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During our lives we have seen several important changes of the playback format of our music.

In my case the most significant was the passage of tapes to CD and then to digital MP3 files. Regardless handling comfort, I sincerely believe that the pleasure experienced listening tapes is not less than that currently feel with my mp3.

However, the experience of pleasure is entirely subjective. Therefore I could say that the return of vinyl in recent years is simple pedantry powered by marketing. But I can't help but feel that the sound engineering has evolved and is effectively offering us a better format.

My question: Is there any objective reason to confirm or explain that vinyl records offer a better musical experience?

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It's not because of fidelity

I'll start by discarding one reason: fidelity. Fidelity is the ability of a system to reproduce a signal with the least amount of change. High fidelity means little to no change is being induced, low fidelity means too many change is being induced. Perfect fidelity means the signal is being reproduced perfectly, without change at all.

Your typical vinyl setup induces a lot of change. From the phase change produced by the RIAA curve, surface noises, low dynamic range (when compared to 16 bit), to inner and outer portions sounding different.

Objectively, judging by measurements, in the context of fidelity, 16 bit 44.1 kHz PCM (also known as CD quality) is by far superior to vinyl. You can read more about it here, here, here, and here.

Now that we established what it isn't about, let's dive into why vinyls can offer a superior musical experience.

It's about the vinyl sound

Vinyl's lack of fidelity (again, in relation to CD quality) is a plus in the ears of many. For those people, these added characteristics ("analog warmth", or whatever you want to call it) are pleasant, so they seek them.

Interestingly, some of the "analog warmth" seekers are also high-fidelity enthusiasts. But the more you move into objective high-fidelity territory the less change (the less "analog warmth") is induced, so the more they invest in equipment the less "analog warmth" they receive.

And also about misconceptions

Not sure why, but the incorrect notion that vinyl has higher fidelity than CD (and other mediums) is widely spread. Many vinyl and audio enthusiasts in general seek vinyl based on that notion. They think they are building a superior system, so getting into vinyl seems like a natural move.

No, the sound in digital is not getting "pixelated". As long as you are working within the Nyquist frequency, the sound is being reproduced perfectly fine. Mathematically, the original and sampled versions are the same.

And DJs

The DJ scene is in a huge boom. It has never been so easy and affordable. Many of those digital DJs will make the transition to vinyl, which carries a very specific skill set and feel different from playing with CD players or software.

And the vinyl ritual

Vinyls are awesome. They have the waveform engraved, you have to place it in the plate and place the cartridge, select speed, clean everything, that kind of stuff that elevates the listening experience to something more artisan, more involved.

They are big, but slim, so they are great for hanging on walls, or collecting. It's an old technology, so it has this old-school vibe for some, maybe nostalgic to others.

In short

If I had to condense it in a few words: because people like its sound (even if in some cases they are being deceived by their biases and misconceptions) and the artisan-like rituals involved with everything vinyl.

7

Ever try rolling a joint on a CD cover? ;o)

But seriously... There is a wonderful comparison over on the Audioholics site that breaks this down much further than I can. To me, however, I will just state that vinyl sounds... warmer. My ears respond much better to vinyl than to MP3 for sure, even at the best bitrates. And sometimes music doesn't feel right to me without the occasional pop or click, as weird as that might sound.

To go completely off the rails, I'll say that a poorly encoded DVD looks 10 times worse than a VHS tape. Especially when the camera is pointed at a light source. You can clearly see each degradation of the color white as it drops to black, whereas in the old analog domain it's just a smooth fade.

Sometimes digital isn't better than analog. Especially when your hard drive crashes.

6

Of course, the best way to listen to music is live but, due to convenience, music is recorded. Vinyl (and tape cassettes) are an analogue format where there is no distinct difference when (for example) a note ascends the scales.

On the other hand, CD's and MP3's are digital formats that are 'sampled' at different bit rates. Therefore, for people with well trained ears, the quality of Vinyl over MP3 is striking.

As with most things, as technology progresses it tends to concentrate on convenience, such as an MP3 player with 8000+ songs available at all times. This convenience is impossible with analogue recordings.

Over a period of time the quality that was previously on offer (i.e. analogue vinyl) is lost. So, some people in lamenting this decided to 'dust off' their old vinyl and wallow in 'inconvenient' quality.

Suddenly these people realised the quality of the music recordings was so much better on analogue formats that they wanted more and told more and more people thus the 'movement' took off.

These days, with the convenience of MP3 style media players, iPods, 'phones, etc. music has become a 'background' to nearly any activity that a person does. In re-establishing Vinyl listening, people now have the 'ceremony' of selecting a record, getting it out of the sleeve, placing it on the turntable and playing it. This then leads them to do nothing else, save listen to the music. In this way people appreciate the music more and it becomes the 'foreground'. In other words they are listening to music for the sake of the music.

This can be seen in other areas such as the rise of epicurian, quality food as a 'backlash' against fast, convenient food.

  • 4
    I think your second paragraph is incorrect. Studies suggest that no difference can be perceived between the original signal and the 320 kbps mp3 equivalent. See music.mcgill.ca/~hockman/documents/Pras_presentation2009.pdf . If there's a difference and preference it is because vinyl has less fidelity and changes the signal ("analog warmth"), stuff like wow, flutter, and the different surface noises (to name a few). – ByBw Oct 17 '15 at 0:32
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    There are a lot of problems with this answer. i. conflating digital sampling with MP3 compression. No-one can 'hear' the difference between a true analogue sound wave and a CD quality 44KHz encoding. People CAN hear the difference between a good sound source and a poor quality MP3 compression. ii. Vinyl is not a superior sound source over an uncompressed digital format, see @JCPendroza's answer. – Patrick Nov 19 '15 at 8:29
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There are many reasons vinylphiles present: music originally pressed on vinyl was engineered to sound good on vinyl, vinyl carries a wider frequency bandwidth than CD, no digital sampling 'blip'.

Of course, CDs are now obsolete and we're not stuck with 16 bit audio at 44.1k that suddenly goes flat below 20Hz and above 20kHz, so those arguments aren't really relevant anymore. I have no data to back this up but in my opinion, that we have moved on to purely digital formats contributes greatly to the resurgence of the popularity of vinyl. Vinylphiles aside, I think many music fans who rather have their tracks in digital form still want physical copy. When the medium no longer matters, the packaging is the draw. And of all the formats, vinyl really has the greatest potential for nifty packaging. CD and cassette inserts just don't look good hanging on the wall.

  • While vinyl can have a wider frequency range (120kHz in high fidelity devices), those frequencies can't be perceived by the human ear (in fact most adults listen up to around 16kHz), so I don't think the wider bandwidth is a compelling reason. And what do you mean by "digital sampling blip"? – ByBw Oct 16 '15 at 20:41
  • In practice, most healthy young adults can hear from about 10Hz to 23kHz. Most people don't fall to 16k until well into their 30s. Digital sampling blip - sampling errors that sound like 'blips'. Usually the fault of the playback device. I don't think any of the vinylphiles' reasoning is terribly compelling. – user1103 Oct 17 '15 at 0:01
  • That range is still covered by CD quality (up to 22 kHz), so that reason to prefer vinyl over CD is still flawed, doesn't make sense, and my point still stands. Vinyls might lack what you call "digital sampling blips" (I don't know of a playback device that induces them though, we must be using very different software to hear our music), but turntable-based systems induce their share of distortion and artifacts. – ByBw Oct 17 '15 at 0:21
  • Another observation: 16 bit 44.1kHz audio doesn't go flat below 20Hz. You can reproduce any frequency in the range (0, 22.05k]. – ByBw Oct 17 '15 at 0:38
  • By redbook yes, but sampling at that low/high (a) introduces alias frequencies into the rest of the band because they (b) substantially increases processing overhead. Again, practice doesn't always match theory. Technically, you can sample any frequency you want and throw it on a CD (assuming the CD has sufficient surface are to store the bits), audible or otherwise. Like I said, vinyl's good for hanging on walls. He asked for objective reasons people prefer vinyl and I threw some out there - that doesn't necessarily mean I agree or that those reasons are valid. – user1103 Oct 17 '15 at 1:06
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Older and obsoleted technologies often make a comeback in a boutique, niche form that is higher quality, higher cost, and aimed at a smaller, luxury audience, as opposed to their earlier, mass-consumption iterations.

Similar renaissances are being experienced right now by physical-film cameras, paper journals, vintage typewriters and even filament lightbulbs. The topic is discussed extensively in the book "The Revenge of Analog". While there are often legitimate reasons for preferring the older technology, it also takes on an aura of prestige, class, exclusivity and taste, due largely to having exited the mainstream. Interestingly enough, similar traits are often associated with technologies that are too new to be mainstream.

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