Vinyl records have made something of a comeback in the last few years with music lovers and audiophiles proclaiming them as the definitive way one should be listening to music. But is vinyl worth it?
Common talking points are of improved audio quality, a unique listening experience and that fundamentally a vinyl record sounds better than digital files from a streaming service like Spotify.
But is this all true? Do analog audio files, a retro mastering process and a little extra surface noise that gives a warm feel really level up the music experience?
Or is this all just bluster from nostalgic hipsters who have a distaste for digital music and are determined to justify their ever growing vinyl record collection as more than just them following latest trending thing?
Does Vinyl Really Sound better? Is vinyl better than streaming?
Let’s get straight to the point shall we. Does listening to a vinyl record on a record player increase the sound quality of your music? Yes or no?
The answer is…
…unfortunately, not so black and white. Allow me to explain:
Vinyl proponents are indeed somewhat correct when they say that music on vinyl can provide a superior sound quality to digital or streamed formats.
However, the important word there is “can”. And as we all know just because one thing can be better than another doesn’t inherently mean that it always will be.
Ultimately, a wide variety of factors will come into play to determine whether a vinyl record will produce better quality sound. Let’s explore some of them together:
Vintage Vinyl Records
Vintage records such as the types you’ll likely find in a record store or at garage sales are typically an analogue version of an album or piece of music.
In many cases due to the age of such things the music they contain was recorded with the nature of such hardware in mind.
As such due to their production many feel that these songs just sound right on a record player meaning that they are the definitive versions of these songs.
This mindset isn’t just limited to just enthusiasts however since many of the original artists of these pieces believe that because they designed them with the knowledge that they would be on vinyl that turntables provide the best music experience. This goes double if that experience is paired with some vintage record player.
With modern repressings of classic vinyls however a digital format will be used which some believe detracts from the experience as they are often cleaned up and therefore lose some of their grittiness and authenticity.
On the other hand though finding an original record that is still in good condition may be a problem since many examples have not been well looked after and are in some ways damaged.
To many though this is part of the charm of using a turntable in the first place since things like scratches and flaws in the original press are some of the causes of the iconic crackling you get with many records.
The Modern Vinyl Record and Digital Formats
In the vast majority of instances the kind of file used for pressing a modern record is actually a digital format, typically this comes in the form of a WAV file. Moder technology offers many advantages like connecting your record player to Bluetooth for example.
However that is not to say that the quality these modern vinyls are capable of is only on par with something streamed over the internet. This is because the majority of streaming services will use compressed audio formats such as MP3 and as a result a certain amount of quality is lost.
Fundamentally this means that in the majority of cases the vinyl will have a higher quality potential then music from these services.
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This doesn’t mean that these kinds of higher quality audio formats are exclusive to the vinyl record though. Since these are digital formats we’re talking about it is entirely possible to listen to them on a computer.
Additionally, whilst most music streaming services don’t support higher quality formats a key exception to this is Tidal which gives users multiple options for the sound quality of the music they stream through them.
The Physical Side of Things
Now whilst the type of audio files used are important it doesn’t count for much if the hardware is lacking.
This is a universal truth, not just for playing music on record players but also for doing so in any other way.
Whichever way you play your music, whether it’s on a vinyl, CD, computer or anything in between the quality and range of sound output will be hampered significantly by a low quality sound system.
On the vinyl side of things a good turntable will go a good way to help, and one with a good quality stylus and needle will keep your records in good condition.
However record players can only improve the quality of sound by so much if the pre amp and speaker system they are connected to aren’t of brilliant quality.
To be fair though as I say this is true for other platforms of music that would use the same format for their files.
If you went through the effort of optimising all of your hardware to deliver the perfect listening experience for both a record player and any other device using the same sort of audio format the measurable audio difference would not be in terms of quality but come from the inherent quirks of a record player.
If comparing a digital mastering with the original analogue press however differences start to appear. Even then, the original sound might be authentic, but which you believe to be superior in terms of sound quality is ultimately subjective.
Unless you have a particularly sharp ear or deep love of music the differences in how a record player sounds probably isn’t going to convince you to jump on the vinyl train.
If you are one of these people then there’s no reason for you to not currently be exploring the best sounding vinyl records of all time.
If not, then listening to music on CDs or online services is a perfectly adequate way of enjoying your favourite albums and songs because let’s be honest it’s the way most listeners do it.
However the sound a record player produces isn’t it’s only advantage vinyl has over other mediums.
Is Vinyl Worth it for more than just sound?
Despite the fact that the vast majority of people may not appreciate the difference, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t other reasons to collect and listen to music via vinyl records.
A fan of record players may have other reasons for building up a vinyl collection outside of merely having a preference for their sound.
These reasons can be multifaceted and may include some of the following:
Something for the Nostalgic Type
For many people listening to a vinyl record on a record player is just how they grew up and whether they believe that turntables provide a high level of sound quality isn’t necessarily a question they would consider.
For many individuals the reason for choosing vinyl is that the sounds and sight of a record player takes them back in time to when they were younger and would buy a new record from their local record shop and rush home to listen to it.
An anecdotal example of this nostalgia is when I bought my mum, who is a massive Marc Bolan fan, an original copy of The Slider album by T Rex after she picked up a second record player.
After which these songs that I had heard plenty of times before on CDs or online were being played near enough exclusively on her record player.
Vinyl records have been around for many years and have outlasted their alleged replacements, and even the replacements of these replacements such as eight tracks, cassette tapes and CDs.
As such the wide array of albums and singles released in this format is truly staggering.
Due to this enduring legacy there is a significant quantity of music only available via the medium of the vinyl record player.
As a result of this level of variety and exclusivity many vinyl enthusiasts and collectors will scour record stores to find a vinyl containing sounds available nowhere else.
Another reason they are so collectable is that a lot of vinyl album covers make for great decoration and many records that have particular sleeves with a good looking front cover or photo are often framed and mounted on the wall.
A Good way to relax
For many, sitting to listen to a vinyl record whilst doing nothing else is an effective ritual to relax and unwind.
Often music is treated as background noise whilst doing another activity but the unique atmosphere that comes from sitting and listening to a piece of music on vinyl, either alone or with a friend is one that many people around the world find very therapeutic.
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Are Vinyls Worth it?
By this stage you’ve got a bit of an idea of some of the positives that can come from using a turntable for your music along with the realities of how they can improve your music listening experience.
However, before you rush off to the record shops there are a few things you should be aware of about the hobby:
Now for some this isn’t necessarily the biggest of problems but for most how much money you are willing to spend on a new hobby is an important thing to consider.
Acquiring the list of kit necessary to get the best out of your records can very quickly become an expensive process if you aren’t careful.
However if you’re a bit savvy with where you look you can net yourself a bargain.
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One area where you’ll likely have to spend a bit of money though is when you come to buy new vinyls. This is because the same album on vinyl can often be twice as expensive as on cd.
Again though if you’re clever and wait for sales you can get yourself some bargains.
Maintaining albums you’ve bought on vinyl is a much more involved process than one might think.
This is because to clean each groove without damaging your albums requires a delicate hand and potentially a few bits of specialised kit.
Not doing so can cause your records to degrade in quality as each groove gradually gets dirty over time, meaning it’s highly advised that you learn how to clean your vinyl records.
Additionally the stylus or needle of your turntable will need to be replaced every so often as they can wear over time.
So Should you get a record player?
Ultimately that isn’t a question I can answer for you as there are a lot of factors which may be pros or cons depending on who you are.
If you’re a massive audiophile who wishes to experience the full range of sound in every song then a turntable is probably the thing for you.
The same can be said for those with a technical mindset since the maintenance that most may see as a drawback may actually be something you’d enjoy doing.
Should neither point necessarily apply to you, then perhaps the joys of finding a limited edition version of an album or the feeling of nostalgia that you get when listening to an old favourite might be what convinces you to take the plunge.
Whatever it is that initially piqued your interest though, the world of vinyl has more to explore than most would ever initially imagine.
So is vinyl worth it? Should you get a record player?
The choice is yours to make, but hopefully the answer is yes.