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SAVORY Explores: The Sound of Vinyl

Jim Juliano Headshot

Jim Juliano

Sep 18 2023

Part 4: Listening on Vinyl, it’s Not a Good Versus Evil Situation

“Vinyl or CDs, it doesn’t matter—you should use whatever you’re comfortable with. . . 

If you’re standing there stroking your chin going  

‘this would sound better if it was on vinyl,’ yes it might do, 

but at the end of the day, people just want to go to a party.” 

John Digweed 

So, what about that debate? The one about the actual sonic quality of the two formats. Are people, many of whom probably would benefit from hearing aids at large family dinners, actually capable of distinguishing true sonic differences between digital formats and vinyl LPs?  Or is this just another aspect of nostalgia?

Rick Sebak, a public television producer at WQED in Pittsburgh, speaking in Sofia Caloiero’s short film Why Do People Still Play Records, admits, “It’s funny. I think some people are drawn to vinyl because they think the sound is better. I don’t think my ears are that attuned to the quality of the music that I can say ‘oh this sounds so much better than a CD.’ I mostly want the experience of owning the physical object.”  

My pal Marty, who spends a lot of time and money at Streetlight Records in San Jose, feels there is a recognizable difference. “I think there is something to be said for hearing music in the medium it was originally intended for. Like seeing a movie in the theatre for the first time after only having seen it on video in your living room. It’s just altogether a much richer experience.” 

Another teenager I spoke with named Max has firmly pitched his tent in Marty’s camp. “I think that vinyl is the purest format for listening to music. When I grow up and live in my own house, I will want to have music playing constantly, and the best way to do that is with vinyl.” But Keith Brown is not so sure. “As far as the argument of better or worse sound, I think most of it depends on your system. If I had a five-thousand-dollar system set up specifically for vinyl that’d be great! But if I just have a two-hundred-dollar junker thing, CDs are fine.” Maybe it’s even true that at the lower end of the price spectrum, CDs and CD players do offer a better listening experience than LPs.   

If you are really interested in sound quality, you don’t want to waste money on a cheaply made portable with a tone arm that weighs a pound and a half, speakers pilfered from 1950s era transistor radios, and a fat needle that will soon grind down the majestic peaks and valleys of an LP’s sound wave into a sonic desert from which there is no return. Conversely, you don’t need to spend thousands of dollars either. Many new, high-quality turntables costing just a bit more than the cheapest models come with built-in pre-amps and Bluetooth technology that does away with the need for a separate stereo amplifier and miles of speaker cables strewn about your living room. Even companies as prestigious as Klipsch now offer elegant single Bluetooth speakers for turntables that not only sound great but add aesthetic cred to your vinyl setup. 

But back to the issue of sound quality. Is there really a definitive answer to the question of which sounds better? In the end, I don’t think so. While it is true that CDs can capture a much wider dynamic range than vinyl while also producing less distortion with literally zero surface noise, it’s not necessarily true that a person will find that ultrasharp reproduction more pleasing than an LP. And current day CD players are also much better at reproducing the warmth and fullness touted by vinyl devotees. And there are those people for whom, despite their reverence for vinyl, this argument is moot. Tech writer, filmmaker, and host of the YouTube channel Andrew Robinson Online, he says, “I really don’t care. I’m not one of these people that think vinyl sounds better. . . I don’t think it’s any better or worse than digital, it’s just different. But to say it’s superior I think is a mistake.” Regardless of the medium chosen, we should all recognize that music itself is the most important part of this equation. 

Listening to music causes our brains to release dopamine and serotonin, two chemicals that are linked to feelings of love and well-being. You might think that listening to Dark Side of The Moon is better when you are stoned. You might think it sounds just fine on CD or you might prefer the $300 multidisc fiftieth anniversary vinyl remaster complete with the original posters and stickers. But in reality, in either case, your own brain is probably beating you to the punch, releasing that splendid flood of chemicals even before the screaming at the end of “Speak To Me” bleeds into the first shimmering chord of “Breathe.”

Read part five, Vinyl through Generations.