Is It Time To Downsize My Record Collection?

Does vinyl make any sense any more?

Record collection
Part of my record collection.

 Lloyd Alter

Many years ago, my wife and I bought a tiny geodesic dome by a lake, which rotted away and was replaced by a summer-only cabin. When we downsized to a much smaller living space in the city, I brought my stereo and all my records up north. Every summer when we came up I would pull out all my favorites and play them again; they always sounded wonderful and fresh, because it had been nine months since I last listened to them. And they always sounded better than CDs ever did, pumped through and 80s vintage Pioneer receiver and big Axiom speakers.

But then streaming came along, and Apple Music with just about every album I ever owned available on demand. I started listening to my favorites at home through the winter, so coming up and listening to them was no longer so special. Even when I was up in the cabin, I often listened with my phone and my Airpods instead of the stereo (my wife Kelly has different musical tastes).

I was also no longer so sure that the vinyl really sounded better. According to some experts, streaming is far better quality than CDs (or vinyl) ever were. Christian Thomas at Sound Guys explains that vinyl has less dynamic range; recordings had to be engineered so that the needle wouldn't literally jump out of the groove. He notes also that "this type of physical media can’t contain the same amount of data that a high-bitrate digital file would."

For a time, digital music was problematic. In the CD era, with new digital mixing capabilities, they "started over-using what’s called dynamic compression to make softer sounds louder in the final mix. By doing this, you can bring the average loudness up super high – something that record execs assumed would translate into better-selling records" so "over the period from 1980 to 2010, the average loudness of recorded music steadily got higher and higher." But they are not doing this anymore, and the mixes are much more natural. Thomas asks:

Now that digital music is starting to become less and less poorly-mixed, you’d think that vinyl would be on its way out again. For sure, hi-res digital music is a vastly superior format in both convenience and quality, so why would someone side with vinyl over MP3 or streaming?
After the Gold Rush
After the Gold Rush.  Lloyd Alter

We put it to the test recently, playing our old favorites from both vinyl and digital. For some of the albums, there is a lot of emotions tied into the vinyl; my wife Kelly's brother bought this when she was twelve. She knows every crackle and pop. I know that Neil Young hates digital versions, but I thought it sounded better without nearly 50 years of crackles and pops.

We played a lot of albums, and in almost every case, I preferred the cleanliness of the digital to the vinyl. At some point I wonder, is there any point in keeping the vinyl at all?

There are other factors; I own the albums and nobody can take them away from me or charge me more money for them. Album covers are a lost art. It's sometimes fun, playing with archaic technology. (I have a working dial phone here too!)

There is also the issue of royalties; if you care about supporting artists, they make a lot more money from vinyl. Caren Kelleher, founder and president of Gold Rush Vinyl, explains in Engadget:

Kelleher gave a presentation about why artists were frustrated with low royalty payments. One slide, in particular, caused a stir: the payout difference between physical and streaming. Her data showed that the average independent artist needed 2.5 million YouTube views or 368,000 Spotify streams to make the same amount as selling 100 vinyl records.

I have written for years about dematerialization, about downloading the virtual instead of buying the physical. About owning less stuff. Does having all this vinyl make any sense? I look forward to comments.