Vinyl Hedonists: You're Just Too Highly Involved
By Chris Malone
In the world of consumer electronics, it's hard to think of a technology that has created more of a polarising effect than the vinyl recording medium. It's steady yet unswerving resurgence has led to reactions ranging from despair to delight—often opined most stridently from ghettoes of the ever expanding Internet in the relative anonymity of a banal screen name.
For simplicity, let's use the term "vinyl” to represent the commercially available microgroove long-play record format—often abbreviated to "LP” and also known as the phonograph record or gramophone record—that was standardised by manufacturers in the 1950s. If you find that simplistic generalisation morally repugnant, please discontinue your facile interest in this article and unearth some other pustule of the Internet to squeeze.
This article does not wish to scatter bytes of scientific or non-scientific data to the wind—even if distilled to colourful charts, wiggly waveforms, and spectacular spectrograms—in an attempt to supply yet another supposedly definitive answer on whether vinyl really sounds better than insert something else here.
Instead, I want to understand why vinyl has experienced a resurrection into mainstream public consciousness and why some of us think it is better.
The answer must lie in involvement.
If we contribute to something, we are more likely to value it. If we contribute to something pleasurable, we are likely to value it even more. In consumer behaviour theory, involvement is the importance of a product to the consumer.
If you own vinyl, I expect that you can vividly remember the first album you bought. Where it was, when it was, how you felt. That sort of thing.
This is because the purchasing transaction differs from every other home audio format that has come since. We engage our sight by pulling the record from its jacket, squinting in pursuit of scratches. Our olfactory sense is stimulated by the intoxicating amalgam of polyvinyl chloride and cardboard sleeve. We trawl our brain for answers to the codes scrawled or stamped into the dead-wax. We feel the quality of the jacket and the smoothness of the artwork. We might even audition a second-hand disc—not for the music itself but to critique it relative to our own grading standards. The acquisition of vinyl is ritualistic and it creates pleasurable memories through involvement of the senses.
Put simply, purchasing vinyl is a high-involvement and emotional decision.
To maximise the sonic enjoyment of vinyl, we setup our turntable (adjust and align our cartridge), clean our stylus, clean the surface of our record, place it on the platter, start the turntable, and gently lower the tonearm to the surface. At last, we can savour what we've worked for. But not for too long as we must flip the record to the other side after some 20 minutes or so and repeat that process, also a ritualistic one.
Whilst some would declare the aforementioned steps unnecessary, grossly overstated, riotously incorrect, or something, it cannot be denied that the ritual to vinyl hedonism requires significantly more effort than playing the same music from a CD—you know, the Compact Disc—or digital files, or a streaming service.
That's my point.
The reason why vinyl is so revered is because it involves us more completely in the process of obtaining music from it. We've invested energy and relish the reward more. It's a mathematical equation: enjoyment equals effort. We therefore actively listen to vinyl. We rarely put on a record in the background whilst performing household chores, for example.
Put simply, playing vinyl is a high-involvement and emotional process.
Right about now you're primed to pontificate another reason—vinyl reproduction captivates us because it simply sounds better. To tell me it tickles our ears because—ever since the time the Earth cooled and dinosaurs came—life, as we know it, is built analog not digital.
I told you already, I don't care!
Ponder what I'm saying about involvement.
Vinyl also possesses a property that makes it unique amongst the mainstream commercial audio formats—at home it cannot be copied any faster than real-time (or 1.35 times faster for the mathematical geniuses suggesting that a 33.33 RPM disc could be played back at 45 but how does that help?). If you want to "rip” a CD, you can do so in a fraction of the total playing time. Downloading a digital album takes minutes. Transferring a digital file to a mobile device can be done before you've thought about the next song you want to load on. We even had "high-speed dubbing” tape-to-tape decks for those that remember Compact Cassette. Even the replication of vinyl to another medium at home requires involvement.
The humble CD has become the forsaken middle child of the consumer audio hardware/software revolution that took us from physical/analog to physical/digital and, more recently, to virtual/digital. As the child that wholly embraced the taboo word "digital” head on, CD is now in its mid-30s and has now been largely marginalised for its considerable achievements and contributions to the world of home music listening. It now seems that if we want connection with our music, we use the old-new format of vinyl. If we want convenience, we use downloads or streaming.
Sure, but isn't vinyl the best consumer audio format? You're just too highly involved to hear otherwise.