Which Audio Format is Best? - The Answer May Surprise You
MUSIC is not a GENRE - Season 3 Episode #1
ALL ABOUT IT
FEATURED MUSIC: REC - The Weird Objective (five albums, 32 tracks)
Before I started podcasting, I was blogging weekly for a long while. I started with my cassette collection. When I finished with those and got ready to transition to vinyl, I took a pause to discuss the history of music formats, from as far back as late 19th century cylinders all the way up to present day streaming. (COOL LINK: http://bit.ly/AudioFormats)
As I transition from vinyl to CDs, we’re going to do something different. Let’s talk about what the best format is for music listening. Rather than discuss all of the 50 or so options, we’ll limit it to those formats most widely in use in the last 60 years. Namely, vinyl, cassettes, CDs and digital files (principally mp3s, wavs, and cloud-based streaming). Each of these formats has its fans:
VINYL people love the warm crackly sound, warts and all. It’s like cozying right up to a soothing fire, feeling the heat & hearing the wood simmer and pop. They love dropping the needle onto whatever song they want. They love the large artwork. They love the care needed to both maintain & listen to vinyl records - can’t dance too hard or the needle skips and you might scratch it!
CASSETTE people love the tight, sizzly sound free of pops and clicks, but with maybe a little tape warp thrown in for character. They love the portability. They love the angled inserts with art & text on every fold. The plastic case that serves equally well as a percussion instrument. They even love how easy it is to make their own cassette of music, or to repair a stretched tape with a pencil and a few spins.
CD people love the depth of sound and ability to capture every nuance on the sonic spectrum. They love the size, shape & ease of use. They really love how you can skip to any chosen song without lifting a needle or guessing where on the tape it is. They love how the insert is like a little mini vinyl art, but with as many folds & pages as the artist wants. So much more content on every level than every predecessor.
DIGITAL FILE people love how easy it is to collect and store music - either as actual files or streaming playlists. They love how you can choose an audio quality anywhere from the thinnest mp3 to the bulkiest wav & beyond – better even than CDs. They love how nearly every imaginable song is at their fingertips in an instant. How you can listen to a song & look up all the info & photos you could ever want at the same time on the same device. And they totally love how cheap digital is compared to every other format.
Yes, there are drawbacks to each. Vinyl and cassettes - the analog formats - warp and break easily. They’re harder to transport, store and play. Sonic quality tends to deteriorate over time. You can only capture a certain amount of the original sound production. These formats color the sonic output in ways that weren’t intended by the artist.
CDs and files - the digital formats - can sound “cold” and thin. Like the analog formats, CDs are also harder to transport & store, and to a lesser extent can degrade & suffer other damage. Digital files are harder to catalog and keep track of, and lack a tremendous amount of the other formats’ visual & textual representations. Their sound quality varies greatly, and the most compressed files (low end mp3s) sound as bad as an old tape on a crappy one-speaker boom box. Plus, while digital sound captures a much larger swath of the sonic spectrum in both breadth and depth, it misses the connective tissue that analog captures by default. The spaces between the ones & zeros.
So what’s the best format??
When I was young I had only vinyl, and I loved it. When cassettes came, I flipped. I could take them anywhere, even record vinyl onto blank ones and take THEM too. When CDs came, I couldn’t believe the sound quality. I couldn’t take them everywhere because portable players were scarce, so I got around that by recording them onto cassettes. When cars started including CD players standard, I left cassettes behind. It took me a loooong time to stop buying CDs, a good 15 years into the mp3/streaming age. I didn’t like having to download files & then either rip them onto a CD or upload them to a player. At the same time I was collecting them at a rate I could never have afforded otherwise. Once I got familiar with a streaming service I liked, I stopped buying CDs altogether, and have almost completely stopped downloading files too.
It’s possible to say all of the music I’ve chosen to listen to over the past 5-10 years I don’t actually “own”. I do miss holding the artwork, sharing physical music with others, and staring at my home collection the way I do with books. I miss some of the quirks & community feeling & especially the stores. But not so much that I feel the need to go back to the old ways.
Which leads FINALLY to an answer. The most important aspect of ALL of the above IS ... the MUSIC. The experience of listening to, absorbing, getting lost in the sounds & the words & the world the artists create. It doesn’t matter which format you prefer, as long as it gets you to the music you want. Debate the pros and cons. Make your case for your favorite. NONE of them are “the best”. What only ever matters is the music.
This is my band REC’s magnum opus, a minute chunk of the music I’ve created to be experienced:
What’s your history with music formats? What’s your favorite? Discuss dammit!