April 15, 2005

Vinyl Hooey

Last month, in "Mainstream Misconceptions," I talked about "Sound + Art," an article in Playboy in which Kyle Kolbe repeated some well-worn misconceptions about audio, ostensibly in an effort to guide readers in their buying decisions. Such stuff often shows up in mainstream media, mostly written by nonexperts seduced by the various mystical beliefs of the high-end gurus they consult. Science goes out the window and myth reigns supreme. I ended by saying "predictably, this author treads the well-worn rebirth-of-vinyl path." Ho-hum.

In a sidebar headed "Analog Rules: Vinyl’s Glorious Second Act," Kolbe opines that "Reports of the LP’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Fact is, the format never went away (it just got a little sleepy). At this point it’s probably easier to find your favorite albums on new 180-gram pressings than to wait for the major labels to release them in either of the leading high-definition digital audio formats (DVD-Audio and Super Audio CD). And in terms of emotional punch, nothing can compare."

Elsewhere, he says that "Vinyl is the original high-resolution audio format," and recommends a modestly priced ($2500!) turntable, and claims that the "spring-suspension system, a heavy platter, an outboard motor and a plinthless [?] design help this table sound as clean and dynamic as any digital source but with analog’s rhythmic thrust and superior imaging. Your King Tubby dub plates will never sound the same again."

I’m not exactly sure what "rhythmic thrust" is, but if a piece of audio gear is adding it to the music, it’s distortion.

I’ve addressed this particular superstition before, here and elsewhere, but I’d like to summarize my views on the supposed rebirth of vinyl and its supposed superiority to digital media.

First, the promoters of audiophile LPs 30 years ago did demonstrate that vinyl could be a very-high-quality medium, with dynamics that rivaled the later compact disc. In later years, I’ve had a number of opportunities to do A/B comparisons with some of those discs and their CD equivalents, and often the audio quality is startlingly similar.

That’s no secret -- even those of us who decried the state of the LP way back when were mostly criticizing the shoddily produced ones, which unfortunately meant most of them. We knew then that vinyl could perform superbly, and it can still do so now. But in order to get that kind of quality, the record companies had to abandon many of their usual practices -- mastering from tapes many generations away from the original studio recording, for example -- and upgrade the vinyl itself (no more reground vinyl) and the packaging, and then charge megabucks for the result. And the records were still prey to dust, scratches, and other evils. Also, to get the benefit of these superdiscs, you had to make a considerable investment in record-playing gear to make sure such things as wow and flutter, rumble, and acoustic feedback were low enough not to interfere with the music.

All of this was possible, but at considerable cost. Even the crappiest portable CD player can match that performance for pennies. Sure, some of the earliest CDs sounded pretty bad, but that was mostly because they were mastered from the same flawed tapes as most mainstream LPs. Once they began using decent source material, digital won over analog hands down.

But perhaps the real reason that the return of vinyl is definitely not a trend is that the record companies won’t let it happen. Sure, they might use vinyl as a promotional gimmick from time to time. About a decade ago, one record company announced that a much-anticipated rock record would be issued on vinyl first, with the CD coming afterward. I talked with an executive of the record company’s manufacturing facility, however, and he told me that the production run of the vinyl version was 30,000 copies, compared to 10 million for the CD. It reminded me of a promotion one company mounted in the 1970s, when they issued the theme song of some nostalgic movie as a 78rpm disc. It made quite a splash at the time, despite the fact that almost no one could play the record.

Record companies have always been reluctant to issue their products in multiple formats, which may be one reason that DVD-Audio and SACD have been so slow to arrive. But they’ve definitely killed the LP, and it’s going to stay dead.

...Ian G. Masters


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