I’ve never been persuaded by arguments about vinyl’s alleged superiority as a sound-reproducing medium. Mostly, it seems, such arguments rest on very subjective descriptors, or on pseudo-scientific arguments concerning digital sampling (that, against all evidence I’ve ever seen, ears can too hear down to the intercalary nooks and crannies). Even that isn’t really that good an argument: revise the medium to a higher sampling rate and resolution. (The argument is usually against not just CDs as such but digital recording generally.) Even if vinyl is, ideally, a superior medium, that superiority ends up being extremely elitist…as in order for that superiority to be audible, one needs utterly pristine vinyl and extraordinarily expensive cartridges, turntables, amplification systems, etc. And of course, vinyl gets worn: it’s still prone to scratching, skipping, etc. I just listened to (admittedly, a digital recording of) a vinyl record – and I remembered a lot of things about vinyl I don’t like: even though the record was relatively clean, there was a lot of shearing-off of sibilants, occasional blips introduced either by microscopic flaws in the vinyl or something else (defects I do not hear in the digital realm), etc. (Given that it was a digital recording of vinyl, I will discount that I did not hear – but never did listening to actual vinyl anyway – supposed warmth, depth of stereo imaging, and so on).
And don’t get me started on 45s: pressed off-center, prone to decay if I so much as breathe wrong near them, etc.
Still, none of that is to deny that some CDs are or were crappily mastered, failing to take account of the RIAA rolloff for vinyl, etc. But CDs I bought 20 years ago sound exactly as good as they did when I bought them; I could never say the same for LPs, unless I’d treated them like the holy grail or never played them.
Here’s an A/B test I’d like to see the results of: instead of a CD and an LP of the same recording (which might merely reveal a preference for the sonic characteristics of vinyl – I’d never deny that vinyl has no characteristics…), let’s A/B an LP and a digital recording of the very same physical LP. If there are indeed limitations of the digital recording or reproduction medium (the notion that sampling inevitably degrades what we can hear), then that, and only that, would be revealed in such a test. I also think vinyl lovers are cued in to which medium they’re hearing by vinyl noise, the medium’s imperfections ironically leading the listener to hear it as superior. I’m sure attempts are made to minimize such obvious cues…but they do, of course, permeate the medium, even on a pristine LP there will still be some surface noise, etc.
I read a review recently (can’t track it down – it was linked from someone else’s Facebook page) of someone experiencing some crazed audiophile’s $100,000 turntable. What was amusing to me was that at the very same time this listener was awed by the spaciousness and clarity of what he was hearing (for a hundred grand I’d damned well hope he’d be awed), he also noted, in passing, the typical flaws of vinyl: pops, cracks, etc. – which for him were trivial distractions on the way to the big warm audio nirvana of this absurdly expensive sound reproduction system. My guess is that my reaction would be: how insane do you have to be to spend that much only to still have to hear pops and crackles when you can not hear any of that for a thousandth the price…and can, of course, get even better CD sound with high-end equipment?
I wonder, though: people are so used to hearing flattened-out MP3s, and recordings ultracompressed and completely saturated in amplitude, who’s going to be an audience for even moderately audiophilic recording equipment? Part of the problem here is that we assume “good sound” is something objective – and I’m not so sure. I mean, yeah: you compress everything all to hell, you’re losing a lot of detail…but where did that “detail” actually live? It’s not as if we’re talking about a naturally occurring acoustic phenomenon, a lone guitar string vibrating on an abandoned beach: the sound is processed (and colored, by whatever equipment is in use) from its very beginnings and at every step of the way. At what point do we say the sound is being “distorted,” or faultily reproduced, versus someone arguing that whatever distortion might exist is exactly the point? I mean whichever old blues guy first took a switchblade to his guitar amp’s speaker cone was surely accused of “ruining” the tone of his electric guitar. Pretty obviously, as the resulting distortion of sound was once fashionable (and became reproduced by less destructive, more controlled methods), the current “brick” sonic profile of most contemporary recordings is obviously fashionable – and when it’s not there, when there’s all kinds of unpleasant, distracting dynamic range, to the people used to that fashion, those records sound distorted or weird.