Does Vinyl Actually Sound Better?
If you ask a vinylhead why they love vinyl records, there are a few answers you’ll get. Some people love the physical, tangible aspect of owning their favorite records on vinyl. Instead of just streaming the tracks, they’re able to physically place the disc onto the turntable.
For others, it’s a matter of aesthetics. They like being able to display their collections, either on a shelf or on a record wall.
But for the majority of vinyl lovers, they’ll tell you it’s a matter of sound quality.
That begs the question, though, is vinyl actually better than MP3s and streaming music? Our short answer is yes, of course, but we’re going to take this article to explain the reasons we believe vinyl does actually sound better than other forms of audio.
How Does Vinyl Work?
To understand why vinyl sounds better, you have to understand how it actually works. We’ve written on this in the past if you want to learn more about how vinyl works, but here’s the simple version.
First, the musicians record the tracks that they want to press onto the record. Then, a master disk, usually made of metal, is created with all of the musical information that was initially recorded. That is used to actually press the vinyl “biscuits” that will eventually make their way onto your turntable.
This is a “lossless” way to transmit audio, meaning that there’s no compression involved. With digital audio, especially streaming or CDs, there’s a step between recording and transmitting the audio called compression. This is the crux of why vinyl records provide better sound quality.
Vinyl vs. Digital: What Does Compression Do?
If you go back before the rise of digital audio, vinyl was the standard. Anyone who loved music had a record player because it was the only way to own music for yourself. This was mostly an inconvenience at the time. Consumers wanted a way to store their music that didn’t have to take up so much space.
The first solution to this was the 8-track, followed by the cassette. These were compact ways to store audio files that could be played back far easier than a vinyl record. Shortly after this came the invention of the compact disc (CD).
CD’s could hold more information than a tape or a record, and they were a lot smaller, too. This was a perfect solution to the problem of the time. It provided a simple, convenient way to store music, take it on the go, and CDs were cheaper to manufacture than vinyl records, too.
So how did they do it? How were they able to store more information on a smaller medium? The answer is simple: compression.
What is Compression?
There are two types of compression involved in making CDs: dynamic range compression (DRC) and data compression. Both of them have their own issues, but one is a more egregious transgressor than the other.
Data compression is simple. In order to store data as an MP3 file, a lot of the data from the original recording gets lost. For example, a typical 3-minute song, in a lossless format, may be as large as 30mb. Once it’s encoded as an MP3, it could be less than 3mb.
This is done primarily by limiting the frequencies present on the record. Once you get above a certain hertz level, the human ear can no longer hear those frequencies. This is especially true if you’re listening on a pair of cheap headphones in a crowded gym or while mowing the grass.
If you’re listening to the record on vinyl, all of the original data is still present. On CDs or through a streaming service, you’re losing the majority of the detail, the shine and sparkle of a crash cymbal or the deep “thump” of a low bass note.
However, this form of compression doesn’t ruin the song by any means--you will actually have a hard time hearing any sounds that are lost in this type of compression. A trained ear with a great set of speakers can tell, but the average joe probably can’t. That said, DRC is the real problem with digital music formats.
Dynamic Range Compression (DRC)
If you were to look at the original recording of any track in an audio editor, you should see varying audio levels. Some elements or parts of the song will be loud, while others will be quiet.
This “dynamic range” allows the artist to really put emotion and feeling into the song, building with varying audio levels. This is present on vinyl records and some lossless digital formats, but it’s completely lost in an MP3.
The theory is, your brain will naturally listen to the loudest part of the song anyways, so why not just make all of the elements the same volume? This was in an effort to, overall, just make the tracks louder, because apparently, louder music does actually sell more records.
Unfortunately, this really hurts the music. The best place to hear this is in a classical track. Classical music has a huge dynamic range, with parts of any track so quiet that you can barely hear it. This leads to you having to adjust your volume up and down if you’re trying to listen to it on a drive or in another loud environment.
Record labels didn’t want people to have this annoyance with their music, so they just compressed the entire track to make all the audio levels mostly the same. From an average consumer perspective, it makes sense. It’s convenient, and it doesn’t hurt the audio “that much,” especially on an average speaker or pair of headphones.
What About Music Streaming?
We talked a lot about CDs, but almost no one listens to CDs anymore. What about music streaming? Does it suffer from the same issues? The short answer is yes, it does. For the companies that offer a streaming service, their goal is to stream audio as cheaply and quickly as possible.
They also have to keep people’s data plans in mind. The larger the audio track, the more it could cost a potential user to stream it. In truth, depending on the service and how you have your plan set, you could end up with lower quality audio than a CD.
Why Vinyl Sounds Better
With vinyl records, none of this compression happens. You get the audio that the artist originally recorded, in all of its lossless beauty. You can hear every cymbal hit, every “thwack” of the snare drum, all with the dynamic range originally intended by the artists.
The audio hasn’t been boosted up or compressed to the point of a muddy mess. Instead, the original quality and beauty of the track is maintained for the listener.
You can hear the frequencies that are left behind in compressed, digital audio tracks. You get all of the musical data that you wouldn’t hear otherwise.
Does Vinyl Always Sound Better?
We should take a moment and acknowledge that vinyl will not always sound better than digital formats. Although vinyl records do hold more information than a digital file, the setup you’re listening on will make a huge difference, as well.
If you play the lowest-quality digital file through a really nice pair of studio headphones, it will sound better than vinyl through bad speakers. To get the real best quality possible, you need to combine the right music format with high-quality equipment, too.
That said, if you’re working with the same setup, vinyl will always sound better than an MP3, CD, or other compressed digital file.
Other Reasons to Consider Listening to Music On Vinyl
In addition to the improvement in audio quality, there are other benefits to listening on vinyl as well. As we mentioned at the start of this article, there’s something special about having a physical copy of the music you love.
In a world where almost all of the music we listen to is streamed digitally, being able to pick up the album you love and place it on the turntable just adds a certain something to the listening experience.
Listening on vinyl also makes you listen to the entire album. Some records need to be listened to in their entirety to get the full experience. A concept album like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon is a great example of this.
You could listen to “Money” on its own and enjoy the track, but it’s not the same as hearing the album start to finish. That song’s meaning increases tenfold when you hear it in the context of the rest of the album.
It’s the same story with any of Kendrick Lamar’s records. “Poetic Justice: is a great single, but if you haven’t listened to Good Kid M.A.A.D. City from start to finish, you have no idea what you’re missing.
Are you convinced yet? If not, try out vinyl for yourself. If you don’t know what album to get first, check out our curated text offers at Sound of Vinyl. We’d love to help you find your next favorite record.