As publisher of AudiophileReview.com, I have been chiming in on Steven’s party lately with some hopefully provocative articles and discussion points designed to stir things up a little in a sometimes stagnant audiophile world. The hobby that I’ve been involved with since the age of fourteen (way back in 1988) is going through a sea change, as the Baby Boomers who pretty much made the hobby what it is today are struggling in many ways with how to pass on their audiophile legacy to the 70,000,000 plus American Millennials out there. The challenge is understandably hard. Millennials have always been big-time music lovers, but they consume music differently from Boomers or Gen-Xers, like me. They do a lot of things differently than the generation before them. They look at assets differently. They value experiences over tangible goods in ways that us old folk don’t always understand. What we do understand is this: the times, they are a-changin–like it or not.
One of the topics I have been hammering on here at AudiophileReview.com is the fact that, in terms of high-performance audio, vinyl is simply not even close to the state of the art for music playback. You’ve likely read it before… Limited dynamic range, high distortion, physical wear from the first time you spin disc. Worse yet, used record sales don’t help support the artists who make the music, and vinyl’s overall sales volume is about four percent of the total $8,900,000,000 of domestic music sales. In comparison (according to 2017 RIAA reported sales numbers) digital streaming and digital downloads make up a whopping 80 percent (65%+15%) of the total 8.9-billion-dollar music industry pie, and digital streaming and downloads are becoming more and more HD, with 96/24 options, MQA via Tidal, and more. But we’ve covered this before. A few times.
A point that I failed to make earlier was made eloquently by a self-proclaimed Millennial in the comments section of my last article. He isn’t saying vinyl is the be-all, end-all of audio, but that it has its place in an often overly digital world. More specifically, he was talking about learning to appreciate the cadence of a classic or concept record in the way the artist, engineer, and producer intended it. I remember when Edelman Public Relations sent me an Apple iPod two weeks before it was to hit the streets. My mind was completely blown. In the palm of my hand was pretty much my entire music collection, with an online store to potentially buy more. I could smash my portable Compact Disc player with a ball-peen hammer now, as this killer game-changer was more than I could ever dream of. I would be on a cross country flight and just hit “shuffle” and “play” and BOOM, I could have the iPod skip from one favorite track to another. It was almost too good to be true, but over time I learned there was a downside–something that isn’t lost on our Millennial reader. Not every album that I love translates well to “shuffle,” and while to this day I shuffle my way through my music all day while working at my desk, I do stumble upon some stinkers in the mix.
Take a double concept album like Pink Floyd’s The Wall and hit “shuffle.” The first thing you notice is that there is no rhyme or reason for why the tracks connect or flow. Roger Waters and the boys worked hard to build a flow, to control (and explode) the dynamic window. There is a carefully defined pace to the entire collection of songs. One might even argue that there are natural pauses in this ebb and flow that only vinyl can replicate, making it a bit more authentic experience.
One of my points that’s been missed by some in the often-active comment section of AudiophileReview.com is I don’t actually hate vinyl. It has its place in the world, just as some (like me!) prefer to read paper books over digital ones. My issue with vinyl is different. Too many audiophiles think that a) it sells well, which it doesn’t; b) it is high resolution, which it absolutely isn’t; and c) it represents the best that the AV industry can do in reproducing music today. The fact is: we live in a world where for $20 per month you can have largely HD access to nearly every record ever made, streaming right into your audiophile system. For true performance junkies, there are $20 digital downloads of some of the best, biggest RIAA certified platinum-selling albums of all time. We have access to better and better version of important music in huge volumes, yet for some reason the elders of the hobby are insistent upon clinging to the low-performance past. Car companies don’t do this. Ferrari, Porsche, and other exotic companies are making supercars with both combustion and electric powerplants. A car with an airbag and ABS brakes is better and safer. Nobody argues about that today. Is a classic muscle car from the late 1960s cool, fast, and torquey? Absolutely, it is. It’s a head-turner and truly collectable. My issue is this: said muscle car just is not the state-of-the-art for automotive design as of late 2018. In the audiophile world, the time has come for us audiophiles to understand what formats are what and where they stand in the pantheon of high-performance music playback.
I type this article with a pumpkin pie cooking in the oven on a gorgeous, 71-degree, crystal clear California Thanksgiving Day. I am thankful for a lot of things. Professionally, I am thankful that we have affordable HD streaming options including HD downloads which present options for people who want to push the limits of musical playback to the Nth degree. That has always been my goal, from the day my buddy and I went to SoundEx, a classic audiophile salon outside of Philadelphia (don’t look for it, it’s not there anymore), and bought a CD Stoplight and painted the edges of my Compact Disc green, to today, when I can use an iPad running a nicely programmed version of the Crestron App to cue up Jimi Hendrix, Yes, or whatever else I might be in the mood for in HD resolutions via Tidal in every room of my home. While analog (specifically vinyl) absolutely have their place in the audiophile world, I am thankful that we live in the salad days of audio. Thanks to digital music streaming and downloads, it’s never been easier, less expensive, or more inclusive to get access to the best sounding, closest-to-the-master-tape music than ever before.
But let’s not forget the point that the aforementioned commenter made. Access isn’t everything. Sometimes it’s about exploring a work of audible art in the way its creators intended. That doesn’t mean you have to do it on vinyl, but do take the time to actually enjoy albums from beginning to end, no matter how you experience them.