always, it’s your ears that are the final judge. One question is regarding the limited dynamic range of what an analog medium can hold. Digital holds a wider dynamic range of frequencies than vinyl records, but humans only hear up to a certain point. For example, humans can not hear beyond 22kHz on the high end, so what would be the point in having a medium that can hold that? Personally, I don’t like the whole idea, but that’s just me. I’m not saying there is anything wrong with vinyl or analog or digital, I am just stating a fact. There is a trade off, somehow analog has soul to it that one just feels. Digital can be too analytical or sterile to some folks. There are some labels these days trying to do the right thing by either restoring the original tapes (which is hit and miss in some cases and in other cases not even available) or using two separate recording techniques, one for analog and one for digital for current artists and recordings, this is a good solution in my opinion. There are new reissues out there done from analog sources that are extremely good, but rather expensive.
One big advantage to vinyl is archival. Vinyl records, despite their apparent physical delicacy are basically a far more physical stable storage medium than digital. Think about it, almost every consumer/prosumer digital medium is far more subject to information loss and even degradation over time than vinyl records. For instance, CD-R’s degrade over time. Cheap ones have an average lifespan of around 20 years, better pro-level CD-Rs have a lifespan of up to about 30 to 40 years if stored and cared for properly. (Production level CDs have a longer lifespan of around 50 to at least 100 years if cared for). You think storing all your music on a hard disk will be a good idea for archiving? That’s actually the least favorable thing. Hard disks last around 1 to 5 years if your lucky. So you do a back up onto another drive, but you have to keep going because that first back up drive could fail in 1 to 4 years, so you need another and it keeps going. I’ve lost 2 hard drives in 4 years, but have never lost the data on a good CD-R or production CD or vinyl record. We all know how digital tape worked out, not so good.
It may seem ironic that with vinyl records being susceptible to heat, easily nicked, scratched, etc. and playback involving pulling a diamond stylus through a groove with all the accompanying pressure, friction and whatnot has so far shown to be more archival than any digital medium. I have 50 to 60 year old records that play like they did the first day.
Advantages of Vinyl: Sound quality is best over all for earlier eras, a great many album jackets are works of art, have a pleasant tactile experience and sometimes one doesn’t even have to play the record to recall memories and such, vinyl records can come as packages with all kinds of extras, from booklets to posters to stickers to all kinds of goodies, liner notes are often times easier to read, the outer jackets can even be framed as artwork (try that with a CD), can play through surface scratches as if they were not there, will last forever if properly cared for. Turntables last a very very long time if cared for. Does not need to be expensive to be fantastic. cartridges and styli choices in every price point imaginable.
Disadvantages of vinyl: Easily scratched, slightly more delicate than CD, can take up room depending on how many you have, need to be maintained and kept clean, but same as CDs really (although not much of a disadvantage in my opinion when one remembers the benefits), there is a small procedure if you will, to playing vinyl than putting on a CD (really it’s just dusting the record and brushing the stylus to clean it takes less than 30 seconds), can warp to the point of being unplayable, can get deep scratches that effect sound of not handled with care, can potentially easily collect dirt in the grooves, requires turntable and needs to be set up properly (only once or when you change your cartridge). Stylus or cartridges need to be changed with varying frequency depending on how often records are played, can be expensive, but does not need to be.
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