Do Records Really Sound Warmer Than CDs?

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We’ve all no doubt heard the countless claims about how vinyl simply sounds “better” and “warmer” than today’s digital music. And this belief is taking today’s consumers beyond the boxes in their parents' attic. According to an article by Forbes published in 2011, people are purchasing modern music on vinyl at the highest rate ever seen in the CD era.

Given those statistics, it’s safe to say that people still like the sound of vinyl despite all our advances in technology. And it’s not just your John Q Consumer who holds vinyl in such esteem—some of the most famous of rock stars are on board.

“Digital is zeroes and ones, man, any way you look at it,” Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones, told Forbes. “Whether it’s a CD or a download, there’s a certain jaggedness to it. Vinyl wins every time. It’s warmer, more soothing, easier on the ears.”

Opinions aside, what we can all agree on is that there is indeed a difference in the sound that comes from vinyl versus that of digital media, both in the way it is produced and heard (although there are debates between experts and common folks about whether these differences can be audibly perceived by everyday listeners). On a basic level, a vinyl record is an analog recording and a CD is a digital recording.

“An analog signal is continuous, meaning that there are no breaks or interruptions,” writes Jonathan Strickland, Senior Editor of HowStuffWorks.com. “If you were to hum a descending note, people hearing you would be able to detect the change in pitch, but not point to specific moments when the pitch jumped from one note to the next. Digital signals are not continuous. They use specific values to represent information. In the case of sound, that means representing a sound wave as a series of values that represent pitch and volume over the length of the recording. In a primitive digital recording of that descending note you hummed, you'd hear a single long sound as a collection of shorter sounds.”

In an interesting interview with NPR, Sean Olive, Director of Acoustic Research at Harman International, and Scott Metcalfe, Director of Recording Arts and Sciences at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University, suggested that the ritual of vinyl—taking the record out and placing it on the turntable, clearing the dust, setting the needle on—plays a large role in how people hear it, arguing that perception and nostalgia have a lot to do with how we feel about one piece of music over the other. They also attribute some of the disdain for CDs to an initial laziness on the part of the record companies, which they claim had a great effect on the public’s perception of the then-new musical medium.

“When the CD first came out, a lot of the CDs that were released were actually recordings made for vinyl,” Olive said. “And those master tapes, rather than remastering, they just made them into CDs. So a lot of the objectionable sounds of CD was actually because the record companies didn't bother to remaster these old recordings.”

So the question remains: Is the love really about the sound, or is it more about nostalgia? We know that they are definitely different in the way they are produced as compared to other media, but do records actually sound “better” or “warmer?” One thing that most experts, including Olive, Metcalfe, and Strickland, agree on is that, all things being equal in terms of the sound systems and disc qualities, the everyday user would have a very hard time telling the difference between analog and digital sound. However, it’s the intangibles of playing a record, such as the way the dust affects the sound or the way we can hear the needle at times, that make the experience of listening to vinyl unique. It’s true that a record can sound different today than it did yesterday if the conditions of the player and record itself are not exactly the same (dust collection and needle wear-and-tear, for example).

Aside from that, it’s hard to take the argument any further. Despite the insight into the different composition, this argument simply boils down to a matter of preference and perception. Feel free to let us know yours in the comments below.

Another silver lining to take from this whole debate is that, despite the disappearance of many forms of older technology over the years, records aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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August 2, 2013 - 9:30am
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