With vinyl sales continuing to increase, Alex Wilson considers the science, both good and bad, behind this trend.
That’s been a lot of talk lately about vinyl. A bit of research leads to the discovery that this is exactly the same thing that used to be called an “LP” or “record”. This might have something to do with the fact that vinyl sales are higher than they have been for 15 years.
Tony Myers recently wrote on The Guardian about introducing his children to vinyl, painting the format as a relic of a forgotten age, where listeners engaged with their music in very direct, active and above all, tangible manner. I have a few issues with the title, “How I Taught My Son To Love Vinyl”, although if things continue as they are, my generation’s equivalent will likely be “How I Taught My Son To Listen To An Album From Beginning To End”.
Having grown up with vinyl records and cassette tapes, when hearing a CD for the first time, in the mid-90s, I was amazed at the clarity of the sound, and how music no longer sounded like something coming out of a little box in the corner.
Introduced in 1982, the CD offered a smaller, more portable alternative that was also less fragile, harder to damage, easier to store, required less cleaning, more consistent in its playback across the disc, and cheaper to manufacture. By 1987 CD sales overtook Vinyl in the US, and the old standard had been in decrease ever since. Lively discussion on the pros and cons of both continued and these two articles from 1986 really capture the mood at the time:New York Times and Philly.com.
One of the important factors in the debate was economics; the cost of a good turntable, cartridge and stylus was, and still remains, prohibitive for many. The much-lower cost of equivalent quality CD players provided great incentive to make the switch.
So why is it that now many consumers seemed happy to splash out on vinyl, with albums now costing 3 or 4 times that of the CD or download? That was the question I put to shoppers in one of Dublin’s few remaining, reasonably large record stores, 2 days before Christmas. “Well, I don’t even own a record player myself; I’m buying it as a gift” was the most common response. Mere feet away, CDs were being used as shiny decorations on the in-store Christmas tree.
Perhaps we now see the format as a deluxe-edition of the album; the larger size certainly helps the artwork be better appreciated. However, while the size, fragility and expense imply luxury, is it a superior product?
After a generation of low analog sales and emerging digital formats, the physical limitations of the medium are often now forgotten. Meanwhile, they may be better versed on the physical limitations of digital audio, particularly, the loss of information associated with mp3. This can contribute to perceptual bias wherin vinyl appears to represent sonic perfection, since…
“a vinyl record has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound’s waveform. This means that no information is lost”. 
Records are made by first etching a groove into a thin layer of nitrocellulose lacquer covering an aluminium disc, with an industrial diamond on a device which is still often referred to as a lathe. This disc is then used as a mould from which to produce thousands of vinyl discs – the heated, soft material spread out over the master, which then cools and hardens. In short, information is lost.
So consumers are increasingly attributing worth to what had previously been considered an obsolete medium, which to all objective measures of audio quality, is inferior. But this is purely objective; something that measures “better” isn’t strictly so. Is it then true that when we try to access the quality of a recording, the subjective aspects can be more influential than the objective? To further complicate the issue, the decision to determine quality on only objective measures is a subjective evaluation in itself.
Research has indicated that in blind tests, listeners tend to prefer formats which are objectively higher quality [4, 5], for example, a significant difference can be heard between cassette tape and CD. Yet ask some of those same listeners which format they prefer the sound of and expect to hear testimony in support of so-called “warmth” and that it’s “how recorded music should be played”. There are many videos on YouTube featuring vinyl playback – at this stage it’s been digitised and compressed on upload but the video of a needle on a spinning disc is enough to elicit comments such as “better than any digital recording”.
The debate continues
So, 30 years on, the analog/digital debate is still a lively one. Unfortunately, hostilities still occur, however the conflict is philosophical at it’s core rather than technical; the religious zeal of the vinyl enthusiast all too easily clashes with the atheist logic of the digital native. Perhaps this all comes down to Thomas Edison’s suggestion that “people will hear what you tell them they hear”.
And, as the invention of the razor failed to eradicate beards, digital media have simply offered a popular alternative, rather than a replacement, to the vinyl record.
But which would you pay money to hear? Which one is worth hearing?
Alex Wilson is a PhD student at the Acoustics Research Centre, University of Salford
 Richard Repp, “Recording quality ratings by music professionals,” in Proc. Intl. Computer Music Conf., New Orleans, USA, Nov. 6-11, 2006, pp. 468–474. http://quod.lib.umich.edu/cgi/p/pod/dod-idx/recording-quality-ratings.pdf?c=icmc;idno=bbp2372.2006.097
 Sean Olive, “Some New Evidence that Teenagers and College Students May Prefer Accurate Sound Reproduction,” in Audio Engineering Society Convention 132, Apr 2012. http://www.aes.org/e-lib/browse.cfm?elib=16321