Over the past couple of weeks, I've participated in a couple of things that have cemented my once wayward relationship with vinyl records.
The first was a presentation at the inaugural Glenn Gould Variations. I conducted a modern version of an Edison "tone test." Using a $35,000 stereo supplied by Bay Bloor Radio, the audience was asked if they could tell the difference between vinyl, CD and MP3 versions of three different musical works (Roxy Music, Red Hot Chili Peppers and, of course, Glenn Gould).
Many people in the audience were able to tell the difference between the formats. Almost all could pick out the vinyl version of the recording.
On Saturday, I went back to Bay Bloor Radio for a similar sort of demonstration from Kurt Martens of Essential Audio. I couldn't believe how much better a 1973 issue of a Dave Brubeck record (bought for $1 at a used record store) blew away the sound of a CD in terms of smoothness, spatial imaging and high-frequency definition. Don't even ask about the MP3.
I bought a brand new 180 gram copy of that Dave Brubeck album and put it on the Technics SL-1200 I have in my home studio. Same thing. It sounded gorgeous.
So if vinyl sounds so much better than CD, why was I so quick to blow off vinyl when CDs first came out? Why was so unconcerned about the extinction of vinyl for so many years?
After thinking about it over the weekend, I came up with the following explanations/excuses:
(1) Vinyl used to be made of really crappy stuff.
When CDs were first put up against vinyl in the early 80s, it wasn't really a fair fight. The energy crisis of the 1970s had shifted the record industry towards recycled vinyl as a way to save money in an era of high petrochemical prices. Crappy recycled vinyl meant more surface noise: hiss, rumbles, snaps and crackles.
Not only was the raw material used in the vinyl of lower quality, the pressings were often thinner. Thinner vinyl means grooves that are more shallow. Shallow grooves are able to store less audio information, especially at the lower end. No wonder those records sounded like crap against the CD's digital storage capabilities which had no trouble storing deep bass.
No wonder I was so quick to kick vinyl to the curb. Like I said, it wasn't a fair fight.
(2) Turntables have come a long way.
For years, my workhorse turntable was an Akai AP-100C, a machine I paid $100 for using the money I earned from my first part-time job. I thought it was state-of-the-art. But compared to a turntable of similar value today (i.e. something in the $450 range), it's crap.
Turntable motors have improved. Enclosures are more advanced. Tone arms are better. Wiring within the tone arms is better. And let's not even discuss the amazing advances in cartridge technology. All this adds up to a turntable that can interpret what's in the grooves more accurately.
So when we were comparing CDs to crappy vinyl played on (comparatively) crappy turntables back in the 80s and 90s, well, no wonder the compact disc got all the love.
If any of this sounds even remotely familiar to you, find a way to sample your favourite band on vinyl using a modern turntable. Even with a half-decent set of speakers, you'll may find yourself asking your record collection for forgiveness.