Does Vinyl Sound Better?

A vinyl record

There are several prongs to the “does vinyl sound better” debate, with arguments rooted in sound quality and listener experience. Though “experience” isn’t necessarily directly tied to sound, the tactile nature of an LP sleeve with lyrics, liner notes and 12” x 12” artwork completes the circle for vinyl enthusiasts and makes it all the more enjoyable.

Punk and indie bands tend to enjoy an analog approach. The raw and of-the-moment energy of recording live, on tape feels “real.” Electronic bands, for obvious reasons, lean into digital recording and all the effects that are possible with computer software.

There is a school of thought that vinyl sounds better. We like to say that it sounds different, and that the judgment of “what’s better” lies in the ear of the beholder. Let’s look at some of the facts.

Table of Contents

Understanding Vinyl Sound Quality
Reasons to Consider Listening to Music On Vinyl
How To Create Your Listening Room
So Does Vinyl Actually Sound Better?

Understanding Digital and Analog Recording

To get to the crux of the vinyl vs. digital debate, we must first understand the difference between analog and digital recording. Prior to 1970, music recording was all analog, which means that it was recorded live on 2-inch tape and produced using manual equipment to mix, master and press the vinyl. Edits were done by literally cutting and splicing tape. Effects were created in real time, with real sounds that had to be created in the studio.

A Brief History of Recording Systems

In 1971 the world’s first commercial digital recording sessions took place, and in 1972 Steve Marcus and Inagaki Jiro’s Something LP became the first digital recording to be released. It was recorded on an experimental PCM (pulse code modulation) recording system developed by NHK research facilities in Japan and leased by Nippon Columbia or Denon as the company was known outside of Japan. As progressive as it was, this form of recording was still reliant on a form of physical tape or disc to hold the digital information. It wasn’t until computers were in full force in the late 90s that digital audio workstations provided a closed system - all on a hard drive - in which to record, produce and mix digital audio tracks.

Vinyl vs. Digital Sound

The truth is, it’s unlikely that you could hear a stark difference between an analog and a digital recording, if you listened to the original source in a studio. The telltale sound difference is in the format itself. The surface noise, “crackle and pop,” and the mechanical noise from a turntable is a dead giveaway for an analog way of listening, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the music was recorded that way. With options available, many producers take a hybrid approach and use the best of both methods. A further twist is that you can use a digital recording to produce a vinyl record, which may seem a bit blasphemous. It happens often, much to the dismay of vinyl purists.

Much of the variation in what you hear is tied to the sound system that you’re listening on (amplifier, speakers or headphones) and the format that the music is in. You could listen to the most pristine, expertly crafted vinyl on a portable record player with built in speakers and it would sound… like music on a portable record player with built in speakers. Likewise, if you were to listen to an uncompressed digital studio master file on a tiny bluetooth speaker, it would be a less than impressive experience. The sound is only as good as the system you put it through.

There’s no doubt that digital recording and playback (via streaming or a CD) can prove to be more accurate and consistent, but in compressing the sound to fit the digital format, some of the information is lost. High and low frequencies, and dynamic range of audio levels are leveled out in the process.

The quality of sound on a vinyl record can suffer from wear and tear, but if recorded analog, it can provide all the audio that the artist recorded. Every whisper, cymbal crash and guitar string is present.

The Ritual of vinyl
The ritual of vinyl

The Vinyl Experience

There’s no substitute for a slab of wax in a 12” x 12” sleeve with art to dive into and interpret, and liner notes to read. The visual is just as much a part of the experience as the audio, with the album art sharing more of the story. Naming all the people on The Beatles Sgt. Pepper cover or deciphering the story behind The White Stripes Elephant cover photo takes you deeper into the world of the music on the record.

Then, there's the ritual of taking an album out of its sleeve and carefully placing the needle in the first groove of the record. It’s analog at its absolute finest.

The White Stripes album cover
The White Stripes Elephant

Why Does Vinyl Sound “Better”?

What vinyl loyalists see as “better” could logically be attributed to the recording process, with analog recording capturing a true representation of the sound produced in the studio. While digital recording takes “snapshots” of the music, turns it into ones and zeros and then reassembles it back into sound that you hear, an analog system records the complete timeline of the session in all its glory.

Another factor in the debate is audio compression. In order to fit everything on a compact disc or to be able to stream over the widest landscape of internet systems, the information needs to be compact. This compression limits frequency and audio levels, which can dull some of the intended emotion and impact of the music.

Basically, outside of a live performance, vinyl is one of the most direct means of communicating music from the band and their instruments to your ears.

Myth Busting

The truth is, both formats have pros and cons. There really isn’t a bonafide winner in what sounds better. It’s a matter of personal preference. With recording and reproduction methods often combined, unless the information is listed in the album notes, you might not know if the album you’re listening to is actually 100% analog. Meaning, it could have been recorded with an analog system, but mixed and mastered digitally. It could also be an album pressed using a digital master, which means that although the vinyl itself is analog… the music that’s on it is from a digital source.

Ortofon cartridges
Ortofon cartridges are used in all Wrensilva turntables

Set Up Your Vinyl Listening Room for Sound Success

Sound quality is only as good as the equipment you play it on and the space that you play it in. So, if you want to weigh in on this debate yourself, consider the acoustics of your vinyl listening room. Minimize echo and sound reflections with soft surfaces like rugs, wall coverings and window treatments. Be strategic about where you place furniture so that you’re seated in the best place for optimal sound delivery.

So, Does Vinyl Actually Sound Better?

The results of the debate are inconclusive and lean toward personal preference as the deciding factor. Vinyl certainly has its own, unique sound. The surface noise and sound of the needle on the record remind you that the sound is present. It’s right there in the room with you. While digital formats feel a bit more distant, like the music could be beaming into your home from anywhere.

It is a fact that digital audio is compressed and that in that process, information is lost. There are “lossless” digital files, like FLAC, that preserve all of the original audio information, resulting in a file that is identical to the source. Streaming platforms are starting to offer hi-fi subscriptions using these lossless formats, and digital downloads usually offer a choice of file type.

If you place value on listening to music as the artist intended, then a vinyl record produced with an analog master is often the best bet; and if the audio was mixed in stereo, you’ll experience the best sound if you listen on a HiFi stereo system.

Wrensilva consoles are designed for seamless music integration, with multiple listening modes. So, fire up the turntable and listen to a copy of the Beach Boys Pet Sounds vinyl with audio sourced from original analog master tapes. Listen to the music in every room. Then switch to your favorite streaming platform and hear those same Beach Boy tunes digitally. Let your own ears be the judge.

Beach Boys album cover
The Beach Boys Pet Sounds