26. Does vinyl sound better than digital sources?

Published: 17/03/2022

Author: Karsten Hein

Category: High Fidelity

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The beginning of the 21st century saw an ever-increasing presence of compact and convenient digital technology in our households. Ever since the invention of the iPod, we have been able to fit an infinite amount of songs in our pockets. And streaming services such as Spotify, Tidal, and AmazonMusic, to name just a few, have provided universal access to a sheer endless selection of music at affordable prices.

While some people enjoyed the ability to scroll through an abundant list of choices without having to make a personal commitment, others were feeling lost and started missing the mutual aspect of the relationship, the connection between a band and its fans, that music once was. It may have been a natural impulse for these people to start being nostalgic about the pre-digital age, in which musicians and record labels could manage to make a living with relative ease and where the incentive was high to continuously create lots of quality content, rather than churning out 1-hit wonders based on click-bait algorithms and predominantly similar-sounding tracks.

Vinyl was a welcome refuge to those fleeing the effects of the digital madness. In fact, records stood for everything that streaming music did not: The medium was naturally limited in the number of songs that fit on each disc. During the reading of each track, the stylus followed a signal grove that contained a faithful analogue transcript of the acoustic event. Pauses between songs were visible as recurring patterns to the naked eye. To play a song or album, one had to physically get up from the sofa and choose one record from the available collection. And, in order to have quality music available, one had to become a discerning collector and strategically develop one’s taste in music.

Putting the needle on the record produced a crackling sound even before playing the first song, and it was possible to visually follow, appreciate, and comprehend the process. Turntables are transparent about their method of reproducing music. Unlike most digital equipment, where the music reproduction comes from an invisible and practically unchangeable black box, turntables have a personal character and will perform better with increasing know-how of the person setting them up. Choosing components, understanding the mechanics, eliminating vibrations, managing the electrics, and improving the electronics — all these factors contribute to the quality of sound. Turntables practically invite their owners to care deeply and to begin a journey of exploration.

Turntables that have been set up with proper care will sound very similar to CDs and other high quality sources, such as online streaming devices. They will not match the CD’s low noise floor, nor will they offer the dynamics available from modern digital formats. They will, however, produce a sound signature that is highly harmonious as well as a softer and more natural top-end that some listeners find to be more pleasant to the ears. Despite their intrinsically lower specifications, the technical abilities of turntables are perfectly sufficient for joyful listening sessions. Records that have been well-maintained will not produce lots of noise, either. Clicks and pops are rare and in any case secondary to the music signal. It is an urban legend that vinyl heads enjoy listening to record noise. If at all, they enjoy that last bit of unpredictability that the record has maintained.

Turntable sound quality is mostly compromised by poorly pressed or mastered records. In my own experience, modern vinyl productions often cause problems, because the mastering engineer did not understand the medium well enough. This often leads to sibilance or other distortion. With the growing demand for analog recordings and only few experienced factories available, the quality of pressings can be pretty dismal. Discs arrive warped, out of centre, or poorly moulded. 180 grams records are no guarantee that the quality is better. While records produced during the 70s mostly offered excellent durability and quality, modern productions sometimes seem to use lower grade materials and production methods, causing 50-70% of all modern records to be of less than ideal quality. In this context, it seems unfair that media sellers will refuse to take records back, even if the pressing is of a low standard.

Setting up a turntable to play music well is an art form comparable to fly-fishing. While it is surely cheaper and more effective to purchase fish from the deep freezer of a local supermarket, the sensation of accomplishment and the joy of consumption cannot be compared. Of the analog sources ranging from reel-to-reel via 8-tracks to compact cassettes, etc. only the turntable offers the optimum combination of longevity, convenience, and sound quality. And, while it certainly does not sound ‘better’ than digital sources, it will sound different from machine to machine and from owner to owner, thereby adding an exciting personal dimension to the otherwise arbitrary and perhaps even boring experience of canned music reproduction. Sophisticated turntable setups often say as much about their owners as they do about the quality of music.

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