I fondly remember the days of buying and bringing home a new LP, tearing the shrink wrap off, staring at the front and back of the album cover artwork, and taking part in the ritual of playing a new record...the quick wipe down of the album, making sure the needle was free of dust, and then dropping the needle and hearing the comforting pop and hiss while anxiously awaiting the music to start on that Men At Work or Human League record. Good times, but count me out when it comes to replacing my digital/CD albums with vinyl records. It just isn't going to happen, mainly because I don't believe the hype, but also because I don't really want to go out and buy the same albums again. Yes, I'm looking at you David Bowie and The Who, two of the biggest offenders when it comes to constantly remastering your catalogs in hopes of squeezing out more sales. I think I have purchased Bowie's 'Ziggy Stardust' album at least four times in my life....on LP, cassette, CD, and remastered CD. I'm not falling for the 'remastered for iTunes' racket this time around, Senor Bowie. From a sheer economic stand point, repurchasing albums you already own is folly, unless said album has been damaged or lost. Since most of my 1st gen CDs have been replaced with remasters, it makes no sense to go back to the beginning to buy them again.
Legacy acts aren't the only bands getting into the vinyl revival. Beck's new album, 'Morning Phase' will be released on limited edition vinyl at a 60% premium over the digital version. (Hmmm, Beck's first major label record was released 20 years ago....that makes him a legacy act. Bad example. One sec...). Lady Gaga has gotten into vinyl, and not just her wardrobe. Her disastrous 'ArtPop' can be yours on vinyl for $24.99, a price guaranteed to insure no one buys that record in that format either. Daft Punk's 'Random Access Memories' is priced at $34.75, close to 60% over the digital format because it is 'European vinyl' which is interesting because European pressing plants use 44.1/16 CD as the source for their vinyl...
The superior sound that vinyl enthusiasts are claiming may not be superior at all, but a by-product of the limitations of the technology used to process and deliver the music from the vinyl to the speaker. Throw in variables like your speaker set up, needle wear and tear, wiring, room acoustics, and the strong possibility that all those vinyl reissues are sourced from the redbook CD, and the claims of a warmer sound from vinyl may boil down to one thing: User preference influenced by nostalgia, turntable/amp setup, and the sound distortion caused by the variables in the previous sentence.
Another variable in this debate would be the age of certain albums on CD or digital download. Comparing analog and early digital recordings isn't exactly a fair fight. Take, for instance, my CD of Guns & Roses 'Appetite for Destruction'. I bought this particular CD in 1988 right after my cassette version of this album was stolen during the aftermath of a car crash I wasn't even in the vehicle for (but that's a story for a different time). This was long before the idea of remastering for digital sound came into play. I'm pretty sure Geffen Records just took the original recording and used that to manufacture the CD. That explains why G&R's 'Appetite...' is quite possibly the worst sounding CD I own, even if a second engineer was used to master the CD. There is no 'depth' to the sound, it's tinny and everything is way up front in the mix. Sadly, the digital version of this album doesn't sound much better, again, everything is too high in the mix and the drums sound like they are wrapped in tinfoil. How does this album sound on vinyl? I couldn't tell ya, but even if it did sound warmer I wouldn't run out and spend '$399.99 and up' for a turntable. I found a decent set of earbuds/cans and the Bose system in my car can mitigate some of the limitations of a poorly mastered CD or digital download. Side note - another CD I own that sounds horrific would be my copy of Neil Young's 'Harvest'. Great album, but Reprise went cheap when transferring the analog recording to digital. Neil Young is also one of the more outspoken critics of digital audio, which may contain elements of 'get off my lawn!', but he's correct that his legacy recordings sound like shite on CD. A real audio wonky article mentioning Young can be found here.
So, it kind of sounds like I just made the case for vinyl over CD/digital in the last paragraph. In some instances, based on the age of the CD, that may be true. However, that is due to the original mastering. Modern era CDs are created from first generation masters that have been engineered to take advantage of the wider sonic range that digital recording offers. Talk to any producer that worked through the analog to digital recording days and they will regale you with the difficulties of capturing low end frequencies on vinyl. I'll take a well produced/engineered album on CD over vinyl any day of the week, say for instance, Radiohead's 'OK Computer'. Anyone telling me that album sounds better on vinyl than CD/digital is lying or suffering from some serious psycho-audio effects.
Lastly, let's be honest about how the majority consumes/enjoys music these days...it's going to be through earbuds during their commute, at work, or while working out. At home, most are using any number of iHome speakers or docking stations. I personally use an older Altec Lansing docking station to listen to tracks on my iPhone when not using mid-range priced earbuds. The $15.00 Sony cans The Better Half got me for Father's Day last year work really, really well. I simply don't have the time or inclination to retire to my den in a velvet smoking jacket whilst smoking a pipe to enjoy the latest musical exploits of my favorite band on a long play album. If I'm listening to music at any kind of volume, it's in the car via my iPhone being pumped through the Bose sound system. Otherwise, it's earbuds while running...
Now, none of this is a knock on those that honestly believe that vinyl sounds 'warmer' than CD/digital. In the end, it is going to come down to user preference. This guy's opinion is that the vinyl revival is a rather shrewd move by records labels to tap into the nostalgia vein of Generation X types. In the last couple of years, Gen X (which happens to be the demo I belong to) has become the biggest spenders when it comes to nostalgia. It is this generation that the vinyl records marketing arrow has been directly aimed at. I'll take a quality remastered digital recording of a contemporary or legacy band over vinyl any day of the week. Vinyl was/is a pain in the ass. Plus, the first thing I would do is transfer my vinyl over to digital to make it portable as I don't own John Lennon's vintage Rolls Royce with a turntable in the back seat.
You can direct me to sites with lots of neat-o charts and graphs of soundwave breakdowns, how the human ear hears music, etc, and that's great. Digital vs vinyl is nothing more than a preference. What I'd like to see is a double-blind test where a digital audio file has the hum/hiss and pops of a vinyl record added to the mix and listeners (audiophile and man off the street) are asked if that audio file or the same one minus the added effects sounds warmer. Then I'd play the vinyl version of the track alongside the digital recording and ask the same question. Testers would have to use comparable systems to generate the sound, either head phone setups or controlled sound rooms. I think that would be an interesting experiment.
To close, the best listening experience I ever had was taking in The Beatles 'Revolver' in a vintage 70's egg chair modified to play CDs. I'm sure the chemical effects of a prescription pain killer washed back with a couple of swigs of Nyquil amplified the awesomeness of 'Tomorrow Never Knows'. Why someone doesn't make a modern-day egg chair with a docking station is beyond me. Those things were suh-weet!
The Works in Progress
3 months ago