August Intro: Digital Now Wins Out Over Vinyl, by David Hicks

4

Am I talking about sound quality?  No.  Although, I know some people may prefer the sound of digital files over vinyl’s sometimes associated pops and clicks and other surface noise. And though, surface noise aside, the inherent sound quality of vinyl has long been touted, even by me, as being superior to digital, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, the times they have changed.

But I’m not writing to argue about the evolution of the best DACs to playback digital files in a way that competes on an even footing with vinyl records.  I’m trying to posit the idea that, without digital, you are restricting yourself to a limited slice of the available musical pie.  With close to eight billion people on the planet, there is so much new music being released these days that anyone would be buried in LPs, and debt, if they tried to keep up by only buying vinyl records.  Even Michael Fremer keeps half of his records at someone else’s home.  True, vinyl records accounted for 27% of album sales in the US last year, but when you factor in streaming and downloads of single tracks that percentage drops to 3.6%.  And, when you take into account how little of the new material is released on vinyl you begin to realize that no amount of money will let you live out the dream of staying on top of new music by only buying 12-inch discs.  The truth is, there isn’t the production capacity to release all of the new music on vinyl even if there was a demand.

Am I saying quantity is enough of a reason to choose digital over vinyl?  Maybe not by itself.  But these aren’t the days of low-quality Napster music.  Today, if you have a high-resolution streaming service with a radio feature that introduces you to new music based upon the music you’ve chosen to listen to, you might be swayed to choose digital music if you were forced to choose.  Qobuz, as yet, does not have a radio feature, but Roon does and it works with Qobuz to introduce you to more new music than you can shake a bundle of sticks at.  I’m sure Roon’s radio feature also works with Tidal, and I’ve heard that Pandora, Spotify, and Apple Music will also perform this function for you.  But I’m not only discovering new music from Roon’s radio feature.  Several friends text me a few times a week with new music that they’ve discovered, and I can pull it up instantly on my phone or my computer and play it to see if I like it without having to spend x-amount on a vinyl record only to possibly be disappointed with the purchase.  And likewise, I post new music in these group texts.  And on top of Roon radio and group texts of new music we all can digitally stream almost any radio station from anywhere in the world.  Remember when you discovered new music by listening to the radio?  FIP Radio from Paris streams a nice eclectic mix that often has me checking out artists I’ve not heard before, and as a bonus, I’ve programmed that station, and several others into Roon so that I can play them from any of the eight Roon endpoints in my home.  If you don’t have Roon, but you have a computer or a mobile phone or tablet, you can use Radio.Garden (http://radio.garden/listen/russkoe-radio/cmBzuC1O) to choose from over 8,000 radio stations around the globe and listen for free.

I know, some of you may be reading this and asking yourselves, who is writing this column?  Isn’t David Hicks the Director of Analog Development for the SFAS?  Well, you are correct.  Alón gave me that title because I had built a phono stage and a turntable.  And I still have thousands of records and four turntables including the DIY model.  I’m not saying I don’t love the whole vinyl record playback gestalt, or that I’m giving up on playing vinyl records.  What I’m saying is that I also love to stream Qobuz through Roon and access the thousands of digital albums that I’ve ripped, or downloaded, on my dedicated NAS and access all of that from any computer, tablet, or phone through Roon which magically sorts my files and the files on Qobuz.  I don’t have to search for an album upstairs or downstairs.  And, when played back through either of my two reference DACs I don’t feel like I’m shortchanging my ears with the sound quality of most of my digital files, including the standard Redbook CD files that once upon a time sounded somewhat pedestrian.

The result of having access to all of this music is that a shift in my thinking happened the other day.  It occurred to me that if I was forced to choose between vinyl and digital, my choice would no longer be vinyl.  A few years ago, that idea would have been musical heresy.  But today, for people who play vinyl and have a subscription to a streaming service like Qobuz, and maybe also have a collection of digital files on some kind of NAS, I think if they were forced to choose, most of them would say they’d pick digital if they were given only one choice for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately, at this point in my life, I don’t have to choose between vinyl or digital.  I’m enjoying the sound quality of both equally and I’m still buying vinyl records.  But, while giving up vinyl wouldn’t affect my ability to enjoy listening to music, it would definitely impact my relationship with playing music.  So, am I equivocating from my position in the majority of this piece that says digital wins?  Maybe. Listening to music involves so much more than just analyzing the collective vibration of the air molecules that we call music. Being an audiophile, I’ve melded the geekiness of enjoying playing with my stereo equipment and the experience of listening to the sound of the music.  Yes, I can separate the two so that I can enjoy the music based upon the music alone, but, but not without giving something up.  That something is just not any longer the quality of the sound of the music.

But I’d love to know if you had to choose a format, one or the other, which would you choose, and why?  Send your answers to query@sfaudiophilesociety.com.

San Francisco Audiophile Society

San Francisco Audiophile Society