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Will digital music kill vinyl anytime soon?

The LP fan base may make a lot of noise, but digital will eventually kill analog once and for all. Someday.

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An audio buddy recently asked me, "When will the LP bubble burst?" and I was at a total loss for words. The thought had never crossed my mind.

LPs aren't just black anymore!

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Back in the early 1980s it looked like the CD would kill the LP in a year or two -- digital would permanently rule the format roost. Here we are more than three decades on and LP sales are healthy, and turntables, from budget models like the Audio Technic ATH LP60 and Fluance RT-81, are selling briskly. Dozens of new ultra high-end models were on display at the High End Show in Munich in May of this year. The turntable market is booming. The CD format is still around, but new CD players are getting scarce.

CD and LP album sales are still very significant. According to an IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) report, physical music formats account for 30 percent of music industry revenue, compared to 38 percent from streaming worldwide in 2017. Physical format shares vary country by country with much higher percentages of market share in countries such as Japan (72 percent) and Germany (43 percent). So while the report claims worldwide CD sales are trending down, they're not anywhere near extinction. Vinyl sales grew by 22.3 percent, but make up just 3.7 percent of the total recorded worldwide music market in 2017.

As for streaming, there's a lot of churning on the digital side, MP3, DSD, FLAC, PCM, WAV, MQA, and so on. Digital is still evolving, while the LP format is solidly mature. In fact, nearly every LP made since 1948 is still playable on every turntable, and I think that extreme long-term stability accounts for some LP fans' loyalty to analog.

Meanwhile, the state of the art for turntables, tonearms, and phono cartridges is still improving. Every year the best LP playback gear pulls more music from the grooves. When I play records I've owned for decades on a new rig, the sound gets better and better. As for record wear, it's not a significant factor for LPs played on decent turntables.

From this vantage point in 2018, it looks like the future of physical digital formats like CD, SACD, Blu-ray, etc., doesn't look healthy over the long term thanks to streaming. Vinyl faces no direct competition; the only way to enjoy vinyl is to play LPs. Yes, of course, some folks digitize their vinyl collection, but they needed a turntable and LPs to do that in the first place.

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I've experimented with ripping LPs, and while the results can sound pretty good, I missed the touchy-feely aspects of playing records. The tactile, hands-on experience of pulling an LP from the sleeve, putting it on the turntable, and lowering the stylus into the groove are lost playing files. Files are so much more convenient, of course, and perfect for background music listening.

The vinyl bubble will burst at some point, but it's not going to happen anytime soon, mostly because vinyl doesn't require mammoth sales to stay viable. Vinyl pressing plants can survive pumping out hundreds of thousands, not millions of records a year. Turntable, tonearm, and phono cartridge companies are likewise sustainable with low-volume production.

Vinyl will remain a niche market over the next 10 years or so, but over the long term I don't see how LPs can compete with low-cost subscription streaming or free music on YouTube. That's where it's all headed.