By Eric Pettifor
A little over three years ago, I wrote here about converting vinyl records to digital audio files. I suggested the eBay record section as a source for vinyl, and noted that, at time of writing, there were 151,436 listings. At this time of writing, there are 2,274,791. What gives?
According to Lucas Mearian over at Computer World, sales of vinyl records are on the rise, while CD sales continue to decline. Though that doesn’t mean that people are switching from CD to vinyl — CDs continue to lose ground to online sales of mp3s.
Mearian quotes David Bakula of Nielsen Entertainment, who says that elder audiophiles make up a large part of the market. You know the ones: purists who maintain that vinyl sounds better than digital, thus warranting the outlay of crazy amounts of money for high-end audiophile gear to squeeze the maximum sonic goodness from every groove.
But is that enough to account for the growth in vinyl sales? Especially since this elder demographic is more prone to dying? Will vinyl finally become defunct when the last elder audiophile gasps his terminal breath?
Perhaps not. Mearian identifies another group also getting into vinyl, and not necessarily due to a belief in sonic superiority. Apparently some young folk consider the medium to be cool for its historical significance, and for its larger size, which affords better cover art and includes. Mearian notes that some albums now come with coupons redeemable online for mp3 downloads of music on the album, so the kids don’t even have to rip the vinyl themselves — they can have better art, liner notes, and play the music on their portable music players (or phones, or body piercing plugs, or whatever they’re into these days).
For those albums that don’t come with coupons, there are usb turntables now. Though no audiophile would touch them with a 10-foot pole (and don’t hold your breath waiting for purists to redeem mp3 coupons either), they do make it easier to rip music straight from vinyl. They’re most definitely not aimed at the elder audiophile, and their mass production suggests a strong market for vinyl indeed.
Another factor in vinyl’s favour, one which might appeal to both groups, was brought up in the discussion thread when Mearian’s story was posted to slashdot. Apparently, due to something called the loudness war, vinyl actually does sound better than digital in many instances, and not just in the minds of those who can afford phono cartridges hand crafted in Japan from mammoth ivory featuring titanium cantilevers individually tempered with a geisha’s tears.
There is a maximum recording level which no recording can exceed without distortion, but the impression of loudness can be increased through compression, a kind of selective level where quieter parts can be boosted, while the level for peaks is preserved, effectively reducing the dynamic range (the difference between the quietest parts and the loudest parts).
Vinyl releases are less likely to suffer this, or at least not to the same extreme. Consequently, where the CD version has had the life compressed out of it, and the vinyl version hasn’t, there is no debate — vinyl is better.
Here’s an A/B comparison on YouTube between a a Metallica song on CD, and a version of the same song which was released without compression for the game Guitar Hero. You don’t need great speakers to hear the difference.
Whether it’s for the “warmth” or whatever audiophiles imagine they’re hearing through their elite stereos, or else for the cool album cover art, liner notes, and includes, or else simply for genuinely superior sound which faithfully represents the original dynamic range of the recording, vinyl is likely going to be with us for some time to come.