Perfect Sound Forever

The Vinyl Anachronist

Part 5: Ten Reasons Why You Need A Turntable
by Marc Phillips (June 1998)

Trust your ears.

That's what we audiophiles are always telling you. All of our friends, our co-workers, our kin, anyone unfortunate to ask one of us for advice when purchasing stereo equipment gets that piece of dogma served hot on a bun. Listen to what sounds good to you, then buy. But what we really mean is 'hey, listen to what we tell you first. We will train your ears to hear what we think is right. Then trust your ears.'

I bring this up because for months I've been telling you what I think. And I think that LP's still sound better than CD's. But you may think differently. I've offered what I feel are cogent arguments in favor of analog nirvana, but how can I convince you in writing that I'm right? The only true way to do that is to invite all of you over to the house for a Big Pepsi Challenge, and truthfully I think that my wife would pull a Lorena on me if you all showed up at the door one night.

It's not like she's not used to it. She had to go through the A/B testing trials when we first got married, and she finally agreed with me about the superiority of vinyl. And she's had to put up with me dragging people over one by one, subjecting them to the aural equivalent to an eye know, which is better, this or THIS? This or THIS? This one, or THIS ONE?

Even my younger brother Mat, Mr. Digital, owner of some 3500 CD's, part-owner of a used CD store, has given in. He sees my point about the absolute sonic advantages of vinyl. He still clings to the convenience argument, however; if he never has to clean another vinyl record as long as he lives, it'll be too soon. And he loves nothing more than to jump up from his chair during one of my demonstrations, yelling, 'I heard a tick! I heard a pop! You see? You see?' He knows that drives me nuts.

But how do I offer you, dear reader, the same hospitality? I can't. I can only tell you about ten recordings that are vastly superior in the vinyl format. Although these ten aren't my absolute favorite albums of all time, my desert island discs, they have brought me tremendous joy and have proved to me that, for the moment, 'records still rule.' I ask you to sit down, dim the lights, and decide for yourself whether these jewels sound better on LP than on CD. Here they are, in no particular order...

  1. The Rolling Stones' Some Girls
    I'm one of the heretics who believe that this is the Stones' best album, rather than Exile On Main Street. When it came out in 1978, I was hooked. It was the summer of "Shattered." Of "When The Whip Comes Down." Even of "Miss You," with its ersatz disco beat. In the early days of the CD, I did what a lot of people did... I rebought most of my record collection on CD's. And when I bought Some Girls, well...that was the first time I had the feeling that all was not right in Digital Land. Because Some Girls on CD exemplifies what is wrong with digital sound... it sucked! This is the worst sounding CD I've ever been unfortunate enough to hear! The sound was strident, two-dimensional, and abrasive. I don't even remember making it all the way through! The album was a never a benchmark in terms of sound quality (it seems like the Stones never paid that much attention to great natural sound quality until around Tattoo You and by then they had nothing vital left to say). But I loved it, which means that the band was able to effectively communicate the music to me. I imagine, with great trepidation, of some young soul wishing to discover the Stones for the first time, listening to Some Girls on CD because some old geezer like me told them it would be a great place to start, and then having this person walk away, disappointed, wondering what all the fuss was about.

  2. Blondie Parallel Lines
    I received the DCC 24K Gold CD as a birthday gift a couple of years ago. I knew at the time that DCC gold discs retail for around $30. I was actually quite excited to get it; it was always one of my faves from the late '70's, and I actually hadn't listened to the vinyl version in many years. I enjoyed the sound of the CD... it was clean and tight and detailed, but after a while I noticed that the sound was a little compressed. It never really opened up, it never rocked. So for shits and grins I pulled out my twenty-year old LP and I was shocked. Aside from some surface noise, it blew the gold CD away! The vinyl version sounded spacious and open and dynamic. It kicked ass. And it probably cost me less than five bucks back in '78. So much for the steady forward march of progress!

  3. R.E.M. Murmur
    I have to admit that I've always owned this on vinyl. But a couple of years ago, Mobile Fidelity re-released this on 200-gram vinyl, and I couldn't resist. And you know what? I think I can understand most of the words! Really! I could never decipher Michael Stipe, here at his most opaque (he got easier to understand and much less interesting subsequently), on the original pressing, and much less so on CD, but I feel like I can almost make out what he's saying. I don't want to embarrass myself by telling you I might be wrong but it's exciting nonetheless. And the thunderous sound effects in the backround of "We Walk" scared the bejesus out of me on the MoFi pressing, something that's never happened before!

  4. Nat King Cole Love Is The Thing
    If you told me ten years ago... hell, three years ago, that I'd be totally bowled over by a Nat King Cole record, I'd swat at you like you were some crazy skeeter hell-bent on giving me some rest-home version of musical malaria. But God, I love this album. The orchestrations are lush, sweet and hypnotic, and Nat's voice sounds so real. I'm talking about the new DCC reissue on 180-gram vinyl, of course, and I was able to compare it recently to their 24K Gold version of the same album. The CD sounded great, too, but here was the difference- on the vinyl, Nat's voice reminded me that the human body is basically hollow, and that it resonates like the body of a guitar or a violin. I could hear the chestiness in his voice, and I could hear him manipulate the air in his lungs to change the timbre of his voice. On the CD, hey, it sounded like Nat King Cole, that's all. Incidentally, Nat is the first time I've been in complete agreement with my parents about any musical performer, unless you count the time my Mom came in my room when I was a teenager and told me that Floyd's "Us and Them" was a really pretty song and that she wished I would listen to more music like that.

  5. Cracker The Golden Age
    I bought this on CD when it came out, and I thought, this is okay. I played it probably just the one time all the way through. A few months later I found a sealed vinyl copy, and I wouldn't have bought it except that a) it was cheap and b) the person with me swore that it was one of the best sounding rock LP's he'd ever heard. I took it home and played it and it seemed like I was listening to it for the first time. Again, I loved it. Played it maybe five times that week. I noticed for the first time how great the lyrics were. And on "Big Dipper," David Lowery's vocals sounded so real, so authentic, so in the room with me, the same sensation I just described while listening to the Nat King Cole LP. Sometimes I joke about "listening with a clipboard," being too analytical while listening to music, notating every detail, but this was a case of overall musicality, something I couldn't describe. This is, for me, the most tangible reason for preferring LP's to CD's- it just feels better.

  6. David Johanos and the Dallas National Symphony Rachmaninoff's Symphonic Dances & Vocalise
    This is the best sounding piece of music I own. It is the album I bring to the stereo store when I'm serious about listening to something I might actually buy that day. It is dynamic, haunting, detailed, and I have memorized every note. I heard the CD not too long ago, and it actually sounded about as good. Yes, this 1968 recording is so great that even digital can't screw it up. But there is an important reason to buy it on vinyl. Athena, the record company, will replace any LP in their catalog if you wear it out! All you have to do is pay for shipping. And I will heartily patronize any company this committed to the vinyl format, and so should you. It takes heart to have such a policy, and we need more companies like this in the world.

  7. Sonny Rollins Way Out West
    I told you a couple of months ago (see Shop 'Til You Drop) about Chad Kassem and his mail-order record store, Acoustic Sounds. Well, Chad reissued this great jazz album from the late '50's on his Analogue Productions label, and this spare trio recording is one of the most realistic I've heard. On one song, however, the title track in fact, drummer Shelley Manne starts in with the ride cymbal about halfway through, and THIS IS WHAT A RIDE CYMBAL SOUNDS LIKE. We audiophiles like to throw a little perspective on our hobby, reminding ourselves that as good as our systems sound, they will never come close to the sound of the real thing. Well, once in a while I find myself listening to something and it comes alive for a minute, it sounds just like the real thing, whether it be a particular instrument or just everything for a few seconds. Well, when I was a teenager I played a little drums, and THIS IS WHAT A RIDE CYMBAL SOUNDS LIKE. Needless to say, on CD, it sounds like a recording of a ride cymbal.

  8. Tsuyushi Yamamoto Midnight Sugar
    Say what you will about Japanese jazz recordings, that they're sterile, mannered, a pale imitation of our American musical heritage, our birthright... But the Three Blind Mice music label puts out the best-sounding jazz LP's I've ever heard, and on this album the artistic side measures up to the technical side. When Yamamoto hits the higher registers of his piano, IT SOUNDS LIKE A PIANO. I'm basically reiterating the same thing I said about Shelly Manne's ride cymbal; this is another instance when the music sounds like the real thing. And when listening to this recording you're also reminded that when the pianist plays up and down the scales, the music moves from left to right along with his hands. You don't get that specific of an image on the CD.

  9. Raymond Agoult and the London Proms Symphony Clair De Lune
    Just before the advent of the CD, when looking for classical albums to buy, I always picked the one with "digital" recording. I knew I would get a big, clean, detailed sound. It wasn't until a few years ago that I realized that the best sounding classical albums (and jazz, for that matter) were actually recorded in the late '50's and early '60's, before multi-miking and digital recording ruined the sound. Back then they used as few mikes as possible, usually only one stereo pair. No, you didn't get to hear each individual instrument, but you did hear something resembling a live performance. RCA's Living Stereo recordings, along with Mercury's Living Presence, epitomized this, and original mint pressings can fetch three and four figures easily. Then they were reissued in the early '90's on CD, priced at $9.99, and they sounded pretty darned good still. Then both companies, along with others such as Decca and Speaker's Corner, starting repressing them on 180-gram vinyl and selling them for $30-$35, and they are bargains. They sound incredible. Clair De Lune so far is my favorite; this collection of romantic pieces by Debussy, Tchaikovsky, Bach, Gluck and others transports me to a time long ago, of innocence and other over-sentimental conceits. Better than Prozac and skunkweed combined.

  10. Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto Getz/Gilberto
    This was the second best-selling LP of the '60's, surpassed only by Sgt. Pepper. Nowadays "The Girl From Ipanema" is a curio, the very definition of Muzak. Often it's used in TV and film to get a laugh. What a shame. Because when you hear the original now, especially on the Mobile Fidelity 200-gram LP pressing, it's an incredible piece of music-making, full of life and intelligence and subtlety. It's a very mature, accomplished song. And the rest of the album is just as good. With the LP, you can hear the spit rattle around in the mouthpiece of Stan Getz's sax. That may sound disgusting, but horn players know what I mean. I learned to play the sax for a brief period a few years ago, and THIS IS WHAT A SAX SOUNDS LIKE. Case closed.

Well, that's ten. As I rifled through my LP collection to find the best arguments for you to go back to listening to records, I found 100 candidates. I had to narrow it down to 30, then 20, and finally, after much agonizing, ten. There is the rare instance, I found, when I actually prefer the sound of the CD over the LP. But we'll save that for another time. For now, start spinning those black discs. I'll be checking on you.