[Edited for clarity]
Those of you who know me know that I have an amazing fetish for music, most notably for compact discs. I love to discover new music, and browsing through used CD stores is my idea of a great way to kill an afternoon (and, notably, also a great way to kill off my wallet as well). And I love vinyl albums as well, though not nearly as much as I love CDs. I love vinyl albums because of the amazing artwork on the covers, and the incredible attention to detail that these albums have.
Recently, though, I’ve noticed that CDs have been villianized for reasons I can’t fathom. Perhaps it’s a backlash against the RIAA, or just a generation spoilt for choice of musical medium. I have a few theories on why this is.
CDs are a pain to play
I don’t mean that CDs are themselves complicated to play. Far from it. All you need to do to get a CD to play is just drop it in a CD player, and you’re golden. What I mean is that folks generally don’t have separate CD players anymore. They have CDROM drives, DVD players hooked to their TVs, or some piece of crap portable they won at an office party 15 years ago. There’s no separate CD player in my house anymore, so in order to play a CD, I have to fire up the TV to play the DVD player through it, or I need to listen on a computer. That’s a pain in the ass. also, I haven’t had a portable CD player in quite some time, so in order to enjoy a CD portably, I have to rip it (which takes time), and then copy it to a digital media player (which may also take time). Vinyl removes all of that thought. You have to have a dedicated record player to play a record. Period. You can’t play movies on your record player, and making records portable requires recording those records on your computer. But, apparently folks are willing to overlook these things.
(Note: I’m not going to get into CD copy protection because I frankly think it’s the most evil thing a record company can do with their listeners purchases. Companies that engage in this practice are part of the reason CDs have a bad name. Stop it.)
Vinyl sounds better
This isn’t about golden ears or any of that other horseshit that audiophiles love to trot about regarding vinyl records. The truth is, vinyl records can sound amazing under the right circumstances. What are those circumstances? Well, for starters, most CDs that were mastered in the 1980s -1990s were mastered using the same EQs that the record company used for vinyl LPs. So it’s not your imagination that your old albums sound much quieter than the new remasters (loudness wars aside). Worse, CDs have a flatter dynamic range than vinyl albums, so they had a “harshness” to them that vinyl didn’t have. That’s mainly where the “warmth” of vinyl albums comes from. Also, later vinyl albums had much more care put into their mastering than earlier records. Vinyl records enjoyed many years of perfecting, and in later iterations became more of an audiophile medium rather than a commodity recording medium. Contrast that with CDs that tend to get more of a commodity treatment. I also have a sneaking suspicion that those people who rail against CDs are actually railing against the MP3s that they carry about with them (which do sound much worse than uncompressed CD-quality FLAC files. If you want to do some blind A-B testing, let me know. ).
Vinyl also is generally played on the best stereo system in the house, as opposed to being played on some crappy college-era boom box that needs desperate calibration. If I played my CDs on a player that was as expensive as some of these top-of-the-line turntables, I think I could equal, if not surpass the sound of vinyl any day of the week.
Vinyl has better packaging
No argument here. Because the disc is larger, there’s more room for more detailed art on vinyl records than CDs. Also, early CDs got what could be best considered “catalog treatment” where the packaging was just enough to get the release out the door. This is notable on the Rush remasters which fixed the earlier releases that didn’t have half of the artwork or any of the lyrics of the original vinyl release. Also you don’t get goofy things like picture discs with CDs.)
Vinyl requires your full attention
Let’s face it, digital music can be enjoyed just about anywhere. You can pop your MP3 player in your car, hit shuffle, and likely not hear the same song twice for quite some time. Vinyl records aren’t as portable, so you have to be in the same room with it. However, this is a side-effect of the limitations of the medium, albeit a good side effect because your attention isn’t distracted.
Vinyl is an investment
What people also seem to forget is vinyl requires maintenance. A LOT of maintenance. New stylus cartridges are expensive, and vinyl albums require frequent dusting of the surface to ensure no dust gets into the grooves. There’s also care that’s required to ensure the vinyl disc doesn’t warp. Also, the medium itself is prone to distortion, and doesn’t provide the soundstage that CDs provide. Check the following for more info:
In contrast, people seem to think CDs are indestructible, and treat them no better than they would a coaster. Granted, I think this has something to do with the bulky jewel cases that CDs come in, but if people treated their vinyl discs the same way they treated their CDs, you’d never make it through an album without having skips, pops, and other undesirable distortions.
Like most nostalgia, people only remember the good parts of vinyl. However, I think there’s a tendency to eschew modern technology as somehow evil or bad in light of these older technologies. With the right equipment and an excellent recording, I’m sure that CDs could easily surpass any vinyl listening experience. Try it yourself! Pull out your CD player that you packed up when you got your DVD player, and hook it up to your sound system. Get out your snooty beverage of choice, and dress in your favorite smoking jacket. Find your comfy chair, and a CD of your favorite music (The Rudy Van Gelder reissues of the classic Blue Note recordings come to mind) and push play. Sit back, close your eyes, and listen to the music.
Whatever format you choose, whether it’s FLAC, CD, or vinyl, just remember to enjoy the music.
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