It’s OK to Sound Imperfect: Listen Original Analogue Vinyl Recordings

Music lovers are now yearning for a piece of “real music estate” in the form of a physical vinyl record. It has also revived an interest in collecting old vinyl records. There is a misconception that vinyl records are “superior” audio format, which technically isn’t. Those who knows feel that there is no benefit listening to an “inferior” format since digital reproductions sound cleaner with wider dynamic range. It is possible to extract the fullest potential of a perfectly-pressed vinyl, and serious vinyl addicts have spent a fortune on every component to make it work.

Music sounds most faithful when listening with the original recorded medium

Music created in recent decades is optimised for the digital medium with ultra-high resolution. In the 1990s, compact discs were the dominant medium with up to 16-bit 44.1kHz. Before CD, vinyl records dominated the recording industry for nearly a century (Cassette tapes were popular from 1970s to 1990s and an alternative medium for portable listening but have lesser influence on album direction, just like MDs were alternatives for CDs).

Vinyl or CD?

Back then, recording engineers produce albums meant for vinyl records, including how they balance the frequencies and arrange the tracks. Album lengths are 20 to 30 minutes per side, and the last track of each side contains tamer music with smaller dynamic range due to the poorer tracking limitation.

Being able to playback the recording using the original medium that was made during the era made the music experience even more surreal. Imagine this very piece of record was spun on a record player decades ago, and now you are listening the exact sound. Technically, you are reliving a moment from the past.

Digital can sound consistently better if done right

Scientifically speaking, analogue medium like vinyl records and magnetic tapes have limitations to capture the extreme audio frequencies. Digital medium does not have any limitations: they can capture exactly as what the source plays. Improvement in computing power also means it is possible to sample sounds at very high rates (up to 768,000 Hz) that makes audio virtually identical to the original source.

What makes the vinyl records sound better than other medium? Well, it’s back to the first point: these records’ original medium is analogue, especially recordings before the 1990s (for Classical recordings, they started using digital medium from around 1980). When the labels started to remaster them, they did not do a good job, resulting in a generation of poorly-mastered digital versions. Eventually, a lot of the popular titles got re-remastered or re-converted from the original analogue masters using new digital technologies. As long as the new mastering is done right, these new digital versions should sound better than the vinyl records.

But even with a new better remaster, the other aspect that ruins the digital sound comes from the streaming platforms compression and the consumer-grade audio player’s over-zealous auto-processing effects. These compressions usually emphasize on the vocals, the bass, and the loudness. So when people started to listen them on vinyl records, they hear a distinct difference.

While I generally collect only old vinyl record titles, I still buy some of the new digital recordings in vinyl because I really like the albums and want a “larger-than-life” physical version of the music.

Audiophile grade vinyl pressing pays attention to quality

Today, vinyl records are still considered a novelty rather than a mainstream audio format, so there is less emphasis on audio quality production. To cater to the discerning listeners, labels will market some titles as “audiophile-grade” pressed in 180-gram vinyl. The process of cutting the lathe to pressing the vinyl with the stampers involves human handling, so the impurities of the environment can introduce defects and cause each record to sound different or with groove noise. That is why when certain records go through audiophile-grade cutting process, they ensure quality controls at every step so that the vinyl will sound extremely good.

Hoff Ensemble: Quiet Winter Night

Why do I encourage people to collect vinyl records?

When I decided to start collecting records, my objective is to experience a different audio medium. Through this interest, it made me uncover more albums, especially old titles that I would not be looking for casually. I find it very intriguing to listen to old records and appreciate the sound reproduction. Like reading a book, not everyone has the time to go through the process of spinning records. But just like reading a book where it feels different to flip paper pages than swiping on digital screens, so is listening to an album on vinyl compared to playing on Spotify or YouTube.

It takes time to build a collection to call your own, and I find it very satisfying to come across titles that have special meaning, albums that I never had the chance to get when I was young. These albums define me.

What turntable and cartridge do I recommend?

I started with a cheap turntable that plays records like an old radio. Today, every one can enjoy vinyl records without taking up too much space at home. The battery operated Audio-Technica portable turntable AT-SB727 is relaunched in June and the audio quality is good enough to deliver dynamic, clear and accurate sound.

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