The LP/CD smackdown

What's better: CD or LP? Many audiophiles favor LPs for sound quality, but CD wins on convenience and portability counts.

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

When the CD was introduced in 1982, everyone thought the LP's days were numbered, but it's still here. Now it's starting to look like the LP might outlast the CD.

Steve Guttenberg

Of course "record stores" are also on the endangered species list; here in NYC, Tower, Virgin, and Sam Goody are long-gone, but J & R Music World in lower Manhattan is the last remaining full-size outfit. Smaller shops are hanging in there, too.

You can still buy CDs and LPs online, and vinyl's selection is getting better and better. So if you're a music lover, what should you buy, CD or LP? First, it depends on whether you can get the music you want on vinyl.

Sound quality issues aren't black and white. CD wins in terms of noise-free listening, though clean records, played on a decent turntable can sound amazingly quiet. But even then, there will be occasional clicks and pops. That's a deal breaker for some, but if you've never heard records played on a decent turntable, you don't know how quiet records can be.

LPs can sound warmer, fuller, and more natural than CDs, and way better than low-bit MP3 and AAC variants. LP sound seems to engage listeners in a very different way than digital recordings do. It's not that digital sounds bad, but vinyl is more fun to listen to. Music on LP seems more immediate and realistic than digital. Oh, and it's worth noting that most people who use vinyl actually listen to music, while digital listeners rarely do. Digital makes do as background sound. That's just the way it is. If you can't see yourself ever really listening to music--without talking, reading, working on the computer, etc--sure, CDs and MP3s are perfectly fine.

Then there's the question of owning physical media. For some, that's a significant downside. CD and/or LP storage can take up a lot of living space, but for others owning and collecting CDs and LPs is a positive. They seek out first pressings of their favorite music, the collector market for LPs shows no signs of letting up. The ritual of sliding an LP out of the record jacket, placing the LP on the platter and lowering the "needle" into the groove adds something to the experience.

LP cover art is more enjoyable that of the CDs. Cradling the jacket and gazing into the psychedelic haze of Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," or decoding the meaning of the Talking Heads' "More Songs About Buildings and Food" cover art is nowhere as satisfying with the miniaturized CD versions.

Amassing an LP or CD collection is, for some, a lifelong project. Well-cared-for, LPs can be a source of pride for the owners. I still have records I bought and played as a teenager. The occasional scratch or pop just brings back more memories.

So what's better, CD or LP? That depends on how you listen, but if you listen at home, investing in a good turntable might be a good idea. If you rarely listen at home, vinyl doesn't make any sense.