What is it About Vinyl Records

2016 saw sales of vinyl albums beat the number of paid digital downloads for the first time ever. According to a report from the Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), consumers spent £2.4 million on vinyl records, compared with £2.1m downloading digital. The industry cites a number of factors for the increase in record sales; Black Friday deals, the popularity of vinyl as a Christmas present and the increasing availability of reasonably priced record players in high street supermarkets. Whatever the reasons, the return of vinyl, which began back in 2008, is clearly a phenomenon that is here to stay.

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But for many music fans, vinyl records remain a thing of wonder and mystery. So if you're thinking of exploring this strange new world of analogue sound for the first time, we’ve put together some fundamental questions (and answers) that we hope go a long way to explaining the apparently immortal appeal of vinyl recordings.


Why should we buy vinyl?

Two answers: First, we’re dyed-in-the-wool audiophiles, and we have no problem fetishizing the sound of analogue recordings. Second, we’ve fallen for the sheer aesthetic that comes with vinyl records, album covers and turntables. Vinyl records have a physical presence far superior to CDs, which, if truth be told, have the look and feel of mundane office supplies. When we purchase a record, we feel like we’re buying value, as opposed to something that consists of a cheap plastic cover and a thin shiny disc. Vinyl records are much more than just a transportation device for music, they have a tactile quality about them that makes it easy to fall in love with. Simply pulling the record from the sleeve and laying it on the turntable allows us to get all sentimental. And even if we do still mostly listen to our favourite albums on the PC or iPod, we’re creating a very special and more often than not, a highly intimate listening experience. And of course, vinyl records also look great on a shelf.


Is vinyl a worthy investment?

If we’re looking for a return on investment from our musical purchases, then vinyl records are probably the only way to go. Digital files are almost impossible to resell and on the secondary market, CD’s generally bring a fraction of the original retail price. Both new and older vinyl records (at least those in decent condition) tend to retain a lot of their value, especially if the title is in large demand. So yes, making a profit with a vinyl record collection is totally doable. That said, using vinyl records solely as a means to make money is not the best option. There are other, more practical and effective ways to do that. But it’s definitely a comforting thought for us audiophiles that our collections might have substantial worth if we ever have to sell them off.


We know vinyl is analogue. And this means...?

Okay, this is where it gets slightly complicated so let’s break it down a little: analogue describes a signal that is continuous. The variation in that signal represents a defined quantity of time, and the instantaneous voltage of said signal varies according to the pressure from the sound waves. Easy, right? Okay then try this: basically it means that the groove of a vinyl record is a representation of the sound wave in a single continuous line that runs the entire side of the record. The turntable essentially reads and decodes it in real time. The result is the sound that comes out of the speakers.


So that’s analogue. What about digital?

Unlike analogue, digital signals are discontinuous. The technical term for this is ‘discrete’ and it describes how digital signals send a series of sound samples at precise intervals. And because sound, in its natural state, doesn’t break down, the digitalisation subdivides it into the smallest possible chunks of information, i.e. ‘bits’. This is where we get our binary code from. Everything is broken down into one of two directives, typically a ‘0’ and a ‘1’. Binary code has the benefit that by breaking down information into its smallest possible form, just about anything can be represented with just the two elements.


If we want to imagine this visually, compare it to plotting points on a graph. Now, what comes next might sound disappointing, especially for us ardent lovers of vinyl: but when we process either an analogue or a digital signal through our amplifiers and speakers, the end result on the graph is exactly the same. We hear a continuous sound wave. There’s no objective way to analyse this. Our ears cannot determine whether the source is one or the other because we simply can’t differentiate between the digital code or the fluctuations in analogue voltage.


Then how come analogue sounds better than digital?

Well, sometimes it does. But it depends on a lot of different factors. Speakers, amplifiers and turntables all have a major role to play in the quality of the sound we hear. And loathe as vinyl fans may be to admit it, but when we’re listening to a vinyl record, CD, or high-quality digital file of the same song on a good stereo system, we generally don’t notice a lot of difference. Unless of course the physical media is damaged somehow, scratched maybe, dusty or warped. There’s been quite a few studies which have shown that an untrained ear simply can’t tell the difference. And those of us who insist that vinyl provides the best listening experience are most probably biased based on our past listening preferences or even our heritage.


So why do people fall in love with vinyl?

Once a newbie listener gets passed the cracks and pops of a vinyl recording, their ears open up to an entirely new world. We aficionados are often caught attributing that wonderful richness and warmth of tone to a pure analogue sound. In truth, those very qualities are a direct result of analogue’s shortcomings during the process of capturing and reproducing that sound, especially on the lower end of the mix. Digital recordings are by definition far more accurate than analogue, and the dynamic range they are able to capture is much broader. But if analogue recording lacks in detail, it is those gaps in data which create a slight abstraction of sound. And it is this that is often very pleasing to the ear.





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