The mainstream press tends to favour two types of audio-related story. The first is often a veiled attack on hi-res audio; any piece of hardware that promotes the virtues of bit- and sample-rates higher than 16bit/44.1kHz is called out as either snake oil, ludicrously expensive or both.
At the root of the Pono backlash we find inverted snobbery. Apparently, spending money on hi-res PCM or DSD downloads in pursuit of better sound is a fool’s errand. Why? Because the man in the street can’t hear any improvement over the CD equivalent. The dogma often arrives wrapped in the conclusion that Spotify’s lossy-encoded material is good enough.
Anyone who thinks otherwise is either a fool or a communist, or so we are told. It’s like the audio world’s very own strand of anti-intellectualism.
In the wake of Jay Z’s Tidal re-launch, a large section of the tech press concluded that spending twice the usual subscription fee (~US$10/month) on lossless streaming (US$20) is utter madness. See Vox, Lily Allen, CNBC and Tech Radar (who reckon that the US$10 saved is more wisely spent on concert tickets).
The second type of story favoured by our mainstream bedfellows is that vinyl is back in a big way and that its resurgence is down to people waking up from the decade-long sleepwalk towards lossy compression – in other words, people dig vinyl because it sounds better than Spotify or iTunes downloads.
Can you smell the irony yet?
That was certainly the case with a slot than ran on Australia’s ABC news this week. Watch the seven-minute video here:
Missing from the ABC’s piece is mention of sound quality. The one young fella who did allude to vinyl’s ‘vintage sound’ might have inadvertently been referring to qualities such as lack of transient definition, a paucity of dynamics and layer congeal as called out by DAR readers in a recent comparison of entry-level turntable needle-drop and a CD-ripped to FLAC. I’m not saying all vinyl playback is inferior to digital, just that you need to spend a fair chunk of cash to level the playing field.
The ABC also tells us that young people are leading the charge with the vinyl revival. That’s certainly believable when looking at the best selling records of 2014: Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, Beck, Lana Del Rey and The Black Keys.
But why young people? Is it because they were raised on a diet of lossy encoding? Kids today don’t do CDs so listening to a record is likely their only exposure to lossless audio.
Furthermore, spinning a record is more likely to demand active – rather than passive – listening.
The video also features an older listener espousing the mantra that “It has to be vinyl!”. The cynic in me wonders if he’s simply falling victim to his own sense of nostalgia. It’s hard to sever the emotional connection to a format so deeply inked during one’s teenage years.
Where the two generations converge is with Gen Y’s perceived nostalgia for Gen X’s preferred format. And it’s no secret that nostalgia is a powerful motivator.
An emotional attachment to vinyl is why I keep coming back to the black stuff. Record stores feel like magical places where the hope of finding a lost treasure is what keeps punters flicking through the racks. This kind of narrative is as old as the format itself.
Interestingly, the vinyl pressing plant owner Paul Rigby featured in the video seems unsure if vinyl’s comeback will hold as a lasting trend. Maybe Neil Young was right about it being a ‘fashion statement’.
Whatever the reasons for record sales holding course to the up and up, it seems sound quality isn’t necessarily the primary contributing factor. As mentioned in the video, it could be because a record better connotes the value of music than a download? I can get behind that.
Waters muddy slightly when we see that it only takes one LP purchase per month to spend the same as a monthly subscription to Tidal Hifi or Qobuz Hifi, which grants the user access to a library of thousands of albums in lossless audio.
Sadly, it would appear that the mainstream press has a problem with digital audiophiles pursuing the ultimate in sound quality but they don’t apply the same logic to vinyl buyers. A desire to reach beyond the lossy encoding of Spotify with an technically inferior format is to be applauded whereas doing so in the digital realm isn’t.
Can you picture Yahoo’s David Pogue blind testing people’s ability to pick audible differences between a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC turntable + Schiit Mani phono stage and an iPhone? I can’t. That’s because there’s a double-standard at play in the mainstream press. Put simply, it’s this: if you buy a Rega RP1 you’re cool, but spend that same money on a Tidal Hifi subscription or Pono Player and you’re moron.
The air is so thick with irony you can taste it.
One final thought: the plural of vinyl is vinyl.
Further information: Record Store Day 2015