Backstreet Recommendations 21::12::15 / Twelve Tips of Xmas #5

Category: music 128

backstreettips5Tip #5 – Formats

“So… does vinyl really sound better than compact disc?” This question, and all its variations about 180 gram pressings and the size of artwork and so on and on and on… is something record store folks get asked daily. And the answer is that there is no easy answer. The answer is really, “what do you, the person listening to the music you love, prefer?”

Like it or not, we live in our times and the choices the times bring. When I started caring about music I lived in a world of radio, vinyl, cassettes, and eventually music video. Today we live in a world of internet, mp3, streaming, compact discs, vinyl, cassettes and on and on. Though we think we like all these choices, truth is most of us hate having to choose. We want to be told, “this is the way!!”

First let’s state, for this discussion, that we are building a music collection. So we will put aside the ephemera of YouTube and Spotify and, yeah, even mp3… I’m old enough to declare that a “music file” is at best a placeholder for an album. But once we’ve cleared that hurdle you’ll find that my snobbery ends.

Vinyl is great! It’s what I grew up with and the first music I purchased with my lawn moving revenue was on vinyl… but this was mostly because all we had to play music on was a turntable. When I got my first “Sears” brand stereo it had a cassette deck… so I bought an Alice Cooper cassette, because it was $3 less than the vinyl version, meaning I could play 12 games of Galaga that week.

By the time CDs hit the market I had built up a collection of a few hundred LPs and about half that many cassettes, store bought and/or dubbed from my friends’ collections. But CDs were seductive and shiny… and vinyl quickly became a scarce commodity, pushed out of the market. Soon I had about a few dozen silver discs and a portable player sitting next to my turntable. After half a dozen moves from apartment to apartment, and my CD collection multiplying, it seemed like time to ditch the vinyl… and while I was a little sad to see it go, I was also glad not to have to lug backbreaking boxes up another flight of stairs.

This longwinded preamble is all just to say that sometimes circumstance can dictate your choice of format. Does vinyl really sound better than compact disc? The equally longwinded (and usually unsatisfactory) answer I give people is that HOW you are playing your music has as much if not more to do with your audio results. If you have a great amp and speakers and either a decent modern turntable or a nicely refurbished vintage model with a new stylus then you MIGHT notice a nicer, warmer, listening experience with vinyl. But not everyone wants to spend the money it requires to achieve this nice warm feeling… or the money it requires to maintain it properly.

On the other side compact disc has become something of a dirty word over the last decade or so. People equate digital with cold, impersonal, and lossy formats. But unless you are playing your CDs in a computer through speakers the size of pop tarts you’ll find that most albums are equally enjoyable (if you played a 180 gram LP through a pop tart it would sound crappy too). So, again, the HOW you play often trumps the WHAT you are playing.

So. So. So. Vinyl is great! In many ways it is the prime, collectable format. It just feels like the right way to represent the history of music. Like something that has traveled from the past, gathering dust and little scratches, telling its story again and again. Whereas the CD seems like something that you’d shoot off into space circa 1987 to play jingles to any aliens that happen to have a laptop with an optical drive. So do I collect vinyl? No. My collection is about 95% CD. Why? Don’t I care about the history of music? Yes I do. My life and livelihood for the last 20+ years has been wrapped up in it. But I’m cheap and I’m lazy too.

So if I can buy three records on CD for the price of one on vinyl and play them on my modest stereo, parts of which are more than 30 years old and still sound great, and not have to worry if I need a new stylus because the cymbals have started sounding a little splashy… that’s where I am. Is it the right way? No. I don’t think there is a right way. There is only the way you choose, because of circumstance, budget, time, energy… and ultimately, you can also do both. Why not open all the windows, both digital and analog and let the music in.

Yeah, lets stop talking about format. It’s pretty boring, as this article proves. Let’s talk about music instead.


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