Ever since compact discs (CDs) were first released to the public in the early 1980s, the dispute over which medium sounds better – CDs or vinyl records – has raged unabated. While the digitally-encoded data on CDs is read by a tiny laser, the grooves that are pressed into vinyl records are read by a physical needle.
Most people today listen to music on digital formats, which, along with CDs, include MP3s. But while many consumers believe digitally-encoded music to be of a higher quality, a small (but increasingly vocal) segment of music aficionados – including myself – favor the analog method that is used to press records meant to be played on a phonograph.
According to those of us in the latter category, something is lost when music is recorded on a digital format. And the number of those who feel likewise appears to be growing, based on the increasing demand for vinyl recordings and old-fashioned record players.
Here I have to admit that there are some areas in which digital recordings are indisputably superior to those pressed on vinyl. These are mainly concerned with portability, the amount of data that can be stored on digital formats, and the lifespan of your average CD when compared to that of a vinyl record.
First off, since CDs encode data in binary form, they can store much more music. Your typical data CD, for example, can hold as many as 100 music tracks – which is great for those who like listening to music while on the go.
In this regard, vinyl records are much more limited, with one side of a 12-inch LP (long-play) record able to hold only about 30 minutes of music – at the most. What’s more, records are physically larger than CDs and require a large, bulky device to play, meaning they can typically only be enjoyed at home.
CDs are also the clear winners when it comes to the issue of durability. Because CDs are read by miniscule lasers (which don’t physically touch the CD’s surface), they are immune to physical wear and tear – no matter how many times that you play them.
By contrast, vinyl records (as every collector knows all too well) are relatively fragile, and must be handled with care to avoid scratching. What’s more, vinyl records – unlike CDs – are prone to become warped if exposed to extreme fluctuations in temperature or humidity.
Yet despite the obvious superiority of CDs in terms of both data storage and longevity, I believe, along with most serious audiophiles, that vinyl records simply sound better. It has been my experience that sound emanating from a record is warmer, sharper, and – on the whole – more authentic.
And it’s not just ‘in our head’; rather, there’s a scientific basis for the controversial assertion. When music is put into digital format, it must be compressed into an audio file small enough to be saved on a smartphone or streamed online – which has the effect of reducing overall sound quality.
When a vinyl record is pressed, by contrast, virtually no audio data is lost in the process. And in my humble opinion, this more than makes up for the various ‘clicks and clacks’ that can always be heard when listening to records (even new ones).
In addition to sound considerations, most vinyl collectors also enjoy the hands-on experience of setting a record down on the turntable, positioning the needle, and flipping it over to hear the B-side. It’s probably similar to why bibliophiles prefer reading real books as opposed to e-books.
With that said, I urge readers to listen to their favorite tracks in both formats before drawing their own conclusions. Happy listening!