Is Music on Vinyl Better? – A True Products Inquiry

As we previously noted, Andy Mergendahl of Lawyerist has written an article of interest for all lawyers:  “Music on Vinyl is Better.”  This is an issue of concern to everyone, not just lawyers.  Essentially, Andy contends that the task of listening to music on vinyl is a difficult ritual requiring careful attention, thus, the experience is more enjoyable because of the effort expended.

Argues Andy:

There is an on-going debate about whether music played from a vinyl record sounds better than digital music, but my goal is not to settle that debate.  My point is that collecting and listening to music on vinyl is just a richer, more pleasurable experience.

. . .

First, you can’t take vinyl with you.  You have to be at the stereo.  You have to physically handle the record, and clean it.  You have to operate the machine, which has moving parts.  The sound of the record isn’t the same every time, because playing a record literally wears it out.  That makes you treat the vinyl and the music on it with care and respect.  Finally, you can’t jump from song to song with a click.  So you hear songs you would otherwise miss (or not purchase at all).  Plus a record’s sleeve can be 12 by 24 inches, allowing ample room for really cool or really awful art.

Combining all these elements makes it likely that you are really already passionate about what you are hearing or more likely to become passionate about it.

Andy makes an excellent point; the art of listening to vinyl is, really,  an affectation of the listener.  We enjoy the pleasure we derive from listening to music on vinyl because it is the fruit of a labor of love.  Andy notes in the piece that he is “old, so when [he] started buying music, the CD was just coming on to the scene.”  That makes him not to much older than me; and although I appreciate the care involved in the collection of vinyl records, I must step forward to defend the often maligned, never cool enough for school compact disc.

(It’s a product, after all, so we can talk about this issue on a products liability blog, right?)

The CD, by its very nature, is mobile.  It can be played in the car, thereby freeing the driver from the awful constraints of the popular radio.  With portable CD players, either the once ubiquitous Discman or the fabled boomboxes of yore, the listener’s music of choice can be easily brought from room to room, home to home, venue to venue, inside or outside.  Such technology allows us to take our own personal favorite albums, which may or may not be available on the radio or elsewhere, with us to play for our friends and such.

That’s far more difficult with vinyl, especially these days.

There’s also the quality issue.  CD’s do – and always have – sounded better. Remember when CD’s first arrived on to the scene in the mid to late 1980s? Listeners – not just snobby audiophiles, either – marveled at the depth of difference in audio quality between their old LP’s and the new CD’s. The more nostalgic fans – who insisted that the snaps, crackles, and pops of old vinyl were inextricably intertwined with the music listening experience – soured on CDs, finding new technology too clean and clinical in the absence of such accompanying noise.

But you can’t fault CD’s just because they eliminated some of the flaws of the system that you grew up enjoying, can you?

Plus, CD’s are simply more durable. Look at a 25 year old box of LPs and you will see faded, frayed, and damaged albums.  You will likely hear scratched and damaged content on the albums themselves unless the owner behaved like a museum curator.  With CD’s, the protective outer casing typically preserves the albeit album art (for the most part, at least). If the listener takes reasonable care, the music will sound just as good as it did on the day you initially bought it. Lord knows my 21 year old copy of Nevermind still sounds great.  Certainly, there are albums that one frequently enjoys that may require replacement on CD due to heavy listening.  I’ve had to  buy several of the Radiohead albums at least three times, and of course, I’ve bought The White Album at least four times (in various formats) over the last 25 years.  But I would have probably had to replace those albums more often had I been buying them on vinyl.

CD’s simply offer a richer listening experience absent a few, perhaps pleasurable, steps required of vinyl. There will always be people who will want to grind their own coffee and derive pleasure from the additional work required of that enterprise.  But there is nothing wrong with an easier more accessible way to enjoy music, particularly when the audio quality is superior.

Now don’t get me started on the issue of CD’s versus digitally downloaded music.  One can, of course, rip tracks from a CD onto one’s computer, but the default bit rate for imported tracks means that the audio quality is significantly less.

But that’s a debate for another day.

(An editorial aside: The best part of writing this article was learned that the boombox has its own Wikipedia entry.).

Comments

  1. I love CDs! The first time I heard one was on headphones, and the top of my head blew off. (Still looking for it.) I eventually had a collection of over 1200 CDs. I agree with you that they are still the best format in terms of balancing audio quality with durability. Given my busy middle-aged dad schedule, I should love mp3s and my iPod for their portability. But I just don’t. I love vinyl more than ever. Perhaps this is just my very restrained version of a midlife crisis. I’d look ridiculous in a Corvette.

  2. Predictable.

    My recollection, though, is that the perceived high quality of CD audio when it first appeared was in large part in contrast to cassette tapes rather than records. Cassette tapes have as it were, the worst of both worlds: tiny album art, worse sound quality from the get go, degraded sound with multiple plays, etc.

    One appeal of vinyl which wasn’t mentioned here is the availability of older music never released on CD. How I cherish my LP of “Swing Disco,” classic hits of the swing era played in disco style, and how I miss being able to listen to it now that I no longer have a record player.

    Finally, I note in passing that records appear to be making a comeback amongst the kids. Friends on the indie music scene are releasing 12″ singles rather than CDs if they want to stay hip. I’m not sure what’s motivated this movement, but I’m guessing it’s more the fetishistic qualities of vinyl listening described by Mergendahl than the audio quality issue.

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