It’s a debate held by purists and novices alike––does vinyl music really sound better than digital music? People argue that it’s a dispute rooted in nostalgia. And while this is certainly true for some, the younger generations have grown up in a fully digitalized musical world. Can you really be nostalgic for something your parents didn’t even grow up listening to?
Before getting too mired down in the poetic nuances of reminiscence, let’s first explore the technical difference between digital and analog music. How does that music actually get from the studio airwaves to your eardrums in the first place? A quick aside to the avid audiophiles: for the purposes and scope of this article, we are going to be assuming fully analog signal path and will leave the debate of analog vs digital signal path for another time. Still with us? Good.
Does Music Really Sound Better on Vinyl?
Sound travels in waves. The primary goal in recording sound is to capture the most honest and faithful expression of those sound waves. If you could see those sound waves in the air, they would look like the mountain range of a topographical map.
- Amplitude – The peaks and valleys would be the volume of the audio
- Frequency – The spacing from one mountain peak to the next––how frequently the mountains occurred––would be the speed of vibration
Together, amplitude and frequency build the shape of every sound wave you hear.
So, the discussion of which sounds better, vinyl music or digital music, really comes down to the fidelity of the vinyl recording vs the fidelity of a digital recording to the shape of the original sound wave.
How Vinyl Records are Made
When a musician records a studio album, the sound engineers produce a master recording. This master recording is pressed into a master disc that is plated in metal and used to stamp blank vinyl discs with 3-dimensional ridges and grooves. The master disc is basically cutting the shape of the musical sound waves directly into the discs of polyvinyl chloride––which is where the term vinyl comes from!
If you were to zoom into a vinyl record with an electronic microscope, you’d see a fascinating process:
- These stamped grooves turn into a mountain range of peaks and valleys that your stylus traces as your record spins.
- The stylus bounces up and down and jiggles left to right, making tiny vibrations that travel up the tone arm, transform into electrical signals
- The signals are amplified through your speakers, filling the surrounding air with the recorded sound waves.
Vinylphiles get excited by these microscopic grooves on hard plastic discs because the shape of these dips and grooves follow the exact curve of the original sound waves that were recorded. Vinyl is not only a tool by which to hear music or a place to store music, it’s also a living sculpture, albeit on a miniature scale, of the very sound waves that filled the room when they were originally recorded.
Let that sink in for a second.
The artistry of vinyl records isn’t limited to the printed lyrics, the album art, or the color of the vinyl itself––they are pieces of art, sculptures in and of themselves. But let’s compare the sound quality of these sculptures to that of digital music.
Digital Music: Ones and Zeros
Just like digital photography, when you’re dealing with digital music you’re talking about discrete packets of information. Ones and zeros. Pixels and points. No matter how complex or grand something is, once it’s translated into a digital format, it becomes binary.
Pet Sounds becomes a series of ones and zeros. Graceland becomes a series of ones and zeros. Nuance is replaced with certainty which is extremely convenient for streaming, but that digital medium comes with hard limits built in.
In order to translate analog sound waves to a digital format, the waves have to be broken into pieces and each piece is assigned either a “one” or “zero.” Remember in algebra class, when you were plotting a curve on a graph and the arc looked all smooth until you zoomed in and suddenly the once continuous arc became a jagged series of fixed points, like a staircase to nowhere? The same thing happens with digital music. This compression is essential for storing music digitally and unlike vinyl music, digital music serves only one master: storage space.
S-curve vs Staircase
The main argument against digital music is that when the sound waves are broken into ones and zeros for easy storage and then pieced back together for listening––something it lost. Those crisper, tinny highs, the sibilance of the lead singer’s voice, the plosive inhales between hook and chorus, that dynamic range of tonal properties and sonic signatures doesn’t survive the translation to digital.
When you zoom in on the curve of a digital music sound wave, eventually that smooth sound wave becomes a set of finite points, rising and falling like a staircase. Because of these clearly defined sharp steps, digital music is thought to be too clean, too sterile, lacking the raw noise quality and saturation properties that analog music enthusiasts relish.
In contrast, an analog music sound wave has no built-in limits. No matter how far you zoom in to that sound wave, the curve stays continuous and unbroken––it’s infinite. Vinyl diehards insist that because of this, the sound of vinyl is more faithful to the original sound recording and this fidelity makes the sound quality superior. And even when the physical medium of vinyl adds extra harmonics to the music, arguably making the sound less faithful to the original recording, they say it adds a bit of richness and depth. In essence, vinyl sounds warm, digital sounds hallow.
A Moment in Time
Wherever you fall on the digital vs. vinyl debate, whether you favor S-curves, staircases, or can’t tell the difference, there is one unequivocal advantage vinyl has over digital––it’s nostalgic. And you don’t have to be a child of the Golden Age of vinyl, or have grown up with a turntable in your home to access this nostalgia.
But in a world where you can listen to both digital music and vinyl music, why not have your cake and eat it too? Let your digital library accompany you by listening to music on long walks, at the gym, while you commute to and from work, while you wait in line at the grocery store, but treat yourself to a vinyl collection, however small, when you’re listening at home.