Vinyl records vs. digital downloads: Which is better?
- The first consumer-ready 12-inch vinyl LP was released in 1931 by RCA Victor, and it featured Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as performed by the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra.
- Warner Bros. Records released the first US-made, digitally recorded LP featuring popular music and vocals in 1979 with Ry Cooder’s Bop ‘Til You Drop.
- In 2020, digital album downloads accounted for $319.5 million in revenue; however, subscription and streaming services continued to dominate the music industry with revenue upwards of $10 billion.
- Michael Jackson’s Thriller album is the #1 best-selling vinyl record of all time, with 27 million units sold.
With better sound quality, better artwork, and a tangibility that is just plain cool, vinyl records are simply better than digital files. Research has proven what many have known for decades: vinyl records reproduce sound more accurately than 44 kHz/16 bit (CD quality) digital files. Also, many people find the warmth from the static sounds very appealing.
Vinyl records are simple and easy to use; there are no file transfers, irritating updates, or aggravations from the cloud involved. With no compatibility issues, you can keep them for life, a major advantage over streaming services like Spotify, requiring monthly payments. Further, you can lend them to friends without having to share passwords.
Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Dark Side of the Moon, The Velvet Underground & Nico; nearly anyone can imagine these iconic images. An LP’s cover is really just a 12X12 inch canvas; much more appealing than a tiny screen in one’s pocket that might not even get a second thought. Musicians can put messages for listeners, lyrics, and track information on the covers and inside sleeves of vinyl records. Though some bands have released digital booklets with their digital files, the idea just doesn’t really translate.
Vinyl records are better for musicians, offering sales opportunities and significantly better revenue percentages than streaming services. Also, they are much more difficult to pirate than digital files, meaning that musicians’ work is less likely to be stolen.
Let’s be frank; stacks of vinyl records just look cool. Record sleeves strewn about the floor are a sure sign of a good night. It’s hard to create the look and feel of a listening room with digital files!
Subjectively speaking, different things sound good to different people. However, from a technical standpoint, high-resolution digital audio can more accurately reproduce original sound.
Due to vinyl's electro-mechanical nature, there are functional limitations to the dynamic range and frequency response which are not present with digital formats. Vinyl also requires frequencies below a certain threshold to be filtered out in mastering, then added back in during playback. This is called the RIAA curve, which protects the record player's needle from excessive movement due to loud low frequencies. Although there are likely to be few problems if high-quality components are used on both sides of this process, it does present another chance for imperfections to appear. By contrast, even 16-bit digital audio has a dynamic range greater than the noise floor of most audio systems--and requires no mechanical playback components or special EQ treatment. This means that the only noise you will hear from digital audio, which wasn't part of the original recording, will be the self-noise produced by the playback system's electronics.
While records may last a long time, they do experience wear and can be damaged. A digital file will last as long as you can reliably store it, with no degradation. Another benefit of a digital file is that it can be transferred to and played on any device with the software to do so--from something specialized like an mp3 player to the phone you probably already carry. There's no accounting for taste, as they say, but digital recordings are truer to original sound.