CLOSE
Thinkstock
Thinkstock

Do Records Really Sound Warmer Than CDs?

Thinkstock
Thinkstock

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Causes Sinkholes?
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images
Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a sinkhole opened up on the White House lawn—likely the result of excess rainfall on the "legitimate swamp" surrounding the storied building, a geologist told The New York Times. While the event had some suggesting we call for Buffy's help, sinkholes are pretty common. In the past few days alone, cavernous maws in the earth have appeared in Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee, and of course Florida, home to more sinkholes than any other state.

Sinkholes have gulped down suburban homes, cars, and entire fields in the past. How does the ground just open up like that?

Sinkholes are a simple matter of cause and effect. Urban sinkholes may be directly traced to underground water main breaks or collapsed sewer pipelines, into which city sidewalks crumple in the absence of any structural support. In more rural areas, such catastrophes might be attributed to abandoned mine shafts or salt caverns that can't take the weight anymore. These types of sinkholes are heavily influenced by human action, but most sinkholes are unpredictable, inevitable natural occurrences.

Florida is so prone to sinkholes because it has the misfortune of being built upon a foundation of limestone—solid rock, but the kind that is easily dissolved by acidic rain or groundwater. The karst process, in which the mildly acidic water wears away at fractures in the limestone, leaves empty space where there used to be stone, and even the residue is washed away. Any loose soil, grass, or—for example—luxury condominiums perched atop the hole in the ground aren't left with much support. Just as a house built on a weak foundation is more likely to collapse, the same is true of the ground itself. Gravity eventually takes its toll, aided by natural erosion, and so the hole begins to sink.

About 10 percent of the world's landscape is composed of karst regions. Despite being common, sinkholes' unforeseeable nature serves as proof that the ground beneath our feet may not be as solid as we think.

A version of this story originally ran in 2014.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
How Are Speed Limits Set?
iStock
iStock

When driving down a road where speed limits are oppressively low, or high enough to let drivers get away with reckless behavior, it's easy to blame the government for getting it wrong. But you and your fellow drivers play a bigger a role in determining speed limits than you might think.

Before cities can come up with speed limit figures, they first need to look at how fast motorists drive down certain roads when there are no limitations. According to The Sacramento Bee, officials conduct speed surveys on two types of roads: arterial roads (typically four-lane highways) and collector streets (two-lane roads connecting residential areas to arterials). Once the data has been collected, they toss out the fastest 15 percent of drivers. The thinking is that this group is probably going faster than what's safe and isn't representative of the average driver. The sweet spot, according to the state, is the 85th percentile: Drivers in this group are thought to occupy the Goldilocks zone of safety and efficiency.

Officials use whatever speed falls in the 85th percentile to set limits for that street, but they do have some wiggle room. If the average speed is 33 mph, for example, they’d normally round up to 35 or down to 30 to reach the nearest 5-mph increment. Whether they decide to make the number higher or lower depends on other information they know about that area. If there’s a risky turn, they might decide to round down and keep drivers on the slow side.

A road’s crash rate also comes into play: If the number of collisions per million miles traveled for that stretch of road is higher than average, officials might lower the speed limit regardless of the 85th percentile rule. Roads that have a history of accidents might also warrant a special signal or sign to reinforce the new speed limit.

For other types of roads, setting speed limits is more of a cut-and-dry process. Streets that run through school zones, business districts, and residential areas are all assigned standard speed limits that are much lower than what drivers might hit if given free rein.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios