For those who are deeply embedded in the culture of analog music, they’d tell you that there’s nothing that hits better than a vinyl record on a quality turntable. It is music how it was intended to be listened to, without the problems that digital music can bring to your doorsteps such as compression and the likes.
Meanwhile, the audience of digital music will take a different stance. Most people listen to digital music, if they listen at all, and won’t preach digital over analog. That’s typically because it takes a lot to pull someone out of their comfort zone and make them listen to a vinyl record. And that’s because digital is everywhere and seems to do the job well enough. What more could you be looking for?
Many vinyl enthusiasts may have been searching for that nostalgia from their childhood, or they got to listen to a record play first-hand, or perhaps they were simply brave (and curious) enough to take that leap. Regardless, when most of them finally get to that side, they find it hard to turn back.
Well, for the digital enthusiast who wonders what all the fuss is about, or the vinyl lover who wants to be sure that their ears don’t deceive them, the question is, is vinyl better than digital? That is exactly what this article sets out to answer.
If you are more interested at vinyl, see our guide how to choose the right one.
The Difference Between the Analog and Digital Formats
We’re about to get a little bit scientific here. It’s important that you have a good idea of the distinction between analog and digital music formats and how they produce their sound. Fortunately, it is not very complicated.
A speaker works by using electrical pulses to vibrate a driver at specific frequencies. This precise vibration is what produces the sound.
A record player uses the undulations in the grooves to move the stylus, and that produces changes in the electrical signal. These electrical signals are fed directly to the speaker and come out as sound. There’s absolutely no barrier between the sound that was intended to be heard and the sound that comes out, beyond the state of the physical record of course.
Meanwhile, digital audio starts off as analog signals but it gets digitized at a point. This digitization converts the patterns of electrical signals that make up a song, into code that can be stored as a file. Then when it is played back, this digital audio is converted back into electrical signals which feed a speaker.
That entire process of digitizing analog audio is where many vinyl audiophiles will take off. Some turntables give the option of digitizing vinyl records, but most analog enthusiasts will only take this to preserve the music, seeing as the record itself will lose its quality.
How Does Digital Get the Edge Over Analog?
Of course, you’ll find the debate on sound to be something that might be never-ending. So, in order to compare these effectively, I want to focus on aspects other than the sound for now. In what ways beyond the sonic quality, does digital music beat out vinyl?
- It is eternal. That might sound rather dramatic, but it’s the truth. As long as the storage device you have the file on lives, so will the music. The fact that you can also upload it to the cloud or share it with other people, helps to augment the music’s immortality. With vinyl records, your music can get damaged. If it breaks or gets damaged, the audio quality takes an equivalent dive.
- It is convenient. To play a vinyl record, you need a turntable, a speaker, and a record. These aren’t the smallest of objects. It’s pretty much pointless thinking that you can conveniently listen to a vinyl record anywhere that is not your own home. With digital, you can take thousands and tens of thousands of songs with you anywhere you go, and they can be stored in something as small as an iPod, or the smartphone that you carry with you everywhere anyway.
- It is easily modifiable. There are so many DAWs and audio editing tools. They stretch as far as the eye can see, and the options that they give producers for editing music are vast. This comes down to the consumer by making it easier for producers and labels to give you the music you love. Some types of music, such as electronic dance music, would be pretty much impossible to create with analog methods, though high-quality digital files can be pressed to vinyl.
In What Ways Does Vinyl Reign Supreme?
Okay, so now that we have gotten digital out of the way, how is vinyl superior? Sound is a very important consideration here, because even the most dedicated of vinyl lovers will be able to tell you that it is clearly disadvantaged in a lot of other places.
- Owning the physical copy of the music appeals to many. Especially considering the stylish artwork that these vinyl records come with, it’s like having a gallery of art attached to your music collection, and that can be pretty cool.
- The ritual of listening to a vinyl record is something that many people adore. Picking out a record, placing it on the platter, setting the tonearm down, and letting the stylus fit perfectly; all of this is a ritual that analog listeners feel adds to the experience. Along with the fact that you get to listen to the album in its entirety, without the opportunity to skip. It allows you to appreciate the musical profile of the entire LP. But for this to be a solid advantage, you’ll probably need to fall in love with the sound first. Speaking of the sound…
- The sound. Oh yes, the sound. This is what the vinyl enthusiasts want from a record and they’ll definitely tell you that they get it. The major thing cited by most people is the warmth, known as the analog warmth. We’ve talked a bit about analog signals above, so you should understand that when you hear a vinyl record that was produced back in the day, it had the band or singer perform the song through analog equipment such as mics and preamps and effects (especially if an electric guitar was involved). This was directly recorded onto a master recording, which could be a cassette or a vinyl record, and all other copies of the song are duplicated from that. The analog equipment produces a unique sound that is quite a bit different from what you can hear straight from digital methods. The fact that the vinyl was recorded analog and is played back analog means that you hear the song exactly as it was performed, which is honestly, quite appealing. For many who have sampled vinyl, the audio is superior due to that added warmth.
Sound-wise, Is There an Objective Winner?
Honestly speaking, no. The very best digital music besides the very best analog music will sound great either way. There will be a distinct quality to either, but it is hard to say that one is absolutely better than the other.
However, when it comes to how we perceive the music subjectively, there is a lot that goes in favor of vinyl, and it can explain why it has such a reputation among audiophiles. I am going to delve slightly into the “Loudness War”, which most audio lovers know a thing or two about, and dynamic range as well.
When recording a song, some instruments and sounds are naturally quieter. They aren’t picked up as well as others. For instance, imagine the soft tones of an acoustic guitar playing in a room that has a drum kit being played. Certain drum sounds like the snare or hi-hat stand out, while the acoustic guitar is relatively calm in the background.
When mixing songs digitally, you are allowed a lot of room for modification and editing. While this is normally a huge benefit, it also led to what was the core of the Loudness War, and that is dynamic compression. This essentially allowed the volume of quieter sounds to be increased so that the listener could appreciate them better and they could have more effect in the track.
Hearing those parts of the song better is not a bad thing. Unfortunately, it removed from the realism of the track. This is where we can introduce the concept of dynamic range. You find the quietest and the loudest notes in the song, and the difference between them is the dynamic range.
While digital music can achieve a higher dynamic range than analog, all the compression going on meant that producers were not taking advantage of this. They were pushing the music too high and losing some of the audio quality as instruments began to clip.
When it comes to analog music, the dynamic range you get is exactly as it was when recorded. When someone strikes that hi-hat, you hear it crisp and loud, as close as you can get to how it would sound if you were right there in the room. Analog music was taking advantage of the dynamic range that it had access to.
But anyway, what you want to know is whether or not someone wins when it comes to sound. What I can say when it comes to this is, when digital is done right, it can stand right beside vinyl, or even surpass it. Unfortunately, it is not done right enough, which is why the classic recordings that many vinyl records bear will still sound richer and more natural when played on quality equipment.
In Conclusion, Is Vinyl Better than Digital?
I’ll cut to the chase here. Is vinyl better than digital? There’s no solid yes or no answer to this one. It all honestly depends on what you desire.
Of course, when comparing these two formats, we’ll be looking at it as music that you listen to at home. This is simply because if we’re talking about listening to music on the go, it’s clearly digital winning. You’d make an amusing sight carrying a turntable with you on the subway. The only way to listen to analog when you’re on the move is through one of those vintage portable cassette players, and that’s not quite a fashion statement in this century.
So, you’re at home and you’re ready to listen to some music. Is vinyl the better choice?
Well, if you are ready to listen to music that was natively recorded in analog format and pressed directly to vinyl, then you’ll appreciate listening to it the way it was intended. If you want music that feels as ‘live’ as possible, with no modifications or tweaks, then analog is the way. Plus, you get the delicious warmth that the analog acolytes adore.
However, if you’re not that much of an audiophile, then digital will likely be the more convenient option. If you really want the best quality, you can opt for huge lossless files, which is a great way to compromise. If you don’t care much for the whole vinyl ritual of setting your record in place, and you prefer your music to be as accessible and easy to select as possible, then it clearly tilts towards digital.
It’s a hard battle that analog and digital music have been fighting for so many years at this point. They have been compared to each other for decades now, and it’ll keep going on because there’s really no victor! They both have their major advantages, with digital music fitting better into our modern age in terms of convenience and variety, and analog providing a more homely, accurate feel.
Ultimately, it is up to you, the listener, to sample both formats and decide which one floats your boat better. In the end, it is music, and as long as you enjoy it, it is getting the job done.