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Vinyl Vs. CD: Is One Actually Better?

When CDs first hit the market, the vinyl record industry suffered. As a new, portable, and highly convenient format, compact discs gave vinyl records a run for their money – at first. However, CDs are now entirely obsolete, and vinyl has made an undeniable comeback.


What happened?


Why Vinyl Record Sales Declined In The 1990s 


When CDs initially became available, the format completely revolutionized the music industry. Sales of physical music skyrocketed, and compact discs quickly became the highest-selling format, surpassing records and cassettes by a long shot.


The advent of digital audio changed the way music was listened to, but it also changed how it was produced. When audio started to be both recorded and released digitally, new sounds and genres began taking shape. The rising popularity of CDs and the use of computers instead of analog recording gear when making music transformed the industry virtually overnight.


For over a decade, vinyl sales saw a massive decline as CDs rose in popularity. However, the fact that digital audio became much more popular than the analog sound of vinyl does not mean that CDs sounded better than records. In fact, the reality is the opposite.


Streaming Made CDs Obsolete 


Although CDs dominated the market throughout the 90s and into the early 20th century, the 2010s brought another major shift in the music industry. Towards the end of the 2000s, the popularity of streaming digital music skyrocketed, and CDs began to wane in popularity. By the time the 2010s came around, CDs saw a massive yearly decline in popularity, nearly completely eclipsed by the popularity of streaming.


Meanwhile, analog audio in the form of vinyl records continued to retain a devoted following. Records have been an underdog format for decades, but their popularity has actually increased since the 2010s. The resurgence in the popularity of vinyl has coincided with the rapid decline in the popularity of CDs. Compact discs are a thing of the past, but vinyl is still going strong.


Compression: What Makes CDs Sound Different From Vinyl 


The primary distinction between analog and digital audio comes in the form of compression. When audio is compressed, it can reach a louder volume, but certain frequencies are lost. Compression causes some of the highest and lowest frequencies in a recording to become inaudible, creating a sound that can be significantly different from the original recording.


All final, mastered recordings, whether digital or analog, are somewhat compressed. However, analog audio is a lossless format. This means that compression will not render the highest and lowest frequencies inaudible. With lossless audio, you get a much more lively and dynamic sound, all because you are able to hear frequencies that you otherwise would not be able to hear.


Because analog audio has a wider dynamic range than digital audio, a record will get you a more lifelike listening experience than a CD in most cases. The “lossy” compression on CDs and the narrower dynamic range can make a recording on a CD sound unnatural to your ear. Vinyl, on the other hand, with its wide dynamic range, more accurately mimics what it would sound like to hear a live performance, doing an original recording justice.


To be fair, digital audio has come a long way. Digital audio is now mixed and mastered with much less frequency loss than it once was. Higher-quality digital formats have also entered the picture, providing a much better listening experience than CDs once did. However, for a lossless listening experience that gives you the best representation of an original recording, vinyl is the way to go.


How To Make Your Records Sound As Good As Possible 


Vinyl is a listening format with a huge amount of potential in terms of sound quality. Records can sound absolutely incredible when played on a high-quality turntable through a great set of speakers. However, not all record players are created equal, and many sets of speakers will produce subpar sound, especially when hooked up to a mediocre turntable. If you want to get the best possible listening experience from your records, follow these guidelines. 


Make Sure Your Cartridge Is High-Quality

The cartridge is attached to your record player’s tonearm and houses the stylus, also known as the needle. Your turntable’s cartridge is one of the most important aspects of your vinyl listening setup. Even with great speakers, a record will still not sound up to snuff if your turntable has a low-quality cartridge.


There are several factors that can contribute to the quality of your turntable’s cartridge. One of the most important components of your cartridge to pay attention to is the stylus. Often referred to as the needle, the stylus is housed by the cartridge and is a small piece of hard, unrefined diamond. The stylus reads the grooves in a record as it spins on your turntable, translating the vibrations it picks up into electrical signals that can then be amplified through a preamp and speakers.


Many turntables come equipped with an excellent cartridge, but others might need to be modified with a cartridge from a third-party manufacturer. Installing a new cartridge on your turntable can significantly elevate your listening experience, especially if you are using an entry-level turntable.


In many cases, vinyl enthusiasts will upgrade their listening setup over time, gradually replacing different components of their turntables to get better sound. Instead of leveling up to an entirely new turntable, you can simply replace your cartridge and get a noticeable increase in sound quality. Replacing your preamp, speakers, and other components in your setup can also have a big impact on the sound you get out of records.


Listen To Records That Are In Good Condition


Vinyl records are a physical form of music, so unlike digital audio files, their quality can degrade over time. Dust, dirt, scratches, and other factors can all decrease the sound quality that you get from a record. Damaged records typically put out sound that is noticeably noisier and more distorted, and a record can even be rendered unlistenable by deep scratches and other forms of damage.


To maximize the sound quality that you get from a record, make sure it is in good condition before putting it on your turntable. You can typically assess a record’s condition by looking at it carefully and inspecting it to see if it is dusty, dirty, or scratched.


Fortunately, most records that have mild cosmetic damage – light scratches or dirt in the grooves – can be restored to better condition for a higher-quality listening experience. Taking good care of your records is the best way to get great sound out of them, and routine upkeep can make your vinyl collection last longer.


For mild scratches and dust, a dry record-cleaning brush can go a long way. There are also some DIY solutions for cleaning and restoring records with more severe damage. However, these at-home fixes can have varying results, and sometimes attempting to restore a severely damaged record on your own can unintentionally ruin the vinyl. Always be as careful as possible when taking care of your records – they’re delicate and deserve to be handled with care!


Consider A New Preamp


Another piece of gear that can play a big role in getting you great sound is your preamp. A preamp is the component in your signal chain that converts the electrical signals from your turntable’s tonearm into audible sound. A preamp is sometimes built into your turntable, but some turntables do not feature built-in amplification. If your turntable does not include a built-in preamp, you’ll need an external standalone preamp or a set of active speakers to get sound out of your records.


An external preamp can be a great addition to your vinyl listening setup. Using a preamp that is not built into your turntable helps to keep your listening setup as modular and modifiable as possible. When you separate each component in your signal chain – your turntable, preamp, and speakers, you can easily upgrade each of these pieces of gear on their own. You don’t always need to completely revamp your audio setup to get great sound – sometimes, you just need to replace one piece of gear.


You can also pick up a new pair of active speakers – speakers with a built-in preamp – to get better sound quality from your turntable. There are two types of speakers – active and passive. Passive speakers do not include built-in preamps, and they either need to be attached to a turntable with a preamp or paired with an external standalone preamp to make sound. Active speakers, on the other hand, include built-in amplification but need wall power to turn on. There are pros and cons to using active and passive speakers, but if you want to keep your preamp and speakers together to minimize the amount of gear in your audio setup, active speakers are the way to go.


Sources:

US Sales Database | RIAA

Industry Data | IFPI

Chart: The Vinyl Comeback Continues | Statista

Previous article Tonearms: What are they and How To Balance One
Next article Best Record Players: Our Top 3 Turntables for Getting into Vinyl
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