Dean Clough

April 27, 2021

Portico Darwin: Rediscovering Vinyl and Why

Like my Travel Guides, I will occasionally be doing special posts on Gear.  Topics might be headphones, clothes, shoes, networking equipment, whatever.   And like the Travel Guides, there is no Unwashed Masses nor KLUF sections (normally).

I'm going to (naturally) kick it off with music and specifically, vinyl records.

But a warning:  This Gear blog is long.  I mean super long.  I mean like holy-shit long.  And geeky.  I mean like holy-shit geeky.  If you have no or a limited interest in music and music technology, you can safely blow this one off.  But enjoy otherwise!

Confession:  I'm a real geekroid.  I love technology.  I love infrastructure.  I've read several books on automobile traffic and urban development.  I loved Douglas Coupland's long-ago book "Microserfs" because it hit so close to home.  You get it.   

And nowhere does this predilection mean more than with music.  I built a great business around it, and although I'm now just an educated enthusiast, I still really care.  Like OCD levels of caring.  Ask Julie.

So it went with my return to vinyl records. 

Let's delve into the various formats I've used to reproduce music, in order, since I got my first recording, a vinyl record version of Bachman Turner Overdrive's "Not Fragile" in 6th grade when I was 10.  "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet" indeed!

Vinyl (1974) -> Cassette -> CD (1985) -> MP3 -> High Res -> Vinyl (2020)

The years note when I made the move.  Vinyl and cassettes are analog media, while CD's, MP3's, and High Res audio are all digital.   Note I went to digital-only media way back in 1985 - over 35 years ago.

(Analog means:  the soundwaves from the musicians are represented in their entirety on vinyl or magnetic tape.  Digital means:  the soundwaves from the musicians are represented by sampling the soundwaves (think snapshot) and then representing those samples as the 0's and 1's of the digital realm.)

My geekdom meant that I've always wanted the latest/greatest.  So no questions were asked when it came time to dump the vinyl and bring on the CD's.  Of course it was better:  perfect sound, always.  No crackles.  No warping.  No skipping.  No cleaning.  No - anything.  But remember that for later:  no . . . anything.

And so it went.  No questions were asked either when it came time to move from CD's to MP3's.  My God - the ease!  The amazing awesomeness of holding all of your music on one device!  You could record your CD's to MP3's and SHARE them!  OMFG the age of Napster sent me over the edge, and my MP3 music collection grew into thousands of songs.   But I asked no questions about how the compression of the already-compromised CD audio that made it all possible resulted in really substandard sound quality - I didn't notice and I didn't care - it was like a sugar high.

But like most highs, you come down.  I knew something was wrong, and that's when I started my long climb back to quality sound.  That's when I got into high resolution audio, or what I'll call high res from here on.

(Warning:  the next little bit is going to get really extra geeky.  Try to ride it out - it will end soon.)

High res is a mostly successful attempt to restore what was stripped away by the Sony/Philips Red Book standard, i.e., the digital audio standard established by those companies when they jointly introduced the Compact Disc in 1982.  The Red Book standard in turn is based on Pulse Code Modulation, developed Claude Shannon et. al. at Bell Labs in the 1940's.   It is a technique for digitally representing an analog sound wave.

Shannon and his pals decided that since the human ear can't hear certain low and high frequencies, they could just be blown off when the sound wave was sampled.  They decided sampling a given soundwave 44,100 times per second (44.1 kHz), with each sample having ~ 65,000 possible values (16 bits) would be more than good enough.

And it kind of is - the sound of a typical CD is . . . Serviceable.  Maybe even Killer under the right circumstance or intoxicants. 

But what high resolution audio does is give you better sound than CD's (and obviously MP3's), but with the same wonderful convenience as MP3's.  That's because high resolution audio blows off the Red Book standard and samples the soundwave at 96 or even 192 kHz, and at 24 bits, giving much more information about each sample.  I for one, especially on quality gear, can indeed hear the difference (despite what the quacks at Bell Labs might have thought). 

(OK, the crazy geek shit is over - we now return to our normal broadcasting of this very long show)

From there, I started accepting nothing in my life less than CD quality, and preferably, high resolution.  So I re-recorded my own music at CD quality, and started buying my favorites in high resolution from places like HDTracks.  And signed up for Tidal, which alone with Qobuz offers high res streaming.  This is all still a thing in 2021, at least for weirdos like me.

The other, more famous streaming services?  Well, except for bits and pieces, it's a step backward, as what you're listening to are typically mid-quality MP3 files - so not even CD quality.  That's Apple Music, Spotify, Pandora, Amazon Prime and so on.  There are exceptions - Amazon Prime offers what they call a "high resolution" tier, but it's mostly Bogus.

But then:  Professor Howard Blum, Esq., during one of his very complex real estate and tax transactions, came across a vintage Yamaha turntable in near perfect condition.  Yes - a real, honest-to-God, clean-the-weed-on-the-"Physical Graffiti"-gatefold, turntable.  As a thank you for putting this together for him, he just flat out gave it to me.  No surprise, as anyone that knows the attorney-to-the-stars knows him to be extremely generous - at least with other people's stuff.  Look at this bad boy!


After pairing this beauty with this and these (good enough for Macca, good enough for me!), I literally and sincerely rediscovered what music sounds like.  Remember, it had been since the mid '80's that I had heard analog music.  Everything that I'd listened to since then - and I mean everything, including my oh-so-precious high res files - had been digital, and thus lacking.  Until now.     

When I got started, I of course got my favorites - that's "Abbey Road" spinning.  And no matter how familiar with a given work I may be, it was still like hearing it for the first time.  No joke.  I hope you'll try it sometime - you won't regret it.  I will sit and listen to albums I've heard literally thousands of times and absolutely hear new things I hadn't previously.  It's a revelation in the truest sense of the word.

Have I given up digital audio?  Absolutely not - in fact, I think I've reached a great balance for quality and convenience.  The majority of my listening is to high quality digital audio in the form of high res FLAC files or MQA streaming via Tidal, all via the Sonos-on-steroids Roon.  But wow is it nice to be able to hear the real thing when I choose, and that's why vinyl matters to me and is experiencing a major renaissance overall.

So there you have it.  More - way, way, way more - than you ever really wanted to know about any of this - you're welcome :)

As above, these "special" blog posts won't typically have an Unwashed Masses or KLUF section, but given today's topic, I of course must make an exception.  You may have noticed you now have access to tens of thousands of compressed MP3 files (see above), but this is about sound quality so of course there must be something better.

Sadly, there's no way for me to give you a vinyl record and the gear necessary to play it.  But here's something close:  America's greatest musician, Miles Davis, and a pristine, high res rendering of his of-another-world masterpiece "Sketches of Spain".   Here's the album art just to pretty up the end of this excruciatingly long post.  Thanks for hanging on this long.

About Dean Clough