Vinyl LP records have magic

Vinyl 33 RPM LP record
My photo of a 33rpm vinyl LP, with a tricky bit of lighting .

There’s a great cartoon showing 2 guys standing in front of an obviously very pricey audio system featuring a high end turntable. One says to the other “The things that attracted me to vinyl were the expense and the inconvenience.”

That may be how it is today, but when I was a kid… vinyl LPs were technology. I remember holding them up to the daylight and seeing how it diffused and diffracted across those dense, complex tracks. They contained an impossible amount of information: the sound of every instrument in an orchestra, all it once, captured and stored at microscopic size. Another still-new technology – electronics – somehow reanimated an entire hour of past reality.

I have a turntable and a shelf of vinyl LPs, mostly jazz from the 60s and 70s. I know that technically there’s no way vinyl can match the frequency range, dynamic range and S/N numbers of digital audio. But the question is, what do the better specs of digital recordings really mean to the human ear? I’d say “not much”.

Human hearing extends from about 20hz to 20,000hz. Good vinyl recordings can get down to 20hz. As a typical adult, I can’t hear anything remotely close to 20,000hz. So does it matter that a digital track goes to 10hz or above 20k?

Vinyl can’t match digital’s dynamic range, and that’s a clearly audible difference. But commercial recordings have always been compressed, because that’s how we like to listen. I’ve heard ‘uncompressed’ classical recordings and found them sort of tiresome; you strain to hear that quiet passage that you like so much, then get blown out of your chair by a big brass entrance. You may end up constantly fiddling with the volume even while telling yourself how amazing the sound is.

When I spin a vinyl LP, it just sounds better. Bigger, fuller sound. More “real” without necessarily being more realistic. That’s just how it is; a case where perception is reality.

And then there are the album covers. One thing that got me interested in photography early on was the beautiful film images of Pete Turner on the covers of CTI records.

So yes maybe there’s magic in “the physical object”, and in the ritual of placing it on the turntable and spinning it up. I just go with it.

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