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Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

Posted March 12, 2015 12:00 AM by Hannes

Music biz writers scrambled to their blogs in January 2015, when Nielsen SoundScan announced that 2014 vinyl sales had come in at 9.2 million units sold, a whopping 52% more than 2013 sales. That figure is also the highest mark for vinyl sales since SoundScan began surveying in 1991. A question is likely lingering in the minds of both musicians and analysts: was 2014 the peak of the vinyl fad, or does it represent a legitimate new/old music technology trend?

It goes without saying that the music business landscape has changed dramatically in the last decade or so. The rise of mp3 vendors like iTunes and Amazon Digital Services more or less killed album sales instantly, as listeners now download one or two favorite tunes for $2 instead of shelling out $11.99 for an album. Streaming services and piracy seem to be doing the same to digital downloads as we speak: Nielsen reported that 2014 downloading fell 13% compared to 2013, while streaming-per-song shot up 53%. The state of consumer music listening has changed as well: the days of group listening in your friend's living room are long gone. Ubiquitous portable music players of all kinds have rendered consumer listening a passive, near-constant experience.

Cooler-than-you hipsters and hi-fi enthusiasts have long touted vinyl's chicness and unique sonic textures (see below), but the business side is smelling a possible boon hidden within those acetate grooves. If the buyers are buying (which they are), records give music suppliers exactly what they've been looking for since the birth of the mp3: a degradable product that's very difficult to copy and redistribute. Plus, an artist might sleep a little easier when selling vinyl, as its technological tracking limitations (ie, it's relatively difficult to find single songs) ensure that a listener will hear most if not all of your album as it's intended it to sound, rather than hearing only a single track downloaded off the same album.

The downside is that pressing vinyl is expensive and time-consuming-records are still about five times more expensive to manufacture than CDs. United Record Pressing, currently the largest producer in America, recently acquired a second plant and doubled their capacity, but still advertises a 4-6 month lead time for new albums despite working 24 hours a day, six days per week. For comparison, a batch of 1000 CDs typically takes a few weeks to produce.

So is the commonly held belief that vinyl "sounds better" really true? The answer is a subjective "maybe." First, it's important to note that the physics of turntable belts, trays, and cartridges affects playback more than a CD player, so a record played on one machine may sound significantly different than on another. And the suspect audio quality of early mp3s that required loads of compression to allow eight songs to fit into your pocket may have started and propagated the "digital audio sounds awful next to vinyl" argument.

The supposed "warmth" of vinyl is caused by defects related to analog recording. Each time a master tape is played back in-studio, its iron filings are slightly degraded, and since high frequencies are represented as faster waves on the tape, they're typically the first to be reduced. A vinyl record therefore has a natural lack of high frequencies, resulting in a warmer or "bassier" sound. In addition, low frequencies are difficult to reproduce on vinyl, so almost all vinyl albums have undergone some type of low-frequency signal processing. This processing, when added to the vibrations and noise inherent in all but the best home turntables, results in a distorted yet warmer sound that's probably drastically different than the sound heard by engineers at the mixing desk.

CDs and digital audio, on the other hand, may lack the characteristic warmth but far outshine vinyl in terms of dynamic range. Vinyl's noise issues result in a dynamic range of about 60 dB, while the standard for CDs is 96 dB with less playback noise (scratching and whirring motors) to boot. Newer digital recording techniques are capable of 118-120 dB ranges with comparable perceived playback. Aside from its use for authentic AM-radio special effects, analog recording has generally taken a backseat to digital, which requires little to no signal conversion and has no degradation effects. In general, your digital recording sounds on your mp3 player like it did in the mixing booth.

A related issue here is the recent improvement in audio signal conversion. Many casual listeners immediately noticed the flat aural quality for classic vinyl albums reissued on CD in the early '90s; this was due to primitive ADC technology, and many older groups are choosing to re-re-release their classics again in the 2010s on both CD and vinyl to take advantage of better ADCs and DACs. On the flip side, the suspicion that most modern vinyl reissues are sourced from CDs and not master tapes has some in the audiophile community up in arms.

Regardless of whether it sounds "better," vinyl's sales surge may or may not save a small part of the music industry's bacon. Those who champion analog aural characteristics will be delighted to know that supply for their turntable is plentiful and growing, and those who don't will be putting their earbuds back in and casually walking away.

Special thanks: Chris Reed Jr., engineer at Glens Falls Music Academy in Glens Falls, NY, assisted with this post.

Image credit: Donnie Ozone / Creative Commons

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#1

Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/13/2015 9:48 AM

Woohoo - vinyl is back - I have a stack of gold sitting in my garage from the 1960's! What do you suppose a near mint copy of Sonny and Cher's Look At Us is worth?

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#2

Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/13/2015 11:32 AM

"the supposed warmth of vinyl is caused by wearing on the metal filings on the master tape"

The actual warmth related to LP's has nothing to do with the authors so called wearing of the metal filings. It has to do primarily with the excellent phase characteristics of a analog song recorded and played back in analog sound. You see what gives the warmth is the fact that with good phase accuracy provided by a good cartridge threw a good table, into a good phono preamp into a good amp and finally into a pair of good speakers provides the listener with a depth of sound almost as if it were 3d to the ears. You see when you look at a sound or music on a scope you can only see the frequency and the amplitude of that frequency. If you could turn the scope 90 degrees and look into the screen(impossible) you would see the music is not all laid flat as it appears on the screen. This is the phase of the music, poor digital music throws phase accuracy out the window. Lastly CD's have a sampling frequency of 44.1 kHz. which albums have no such sampling it is virtually unlimited in its not called "sampling frequency". Normally I do not respond to things I see as wrong.. but having been in the sound business for 30 years made me do it.

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#4
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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/13/2015 8:49 PM

Good comments by Larry to which I might add some observations.

The phase accuracy of vinyl at high frequencies is not so wonderful due to the difference in tracking angle between the cutting head which has true radial travel and the playback head which has angular errors due to the arm radius. With an elliptical playback stylus these are quite visible on a 'scope at high frequencies. Also, the analog tape recorders have their own phase errors and phase jitter which tend to mask the disc playback errors.

Distortion on a typical analog recording which has passed through at least 2 tape recorders, noise reduction electronics (Dolby A, dbx etc) and disc-cutting is usually greater than 5% on peaks even before getting to the playback of a vinyl disc and its additional errors.

But a well-made vinyl disc on good playback equipment can sound very satisfying - how can that be? Generations of development in equipment and recording techniques based on subjective performance have reduced most of the errors to those that are acceptable to the ear. An analogy might be the internal combustion engine: if we had grown up with turbines and electric traction motors, the concept of a thumping, rattling container of explosions for motive power would be laughed at, but the modern 4-cylinder engine in my car is silky-smooth and almost silent. That would have been Incredible to motor engineers in the early 1900's!

Digitally-recorded audio can be fully satisfying if done properly but we tend to use the lowest common denominator of kids' pop music at low sample rates with high levels of MP3 data reduction* as the reference. Try listening to a high sample-rate un-reduced recording and the results render any practical analog recording and distribution system into a second class experience.

Now we, the consumers, have to choose the delivery quality we want to pay for and the music industry will be obliged to respond. Look at Meridian Audio MQA, as an example (I am not connected with them) - they offer really high quality digital systems for domestic applications.

*I used the term 'data-reduced' to differentiate from analog 'compression' which is quite different.

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/14/2015 12:23 PM

True- I hope to not leave suggesting that Digital music is all bad in fact my favorite form of music is Blu-ray recorded concerts which can have phenomenal sound and picture. Also a well recorded CD through a above average CD player (think older sony) with all components covered well- would leave me wanting to listen to the CD over the LP. The lowest level is the music sic. which most people listen to on there mp3- ipods is a very poor experience..

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/13/2015 3:15 PM

Back when the only choice for the average consumer was vinyl, I and others noticed a definite difference in fidelity between records manufactured in the U.S. and the "Imports" we purchased, with the imports having a higher (perhaps perceived) fidelity.

I wonder if this was due to production, or a higher standard?

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/14/2015 11:59 AM

People still pay for music?

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/14/2015 2:28 PM

There is a place for both technologies. Vinyl in the home music system and CD's for use in automobiles. I still use magnetic tape and vinyl in my home system, along with DBX and Dolby technology. I only wish I could afford a Macintosh amp and Dahlquist speakers.

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/16/2015 7:42 AM

CDs and vinal. AR TT, Marantz 2230, Klipsch Forte2. However my fav system is still my battery powered gainclone and Austin A166 back loaded horns. Google "ron clarke horns".

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/16/2015 8:04 AM

Sorry Vinyl not vinal. Hay! I frm texas ya gotta give a little.

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/29/2015 11:12 AM

These days my hearing THD+N and spectral flatness specs are not what they used to be but I am confident that the weak link in sound reproduction and human perception of it, is the final stage, the speaker-room combination. Digital or analog if decently implemented (which is not always the case of course) is not distinguishable and avoid bets against it. Of course scratches and wear of vinyl surface and higher cost of that technology is a serious issue, but also the claimed... 100 year lifetime of CDs is a lie. Unless of course you store them in total darkness, inert atmosphere with controlled humidity and temp. But in all cases, deterioration with time is an advantage for the relevant industry. Who knows? Maybe they will come up with a way to make... bytes wear-up with use (LOL). S.M.

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

03/29/2015 11:02 PM

Back in the 70's, I picked up a device that resembled a tone arm and consisted of a hollow tube that could be filled with a fluid and a tip with a small brush that distributed a fluid on the disk ahead of the stylus. The anchor point was a pin on a suction cup. This fluid (Which I suspected to be a solution of deionized water and alcohol) provided lubricant and cooling for the stylus. There was a marked (at least to me) improvement in fidelity, especially for scratched tracks. As the pressure applied by the stylus ( even high end turn tables) is significant and the fluid required counterweight adjustment, I believe this device might extend the life of vinyl.

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

05/12/2015 1:40 PM

I have to say I enjoy vinyl records mainly because a lot of the "special" tracks were not or are not included in the CD's that are put out today. I have close to 1000 albums of various genre's and still have a difficult time choosing what I want to listen to. I also have 3 turntables, 2 analog and 1 digital that connects to my computer for ripping the music to MP3's, a long and drawn out process for poor quality output! I just throw an album or 5 on the turntable and make dinner, a nice break from the commercials on the radio and the tactile sense is appealing!

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#13
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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

05/12/2015 7:41 PM

..."the tactile sense is appealing" for me sums up the nostalgia aspect. It's a bit like driving a very old car for fun - something one doesn't do for convenience, economy, performance or ride-comfort. Those are some criteria for choosing a new one.

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Re: Vinyl: No Longer Just for Audiophiles?

05/13/2015 10:13 AM

NeilA
There is something about holding a vinyl record, fragile, delicate, yet it can produce such a pleasurable sound. Back in the day when things were not disposable from the onset of production, we had to take care of the vinyl, protect it from scratches, heat and water if you wanted to keep the cover jacket in good condition. I have taken to framing some of my more treasured album cover art. Below is one of the 30 I framed. The cover art just doesn't translate to a CD case, the size is what does it justice!


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