Vinyl VS CD: According to Science
Does music really sound better on vinyl? Or am I just a hipster-tool? I found myself asking such profound existential questions the week after Christmas– when my house gained some new vinyl. For the past 10 years or so, I’ve been listening to music mostly in MP3 format. MP3s are great on-the-go, but for home-listening (where, let’s be honest, I spend most of my time anyways) I’ve been trying to reinvest in a higher-quality format.
Vinyl seemed like a good answer. But are my ears deceiving me? Like most questions, I decided to turn to God for an answer. Just kidding: I decided to see what science had to say.
When it comes to MP3s and other digital formats, vinyl almost always wins. Most people usually listen to digital music through a streaming service of some kind. Chances are that by the time a track gets to your speakers, it has been compressed and sometimes even hyper-compressed. This removes a noticeable amount of the music’s depth resulting in what I would call a “gray-er” sound. Digital music is essentially the home equivalent to a shitty sound-guy at a show– you’re not really hearing the music the way the artist intended when they recorded it. Now the exception to this rule is high-resolution audio which doesn’t deal with the same loss of quality due to compression. However, high-resolution audio is not cheap and it takes up a lot of space. Which led to my answer: if I’m going to spend a considerable amount of money on a music format that takes up a considerable amount of “space,” I might as well stick with vinyl.
Turns out when CD’s are the comparison, the two formats are mathematically identical and hold the same quality as long as they come from the same– original– source. I guess this is where CD’s technically win the science round: a long album on vinyl doesn’t have the same consistent quality towards the end. As the needle moves closer to the middle of the record it’s speed changes and it has a harder time reading the grooves. On a long album, the grooves are very narrow which also makes it harder to read. This would explain why my remastered version of The Clash’s Sandinista! has no more than six songs on each side, has much wider grooves, and is overall a heavier, thicker record. (Oh, and it sounds amazing by the way.)
So, science tells me CD’s and vinyl are virtually the same sound-quality wise; but I’m sticking with vinyl. CD’s are a dying format while vinyl sales are on the rise. If I ever want to trade-in or sell my vinyl I can be pretty certain I’ll get more for it than a CD version of the same album. Plus most new vinyl records come with an MP3 drop-card so you get a digital (probably minimally compressed) version too. And let’s be honest: CD’s are boring. It’s a way better overall experience opening and playing a vinyl record.