Vinyl records are like a rotary phone, passed over in a digital age – Toledo Blade

Vinyl’s post-mortem report from the mid-1990s reads something like this: scratched grooves, warped plastic, hissy sound, and an album cover stained by coffee, pizza sauce, and grease of an unknown origin.

It was an ignominious demise for the decades-old format of choice thanks to natural selection and the concurrent rise of the superior compact disc.

RIP records. Technology is about moving forward, not looking back … or so I thought.

Jamiesons' Audio Video sales rep T.J. Kruse plays a selection of music on three different formats: MP3, record player and CD.

Jamiesons’ Audio Video sales rep T.J. Kruse plays a selection of music on three different formats: MP3, record player and CD.


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On a recent Saturday morning, I joined co-worker Bob Cunningham at a local audio-video store to settle a debate that, like the Earth is flat and Han Solo shot first, I long thought settled: Which is better: vinyl or digital?

As someone who has not purchased a record album since late 1986, I consider vinyl and the rotary phone to be one and the same: Both are tied to a former time and place, and when included in casual conversation deliver warm “remember when?” memories. But no one would seriously consider these nostalgic technologies superior to what we have now.

Yet the same scratched-up plastic disc that skips, stutters, and delivers ambient “hiss” — what audiophiles and hipsters tout as the “warmth” of vinyl — is not only alive, but the sole bit of good news for an industry desperate for it.

Last year, for instance, vinyl sold 9.2 million units, according to Nielsen Music, a nearly 52 percent increase from 2013. CDs, by far the more dominant format of the two, sold 141 million discs in 2014. That was a 14 percent drop from 2013’s 165 million units sold, itself a record low.

Digital music sales also dropped by 9.4 percent.

Streaming music, incidentally, seems to have all the momentum as the format of choice with 78.6 billion audio streams in 2014.

But I’m a CD/digital music guy.

Sitting in a comfortable chair with a “good” stereo system from Jamiesons’ Audio/Video behind me, I was confident in the superiority of digital music, even though the store’s system specialist administering the test, T.J. Kruse, suggested otherwise.

The first go-round was surprising to me — and to T.J. I preferred the MP3 of “Where the Streets Have No Name” off of The Joshua Tree, which was played through my 10-year-old iPod player hooked up to the system. I found the generic and low-resolution MP3 had a slightly “bigger sound” than that of the CD and vinyl, though, truthfully I didn’t detect much of a difference in any of the formats. This prompted T.J. to remark, “Kirk, you have old ears.”

Smarting from the comment, I decided to step up my game for the “Better” system in the neighboring room.

Sure enough, I felt the MP3 of “Where the Streets Have No Name” had a “muddier, thinner” sound on the more expensive gear, but what I thought was the “compressed” sound of the MP3 turned out to be the Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab CD release of The Joshua Tree. The winner for me was the used record, but it was a narrow preference. I still wasn’t sold.

And then came the big room and the “Best” system to settle the debate. And the clear winner was … vinyl in what was a noticeably superior sound: rich, full of life, and almost like being in the studio with the band during the recording session.

That the audio superiority of Bob’s record was so decisive floored me. How could digital let me down? How could I have been so wrong for so long? I clearly owed bearded hipsters in ironic T-shirts a mea culpa.

But stories have a third-act twist. And this one is a doozy.

For fun, T.J. played the three versions of Wilco’s AM: the remastered vinyl and its accompanying remastered CD, and a low-res MP3 on my iPod on the Best system.

What happened next, as BuzzFeed likes to say, will blow your mind.

The lowly MP3 won. It was a unanimous selection and even more apparent than that of The Joshua Tree vinyl.

Perhaps our choice was due to the high-end system’s built-in digital-to-analog converter, which has the ability, apparently, to even make MP3s sound spectacular. Or, maybe it was that the AM MP3 wasn’t ripped from the remastered CD; rather its source was the 1995 original CD.

Either way, the verdict made my choice regarding the superiority of digital music or analog ambiguous rather than definitive: All I can say is that “It depends” and “There is no clear winner,” a rather wishy-washy resolution given our polarized culture of absolutes.

Truthfully, what format sounds best depends on a host of factors. As T.J. said: “There are all kinds of different variables,” including how the music was recorded initially, how you’re listening to the music, and even if and how the music was remastered.

“It’s not cut-and-dry simple.”

And neither is my answer. Let the debate rage on …