Vinyl records seem more ubiquitous today than the silvery compact disks we have used for many years as a means of playing recorded music. Vinyl is making a comeback. In many ways, it seems almost absurd that music lovers would search out vinyl records as a playback medium. After all, didn’t CDs, HDCDs, SACDs, and even DTS audio disks replace all that. Yet, vinyl record sales have increased every year for the 12 consecutive years through 2017. With the downfall of digital media post-Napster, doesn’t the convenience and increasing popularity of streaming and downloading of music make older technologies such as vinyl records obsolete? One would think so. And yet, vinyl survives and grows in popularity.
Here we have a recording process which was invented in the 19th century. At that time, it was completely mechanical, requiring a mechanical horn amplifier to make the sound loud enough to be heard by someone like Nipper in the famous painting, “His Master’s Voice”. You probably recognize this painting which later became a trademark for Victor Talking Machine Company, Deutche Grammophon, and others. Over the years, many refinements were made, and the process became less mechanical and more electronic. Power amplifiers and speakers replaced the horn. A phono cartridge transducer replaced the mechanical needle mechanism. Record cutting lathes used powerful amplifiers to cut the groove in the master disk. But the movement of the stylus in the groove was, and still is, a mechanical remnant of the record playing process. There have been successful attempts to use lasers and other means to play records, but by and large, the mechanical phono cartridge transducer, which converts stylus motion into an electrical signal, is the universally accepted way to do it to this day.
The equipment used to play a record can get quite expensive. There are $200 record players out there that do a reasonable job. But audio enthusiasts who want the highest playback quality seem more than willing to spend over $1,000 for the turntable, $500 for the arm, and another $500 for the cartridge. And this is a somewhat inexpensive route. To get “state of the art”, there are turntables costing more than $100,000. Some cartridges are in the $13,000 range. Then, or course, one must amplify the low output of a magnetic or moving-coil cartridge with a preamplifier and the required RIAA filter to make the recording sound as it should. Phono stages (preamplifiers) can run from bare-bones around $300 to well over $5,000. Some inexpensive turntables have built-in phono stages, and these can be integrated into the table for $100 or so, depending on manufacturer. So bottom line, playing vinyl can be costly. I say, “can be” because one could set up a good quality vinyl record playing unit for less than $1,000, but it would certainly not be superior in performance or sound quality. If one wants a real bargain system, it’s possible to find used gear for a lot less than buying new. For those so inclined, I encourage shopping around if you really want to get into the vinyl game with minimum funds.
But again, that nagging question. Why?
To play records, we must handle them gently and keep the groove clean. The slightest dirt or fingerprint can spell disaster in playback since the amplifier will make the tiniest imperfection audible or even downright annoying. To this end, several companies have sprung up seeking to remove audiophile hard-earned dollars by selling them record cleaning machines and devices. These can set you back from $200 to $5,000. However, you might settle on an antistatic brush or a manual cleaner for less than $50. I have been guilty of using dishwashing liquid to clean very dirty records at no cost. Keep in mind that any of these methods also requires an investment of time…your time. And time is money!
Before compact discs arrived in the early ‘80s, we were happy to have vinyl records which were digitally recorded and mastered. Another popular audiophile format of the day was so-called “Direct to Disk” recordings. These were thought to be superior because they eliminated the digitizing process or the tape-recording process so that what was played in the studio was captured directly to the disk master. In other words, mastering took place real time and was not delayed by the taping, editing, and mastering processes. Both formats (digitally recorded and direct to disk) commanded premium prices because of the inherent superiority of the recording. Although fans of direct-to-disk recordings still exist, few recordings are made that way now. It was just too difficult to make everything work well in one take. And mastering a direct-to-disk recording is a real nightmare for the mastering engineer. You need a real expert to manually space the groove to the music intensity in order to cut the groove in one disk side without running out of space. This was a very tedious task.
What about those digitally mastered vinyl disks? They were also considered superior technology. But now, there is some disdain for such recordings. Heaven forbid that one would even consider using a digital recording to make an audiophile grade vinyl record these days. Only pure analog can be accepted for transfer to an audiophile record. Digital apparently lacks something in the minds of those who love vinyl. But what?
To answer that question, it’s important to talk about the shortcomings of digital recording. To put it simply, digital recordings are a computer technology. The audio waveform (analog) is sampled at a very high rate, more than twice the rate of the highest frequency to be recorded. The reason for this is that electronic engineers Harry Nyquist and Claude Shannon determined that this was the minimum sampling rate which could be used to preserve all information in a recorded form. It’s called the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem and it’s the basis for digital sampling and reproduction. But the caveat is that the signal must be of limited bandwidth. For that reason, since the highest frequency detectable by the human ear (a young ear) is 20 kHz, a CD is sampled at more than twice this frequency (44.1 kHz). The reason 40 kHz is inadequate is that the sample must be more than twice the maximum source frequency and there needs to be some buffer to allow us to filter out any frequencies above the 20 kHz maximum, otherwise aliasing (which is a type of noise) would result. So filtering is an important aspect and possible flaw in how well the digital process works.
Each sample collected to make a digital recording is represented by a number determined by the word-length (16 bits) used for a compact disk. The word length allows 216 or 65,536 levels to be associated with each point in the audio signal. This gives us a theoretical dynamic range of greater than 90 dB. Vinyl records, on the other hand, at best have a dynamic range or signal-to-noise ratio of 55 to 70 dB dependent on wear, contamination, and other factors. But one fault with CDs or other digital recording means is that some distortion enters the picture due to dithering. In sampling, we assign a number to represent the magnitude of the audio signal at a given point in time. The number assigned can be higher or lower than the actual signal based on the where the computer thinks the level is compared to the 65,536 allowed levels. In practice, dithering should be inaudible since only the quietest of passages could show a disproportionate level of dithering (compared to the actual signal). Some other factors which might impact the reproduction of digital signals are jitter and phase distortion.
Since digital signals are converted to analog using a clock signal at the 44.1 kHz sampling frequency (for CDs), stability of that signal and the ability of the computer to translate the digits into an analog signal at a consistent rate, can cause some shifting of the analog signal during processing. Phase shifting can also result due to filtering out of any signal above 20 kHz in order to prevent aliasing. And let’s not forget that if these filters are less-than-perfect, some aliasing (a form of distortion) can creep into the process.
Most of these artifacts are not audible because they occur at very high frequencies, where the ear can’t pick them up. Nevertheless, some say that these digital artifacts can impair one’s ability to hear near-perfect sound reproduction when listening to a digital recording.
Although I have mentioned digital recordings as a generic term, there are still significant differences in them. For example, there are pros and cons to each digital format. The compact disk cannot completely approach master quality audio as heard on an original master tape recording because it is a duplicate of that recording and there is some loss in any reproduction such as the aforementioned dithering and other digital artifacts, which, for the most part are inaudible. Some other digital formats, such as SACD eliminate most of these artifacts and come closer to the ideal. Technically, any reproduction is imperfect. The important question is, can such imperfections be heard by the human ear?
Looking at the physical aspects of such recordings, a CD has a much smaller image of the artist and recording art and smaller copies of liner notes and other details. Of course, streamed audio doesn’t even have this, but many streaming services do allow for a control screen which shows album art, artist biographies, song lyrics, and the ability to find similar recordings by other artists. These are all plusses, but they often come at a cost.
I should also mention limitations or flaws of the vinyl record. I already mentioned that signal-to-noise is much lower than what digital provides and routine cleaning is required for optimum sound. Some other problems are the following:
Vinyl has intrinsic flaws (warps, pops, ticks, groove echo, and other surface noise). Some impulse noises could lower signal-to-noise ratio to only 40 dB or less and such impulses, unlike hiss noise (pink or white noise) can be very annoying.
Audiophile grade vinyl records, which are often heavier than standard LPs and made with better vinyl, often command a premium price (rarely under $20 and usually in the $40 to $150 range).
Transducers, such as cartridges, speakers, and headphones, are often the weak link in sound reproduction. Yet we must add one in the reproduction path to listen to a vinyl record. Admittedly, there are some very good cartridges out there, for a price, but still, the transducer is the weak link. They can color the sound slightly and some suffer hum and other noises when used in conjunction with certain turntables.
Equalization is needed to overcome the shortcomings of vinyl records and make them listenable and even recordable. They must use equalization, which is a specialized tone control, to boost the high frequencies and reduce the low frequencies during the recording process. This is done because the bass would often be too intense for any phono cartridge to track and the record would be far too noisy without a strong boost in the treble. This equalization was standardized by RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America). On playback, opposite equalization is used to make the recording sound untouched. Inaccuracy of the recording and playback equalization can detract from the sound. Compare that to the pure signal path of the digital recording process which requires no equalization.
Analog records are sometimes manipulated by decreasing their dynamic range in order to fit the recording into the groove. This is called compression. What this means is that although the RIAA filter is used to decrease bass sufficiently for most recordings, those with higher levels of bass are still too powerful to allow playback. So, loud, low-bass signals may be artificially attenuated on some recordings to make the record playable. Also, compression helps fit the recorded music on a given record side. CDs, for example, don’t have this limitation, although a maximum of 80 minutes is the limit for a compact disk…plenty long for Beethoven’s Ninth.
Records are cumbersome and less convenient to use than digital sources. In the case of streaming audio or audio from a server or computer, there is no physical medium to handle.
So again, why would anyone want to endure the poorer sound quality of vinyl records?
Well, it is important to point out that there are some real advantages to vinyl records. And to a large extent, these advantages help keep vinyl going as a medium for music reproduction:
A real advantage of vinyl records is that you get to be a part of the mechanical activity needed to play one. Many people like the feel of handling a record disk and going through the process of playing it along with the manual selection of specific tracks.
Some audiophiles just like the sound better compared to digital. No matter what the data shows, it’s hard to argue with one’s personal preference.
Some of us already have a large vinyl record collection and instead of disposing of it, we might want to occasionally play the records or record them onto digital format.
Perhaps Matt Perpetua of BuzzFeed said it best in his 2013 post: “These records are more beautiful and substantial than CDs, which mostly have the look of office supplies, and they’re the best way to make purchasing music feel like something. Vinyl allows you to have a sentimentality about albums — there’s a tactile quality, a ritual to pulling a record out of a sleeve and putting it on and focusing your attention on the act of listening for a side at a time. Even if you still mainly listen to music on your computer or iPod, it gives you the option of having a more special experience with your favorite albums, and an object you can display in your home.”
In other words, it’s a “feel-good” thing. That’s why.