Vinyl Records Sound Quality : Superior?

Is vinyl analog sound quality really superior to digital forms? Why are vinyl records making a resurgence in this decade, now overtaking CDs in physical recording media? Here I make a brief, relatively non-technical vinyl vs digital sound quality comparison and provide links to other opinions. In the end, the decision is in the eye (ear) of the beholder, but there are definitely clear characteristics of each type of playback method.

The Truth About Vinyl - Vinyl vs. Digital

How Are Vinyl Records Created?

Although the basic processes for recording on vinyl has been around since the 1800’s, obviously many changes and improvements have occurred over the last 140 years. Here is a brief history of the vinyl record and a couple videos depicting how they evolved.

HISTORY OF VINYL RECORDS #1 - The 78 RPM Single. Manufacturing plant RCA
HISTORY OF VINYL RECORDS #2 - The 33 1/3 RPM Long Play

How Vinyl Records Are Made

How Vinyl Records Are Made

Factors That Affect Vinyl Sound Quality

Vinyl is by nature an analog format – it is “lossless” in that none of the sound information is lost in the recording process. This is unlike digital formats where compression is used and depending on the playback audio quality, information can be lost and the sound can be “thinner”. In the process of creating and playing back a vinyl recording, besides the equipment used, there can be several inherent factors that can alter the vinyl sound quality:

  • Recording quality – this depends on the mastering process and whether the original master was used in the pressing process. Records sourced from analog recordings vs digital are likely to sound better.
  • Quality of the pressing process and number of times the press is used.
  • Quality of the vinyl – was it made from “virgin” vinyl? There are debates whether thicker vinyl (180-200 gram vs. 140 gram) helps sound quality, but may be helpful in maintenance of the record. Colored vinyl has been said to have lower sound quality, but not definitively.
  • Perhaps most importantly, maintenance and care of the records. Any great record can sound bad if it has excessively louder “crackle and pop”. A lower level of these imperfections tend to be part of the natural, warmer sound that audiophiles claim vinyl gives them, but a badly maintained record is a horrible thing indeed.

So a digital format like a quality CD has really none of these concerns and can essentially last forever with no sound degradation. Also, a digital format has more capability of dynamic range and high/low frequency. In technical terms, there really isn’t much that a vinyl record offers that digital cannot, at least to the limitations of the human ear. And digital is much more convenient.

So Then, Why Vinyl?

If vinyl has these limitations why is vinyl still so popular among audiophiles (and increasing in sales)? It probably comes down to personal preferences and intangibles. When vinyl vs digital sound quality is discussed, it often comes down to what the listener wants to hear. The other factors may be in the experience itself, the actual act of finding and collecting.

  • “Warmth” of sound – this may often be  partly due to imperfections in the record itself, leading to this perception. But the fact that vinyl is a lossless format means all the subtleties and depth are present.
  • The physical nature of the product – it has a big sleeve with artwork and other information, often song lyrics. There is something satisfying about having big stacks of records, a heft and authenticity that affirms your dedication to the form.
  • Nostalgia? Vinyl hearkens back to a simpler time, when every new release and playback was an experience to be savored.
  • Financial – records are typically worth more than when you bought them (lately). CDs and other digital forms are essentially the same as buying clothes or a car – they depreciate instantly.

So whether or not vinyl actually sounds better – does it really matter? Your preferences are up to you and everyone has the freedom to choose. Though in recent years I have built a collection of digital music, my record collection is still a key part of my musical journey. If you are interested in the hobby, or just want to build your collection, here are some of our choices for classic recordings that would fit in any collection.

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