Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist


by Marc Phillips (February 1998)

The only musical format that has increased its unit sales over the last three years has been vinyl LP's. Let me repeat this: THE ONLY MUSICAL FORMAT THAT HAS INCREASED ITS UNIT SALES OVER THE LAST THREE YEARS HAS BEEN VINYL LP'S.

You think that I'm crazy. I've certainly been called that over the last few years every time I even faintly suggest that the vinyl LP, an analog medium, sounds better than every one of its digital counterparts, including DVD. But the statistics remain. These are not my statistics, but those of Billboard, and many others. And the reason for this "Vinyl Renaissance," as Stereophile writer Michael Fremer calls it, is because LPs sound better than CDs.

I know what you're thinking. Perfect Sound Forever (ED NOTE- this was Sony/Philips' promo motto for CD's when they were first mass produced). No ticks, pops or scratches. Unlimited dynamic range. Well folks, if you believe that, then you're not listening closely enough. The Sony/Philips propaganda is working. But let me offer you some reasons, beliefs, and maybe even a fact or two as to why analog is still superior to digital... at least in terms of sound quality.

The Pop & Scratch Debate. That's always the first argument the digiphiles trot out, that records are too damned noisy. And they are- if you don't take care of them and/or you play them on a flimsy Japanese plastic piece of crap. If you're going to extract this superior sound from vinyl I've been proposing, you have to do two things: you have to clean your records regularly, and you have to have a decent turntable. Washing your records in a machine by VPI or Nitty Gritty may be a time-consuming chore, but I'm not saying that analog is the more convenient source, just the better-sounding one. And you do have to spend the better part of a grand to get decent sound from LPs. But trust me, you have to spend twice that amount to get respectable, realistic sound from a CD player.

I've had many people tell me how their lives were changed by the advent of CDs, that they hated the sound of records. But when I check out their collections, I find dirty, smudged, scratched records, usually stacked one on top of the other instead side by side. When I check out the styli on their turntables, I find much worse: worn needles, bent cantilevers, loose headshells. And I bet if I looked at their cars, I'd find bald tires, clogged air filters and no oil in the block. Yep, I'm sure CDs changed their lives. No wonder they sounded better.

I was the first kid on my block to get a CD player, one of the original Sony CDP-101s. I was excited the first time I listened to it, a London pressing of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. "The music comes out of pure silence," I said to myself, astonished. As scarce as CD's were in those days of digital infancy, I built up a collection quickly. And after a while, I noticed some things. First of all, I spent less time than before listening to music. I found myself easily distracted. Second, I started listening to records again. I felt much less fatigued after a listening session with LP's than with CD's.

So after a while, I went back to my turntable as a primary source. I learned to do a better job of keeping my records clean by buying a Nitty Gritty record cleaning machine. And I bought a better turntable, which did a great job of relegating the ticks and pops to the point where I didn't notice them as much, if at all. And I kept buying better and better CD players (they definitely improved over time), but they never quite replaced my trusty Rega Planar 3.

Higher highs! Lower lows! I never quite bought this one, either, that CD's had a wider dynamic range. Many people mistook the increased brightness of digital sound for better highs, but it's listening to the ride cymbal throughout my trusty vinyl copy of Sonny Rollins' Way Out West has me convinced that it's closer to live music than anything a little silver disc can muster. And in listening to both the LP and CD versions of "Screen Kiss" off Thomas Dolby's The Flat Earth, that deep synth line in the beginning is smooth and powerful on the analog rig, but it breaks up on the CD. Sure, that's just two examples, but there are many, many more.

"Well, maybe you just keep buying shitty CD players," you may say. "No wonder you can't find anything to beat your Rega so-and-so!" Well, that Sony I bought in 1983 was considered to be the worst sounding CD player in history but what can you say, it was the first. But every subsequent player I purchased has been either considered a best buy, or a damned fine machine, period. I've owned a heavily-modified Magnavox, a Creek CD-60, and my current machine, a Naim CD3. And you know what? That Naim sounds just about as good as my Rega Planar 3! Too bad the Naim retails for $2000 and the Rega retails for $700.

Perfect Sound Forever. The CDs may last forever, and that is a definite advantage over analog LPs but the players certainly don't last forever. Every new CD player I've purchased was to replace a fallen comrade. When CD players break, it's usually the entire laser mechanism that dies, which is most of the cost of the player. These machines, in other words, are disposable. Every turntable I've ever replaced was a simple upgrade and I usually received a decent trade-in allowance. So don't even talk to me about the cost of replacing LP's.

CD's just plain sound better! Maybe they do. Maybe I'm full of shit. Listening to music is an entirely subjective experience, so don't let me tell you what sounds good and what doesn't. There's a lot of digital gear out there that sounds incredible. I love the sound of my Naim CD3, for instance and the gap between the best-sounding digital and the best-sounding analog is closing. But the simple fact remains: any $500 turntable sounds better than any $1000 CD player, any $2000 turntable sounds better than any $4000 CD transport/DAC combo and on and on and on. If you don't believe me, find an audio retailer who sells both. Don't worry, there are plenty out there, they're just not called Circuit City or Best Buy. Have them compare a good turntable to a good CD player. Then make up your own mind.

Many already have, as witnessed by the aforementioned "Vinyl Renaissance." People realize that music has been missing from their lives and maybe digital is the cause. More people are bringing their old ARs and Garrards and Duals and Aristons out of their attics than ever before. And they're diggin' it. "I forgot how great Aqualung is," they say. "I never knew I was this big of a Hendrix fan until these new vinyl re-issues came out!" others exclaim. This isn't bullshit. I hear it every week.

If you still think I'm an anachronism, know this: There are still people out there that think mono sounds better than stereo. And you know what? They might be right too!