A new record, or has vinyl reached it's final resting place?

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.[1]

Sales by formats [1]
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.[2] 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”.

The past

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.

The present

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?

The science

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”. [3]

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”.[2] 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
[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2013/04/11/vinyl-records-are-more-popular-now-than-they-were-in-the-late-90s/
[2] http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2013/dec/26/how-i-taught-my-son-to-love-vinyl
[3] http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/question487.htm
[4] 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
[5] 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

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0 responses to “A new record, or has vinyl reached it's final resting place?”

  1. Hi Alex,
    Interesting article. I also wonder why people are now so taken with LPs? I still buy both formats (I’m 53 and never stopped buying vinyl) as I find there’s advantages to both. The main one is the simple argument of “you can’t own 1s and 0s”. As for sound quality it seems to me a ridiculous argument, especially as vinyl can’t duplicate exact sound, after all the sound of the needle is always there. Since you’re at a university (me too), you should look up the “The Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music”, which has some very interesting (and sensible) remarks on the subject.
    Lastly, what makes me most frustrated is that the LP industry is again ‘misbehaving’ be pushing up the price of its product to ridiculous heights. In Europe – I’m in Brussels – second hand LPs, up until a few years ago were 5€ to 7€, and new pressings 12€ to 15€. However, it seems to have rocketed to prices around 25€ and more, making it an object which again will probably price itself out of the market – as you also mention.
    Lastly, the only thing that really makes any sense is going to see (hear) music live. After all that is really what it’s all about, and in reality the acoustic of live sound cannot be bettered, even if loud and distorted, it is at least ‘what you hear’.
    Thanks for the interesting articles.
    Best – Joe Higham

  2. If there is ever a topic to induce animated discussion at my dinner table, then this is it (much to my mothers dismay I might add).
    Dad is, and always has been, a vinyl fan. Me – I’m happy with a 320kbps mp3. Hell, give me 256 and I probably won’t complain!
    The irony behind the boom in vinyl sales, is that most of the people buying records are playing them through ‘hi-fi’ systems probably worth 100 quid, speakers and all.
    So in that sense it’s just about the fun in collecting – not the quality (Dad’s cupboard of vinyl is somewhat more fun to look at than my iTunes library too, even with all the artwork downloaded).
    If we make an analogy to stamp collecting, collectors don’t collect stamps to make their post go faster…
    It’s also way cooler than collecting stamps…

  3. Hello, I would like to know if you could perhaps link a reference (scientific demonstration/article?) to this statement in your article about vinyl having an inferior audio quality: “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.”
    I was just wondering how a digital picture (CD, mp3 etc) of a physical medium (vinyl) or analog waveform can be of better quality.
    This would be like telling me, if i’m going to the museum, that a digital picture of an art piece (on a super 4k lcd screen or whatever) is better than the actual painting.
    Of course I’m not talking about current music which is digital from it’s conception and in which case if you imprint on a vinyl will only give inferior quality, but that’s because the dynamic of the digital master is already limited. Please correct this if I’m wrong (as i am no audio engineer).

  4. Hi, You’ve made a very good observation there; saying “objective measures of audio quality” is to say that quality, in the context of a musical recording, is not so well defined and is part objective and part subjective. There has been very little work in this area, which is partly why I’m interested in it. Quality of reproduction systems is better understood, so I was referring to the level of non-linearity associated with vinyl – such as harmonic distortion, the amount of which varies with frequency and even the location on the disc (the signal-to-noise ratio is lower for the grooves nearer the inside of the record than the outside).
    While vinyl contains an analog waveform, it is not necessarily the analog waveform that was originally desired. The digital waveform of a CD, once converted back to analog, in some cases may be a more authentic waveform. There’s a very good resource here about conversion from analog to digital and back again – http://xiph.org/video/vid2.shtml
    To extend the museum analogy, a digital picture of a painting, displayed on a screen and viewed by the eye could be considered inferior quality to simply viewing the original with the eye, as there are additional stages of interpretation/degradation but this is like comparing a recording to live music. One would have to compared this photograph to, for example, a painting of the original painting.
    …Like a courtroom sketch. In many courtrooms cameras are prohibited, partly for privacy and partly to prevent distractions, yet an artist is allowed to recreate the scene in a sketch. Although the artist must use great skill in order to capture the emotional context of a scene very quickly, that it is permitted while cameras are not implies that the authenticity of the sketch is low enough (compared to a photograph) not to infringe on the privacy issue.
    Ultimately, any recording may be considered a degradation of a “live” acoustic event (there’s a grey area when the music is solely electronic) but, with music, and increasingly so, the recording itself may well be considered the superior artistic work. This is where the philosophy comes in so I’ll hand over to the always insightful PBS idea channel for this one, with the episode “Are MP3s and Vinyl better than live music?” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WsZMZ86zgF4

  5. Hi Alex,
    The fact that the CD was, at its launch time, designed as a better medium than the LP, does not mean that the recording industry has ever explored that potential in full. Actually, over time, what we saw was the continuous degradation of the audio distributed on CD. Today you’ll be hard pressed to find any CD with a dynamic range over 14 dB, which falls very short of the theoretical 96 dB supported by it. Not to mention the “loudness war” and the highly compressed, clipped and distorted recording which became the norm. Heck, even iTunes will warn you that if you’re uploading your own music and have any hopes of being competitive, you should record it loud and compressed!
    On top of that, there’s the work of Kunchur, whose experiments showed that our temporal resolution is around 6µs, which far exceeds what a CD can support… so even if the recordings explored the full potential of the format, it would still be lacking.
    In the end, there are many recordings that sound a *lot* better on vinly simply because more care was taken in the recording chain. I own several ‘duplicate’ records in both formats (not to mention other formats like SACD, DVD-A, HDCD, FLAC, etc) and before you spin the disc, be it black or silver, you just can’t tell which one’s going to sound best. It’s just not that simple. 🙂

  6. Interesting how the conversation carries on. One thing I’m surprised nobody talks about is the sound of the vinyl. In various articles discussing silence and music (Routledge Companion to Philosophy and Music) that vinyl can never be pure, due to the sound of the needle in the groove. This is something that is not recorded by the artist – unless as an effect. This doesn’t mean that one may sound better than another, it would seem one is cleaner than the other.
    What I also find intriguing is that many people are only buying music on vinyl, yet made by musicians making the music digitally. Surely one could liken the experience to only eating authentic Indian curries from supermarkets with the slogan ‘made in China’ printed on the box.
    I still (as I said above) by plenty of vinyl, but also CDs. To me they both have uses – as seen by the many companies that continue selling their LPs with ‘free digital download copy’ with each LP!

  7. Whoops, sorry for the grammatical errors above, I pressed post without re-reading! Shame one can’t edit these ‘wordpress’ blog comments..or can you?

  8. This topic reminds me of the post by Professor Cox contrasting 432hz vs 440hz…is it better, or just what we’re accustomed to.
    I like the ideas shared in the comments. After reading the comments about how the formats are essentially intertwined during development, it seems many listeners reasoning for liking one audio source over another is superficial. As Chris Holmes shared in his comment, “The irony behind the boom in vinyl sales, is that most of the people buying records are playing them through ‘hi-fi’ systems probably worth 100 quid, speakers and all.” And, how. Perhaps those record buyers are seeking extra ‘warmth’.
    Rather than sound quality, I think the likeliest reasons for the vinyl resurgence are nostalgia (as witnessed in many material goods these days), uniqueness, and the greatest driver of material goods…exclusivity.

    • In further support of my belief, consider the earlier post, “Do people care about audio quality?”.
      Sadly, for the vast majority of people, I believe we like what we’re told to like for most things (widely and/or popularly available in the marketplace).

    • Interesting! And I agree with you about the 100 quid hi fi systems, Paulo. If you want to enjoy vinyl at his fullest, you have to buy the right equipment. It doesn’t have to be too expensive, there’s a lot of fantastic second hand products on the market.

  9. Great article. Personally I am not certain that the differences in quality can be heard on anything but the very top of the range equipment, CDs are soulless compared to vinyl. Does anyone really love CDs? As soon as we could dump them we have..

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