CDs or vinyl?
July 14, 2014 12:39 PM   Subscribe

I have a CD player, an iPod, and a record player. What kind of physical media should I buy?

As stated, I have the ~technology~ to play any kind of popular physical media. About 80-90% of the music I buy is purchased from Amazon or iTunes, usually downloaded directly to my phone/mp3 player. The remaining percentage is random vinyl I buy from the record store when I'm in a happy neighborhood-traipsing kind of mood.

Seeing as most music purchased on Amazon as physical media (vinyl or CD) is now instantly delivered to your Cloud as digital music, and vinyl and CDs are both basically outdated media at this point, is there a clear advantage to collecting either one? The only advantage I could think of was if in the future I buy a used car that only has a CD player. Also, new vinyl is more expensive, but old vinyl is cheap. I am a humble lady who will not be spending a ton of money on music or equipment. The advantage of vinyl to me is that it's fun.

I am not opposed to CDs, or super into the "ritual" of vinyl, I just can't think of a solid reason to go with either now that they're both sort of pointless. CDs are smaller and easier to take care of, but if vinyl is more fun, and most of my music is also digital, is there any point in owning CDs at all?

Anyone believe there is a clear advantage I am forgetting? Or anyone in a similar dilemma have data on how they use their CD vs. vinyl collections?
posted by stoneandstar to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I think you've answered your own question. You consider digital music superior to CDs or vinyl. The only reason I can think of your needing a physical medium is for permanent backup purposes. I personally prefer vinyl, I think it has a richer quality than CDs, but that's a personal preference.
posted by Meep! Eek! at 12:55 PM on July 14, 2014

CDs are dependable, convenient in the home and sound nice, but they are becoming disposable: buy a new one and it's instantly worth half or less than you pay for it.

Vinyl is inconvenient (especially when you move home!) but has abundant charms. Although it is easy to damage, if kept in good condition it will not depreciate in value. If at some stage you decide to get rid of the vinyl you have bought, you will get your money back, at the very least. In this sense, you've nothing to lose.

I have never paid for a download, so I don't know much about that. My choice is to buy almost exclusively vinyl and then download the music as well for use on iPod etc. New vinyl usually comes with a code to download the mp3s. When I buy old records, I download the mp3s through Soulseek (still in a healthy state!) or other methods. Of course, if I buy, say, an old second-hand Neil Young record, he gets no money, and he certainly doesn't get any when I download another copy. Some people would be uncomfortable with this. An ethical option might be to buy the record and then use software to play it into your computer and record it to disk. Neil Young still doesn't get any money, but at least you're punished by having to waste an hour.
posted by cincinnatus c at 12:57 PM on July 14, 2014

One argument goes beyond personal practicality and addresses the broader music retail ecosystem: if you like traipsing round record shops, then buying vinyl (especially limited/exclusive/RSD vinyl) helps keep them around for future traipsing for as long as labels consider indie retail valuable and provide vinyl exclusives. But that kind of purchase is often like a T-shirt you're never going to wear, or if you do wear it, you're not going to be eating spaghetti.
posted by holgate at 1:00 PM on July 14, 2014

You get bigger cover art and liner notes on vinyl, if you care about those things.
posted by monospace at 1:39 PM on July 14, 2014

It's sounds to me like you have your own preference, but for what it's worth, I like to buy records because I don't feel like I have a sense of ownership when I download music, and I feel like there's more "there" when you buy a record rather than a cd. Really though, at the end of the day it's all music and if downloading works for you, it works for you.
posted by catwash at 1:40 PM on July 14, 2014

I can turn MP3s into CDs with ease. I can't do the same with vinyl.

I personally only buy vinyl if I'm buying something physical because I like the ritual of putting on a record that I can't easily skip tracks on. Also, bigger cover art. The only time I buy CDs now is when it's a local/DIY band that I want to support by they haven't done a LP pressing yet.
posted by General Malaise at 1:43 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The only reason I buy physical media anymore is either if there's no downloadable version, the downloadable version's in a crappy format like 128k mp3, or if it's an artist I really like and I want the liner notes and things like that.

That being said, the CD gets ripped and stored on my hard drive. I don't actually listen to the CDs.
posted by Gev at 1:43 PM on July 14, 2014

is there any point in owning CDs at all?

I still buy the physical CDs whenever I can in order to make lossless backups I can trust. Apart from some exceptional cases where the physical CD may have manufacturing defects or be mastered from lossy files, having an original CD allows one to be confident that it was adequately ripped. Otherwise one needs to trust the online store to properly source their files. If this sounds too perfectionist, then you probably don't need the CDs and downloads are fine.
posted by Bangaioh at 2:21 PM on July 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

Yeah, if I like something enough to want it as a physical artifact (rather than a digital download or, more often, a Spotify playlist) I go whole hog and get the vinyl. On occasion I actually opt to buy the vinyl simply because I really like the cover art (and I have a few of those 12x12 inch picture frames hanging on my wall so it's nice to be able to swap the art out occasionally). 19 times out of 20 a download code is enclosed with the vinyl, and much of the time Amazon's Autorip service has already done the work for me.

What's even nicer is when the record company slips the actual CD inside. I was really pleased with last year's Neko Case album in this regard — beautiful two-LP set (with the "bonus tracks" on side 3, as I recall) with a CD slipped in. Modern Vampires of the City is another terrific vinyl package (with a fold-out poster!) that includes a CD. Best of all worlds — you get the fetishist artifact, the boring lossless backup, and the convenient MP3 files. Win-win-win. They do tend to be more expensive, but I don't mind because Spotify saves me so much money that it feels like stealing.
posted by Mothlight at 2:24 PM on July 14, 2014 [2 favorites]

Just to clarify, I am deciding whether to buy vinyl or CDs in situations where both purchases also come with a free digital download code for all music on the album. So in other words, when I buy a single song, I'll just buy the digital download, but when I buy an album, I'd rather buy the physical album (on either CD or vinyl) and download the pristine digital files as well (which usually come as a free bonus) as a backup and for making playlists.

So while making a backup in this situation isn't necessary (you already get the back-ups files automatically, for free, in pristine condition), I was wondering which physical media has more advantages, in the opinion of y'all. Because I grew up in the time of CDs, I tend to think of CDs as theeee format, and buying vinyl feels a little deliberate-- but on the other hand vinyl is fun, and I struggle to find a real use for CDs.

Mothlight, that is awesome-- I didn't know some vinyl came with the CD as well!
posted by stoneandstar at 2:29 PM on July 14, 2014

As others have noted, it sounds like you already have found your happy place:

* Digital media for the majority of purchases and convenience,
* Vinyl on a whim
* CDs when digital copies aren't available (?)

Other points not mentioned:

The good:
* Digital media is often cheaper, and can be easily duplicated for safe-keeping
* You can still find CD players almost everywhere, while you may have trouble finding a way to play back digital media with ease (especially for car trips)
* You can extract more "detail" from vinyl (CDs us a digital 16-bit/44.1kHz system, while vinyl can be copied at 24-bit/96kHz), and digital audio can go higher. Of course, you'll need a sound system to support it, speakers to display that level of detail, and focus on the music enough to notice the differences between different compression levels

The bad:
* iTunes AAC format is not universally supported, either for playback or burning to CDs,
* The digital formats you mention (Amazon MP3 and iTunes AAC) are lossy, so are best when kept in their present format, and should not be burnt to CD, then re-ripped, or transferred from iTunes AAC format to MP3, if you can avoid it, as each iteration will introduce new artifacts and distortions

The other:
* Each format will have it's set of exclusive tracks, with no rhyme or reason

There is no magic data to crunch, it all comes down to personal preferences and what you care about. Some people are fans of lossless audio, and even CDs aren't good enough (see: Super Audio CDs and even Neil Young's new HD audio player).

One clarification: Vinyl does not magically hold its price - as you noted, you can get vinyl for super cheap, even in great quality. True, used CDs can be worthless, but the same can be said for vinyl that no one wants to buy. There are just a LOT more CDs floating around now.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:31 PM on July 14, 2014

CDs have better sound quality. The "warmth" some people attribute to vinyl is actually altered frequencies.

Previous thread on why it's still worth buying CDs. I gave these reasons CDs are still worthwhile (I've deleted some of my points that don't seem to apply to you):

- I especially like the packaging, which could include the artwork, the liner notes, or even the physical material it's made of.

- I'm a big fan of the artist, so I like the idea of having a physical representation of them in my home in addition to the fact that I like listening to the music. It's like having a bookcase with books by your favorite authors. Yes, the main reason to have them is because you enjoy reading the books, but they also serve a function of signaling: "This is important to me. It's part of my home."

- The CD includes a bonus DVD.

- It's a box set or some other unusual album, which will motivate me to go deeper into the artist's catalogue than I might have otherwise done. If the alternative is buying the artist's most famous album as an mp3 on sale at Amazon for $5, I might be pleased to have gotten an objectively good bargain, but I also might end up with a more mainstream, obvious, safe, predictable experience.

- I'm going shopping because that's a fun thing to do, and I don't want to feel like I'm going away empty-handed.

- It was given to me as a gift, which I encourage since (a) one nice thing about gifts is you can get high-quality items that you might not have paid your own money for, and (b) a physical gift is more personal.
posted by John Cohen at 2:38 PM on July 14, 2014 [3 favorites]

As someone who has thousands of records collecting dust in storage from my djing days, digital. Vinyl records are a pain in the ass, don't last, and don't remotely sound better than digital (every new song being produced today is mixed digitally -- you're only going to lose sound quality pressing it to vinyl)..

Buy vinyl if you particularly love the packaging and want a collectors item, otherwise, just get digital.
posted by empath at 2:42 PM on July 14, 2014

I am not a music buff, and did not know the following

The digital formats you mention (Amazon MP3 and iTunes AAC) are lossy, so are best when kept in their present format, and should not be burnt to CD, then re-ripped, or transferred from iTunes AAC format to MP3, if you can avoid it, as each iteration will introduce new artifacts and distortions

... so thank you very much!
posted by stoneandstar at 2:46 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

The production of CDs and Vinyl may be identical, but the mastering is often (but not always) very different. If you look up a few albums in the DR database you will see that often the vinyl has a better loudness rating than the CD.

So advantage of buying CD: It's cheaper. The sound will be pretty close to the download MP3 so if your hard drive ever crashes and all your backups & download codes fail, you could re-rip the CD to get the same music back.

Advantage of buying vinyl: It will sound different, on the right setup it can sound amazing, if you get lucky it may go up in value. One thing to watch out for is the limited running time can mean you get fewer tracks.

I tend to be pragmatic, some issues are better on vinyl some are better on CD - it's a good idea to buy one or two albums on both formats so you can compare for yourself.
posted by Lanark at 4:42 PM on July 14, 2014

If you're not into the ritual of vinyl — if you haven't fallen in love with the format —then buying records is just going to annoy you at some point in the future: either when you move or when you run out of shelf space.

I find the fun of vinyl is largely in it's provenance — this record is FROM THE PAST! Keep buying cheap used records and enjoying them.

Buy other things digital only or on CD for reasons stated above.
posted by wemayfreeze at 4:55 PM on July 14, 2014

> You can extract more "detail" from vinyl (CDs us a digital 16-bit/44.1kHz system, while vinyl can be copied at 24-bit/96kHz)

There are valid reasons for preferring vinyl to CD, most of them already mentioned in this thread, but technical superiority of the format is definitely not one of them.

Some people are fans of lossless audio, and even CDs aren't good enough

CD audio is as good as it needs to be for music playback (but not for recording/editing, higher bit-depth and sample rates make perfect sense in those cases). Snake oil "hi-res audio" for playback is not only a waste of space/bandwidth, it can even be detrimental to sound quality. Recommended viewing: Digital Show & Tell.
And keep in mind that occasionally these 24bit FLAC files you may find for sale are nothing more than 16bit audio padded with zeros.

> I am not a music buff, and did not know the following

Well, if you do care about losslessness but would rather do without the physical CD (or prefer the vinyl), you could always purchase the downloadable files and then find a good rip via P2P for backup. I'm not sure if this is technically legal but it's morally acceptable for me. It also saves you the trouble of ripping the CD yourself.

With lossless downloads supposedly originating from a audio CD, you can check for accuracy using software such as CueTools that verifies rips against the AccurateRip database; anecdotally, I once purchased a CD rip from a label's digital store that not only wasn't bit-perfect, it actually had audible glitches in one of the tracks.
With lossy downloads, there's no way you can tell if your mp3 is in fact a lossy transcode (meaning, encoded from a previous lossy file) or not, you're entirely at the mercy of the online store's quality control.
posted by Bangaioh at 5:48 PM on July 14, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is why I prefer CDs: they have a physical (& = spatial presence.) You can move them around your living spaces in extremely nuanced ways that are just not possible with files in the cloud or on a harddrive, or flashdrive, etc. (Where software constrains locatability. Even if you write your own.)

I also like that one does not have to have a device with file systems and computational capabilities on to listen to CDs. (Though perhaps this may be said to be a matter of degree.)
posted by bertran at 2:13 AM on July 15, 2014

Steve Hyden at Grantland just this week argued The Case for CDs.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 6:49 PM on July 15, 2014

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