[ Home | Staff & Contacts | DIY & Tweaks | Listening tests | HiFi Playground | Music & Books ]

June 2010 editorial

LP vs CD, business as usual

[Audiophiles, don't believe the hype!]
Audiophiles, don't believe the hype!!!

Few days ago I received the following e-mail by one of our readers:

Dear Lucio, first of all I'd like to thank you for all the infos you give for free on your website, as those helped me understanding a couple of things on HiFi. Now I feel much more confident when I visit a HiFi store so that I'm ready to evaluate - critically - dealers' advices.
Let me get to the point. When I visit a records store I try to compare prices of the same record in different formats, when these are available. It is not difficult to find the LP version at 18 € while the corresponding CD costs 4,90 €. You, at TNT-Audio, seem to prefer vinyl to CD but the price difference might be scandalous, in my opinion. It seems the record companies are trying to exploit the favourable situation for making money once again. I can understand vinyl can sound better but 18 € against 4,90 € is NOT a negligible difference. Is it worth it? I'd be glad to read your opinion on this subject.
All the best,
Leonardo - E-mail: leonardoaltamura (at) alice.it

Dear Leonardo, your question is a quite frequently asked one. Let's start with a first basic remark: the music market is...a market! And like any market it obeys to its rules, basically supply and demand: if masses begin asking for a certain product, the price increases. If a certain product doesn't sell well, its price must decrease. Sometimes the price of a product is increased artificially (by the Gods of marketing) so to make the product much more desirable. Small and inexpensive Class-D amps don't sell well among a certain niche of audiophiles who judge the sound quality of any HiFi component by means of its price tag, for example. Hence, smart HiFi manufacturers have started to release expensive class-D amps just to give these audiophiles the answer they need.

Now, it is true that vinyl is selling quite well and is quickly becoming cooler and cooler, hence its price should go up. And why vinyl is so desirable? Because it is perceived as the opposite of the iPod: heavy, solid, visible instead of light, ethereal, almost invisible.
Moreover, consider the modern music market doesn't seem to be as attractive as it was in the Seventies or so. For this reason many listeners try to rediscover their old record collections, forgotten somewhere in a dusty attic. Finally, some say vinyl, like Italians, does it better. I mean, it sounds better. Or so it seems.
Many audiophiles, actually, swear it is much better than MP3's and CD's. We can even agree - and we DO agree, indeed! - but it is quite surprising that even casual listeners say vinyl is better: according to them it sounds warm (?), relaxing and its surface noise is something so retrņ that can cause huge attacks of nostalgia hysterica. Is it really so? Well, no. Vinyl, played on reasonably good turntables, isn't warm nor relaxing, it is incredibly dynamic, crisp, lively and, when necessary, even aggressive! It does have punch, energy and precise timing in spades. And when played on a good turntable its surface noise is almost inaudible and so are those nostalgic pops and clicks. We do believe that a good turntable sounds better than a similarly priced CD player, if and only if it has been carefully set-up, the vinyl is clean and recorded/pressed in a reasonable way.

Moreover, we do believe that the vast majority of listeners who are returning to vinyl or discovering it for the very first time is playing vinyl like it happened 30 or 40 years ago, on bad and poorly set-up turntables, using worn-out cartridges and stylii or, even worse, on 100$ turntables that automatically convert LPs into MP3 files. There's no doubt they can hear a different sound, different from CD, I mean. Of course they can! Frequency response doesn't have high frequencies (hence the warm sound), the dynamic range is close to zero (hence the relaxing sound) and, overall, the musical program appears like a lifeless blob that might sound pleasant to the ears, compared to the sparky and lively sound of a CD player. Is this vinyl or is it something people think it should be?

Hence, is there a reason to pay a vinyl three or four times as much as the corresponding CD edition? In my opinion, NO. First of all one needs to check whether the LP has been created using original master tapes or digital files sometimes taken directly from the CD version (and it happens!!!). Secondly, one should check LP pressing quality: it is not uncommon to find recently issued LPs with lots of surface noise, clicks and pops. Thirdly, I prefer to buy three records instead of just one, with the same amount of money (I know, that sounds pretty obvious). For these reasons we should be extremely careful when purchasing a new LP and refuse to spend huge amounts of money on poorly re-issued records. The market has its rules but we are not obliged to obey :-)
After all, this is our only weapon to keep prices down (remember? It's just supply & demand!). Records Companies are not new to this perverse marketing trick: they successfully applied it when moving from analogue to digital: CD prices were kept artificially high, when there was NO technical reason why a CD had to cost twice as much as an LP. Let's try to avoid this happening again...viceversa!

Personally, when buying a record, I choose the lowest price, if quality differences aren't significative. I can tolerate to pay 2-3 euros extra for the LP version and that's all. If a disc is poorly recorded and/or it will be played mostly in my car I purchase the CD version. A bad recording will be a disaster both on vinyl and on CD, that's for sure.

Finally, speaking of remasters it must be noted that most of the times these sound worse than the original recordings. Massive amounts of dynamic compression (aka loudness war) and wrongly applied noise compression algorithms normally produce a sonic disaster. If the remaster has been made after the Nineties, chances are that it will sound dynamically compressed, so to make everything sound louder. Once again, we are not obliged to buy! It is not impossible to find (NOS) original versions or even near-mint second hand copies of these (LPs and CDs). Moreover I find it quite paranoic to purchase many versions of the same album. One should be enough, considering how much Music is available out there.

Summarizing, I agree that record Companies are trying to exploit this growing interest towards vinyl, hence we need to be extremely cautious and pay attention to what they are trying to sell.
Let's not forget it is just ...Business as usual, let me remind it with the aid of this struggling song by Gary Moore, eleven minutes of pure art, live at Montreaux, 1997 (do not miss the final guitar solo). Happy listening!

© Copyright 2010 Lucio Cadeddu - www.tnt-audio.com

[ Home | Staff & Contacts | DIY & Tweaks | Listening tests | HiFi Playground | Music & Books ]