Does vinyl sound better? 6 key factors to consider when choosing vinyl and shopping for records
Asking yourself 'does vinyl sound better?' is every music lover's conundrum. Here's how to decide if going down the record playing route is right for you
'Does vinyl sound better?’ is a million-dollar question that regularly sparks debate across nightclubs and kitchen discos around the world. While streaming services continue to offer impressive hi-res audio streaming that delivers great sound, the popularity of humble vinyl records shows no signs of fading.
The best record player manufacturers have noticed significant sales increases in the last year, which perhaps indicates how keen we are to go back to basics and cherish 'the good olds days'. Vinyl offers an authentic listening experience, can set the tone of an evening, and create a unique talking point, so its merits are well deserved.
But music is of course a very personal experience, so asking ‘does vinyl sound better?’ is important when you're upgrading your music center at home. While vinyl may be right for some, it may not be right for you. It's key to think about the options: Do you opt for a soundbar to stream digital music while enhancing your TV's audio, for example? Or would a turntable with amp and separate speakers be preferable? Or perhaps you're one of the 13% of UK households planning a dedicated music room at home (according to research conducted by Notonthehighstreet.com on the Latest Home Trends of 2022) and want to include all the options - such as a CD player, record player, and kit to stream high-res audio.
Either way, planning your audio kit so it's geared towards your preferences will make listening to music that bit more enjoyable. Add a comfy leather armchair and perhaps a pair of AirPod Max headphones and 'get lost in the music, caught in a trap, no turning back' and so on...
But does vinyl sound better?
To question whether vinyl is the better choice and to get top tips on what to look for when buying records, we asked music engineering project manager Nick Brown from Cambridge Audio to share his top tips with Livingetc.
1. Consider when you listen to music
‘Just like the music you choose to listen to, when you listen to it can be just as subjective – and sometimes it can even depend on what kind of mood you’re in,’ says Nick. ‘Some days I want the convenience of streaming, and others, the tactile experience of holding a vinyl sleeve and really listening to an album from start to finish.'
2. Remember that what format you’re listening to can affect the sound
‘Streaming can be considered ‘clean’ or ‘crisp’, where vinyl can be ‘warmer’ or have crackles,’ says Nick. ‘Neither is necessarily better than the other, and you can see why physical media sales are on the up even as streaming continues to dominate.
‘Compared with vinyl, CDs can give you that physical experience while also offering that ‘clear’ sound – but with less compression than standard format streaming, so you hear more of the details. Also, look into the quality of your CD player to make sure you’re getting the most out of your collection.’
3. Know how to improve vinyl sound quality
‘In terms of improving the sound quality of the vinyl, prevention is better than cure, and taking care of your records is the most important thing you can do to help them sound great.
'That means stacking them vertically and keeping them out of direct sunlight to avoid warping. And handling them carefully when using them.'
For more on caring for vinyl, read a DJ explaining how to use a record player and not damage the vinyl.
4. Consider the size of your vinyl
Vinyl comes in a range of sizes from 7 to 12inches.
'7-inch vinyl size is mainly used for single song releases – it was designed for singles as generally one song fits perfectly on that size and was also deemed right for space-saving.
'12-inch is perfect for multiple songs like albums or alternative mixes.
‘10-inch vinyl was common in the 1950s as 78rpm was deemed the best speed to spin a record at for the best performance, but the hardware needed for this increased speed was costly and hard to keep consistent, so these records are rare.
‘Some also say that the larger the vinyl – where grooves are so not tightly squeezed together – the better the sound.'
5. Know the (speed) limits
'Speeds are simply governed by the design of the vinyl and what speed the record was designed to be played at,' says Nick. 'It is really about what fits.
'Ideally higher speeds and spaced out grooves give the best performance, but if the song is long then slower speed playback (so the needle will not jump between grooves) and tighter grooves are needed to fit the song on the vinyl.'
6. Choose carefully when buying second-hand vinyl
'Buying any second-hand vinyl is a gamble,' says Nick. 'Always check for scratches and overall vinyl quality as obviously records that look in the best condition should play the best. That is not always the case, but it is the best guide.
'Some records that look great but have been overplayed can also perform poorly, because of degraded groove detail.
'Also check flatness, as some records that have not been stored correctly and are warped will also play poorly. Try not to pay too much for second-hand records because more often than not you may be disappointed with playback performance, but there are gems to be found.'
When is Record Store Day 2022?
Record Store Day is an annual event and this year it falls on Saturday, April 23, 2022, and on Black Friday in November.
2022 marks the 15th anniversary of Record Store Day that brings together independent record stores, artists, and fans as a way to 'celebrate the culture of the independently owned record store'.
Does vinyl sound better than Spotify?
'You can listen to high-quality music streaming on Spotify. But I think listening to music on the ultimate vinyl pressing, on the ultimate player, with the ultimate headshell and phono stage will sound better,' says DJ Izaak Gray.
'However, the average setup can sound worse. I think it all depends on the kit you choose to play your vinyl on plus a number of variables in terms of age of vinyl and how well it has been looked after.'
One of the UK's most respected tech and smart homes writers, Emily Peck also covers everything from interiors style to decorating trends. She is a contributor to Wired UK, and has also had a column in House Beautiful. She has written for publications such as Grand Designs, Stylist, Shortlist, Woman&Home, BBC, Ideal Home and House & Garden. She was once the Features Editor of Ideal Home.
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