Spin the Black Circle

That’s how the Perl Jam were singing back in 1994 in their Vitology album, the first one I bought (in CD format – now I have the vinyl, too). As “black circle” they mean the black record, of course. They went to the extent of writing a song to chant about their favorite music medium. They are about my age, so they grew up with vinyl records, 33 and 45 RPMs, portable players, the works. It is all so fascinating, but what about today? Is it still worth it? Many think it is not. Nevertheless, the CD sales are constantly dropping while vinyl record sales are increasing. Let’s be clear, no one is waiting for a vinyl sale take over. Not going to happen. But there’s a real chance for the CD format to disappear at the hands of music downloads, the so called liquid music. The LP record is not going anywhere…

I am struggling to keep shooting film pictures, as well as still using vinyl records. I bought the Vitology album in both CD and later vinyl formats in order to make comparisons (otherwise it makes no sense to posses different editions of the same music). Maybe because of my age (vintage 1964) I just can’t abandon vinyl records and turntables. I love the ritual: unfold the album, slide the record out of its sleeve, clean it, position the cartridge and watch the needle descend slowly waiting for the magic to begin… How can a CD beat all this? Well, it does. All this ritual would get most of us nervous most of the times. We live in a hurry, we have no time for listening to entire records, let alone for cleaning them! And what about having to stand up and flip the record on side B? Seriously? And all that surface noise? How boring. Just put on a CD and forget about it. Who’s got time for antistatic towels and brushes? Tuning a turntable? Who needs one?

When I was a teenager I had a thing for science fiction and astronomy. A laser disc made me think of space technology, it was a fantastic idea of a better future, with no vinyl records but high-tech digital ones. Even I fell for CDs at the beginning, happy to live without surface noise and scratches, confident about the purity of digital sound. But it was all just marketing and trickery.

Growing up, reading and listening, I slowly understood that maybe vinyl records were not a thing of the past. I still had my own ones somewhere and my system had certainly improved over time. It was now capable of letting me hear the difference between a bad and good recording (which is the actual point in this: the medium is not that important). A friend of mine had thrown an old Thorens turntable in a locker after the CD revolution. It was a sad sight for me, so I willingly adopted it, changing my listening life forever. I did not abandon the digital format, for sure, I have many CDs. But when I have the time to listen to some music, I more often happen to choose a title from my vinyl collection. I find myself repeating the ritual of analog music listening.

It must be said there’s nothing inherently wrong with CDs or digital music as long as it isn’t compressed. No one should dismiss digital recordings as bad sounding with respect to analog recordings. It is a matter of good or bad recordings. Bad recordings happen, and they did since the beginning: the Rolling Stones were sadly famous for this (while the Beatles’ records were pretty good); more recently, the U2 sound engineers did not care much for final pressings. In recent times the dynamics of recording are being compress much more than in the old times. It is easy to stumble upon bad sounding CDs (especially certain remastered editions). For what concerns vinyl records, it is true that today there are not many people who really know the job record pressing; it used to be trusted upon very specialized technicians. How many are out there today? So if you have the chance to try or you can trust reviews of audio recordings, you’d better go after the best one, no matter the format music is recorded on. I have a couple of recent Joe Bonamassa vinyl pressings that sound so bad that the MP3 I was entitled to download as a vinyl version buyer sound far better! It also makes me think that the sound engineers took good care of the original recording; it’s just that the vinyl pressing that was done only because it is cool to have one.

Therefore, sometimes the MP3 format can be sufficiently satisfying – if the sampling has been carried out with a certain know-how. And if a vinyl pressing is done without the necessary know-how, well, you know…

As the CD format tends to disappear, prices are dropping and we can find real bargains: we can always rip the contents in a thorough 44.1 kHz / 16 bits format in order to play the files with a good liquid music system (it is not easy to appreciate the difference with formats with higher sampling rates than the CD standard’s – the quality of the recording is again much more important). As this happens, online streaming services seem to be taking over as the most common way to enjoy music today. Spotify, Apple Music, Deezer, Qobuz, Youtube and Tidal are the increasingly important names of the game. Many still illegally download compressed music. I can assure you that a minimally good real hifi system would expose the difference with a normal CD playback. But how many people would really be aware or would really care about it? I figure most people would think of hooking the computer’s audio output to the amplifier. What’s wrong with this? Well….

The trend today is towards tools that would allow us to connect our smartphones to a soundbar that would amplify the music in the easiest way possible. It is not possible to talk about hifi in these cases. Real hifi is completely different – and it is not about being digital or analogic.

The question is: are we digital files players? Do we like the idea of hooking a computer to our hifi system toying with playlists, cover images, file names, rather than with physical discs? The former would be a great space saver. But what about disc space? What about having to deal with an immense file library? What if a software or hardware issue would make you lose the whole database? Multiple backup copies would be mandatory. It is not as easier than expected. Enter the ever successful audio streaming services…

Thinking about old vinyl records, one may say that if we could once live with them, why can’t we live with CDs today? While liquid music has the potential of dramatically surpassing the quality of CDs, my turntable can be updated again and again making it able to extract more and more information from the groove. Just by ensuring it is perfectly horizontal and isolated thanks to the right feet on the right rigid base, a turntable would show noticeable improvements. A newer tonearm, a more expensive cartridge can expand our horizons in incredible ways. Such a system would overwhelm any CD player that would not cost at least 2 or 3 thousand euros!

Digital formats are limited to the amount of samples collected at the time of recording. You can’t extract more than that. Vinyl grooves can hide entire audio universes that will remain there until we will improve the playback conditions or the tools that would allow the extraction of additional information. Most people ignore this. The dynamics, the range extension (even at lower frequencies), the soundstage of an analog system are unthinkable for a digital one. But it is mandatory that the original recording and pressing is of high quality (the quality that was normal when vinyl was the only format). The same quality from a digital recording is only achievable at a much higher price. At this point, the crackling and surface noise will no longer be so annoying. We might even come to like them…

 

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