Vinyl, CD, MP3, Streaming, 8-Track — Which Is Best?
For years and years, people listened to their music via these shiny black circular objects. We'll call them records. We were happy spinning our records. Kids everywhere cherished their collection of 45's. The hit A-side gave way to a buried treasure on the B-side. It was great! Even the elders got into the act. Every home had its own "hi-fi" system with a smattering of soundtrack, pop or possibly Hawaiian/exotica LPs to throw on at parties.
By the mid-'60s, it seemed every household came equipped with a copy of Herb Alpert's 'Whipped Cream & Other Delights.' The single was still king up until 1967 when something called 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' came calling. This Beatles album was not only unlike any previous Fab Four platter, but also unlike anything in popular music up until then.
Suddenly, the album was calling the shots.
With the advancement of recording technology, artists were taking full advantage of the studio, often making these incredible creations that would have been impossible just a few years earlier. By the early '70s, not only was the album still king (though singles were never out of the game) but the studio was also golden. With bands like Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and Queen using the latest technology to the fullest potential, the idea of immersing oneself within the sounds was becoming all the more popular. No longer was a simple record player of use, we now needed a turntable, receiver, speakers, and sometimes headphones! Soon, strange creatures began roaming -- we'll call them audiophiles.
We had come a long way from records you had to cut from the back of a cereal box!
These guys (and it was always guys) would babble endlessly about their gear. "Oh yes, I have a Marantz table with a high end Denon cartridge and Harman Kardon speakers" was the sort of boisterous comment heard from these folks who seemed more interested in how something was recorded, and how it would sound on their system, than they were with the actual music. Things only got more exaggerated with the advent of 'Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab,' or MFSL if you prefer, pressed on "virgin vinyl" and snapped up in order to experience the most pristine listening experience known to mankind. We had come a long way from records you had to cut from the back of a cereal box!
Despite the desire for the ideal listening experience, we wanted to be mobile as well, and in the '70s, the 8-track tape was the pinnacle of portability. How the clunky format ever took off is still a mystery. The bulky tape cartridge featured four tracks for music, and if a song was too long, no big deal, it was simply chopped in half and continued on the next track. Soon, the cassette tape took over. Its smaller size, and better sound, made more sense, though it was not without its share or issues. From dropouts and gumming up during its cycle, to companies sometimes rearranging the order of songs to fit the format, cassettes were hardly state of the art. The sound quality of each was sub-par to say the least -- though, cassettes eventually did upgrade to some degree.
As the high end audio revolution moved into the '80s, there was talk of this new thing ready to invade homes everywhere. When CDs arrived, we were promised "perfect sound forever." We were told "no more pops, clicks or skips." This was the dawning of a new era! People in droves rushed to replace their old, now passé and unwanted, vinyl LPs with these newfangled -- still round, still shiny, but now silver -- discs. We were told you could drop them on the floor, your cat or dog could scratch and chew them up and they would still deliver that PFS. The compact disc recharged an increasingly stagnant retail scene. This was not only a new product on the market, but it was a way of getting people to re-purchase something they already owned.
For years, most were happy -- make that thrilled -- with the CD.
For years, most were happy -- make that thrilled -- with the CD. You could take it with you, but unlike cassettes (the preferred favorite for the Walkman generation) CDs promised, and delivered, better sound. For most of the '80s and '90s, vinyl collections were being dumped off at used record stores by the crate full. Once again, technology was racing ahead and the ability to further define the sound implanted within those little discs was becoming more advanced, making the early CDs sound flat by comparison. It was then that record companies thought of a new plan.
Remastered editions of classic titles from artists' catalogs began flooding the market, thus giving buyers a new reason to once again buy something they had already bought at least twice before. Oh how the remastered CDs took over. Deluxe editions, bonus tracks -- you name it, we bought it!
First there was 16-bit mapping (whatever the hell that was) then 18-bit, then 24-bit, then something called super-mapping. Mr. Audiophile must have been losing his mind by this point. There were high-end players needed to read this new technology. Then along came a line of other formats: SACD, Mini Disc, DVD Audio and so on, each its own entity needing its own special player, and each seeking to be the last word on all things audio. When did we all become so obsessed with everything being perfect? From the rise in plastic surgery to the never ending leaps in technology, it's an often frightening world out there.
Somewhere along the line, people began to discover that, you know what, these old vinyl LPs actually sound good.
Then, a funny thing happened. Somewhere along the line (after years of preaching by the faithful) people began to discover that, you know what, these old vinyl LPs actually sound good, in fact, they're warmer and more genuine than these digital formats we've been sold. One by one, people were lining up to brag about how vinyl was their first choice.
This would eventually lead to a vinyl resurgence that would run simultaneously alongside the ascent of the MP3, a digital format that distills all that sound down into an even further compressed state, often eliminating frequencies and warmth from the actual recording. It became a battle of sorts. On one side, we have the tech savvy, on the move crowd -- on the other, the increasingly vocal "old-school" crowd, the vinyl fanatics.
So many things come into play concerning the vinyl sound. The mastering, the cutting of the actual disc, the vinyl used, and so on.
"There's basically nothing you can do to make an hour-long album on one record sound good," mastering engineer Adam Gonsalves recently told Oregon Live. "Vinyl's capable of a lot, but only if the grooves are wide enough for the needle to track them properly. A longer album means skinnier grooves, a quieter sound and more noise. Likewise, the ear-rattling sounds of dubstep weren't really meant for your turntable. If you had taken Skrillex into Motown Studios, they would've said, ‘It's uncuttable!’"
The analog wave of sound is genuine, while the digital version takes that same wave, breaks it up into many parts, then reassembles it right before your ears to recreate the analog wave as best it can. Regarding digital technology, Neil Young once said, "The mind is fooled, but the heart is sad." (Neil is now pushing his own high-end audio player, the Pono.)
Vinyl is, sadly, more of a fashion statement for many than an aural one, as it becomes more about the format than the actual sound. As the line of people babbling about vinyl this and vinyl that continues to grow, record labels are cashing in. Take the new U2 album for example. It was given away free via iTunes a month or so back. We'll call that a publicity stunt. Now, if you head over to Amazon, you'll pay about $15 for the CD, $17 for the download and $33 for the vinyl version! Can you honestly say that hearing 'Songs Of Innocence' on vinyl is worth over twice the price of the CD, let alone the freebie version from Apple?
Meanwhile, the reissue market has been taken over by the new old format. Never mind that a lot of today's vinyl pressings are actually made from digital masters, or that a great percentage of albums recorded in the past few decades were done digitally to begin with -- thus not truly giving the listener the true analog experience they claim they long for. But that's okay -- they "have it on vinyl."
Still, the vinyl LP does hold a certain place in people's hearts and ears, especially those of us who grew up with it. "Vinyl is the only consumer playback format we have that's fully analog and fully lossless," Gonsalves added. "You just need a decent turntable with a decent needle on it and you're going to enjoy a full-fidelity listening experience. It's a little bit more idiot-proof and a little bit less technical."
We somehow went from being so concerned with the minutia of sound quality to being split between formats of MP3, streaming audio and vinyl, with the compact disc all but lost in the conversation. What was wrong with the CD anyway? It was functional and usually delivered good sound. Of course, it's far from gone, but still, we're starting to miss you there, old pal! The real tragedy of the entire conversation is the loss of the most important character in the whole story: the music. People seem more concerned with the latest gadget, widget and digit than with what they will actually be listening to out of their little toy.
So which format actually does sound better? The answer seems to be, much like beauty and the eye, it's in the ear of the beholder. If you listen to your tunes on the go, in your car or on your phone, you're going for something different than those planting themselves in front of their stereo to be immersed in a sonic experience.
From transistor radios and close-and-play phonographs to top shelf systems and back down again, we are seemingly obsessed with the listening experience. But whatever choice you make, don't let the music get lost along the way!