In looking through my files I realized that I had written a long winded article on this very topic a number of years ago. I just posted it up on the Canuck Audio Mart, being Canadian, but it may be of interest here as well. The photo is outdated, but I'm reluctant to do any edits - just because.
The Pros and Cons of Buying New LPs
TL; DR: If you want great sound, maybe buy a CD. If you like LPs just because, that’s OK.
A bit of background – I’ve been buying and playing LPs since the late 70’s. I consider myself an audiophile and have a system that is highly revealing, very neutral and with a deep and accurate soundstage.
I currently have around 1,500 LP titles and play them on a regular basis. I’ve recorded over 1,200 LP’s to high resolution 24/96 FLAC files and playback from a dedicated music server. The sound from the LP or the digital playback is virtually identical. I also have close to 1,000 CDs that have been ripped and added to the music server.
I’ve posted details about my system under a slightly different user name – you can see that here:
Onto the topic at hand - I don’t want to rain on anybody’s parade, but here are the facts. With new LPs, you sometimes may be better off just buying a digital download or the CD.
Recording LPs went digital in the mid-80’s. LPs from that era will have a three letter code on them to indicate the Recording/Mixing/Mastering process as either Analog or Digital. For more information, Google SPARS code (Society of Professional Recording Services).
People used to look for the AAA code, believing that without the digital process it was a better recording. Conversely, something with a DDD was to be avoided. And, in some cases they may have been correct – digital back in the day wasn’t always well done – but of course the same thing can be said about any analog recording as well.
This brings us to the present day. There may be a few bands that use an analog board to record with but mixing and mastering will likely be with a Digital Audio Workshop (DAW) and all the tools that provides – that would give you the ADD code.
In other words, any LP that you buy today was recorded, mixed and mastered digitally to create, hopefully, a high resolution digital file – likely 24 bit and at either 96 kHz or 192 kHz frequency. Note that many people, including myself, believe that a 24/96 digital signal is capable of capturing the full detail of an analog recording.
That 24/96 or 24/192 file is converted to a lower level signal of 16/44.1 to make a CD.
Note: to calculate the bit rate for digital audio, multiply the sample rate (44,100) by 2 (for stereo) and by 16 (the number of bits in our digital numbers):
44,100 x 2 x 16 = 1,411,200 bits per second (bps) = 1,411 kbps
This is the bit rate for the standard CD. A lot of digital music will be much less than this. The maximum level of information from
an MP3 is 320 kbps. Of course, if you’re listening to your music with earbuds then it doesn’t matter anyway.
If you buy high resolution downloads instead of CDs that may not be what you’re getting. Many are simply up sampled CD signals that are sold for a premium. You can tell with a sonic analyzer, but that’s a different topic.
You reach the crossroads when you make a decision as to which musical format you should buy. The LP or the CD? Part of that decision should be the type and quality of hardware you have available for playback.
Let’s say you decide you want to buy LPs. We’ll ignore the quality of the original recording session and presume that whoever did it actually had a clue.
Now you need a turntable, a phono stage, a preamp/amplifier or an integrated amplifier or a receiver, which is an integrated amplifier with a tuner built into it – that for when people used to listen to radio. The preamp/integrated/receiver may or may not have a phono stage built-in. Obviously, you need speakers as well, but we’ll ignore that because you can always use headphones.
Now, with an LP you theoretically have an advantage over the CD. The resolution of the analog signal is infinite, whereas from the CD there is a brick wall at 22.05 kHz – above that there’s no more musical signal. Some people say that once you get into the “dog whistle” range it doesn’t matter; our ears can’t hear it anyways. Others say that the analog artifacts and blend of a full musical spectrum is appealing and more “life like”.
But, and a big but – if your LP was made from the same signal used to make the CD, then essentially you have an LP recording of a CD. Meaning – you may as well buy the CD. OK, you don’t get the 12 x 12 format with the artwork, and whatever poster/lyric sheet is thrown in but you’re also not paying a premium for the LP.
How do you know what level of digital recording was used to make the two track mixdown for your LP? You don’t. You don’t, and you never will. In fact, many of the premium reissues from top bands like the Beatles or Led Zeppelin are known to have been made from 24/96 digital signals.
As I mentioned earlier, many believe that 24/96 can fully capture the analog signal. OK, let’s say that’s true – but if so then why not just buy the high resolution digital files? I don’t and I don’t buy the LPs either because I can’t justify the cost.
The labels have people believing that the 24/96 album is worth $25 dollars because it’s better than the 16/44.1 at $12 to $16. You just need to remind yourself that no music label will ever do anything to benefit you, only themselves. That’s why I’ll buy the CD and pay the same or less than the digital download for a 16/44.1 - because I know what I’m getting and I like the savings – I can buy more music with the same budget.
That being said, then what advantage could there be in buying the LP as opposed to that digital file or the CD? Technically speaking, there’s one big advantage. The accuracy and quality of the Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) used to make that two track tape master for the pressing plant. For example, if you buy a MOFI album at a premium that was made from a high resolution digital signal, you know that they’re going to use a DAC that you very likely can’t afford. But you can afford the album.
But how did you win?
Now you’ve placed the emphasis on a quality sound playback onto your turntable, cartridge and phono stage. For high quality sound you’re talking about thousands of dollars, not hundreds. Yeah, I know, you can get an old direct drive turntable and a cartridge for a few hundred dollars and it will play and it will make sound through your system. But, here’s the key question. If you had bought a decent CD player or a laptop and an external DAC for the same money, would you have a better sound?
Before we move on, you need to answer that question. Is your goal to have the best sound playback system that you can afford? If your answer is yes, then stick with digital files or CDs. If the answer is no, I just like LPs because they’re cool and I find it interesting, then let that be the deciding factor.
CD or Digital Playback
If you play a CD at home, you’re using the DAC built into your CD player. How good is it? It depends on how much your CD player cost. If you use a digital player (or even a laptop) and a separate DAC like I do, then you have a better idea of what those components can do and where improvements can be made. Plus, you have a huge support community of people who have gone through a lengthy evolutionary process. And, used CDs can be found in many stores for a very reasonable price.
With digital components you do have an advantage in that high end CD players are available for a fraction of their original cost as everyone moves onto digital players and outboard DACs. USB powered DACs costing only a couple of hundred dollars will have a sound that will, in my opinion, be greater than what you could expect from the same money spent on a turntable and cartridge that may or may not be properly setup or even compatible with each other.
And, let’s not forget that CDs became popular for very good reason. You didn’t have to worry about how to setup a turntable or scratching expensive records. You could play CDs anywhere and they didn’t wear out. All of that is still true.
I continue to buy LPs, but in a very limited and specific fashion. That’s either for music I never had but that now interests me, or with titles I need to fill a gap in the collection. But the deciding factor is always pre or post digital era. If before, LP is what I want - if after, I don’t care so much. I will never buy a new title on LP but will buy a CD of that title.
If I’m missing an LP to fill out a certain group, such as the Big Six from Black Sabbath, I will buy a reissue, begrudgingly, but only from a known and reputable label. That’s with the understanding that it will either be from a master tape or a safety tape made from the master, or a high resolution digital file. If the latter, I’m not happy about it but there’s nothing I can do. For example, I was missing Black Sabbath – Sabotage and with originals for the first five had to fill it out with a reissue. Unfortunately, where I live shipping original albums from a site like Discogs is just too expensive.
You do need to be careful with some of the reissue labels – some are known to make LPs from a CD! It’s like the early days of DVD reissues where you can tell some were made from a VHS tape. You can’t replace content that wasn’t there in the first place.
For any new music that interests me, I buy CDs. I never play them, not even once. I rip them to my music library and then once a bunch has piled up I send them on to my brother. He still likes to use a CD player.
Best of luck with your musical adventure! Above all, whether LP or CD, enjoy the music.