Digital and analog audio’s curious coexistence

Since nearly all music is digitally recorded, why buy a turntable?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

It's a funny thing, the ongoing turntable sales surge shows no signs of slowing down, but nearly all new music is recorded digitally. It seems like a contradiction, turntables and LPs are purely analog in nature, but nearly all new (not remastered LPs) made over the last 30+ years were recorded, mixed, and mastered from digital sources. Older, pre 1980 LPs were made in an all-analog world. Today's LPs are hybrids of a sort, the grooves are still analog, but the music was probably made in the digital domain.


Vinyl LPs look cool.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

Be that as it may, LPs, regardless of vintage, can sound great. While pre-1980s records may be richer in tone and warmth, there are lots of more recent albums that sound just as good or better. In other words vinyl's sound quality or lack thereof has mostly to do with the quality of the original recording, and the choices made by the recording, mixing, and mastering engineers.

Despite the overwhelming number of digital recordings, there is still a tiny percentage of all-analog recordings being made. To cite one mostly analog studio, the legendary Electrical Audio, which owner Steve Albini told me records and mixes around 70 percent of all of its sessions on tape.

For the vinyl curious

Still, if you're new to vinyl I'd recommend buying a few LPs manufactured before 1980 to experience what 100 percent all-analog LPs sound like. A 34-year-old friend I interviewed about LPs put it this way, "Records are beautiful, they're beautiful," and she noted that listening to 1960s and 1970s music that was originally released on vinyl is like reading literature in the original language -- the music makes more sense. I agree, converting analog recordings to digital inevitably changes the sound in ways the band never intended.

For lots of people drawn to the glories of turntables and LPs, the appeal may have just as much to do with the hands-on physicality of playing records as their sound quality. You're more involved with the music because you're more engaged than you would be streaming files. Playing LPs is more "work," you have to go over to where the LPs are, pick one out, take the record out of the sleeve, put it on the turntable platter, and put the "needle" in the groove. Twenty minutes later when the LP's side is over, you have to repeat the process.

Streaming music is no doubt vastly more convenient and less expensive than buying LPs and maintaining a turntable. But listening to music on LP is something to be savored. Some new-to-vinyl converts tell me they pay more attention to music when they play records than when they stream music. Or that it's all about the difference between background and foreground listening. Digital is fine when you're washing dishes, but when you want to really connect with the music, put on a LP.  

Turntable and LPs aren't for everybody, but for the vinyl curious there are a number of fairly affordable turntables to consider, starting with the Audio Technica AT LP60, Fluance RT81, or Rega Planar 3 turntables.