During the last few years we've been hearing a lot about the resurgence of vinyl records, and some of that has to do with the sound of wax — as vinyl lovers are quick to point out — the warmth and realism of a good-sounding LP on the right system.
At the same time, some music listeners have pursued a very different path toward audio fidelity. You don't hear about it nearly as much as vinyl, but it has grown very quickly. Here I'm thinking of the computer audio enthusiasts who favor hi-res downloads while eschewing mp3's. Some of these listeners will tell you that hi-res files played on the right system sound as good as vinyl, and some will tell you that they go one better.
Not everyone agrees, however. One skeptic is our own Jonathan Valin, who addressed the analog-versus-digital debate in an editorial entitled "The Emperor's New Server." Valin bluntly stated that analog is better. As he put it, "Digital is to analog as a butterfly pinned and pressed under glass is to a butterfly in an open field."
That caused some controversy. The last I checked, 101 comments were left on the website, and many of them were highly critical of JV.
As the music editor for TAS, I think about such matters as I listen to vinyl, CDs, SACDs, Blu-ray discs, and hi-res downloads while considering the best choices for the magazine's next music section. I will confess that, while I enjoy debates about the best-sounding musical format, I strongly support anything that helps keep what's left of the music industry alive — or, more to the point, makes musicians money.
There I butt heads with a small percentage of the computer-audio community. Some devotees describe both high- and low-fidelity computer audio as The Final Word when it comes to the reproduction of music. In their eyes physical media are dinosaurs facing inevitable extinction. When confronted on this matter, some computer audiophiles shrug their shoulders and say, "There's nothing you can do about it."
I've heard this before, by the way. I heard it when the record industry placed all its bets on compact discs and then crash-dived after listeners started ripping them. If the only income musicians can generate comes from hi-res downloads—which, I might add, the music thieves have already learned how to pirate—then the budget required to make good-sounding recordings will become a thing of the past, and the music industry will find itself in a much worse place than it is now.
And sole reliance on digitally distributed music, be it low- or high-fidelity, has other consequences as well. Without things you can touch, see, and feel, we wouldn't have record stores, and we need to recognize how essential those stores are to bolstering and marketing music labels and musicians. (The fact that so many new ones have been popping up lately is an encouraging sign.) Let's face it, no one will ever enter a storefront to buy a download.
And I like the place where something intangible (music) meets something tangible (insert physical format). This I was reminded of during a recent record buy. My search for records often sends me to attics, basements, and garages where long-forgotten LPs have languished for decades. Suddenly I feel like an archaeologist as well as a music lover. A far cry from the antiseptic world of virtual audio, the dark, damp, moldy, smelly basement where I recently rummaged through thousands of 78s and 45s would have turned off some music lovers, but it was there that I unearthed a 78 of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven."
Even on a high-end system specifically targeted for 78s, "Roll Over Beethoven" will never approach audiophile quality. And 78s are kind of a hassle: They like to break, and they weigh too much. In some ways, then, an invisible, weight-free download or stream would be preferable to a brittle piece of shellac.
But in this case I'll take the 78, partly due to the history of that format. "Roll Over Beethoven" was a clever and lighthearted way of announcing that some major changes were taking place...so it's ironic that it was released on something as old-fashioned as a 78rpm disc. In 1956, when the song came out, that format was being Beethoven'd itself, adding further resonance to the 78.
In a world where downloads and streaming are the only game in town, such historical markers would be lost. We need artifacts that tell us where we are, where we're going, and where we've been, and Chuck Berry deserves more than a computer file to commemorate his genius.