In the format battle of vinyl LPs vs. CDs, is there a clear winner?

Yes, vinyl has that wonderful, warm sound. But — now hear us out here — CDs have some pretty redeeming qualities, too. So which one really is better?
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By Dave Thompson

Back in 1991, with the release of Matthew Sweet’s then-remarkable and still astonishing “Girlfriend” album, a magazine I was then writing for received a most impassioned — even declamatory — letter from an aggrieved reader. He had read the reviews of the album, marveled at the lengths the entire American critical establishment seem to be traveling to heap fresh praise upon the record, and, with his interest piqued, he purchased a copy.

I do not recall his precise words. But the gist of it was, around the halfway point in the song cycle, the CD clearly broadcasts the sound of an old vinyl stylus reaching the end of a long-playing record, and crackling, hissing and clicking away until somebody finally raises the tone arm from the disc. That, our outraged correspondent decreed, was the worst insult he had ever been subjected to as a music buyer. Bad enough, he declared, that we should be forced to buy all our new music on CD. How much worse that the record companies did not even bother to stop the tape at the end of the music, but pointedly rubbed our noses into their foul doings.

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He sincerely believed that CDs were manufactured in the same way that you or I might have made a cassette tape: by recording the album straight off the turntable, and hoping we were fast enough with the pause button to catch each song at the end.

Twenty-two years on, I’m assuming this one-time letter writer has seen the error of his ways and that he understands those sounds were simply Sweet’s idea of a nostalgic joke (lest we forget, by 1991, major-label vinyl was already a thing of nostalgia) and not a major smoking gun in the continuing saga of corporate manipulation and deception.

Inspired both by that memory and by the letters we have received (thank you all, and please keep them coming), we are going to take a look at the “good” side of CDs, in the conflict with vinyl. And I thank Richard Kaplan of Metuchen, N.J., for stating this particular case so clearly.


“They don’t wear out.”

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There’s more. The fact that a CD can hold almost twice the amount of music that could readily be squeezed onto vinyl; the fact that a plastic jewel case is a lot sturdier than a cardboard cover (and a lot easier to replace if it does get damaged); the fact that the storage and moving of CDs is a lot easier (and, if you’re moving a house, cheaper). Etcetera.

That is not to say CDs are problem-free. We long ago came to terms with the fact that they are not “indestructible,” as the industry once trumpeted. But, seriously, did we ever expect — or even want — to store our music in a format that can double as a coaster, frisbee or garden trowel? But CDs can take a helluva bigger beating than their vinyl equivalent. If you don’t believe me, leave your collections on the floor next time you have a party.

And, of course, there was the ubiquitous “CD rot,” which plagued the output of certain manufacturers during the format’s early days. That does now seem to be a thing of the past. The last casualties I discovered in my own collection were the U.K. EMI Hawkwind reissues from the mid-1990s, all quietly decomposing in their deluxe digipacks. Vinyl never did that.

But, CDs don’t pick up pops and crackles. They don’t scratch when the cat brushes the turntable. They don’t warp when you accidentally leave them in the car on a warm day, and they don’t crack or break if you should drop them. The sound does not deteriorate with every playing. Let’s be honest: No matter how careful you are, or how expensive your system is, every time the needle touches a groove on a vinyl record, another microscopic slice of fidelity is lost forever.

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If you don't like doing a lot of care and maintenance for your music, you may prefer CDs. They don't need to be cleaned before they are played, they don't pick up layers of dust and static and the discs tend to be uniformly made.

Nor do CDs need to be carefully cleaned before play. They don’t pick up layers of dust and static. If you actually look at all the myriad ways in which a vinyl disc can be harmed, or the myriad more in which the quality of reproduction can be challenged, CDs have an awful lot to recommend them.

Or ... another game to play. Select from your collection a random sampling or so CDs manufactured over the near-30 (count them) years since the first commercial discs hit the market. Now, select an equally random gathering of LPs manufactured over the 30 years preceding that. What do you see?

The CDs are uniform. A disc is a disc is a disc. In terms of weight, thickness and manufacturing standards, there is no tangible difference between a first pressing of Dire Straits’ “Brothers In Arms” CD and Jimi Hendrix’s just-released “People, Hell and Angels.”
Vinyl, on the other hand ... Every pressing, every plant and certainly every few years, the weight of the wax would vary. Remember the vinyl from the “oil crisis” years, recycled and spread so thin that just breathing on the record could warp it? OK, slight exaggeration, but I know you know what I mean. Remember Dynaflex? And if you thought that was the thin end of the economizing edge, remember the wafers that the early 1980s had in store for us?

I recently picked up a small collection of early ’80s promo vinyl, amongst which lurked a handful of discs pressed on Quiex II vinyl. It was widely viewed as a more audiophile-friendly form of vinyl than that utilized on stock copies (and for which the price is going up on the collectors market, too). Now, leaving aside the fact that they are all strangely translucent, the big difference between Quiex II releases and regular releases is that they’re a little bit thicker, a little bit heavier and a little bit more like regular releases of a few years earlier.

It’s probably too late to complain about early ’80s record reviewers receiving superior copies of new releases to those that we could buy in the stores (although it might explain why so much rubbish got good reviews back then), but that’s another good thing about CDs. Beyond the “gold disc” boom of the mid-1990s, during which we allowed ourselves to be convinced that the color of a CD actually affected its sound quality, and the equally questionable attributes of sundry audiophile discs, we now know that the only thing that really makes a difference is the mastering (or otherwise) of the source tapes. A CD is a CD is a CD, and if your only concern is to own the music and be able to listen to it under more or less any circumstances, digital is always going to win out.

Plus, as Mr. Kaplan points out, “a ‘good’ CD player is far cheaper than a good turntable.”
So, to close this month, I pose three questions which I hope you will answer — or at least have a stab at — between now and our next issue:

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Whether it's a sense of nostalgia or the "warmth" of sound that vinyl record fans perceive during playback, there are plenty of pluses for vinyl records. Shutterstock photo.

1. Why does the average prog fan derive far more pleasure from an original pressing of Jethro Tull’s “Thick As A Brick” on vinyl than from last year’s deluxe CD repackaging that not only expands the music, but also reproduces and then expands the fold-out newspaper concept of the original sleeve?

2. Why is quadraphonic vinyl increasing in value at a time when record companies are falling over themselves to resurrect the “surround sound” notion for SACD and DVD-A? And at a time when precious few vinyl collectors even own a working quad record player?

3. And finally (ponder this one as you drive past a horseless carriage showroom, please), why do we still call them record companies?


A prodigious writer, fierce music lover and longtime record collector, Dave Thompson is the author of Goldmine’s “Standard Catalog of American Records 1950-1990, 8th Edition” (retail price: $37.99) and the "Goldmine Record Album Price Guide, 7th Edition" (retail price: $27.99).