I know. I know. I just crossed over the audiophile fine line, but it is about time that somebody lobbed a few logic bombs at the argument that won't go away: how increasing vinyl record sales mean boom times for the audiophile industry. Sadly, vinyl isn't going to be the answer, but there is hope. Trust me, there is hope. For now, let's dig into the vinyl argument a little bit and don't worry - we are going to want to hear from you in the comments below.
A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for a documentary about vinyl by one of our former music reviewers, Kevin Poore, from the old days at AVRev.com. Kevin is making a documentary about vinyl and asked me if I would chime in with my thoughts on the format. I was a bit reticent, as my take on vinyl as a 38-year-old HD-loving music school graduate isn't the same as that of the Baby Boomers who grew up with the format. Without question, I can absolutely see the advantages of the format, as they are many. I love the large physical format - especially the art and inserts. I love the fact that vinyl is analog in the overly digital, attention deficit world that we live in. Hell, I am the guy who is forcing himself to bring analog books on an upcoming vacation just to cut down on screen time on his iPad. I inarguably get the importance of analog in our lives. Additionally, vinyl is cheap to buy, especially when you purchase it used. Record executives love vinyl, because it's pretty hard to rip, as it doesn't have files, per se. Are there USB turntables on the market? Sure there are, but they are not a factor compared to the billions of easily rippable, digital compact discs. For me, one of the most important factors in what makes vinyl interesting is that the format forces the cadence of an album. Kids today skip songs in ways that suggest they don't remember a day when there wasn't a shuffle button. Anybody who wants to argue that The Wall or Electric Ladyland is better on shuffle is a musical moron. There is a produced cadence to the album as it tells its musical story and vinyl physically forces you to follow that cadence.
With all of that said, vinyl is physically inferior as an audiophile format and, more importantly, despite recent hype about a so-called boom in New vinyl sales, the format doesn't represent the future of audiophilia one bit.
Here are some of the critical issues with vinyl as an audiophile format:
• Vinyl has very limited dynamics compared to all modern formats. Vinyl has about 65 dB of dynamic range, as opposed to the 30-plus-year-old digital compact disc at 95 db. The more modern Blu-ray disc packs 120 dB of dynamic range and can throw in 24/192 times 7.1 channels of music, with 1080 uncompressed video from a $100 player and an $8 HDMI cable, and Blu-ray is also highly copy-protected.
• Vinyl suffers from very high signal to noise ratio, compared to digital formats. Even if the distortion makes the format sound "warm," it doesn't make it sound like the master, which is the whole point of a high-end audio system.
• Vinyl discs start to wear from the first play and never are better than their first play. While the compact disc's 30-year-old claims of "perfect sound - forever" were a bit bloated back in the day, a 30-year-old compact disc plays a lot better than a 30-year-old LP when both have been played a comparable number of times over the decades.
• Vinyl is not a portable format, unlike a compact disc, a ripped digital file or, more relevant, an HD download in 24-bit 192 kHz resolution. Today's consumers, especially Generation Y, demand mobility. Look at the first weekend's sales of the Apple iPad mini from the Huffington Post. Over 3,000,000 units were sold in a weekend. How long has it been since 3,000,000 turntables were sold? Respectfully, it has been decades.
• Vinyl offers no meaningful option for surround sound (sorry, Quadraphonic doesn't count, no matter how geeky you want to get). If you have a home theater, why wouldn't you want to listen to remixed versions of your favorite records that offer new perspectives on your favorite music? If you don't like the mix, then on a format like Blu-ray, there is plenty of disc space for you to get a 24/96 remaster right from the master tape, using the best converters and mastering processes that money can buy.
• Vinyl doesn't support video (no kidding), which is the number one reason why SACD never had a chance in hell at being a successful format back in the day.
• There is nothing about vinyl that is HD, unlike satellite television, video games, Blu-ray movies and other popular media formats today. Vinyl simply doesn't have the bandwidth to be HD. For that matter, neither does the compact disc at 16/44.1.
Looking At the Business of Vinyl
There is nothing that old-school audiophile pundits like better than reverting back to an old format. They did it when the compact disc came out. They swung back to supporting CDs when DVD-Audio and SACD came out. If it's old and low-resolution, the audiophile press often will gravitate backwards to the format. It's truly sad, and it's killing off the business.
The latest argument that the audiophile press and others have been making is that the sales of vinyl are booming and they go on to imply that this somehow indicates that the future of audiophila is bright. Let me be clear: the 60-year-olds, breathing in radon gas while languishing in their somewhat finished basements, with their cables propped up on sawhorses, listening with their heads in vices, are killing the audiophile business. Savvy buyers who shop out of state while "showrooming" at their local audio salons are killing the business. Worship of great gear over great music is killing the audiophile business. Most important, the idea that we don't fuel the supercars known as our high-end audio systems with something more than vinyl, compact discs or, God forbid, ripped MP3 files is killing the audiophile business, but let's get down to some solid software sales numbers that deflower the argument that vinyl is somehow going to save the audiophile hobby.
2011 Nielsen Soundscan Sales Numbers
• Vinyl 3.9 million +39%
• Download 103.1 million +19.5%
• Compact Disc 223.5 million -5.7%
• Video Games 9 Billion - 8%
• EA Madden Football 1.4m units/week +10%
• Dark Knight Blu-ray 1.7m units/week
• Call of Duty $1b units/16 days
• Dark Side SACD 800k units
39 percent growth from 2010 to 2011 according the industry standard, Nielsen Soundscan, is nice growth, but as you can see above, the total sales numbers for vinyl are infinitesimally small when compared to any other meaningful format - especially HD formats. If your investment account has $10,000 and it went up to $13,900 in one year, it means that you have a good broker, but you sure as hell aren't rich. Vinyl's sales are as much attributable to Baby Boomers getting access to their retirement accounts for the first time as any other factor. It is true that you can find hipster kids in major cities in America sifting through bins of records at places like Amoeba Music, The Princeton Record Exchange or Bleeker Street Music, but then again, those discs are used, so they don't show up on the numbers. And even if used sales were tracked, they'd be a tiny sliver of the used sales of the compact disc. Note: in 2011, the compact disc, which sadly is still our so-called HD format of choice, with 400 percent more digital resolution than what Apple will sell you as a download today, outsold vinyl by 231,600,000 records. That's two hundred and thirty-one million, six hundred thousand more albums sold. It's a blowout that vinyl enthusiasts don't want to accept, but it's factually true.
According to the DEG (Digital Entertainment Group), DVD-Video players have a 91 percent market share in the United States. Blu-ray disc players, including Playstation 3 units, have just over 40 percent market share, which is growing nicely. Personal computers are far higher than 40 percent and tablet growth is booming with over 100,000,000 Apple iPads sold to date. Android tablet sales are booming in the same way.
The future of audiophilia is going to be based on the mainstream consumer availability of music in high-definition, 24-bit, 96 kHz resolution, with options for surround sound, HD video supplemental materials and beyond. In the short term, the low-cost copy-protection and 50 GB capability of Blu-ray represents the easiest way for major labels to sell consumers their music over again. Hollywood movie studios offer blockbuster films in 1080p video with master quality 7.1 surround sound that is (almost) bit for bit the same as you would hear in a 4K Cineplex, yet the ponytail-wearing, know-it-all record executive geniuses who are responsible for the 66 percent loss of domestic market share in the music business in the United States are scared that you are going to steal their music in HD. They should be scared that you won't ever buy a record from them again, because selling another 1,000,000 copies of Kind of Blue or Back in Black doesn't cost squat to remaster and release, as those records have been paid for generations ago.
Long-term, media or HD content will not come on a silver disc, but right now, let's be honest: downloads offer amazing convenience but piss-poor resolution and quality. If given the choice between hashed-out MP3s and vinyl, I could see why some might chose vinyl. If the example of the Apple iPod taught us anything, it's that mainstream consumers will buy convenience over performance, which is audiophilia's biggest worry going forward. The next generation of audiophiles won't find the second order distortion of vinyl (or tubes) as important as having their entire music collection loaded into their Samsung Galaxy tablets and speaking flawlessly to their audio systems via Bluetooth or some other wireless codex.
I am sure some people are going to be pissed off, but the facts need to come to light, because too much smoke is being blown up our collective asses about how 39 percent growth reprints a meaningful trend. If vinyl grows 39 percent for the next ten years, it still won't be meaningful compared to an also-dead format, the compact disc. What we need is an audiophile format that is as analogous to the master as possible, whether the format is analog or digital. Two-inch analog master tapes (which none of us have - even those with quarter-inch reel-to-reel decks) can get you really close to the master tape, but the format is unwieldy for a multitude of reasons. Blu-ray, from the digital angle, can deliver the desired resolution to get your audio system playing near-master tape levels of resolution befitting a killer audio rig and that can come from a cheapie player and a HDMI cable. Digital downloads from the likes of HD Tracks and other venues also can fuel your audio race car suitably, but without meaningful integration into platforms like Apple computers, tablets and AppleTV, most audiophile downloads are well-intentioned options that live on their own technological island.
Neil Young gets the importance of music in HD, which was the main reason for the launch of his Pono music service. David Chesky, with his HD Tracks, also sees the path to the future. Sadly, Steve Jobs isn't around, as he was reportedly an audiophile with a pretty stout system. Long-term, let's hope that the Tim Cooks of the world figure out that you can resell every record ever made millions and millions of times over again with no pressing costs, no printing costs, no retail middlemen and so on. It's a huge business opportunity, but more important, it's respectful to the art of music.