No matter how much back and forth there is, nor how much rebuttal, there never seems to be a solid answer to the age-old rivalry between CD vs vinyl.
And for good reason, for this is largely an issue that can only be dealt with subjectively, with each person’s ears offering forth a different perspective, so today I can only offer you my own opinion alongside some of the basic facts.
If we are looking at the plain facts on paper, then there is no real competition in the battle between CD vs vinyl: CD wins hands down.
There is a far better signal to noise ration, meaning there is less interference with regards to hissing, something that vinyl and turntables in general suffer from a hell of a lot. There is also superior channel separation, and CDs do not tend to fall prey to a sheer fact of the turntable experience, that being that the speed can vary from time to, perhaps owing to inconsistencies in the belt drive vs direct drive turntable.
There is also the argument that CDs and digital audio in general can offer a wider spectrum of sounds in the same or a similar package, offering a broader representation of source audio from across a wider range of the frequency spectrum.
However, the arguments against CD vs vinyl still stand, in that no matter how precise the original sample rate of a recording and production might be, it can never quite match the so called smooth and ceaseless sound playback of analog and vinyl audio.
CDs deal in the digital, meaning that the music produced, even if originally recorded and mixed on analog gear, is broken down into binary data after the fact. Digital music is nothing more than a series of 1’s and 0’s that are imbibed within a CD and read with a laser by a CD player.
Thus, though far more prone to extraneous sources of noise, vinyl analog audio provides an inherently more warm and life like sound, something that it has been garnering a reputation and new found appreciation for in the past 10 or so years since the new vinyl boom.
So, Which Sounds Better? CD vs Vinyl?
This is a difficult question to answer without getting into one’s own politics, for both digital audio and analog audio, CD vs vinyl, bring something different to the table and in a lot of ways it almost feels a bit silly to compare them to one another as they are trying to do such different things from different places.
I personally use digital audio for most of my listening at the moment, mostly because I am out and about doing work and rarely at home and able to listen to records, though when I am at home I am either spinning discs or cassettes. Balance is key!
There will undoubtedly be advocates on both sides of the great divide, those who believe in the perks of digital audio and those who are far stronger supporters of analog audio. I, however, think there is something to be said for both.
Despite being a record collector myself, I still support the use of digital technologies. Bands like Autechre, whom I love dearly, would simply not exist in any guise they have adopted from the last two decades were it not for digital technologies, and there are a whole host of other artists who have used the good and bad aspects of digital audio technology for their own artistic endeavors.
Glitch music, for example, is firmly rooted in the idea of error as something to be cherished, or at the very least something to be appreciated for its artistic qualities.
Artists like Oval in the 90s were a major inspiration even to such pop figureheads as Björk, who sampled the song ‘Aero Deck’ on her early 00s album Vespertine, using the microscopic clicks and scrapes of digital audio errors to mirror the small vulnerabilities one displays at all times in a domestic relationship.
Vinyl vs CD Quality, Digital vs Analog
Despite how subjective an experience it can be even just listening to the same sound or nugget of music as another person with seemingly the exact same set of ears, there are several things that we ought to take for objective facts, at least as far as facts go themselves.
CDs (or Compact Discs) are a medium for storing digital music, meaning that the music stored within is done so as binary data, each disc (when full) imbibed with a series of 1’s and 0’s that somehow comes to represent the original song as intended by the producer and artist.
The standard CD setup is of 2 channels, 16 bit, 44.1 kHz – an industry standard at this point – which is read by a laser within the CD player which decodes the data and plays it back as sound through a set of adjoining speakers.
By contrast, and as the central dichotomy that we are seeking to establish and explore today, vinyl is a medium that stores analog audio by analog means, which means that upon the physical disc of a record there is the actual music imprinted within the grooves.
This is stored within the several vinyl record types so that, when these grooves come into contact with a needle specialised for the job, they can read the vibrations and amplify them out for the listener’s pleasure.
Like the CD, a record is split into two channels, with each side of the stereo field dedicated to each separate side of the groove, both being brought into unison by the needle and the stereo system in post. And of course properly using the record player.
Both CDs and vinyl, digital and analog, are obviously trying to do the same sort of thing, but they come from such different socio-historical contexts that they are bound to produce different results.
Each Has a Lifespan
Though they attempt to do the same sort of thing, operating under the broad umbrella of recording and/or reproducing audio for the consumption of whoever is interested, it is in their physical and corporeal differences that most will be able to tell of the differences between CD vs vinyl, at least on the surface.
It is especially upon the durability of the physical formats themselves that many rely on when making a firm argument against the resurgence of vinyl in the early 21st century.
The argument thus goes that CDs experience little to no physical degradation over time and with repeated playing, unlike records, owing to the fact that the disc is read by a laser within the CD player which cannot technically do any physical harm to the disc’s surface.
CDs are also far less susceptible to the various environmental and ambient conditions that can so easily mar a record, such as temperature and humidity of the place in which they are stored, not to mention just being a bit more structurally sound owing to their smaller size and accompanying density.
They are, however, still very much susceptible to scratches and more extreme temperature conditions. Also, despite arguments otherwise, there are certain forms of CDs which do degrade over time, such as those burned at home by the user.
True enough, records noticeably degrade in quality with repeated playing, since the mechanism that reads the grooves on the disc is a literal needle that scrapes itself along the surface of the record, needing physical friction to work.
As previously mentioned, they are also far more susceptible to even mildly temperamental environmental conditions, and thus will records need to be stored in a controlled environment to prevent degradation and to ensure a longer life for the record and the collection as a whole.
Democratization of the Form
With the dawn of digital audio technologies such as the CD rom, the door has been theoretically opened for anyone with a modern enough computer set up to create their own CDs at home for a fraction of the cost of doing a similar thing with their own vinyl disc.
These CD R’s and CD RW’s, instead of being stamped at a factory, use photo-sensitive dyes to imbibe the binary code within, meaning that, yes, anyone with a capable disc drive can get involved.
Not only that, but the resulting audio experiments can be shared quickly and easily, either with the disc itself or by USB stick or even by email of Bluetooth. This has led to an unprecedented decentralization and democratization of the music industry, which you are firmly living in at this present moment.
This does, however, make it sound like a revolution and as though it has never happened before. Really, this is a repeat of the very same thing that happened when cassette technology took off in the latter decades of the 20th century, allowing people to record their favorite songs or sound bites from the radio or from another person’s cassette tape onto their own tape, meaning they did not have to buy their own tape.
This obviously sent the music industry into a bit of a panic, something that they attempted to bolster against with things such as DRM (or Digital Rights Management), which could encrypt certain digital audio technologies from being hacked into and spread around illegally.
Even now, though, there is an ever-burgeoning subculture of cassette collectors and underground Lo-Fi musicians who use such antiquated technologies as though pining for a time when subversion was that much simpler.
Stick it to the Man, and Whoever Else
Now, normally I would be very much up for the democratization of anything, putting it in the hands of its user base and such. However, in this instance of CD vs vinyl I might at least ask you to think your actions through a little more before proceeding to download whatever you like.
It is obviously somewhat of a good thing that just about anyone can listen to just about anything they want and that they can essentially do so whenever they please.
This is the aspect of democratization that I believe should be cherished, allowing anyone, regardless of their financial or social means, to enjoy whatever culture they wish and to be able to explore all these different sound worlds and form themselves apophatically against them.
However, this can very often be at the expense of the artist in question. Digital music streaming platforms such as Spotify are the perfect example of what I am so abstractly trying to illustrate.
They and other companies like them have played a massive part in the neutralizing of musical culture. This is no doubt a part of a larger trend, but music streaming seems like one of the final nails in the coffin, where artists no longer make much money from recording their music but instead use the recorded music as promotional material so that people will come out and see them play live.
Gone is the relative glamour of being a recording artist, unless of course, you happen to have enough of a listener base that all of the streams that you receive from digital streaming platforms actually amount to anything. Record companies are rarely looking to take risks anymore, the ground is barely sound.
So, before you go ahead and download something illegally, I ask you to consider those who have made the music you are about to enjoy and how they might feel were they not to be able to do what both you and they love anymore.
So, there you have it! Hopefully this exploration of the central tenets between CD vs vinyl has been helpful to you in assessing your own beliefs in the subject and perhaps has informed you enough to enable you to take a stance on the subject, or at the very least has rendered you able to talk cogently on the subject with a fellow record collector.