Vinyl vs Tape vs CD vs MP3

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Listening to music can be a pasttime for some people, or easily just a form of entertainment. Whether it’s seeing a band live, or listening to a recording, the experience is a pleasurable one which everyone can relate to on one level or another. It seems as though the one thing people can’t agree on, is the best way to listen to music – which medium? The classic vinyl album which we’ve been producing for an incredibly long time, the formation of the compact tape that made music small and portable to the cd, whose function was exactly just then but the quality was exceedingly better. The mp3 came along and seemed to be the homewrecker of the music medium format family, far surpassing any qualities that these other formats owned to themselves that were unique. So here is the breeding ground for the debate; why do we listen to these formats? Which is better? Can there be a better format, or is it like choosing which one of your children you like most? And most of all, is this experience entirely personal taste?

So we’ve got the vinyl records. Originally known as gramophone records after they took over the medium of music used shortly before the turn of the 20th century. These records were pressed from liquid vinyl, with a groove carved in, to which the music was recorded. Records were the main medium for music which carried on for quite some time, there were so many different varieties of records available measured in inches, which dictated the quality and the length of the recording.

The vinyl record has been around for so long, but since the invention of the tape and its thorough use throughout the 80s, the record business seemed to diminish greatly and slowed down production until after ’91, when it they halted production commercially.

Now, records are used by music fanatics that demand quality (also known as audiophiles) and Dj’s who remix samples.

So what’s so great about the record? The record is essentially the reason why music has become so prevalent as it has today. With the ease of access that records were produced, and due to their high demand they were mass produced which made them cheaper and therefore easier to gain. From this, more records were recorded, radio stations were started, and the rock ‘n’ roll revolution took over the world. Records can be of incredibly high quality, and also give a certain air of authenticity to the experience of listening to music – after all, it was this that helped give the world a music industry. Record covers too were somewhat of a high-end art production. Each cover would be designed carefully and intricately, often with the lyrics of the songs on the back or the inside cover. Famous record covers, such as Led Zeppelin’s IV and Pink Floyd’s Darkside of the Moon, which have gained internationally recognised success.

For these reasons, vinyl records give music lovers and collectors a reminiscent approach to their music listening, which also creates a hobby and a passtime for those who like to remember one of the most traditional ways to listen to their music.

By the time 1982 had rolled around, the world’s music genres had changed so diversely from when audio tape was invented as a way of creating smaller, compact and essentially portable music. This revolutionised the way people thought about music with tape players and small tape ‘walkmans’ popping up all over the shops which essentially rendered the use of a vinyl recording obsolete. This medium was based on video recording software which had recently made its way into the market, with information being recorded on magnetic strips of film which would playback once the cogs were encouraged into movement through the tape player.

This form of music has since been rendered obsolete also, with very little defining its existance other than a stigma which it held onto so dearly. After the CD had made its way into the market, the cassette tape has become a signifier for the 80s. The tape image now represents a time of change within the world and genre; the idea of a mix tape still holds strong throughout pop culture, as well as tape recordings and home-made mix tapes being traded amongst friends.

There is little quality to the tape which has not been surpassed by the CD, as well as the album art leaving little to be desired due to the fact that tape containers were so small they were easily lost, and were too minute to be able to include a detailed cover which could be admired as art.

The CD came along towards the end of the 80s, but never really initialised within the industry until the 90s. The CD gave the people the two bonuses of a record and a tape into one: The small compact and transportable ability, combined with a decent size container allowing for album art. The CD is still holding strong as a main source of music buying, but since the invention of the MP3, CD sales have been severely struggling which also deters the social act of music buying and listening. CDs gave the world a higher quality sound than the tape, which audiophiles appreciated, as well as its close similarities to the record. The difference between the CD and the record, is that the CD worked as a digital entity, with the tracks being read through a laser within a cd player – much different to that of the needle in the vinyl groove aspect from the vinyl record.

When fully digitalised music came around, the world had changed itself all over again. Everyone had a computer and the use of the internet had permeated our culture so thoroughly that it became logical that music would take the next step and no longer exist to be a permanent and physical feature within our lives. MP3 has evolved so thoroughly that we no longer require a solid internet connection in order to obtain it – files can be downloaded from a wireless source, as well as transmitted through a bluetooth connection from one digital item of technology to another.

MP3 offers a higher quality of music again, with many different options as to how fast you wish to obtain it and the level of quality you desire. MP3 however; eliminates the need for cover art completely. There is no longer a physical item which people so often long for when it comes to buying something.

So how do they each compare? Vinyl is the traditional style that many hold as a token of their musical past, it has decent quality as well as album art that can be appreciated. The CD also has these aspects but without the authenticity of traditional music listening; due to the rate in which CDs are becoming obsolete, they too may soon be lumped into the category of ‘traditional.’ The tape is a downfall when it comes to listening to music. The quality is poor and the item is small disqualifying the need for album art. The MP3 also has no need for album art, but its winning point is within the quality of the music.

In this case, it’s to each their own. Everyone has their own way of listening to music, whether it be a social aspect, an entertainment aspect or even simply for a job! The quality of the music may change, but the content is always going to be the same. So whether you like convenience or authentic quality, is how you’re going to decide your ultimate music medium.

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15 Comments

  1. Interesting article. I think they all have their own merit but I’m a little against mp3/downloads simply because I wouldn’t want its success to totally eradicate vinyl and cd in the long run.

    Vinyl’s great, collectable, and if the artwork is something to behold, it can be very simple and still contribute to the overall feel and emotion of the music. It’s almost like a ritual; opening up the gatefold, looking at the detail of the pictures, placing the record on the turntable an the needle into the groove.

    The closest a cd has come to emulating this experience (and in many ways I believe it did) is 10,000 Days by Tool. Two lenses attached to the pack lets you look at incredible images in 3d.

    Tape gets chewed up, cd’s get scratched, mp3’s have no artwork/packaging (unless some can be downloaded which is going to be limited) and ultimately seem the product of music ‘artists’ with a limited vision.

    No matter how old and battered the vinyl in my collection gets, it still works. (I have my dads Electric Ladyland on vinyl from about 1971, still plays like a dream).

    And for the audiophiles among us who want things in 5.1 surround etc (I’ve only heard Nine Inch Nails ‘The Downward Spiral and that is truly amazing to hear in this format) the sometimes rough but genuine sound of vinyl gives off more of a feel than cd/digital formats. the music surrounds you, mixes in with the air in the room and becomes part of the atmosphere.

    OK, it sounds like I’m going overboard, but I really don’t know any other way to express how good the sound of vinyl is, the quality of it as a product, and how important it is that, even if cassette and cd come and go, there should always be a place for vinyl.

  2. Thanks for your great comment! I think we’re terribly alike, i’m an audiophile at heart too.

    After writing this article, I was so inspired I busted out my parents vinyl collection and spent the night listening to Led Zeppelin’s IV and it far overrides the atmosphere and quality that the same album has on cd.

    10,000 Days was a great experience, not only because i’d been waiting for another Tool album for quite some time, but rather the artwork and the effort put into the 3D viewing pushed the experience to a whole other level.

    The Downward Spiral too, in surround sound on vinyl was absolutely incredible to hear. Like you said, the scratched but amazingly genuine feel to it exemplifed the sound that just felt real.

    Perhaps that’s why I prefer vinyl – You go to a concert and there is always another aspect of noise. A cd/tape/mp3 format is so clean. There’s no scratches or skips that can add to the atmosphere and void any emotion that could have been created during recording.

    So don’t feel like you’re going overboard! I totally understand what you mean about the sound of vinyl, it’s a shame it’s just so damn expensive on my side of the planet.

  3. If you can get hold of The Smashing Pumpkins ‘Mellon Collie And The Infinite Sadness’ on LP, that’s another modern classic that improves with the vinyl experience.

    It comes on 3 lp’s, has a different booklet to the cd pack and a different track listing that suits the format of 3-5 songs per side.

  4. K. Kennedy. on

    “MP3 offers a higher quality of music again” ? ? ? ?

    Wrong. Objectively; subjectively; however it is viewed – an MP3 discards content and cannot be “higher quality” than its source. Just can’t! End of story. Not possible.

    Good article spoiled by drastic innaccuracy.

  5. I have a question….

    When iTunes (for example) make a song available for download, what is their source? Is it a CD the record labels send them? Or do they email the source files to iTunes? Or do they just send the file already in mp3 form?

    The point I’m trying to make is just how “watered down” could these mp3 files potentially be? (if at all of course)

    And the CD’s that hit our local music store shelves, do the labels burn off a few copies to send to the printers round the world who then distribute them? Is there a diminishing quality conspiracy going on there too?

    I’m asking because I simply don’t know and your comment got me thinking.

    I do think there is a mis-conception that mp3 offers higher quality (many people I know insist upon its superiority) but I believe this is down to better listening devices. I listen to CD’s at home either on a mac or a cheap CD player I got from Comet. Compared to this ‘cheap’ sound system, my girlfriends iPod’s headphones probably offer much better sound quality even if technically speaking it’s ‘poorer’.

    And after all this I must ask, is this poorer quality actually noticeable? Would you feel confident enough to take the ‘Pepsi’ music challenge???

  6. From the information i’ve gathered, there are many different sources from iTunes libraries.
    Naturally, the older stuff that’s been converted or remastered to cd format has been placed on iTunes as a secondary source file, that’s been converted once more. Of course, the quality isn’t going to be as fantastic – and yes, it does eliminate the buzz track that we may not hear (but notice if it’s gone)

    However! These days, a great deal of recording is done entirely digital, and more often than not the new release mp3 file you can download from iTunes will be a primary source of sound, which does give a better quality. With digital recording it is far cheaper to record straight to mp3 file, or a lossless flac file which helps eliminate any lost sound during mixing.

    Then again, ‘quality’ can be completely objective. I prefer cd and record because there’s a different kind of quality and meaning attached to the sound rather than an mp3.

    I do agree though – in most cases, even if you didn’t know the original source but the file was played through a decent enough system, it’d be incredibly hard to tell the difference.

  7. This article loses all credibility when the author claims sound quality among mp3’s strengths. It offends me not only that someone would perpetuate such misinformation but also that this comment–more valuable than the article itself–is regulated to the bottom of the page when it clearly belongs at the top.

  8. The MP3 format is a “lossy” compressed audio format. It is in no way higher quality than a CD. An MP3 is created by compressing and stripping information from the original, lossless source (whether that be a CD or a lossless audio file like FLAC or Apple Lossless for example). Most folks won’t hear the difference between a well ripped 256kbps MP3 and lossless if the audio is heard through cheap earbuds played from an iPod or computer speakers

    Find a real set of speakers, I mean some really high quality ones, and do this little experiment. Grab a copy of iTunes. Get a CD of beautiful, dynamic music. Rip a few test tracks into MP3 format @ 128kbps and 256kbps. Then, rip the same tracks into Apple Lossless, or simply use the CD (same lossless audio experience), and have a listen on high quality speakers (not computer speakers). If you’re on quality home entertainment equipment, you’ll hear a difference.

    I guess my point is this, why settle for lossy music in an age when hard drive space is getting cheaper and cheaper. Storing lossless audio files is getting easy to do, so why not archive lossless audio instead of lossy MP3s which you’ll probably regret down the road. You can always convert one format of lossless audio to another without losing quality (lossless to lossless), but try converting an MP3 to an AAC format or OGG. You’ll lose a significant amount of audio information every time you convert because you’ll be compressing even more and throwing out even more information. You’ll start to hear audio artifacts.

  9. What is good sound is subjective. Most youth prefer the sizzling sound of MP3s, that’s music for them… some audiophiles or kids who lived during the retro years prefers vinyl, they love the warm sound (with some crackling), some prefers the zero-noise CD… while most of us in the third world prefers cassette tape, we love the warm sound with hisses.

  10. Each format has its own pros and cons. My stereo has a turntable, 8-track, cassette tape, CD and an iPhone dock.

    Vinyl records offer a more hands-on experience, you can see the music being played! The records smell, look and feel nice. They have a page of linear notes with them and 7 or 12 inches of artwork that come with it. Vinyl also has a warm, natural, deep, round, rich sound to it. They are also very durable, there are some records from 1900s that you can still play with special augmentations.

    Eight tracks can sound pretty good if you have a well calibrated player and preserve your tapes carefully. They’re dirt cheap too. You can buy one at Salvation Army for $0.25.

    Cassette tapes are durable and great for in-car listening. They’re easy to load, no tracks to select, they also play from where you stop them. They also don’t get scratched or fingerprints on them like CDs tend to do in cars. They also have good treble response, great for classical and jazz music.

    CDs are a great for their convenience. Its easy to burn extra copy for friends/family. The tracks make music easy to find. They offer a clear, clean, cool, pure sound. Shock protection on portable CD players is a great innovation also.

    MP3s are great for their portability. 1000s of songs on something the size of a cracker. As long as the bit-rate isn’t below 128k, it’ll sound great. You can download these from Amazon, Kazaa, or, if you so shiftily inclined, illegally O.O

    AACs are an improved form of MP3, more sound per byte of data. They sound way warmer and fuller than MP3. You can download these from iTunes Store.

    WMAs are the best codec, they’re half the file size of MP3. A 64k WMA file sounds as “good” as a 128k MP3. I download podcasts in this format.

    I believe that each generation has its own preferred music format.
    The baby boomers lamented Vinyl becoming a mere novelty.
    Generation X lamented the passing of the tapes and mix-tapes.
    Generation Y will lament the passing of Music CDs.
    Someday, Generation Z will mourn the iPod being surpassed by some other form of “miracle” music technology.

  11. You know I have argued about this for years. I have friends who prefer records “sound quality” compared to CD’s. They run their records on degraded players with old needles, buy used records that are so worn out it’s not funny but swear it sounds better. I think of myself as being a low end audiophile, I love great sound quality but I am not willing to spend $5,000 on a tube amp. I think there are a few benefits with records compared to CD’s. Some instruments seem to have more separation when listening to them compared to the CD and the drums/symbols at times seem to sound fuller more realistic. Records weakness in my opinion are thin sounding, bass lack any kind of punch without EQ’ing it a lot.
    I have found that CD’s and Records sound depends on a how it was mixed before mastering it. I have heard records better than Cd’s and CD’s that sound far better that the records. There was a loudness war with records before the new one with CD’s. Pushing the sound of CD’s is a bad thing and does completely ruin any music experience. Besides the clipping you get a drowned out muddy sound when multiple instruments playing making the music levels go up and down as you listen. I really notice this with headphones and MP3’s.
    MP3’s have come a long way. If you use the right programs such EAC which is free you can make MP3’s that compare to the original.
    DVD/SACD audio needs to become the formats but as you might realize the average person does not notice or care about the quality of music, they listen to it on radios and poor quality MP3 and there happy with that and really I don’t blame them, there are more important things to worry about.
    I want better sound quality for I wouldn’t trade CD’s for records ever. EVER!

  12. I am a “young person” who is supposed to find mp3s the best; they are not. Since i can remember I have had a CD/Tape system from 1996, tape sound better than CD which is beter than MP3, Recently I attained a Crosby vynl, tape, cd combo machine and was floored. I had never heard a vynl before until i slid on Californication.. I turned on my sound system and it felt different than the others, you felt the music. while i will use my Zune for on the road, it will never sound the same. I now hear the electronic static in the background, espscially when I convert a tape to any digital format. Thuis didgital beeping static, while light, is now more audiable than ever.

    Simply put? a 17 year old’s verdict: LP > Cassete > CD > MP3.

  13. “MP3 offers a higher quality of music again” – I cannot believe this statement. 100% wrong. After that statement, I did not read the rest of the article.

  14. Vinyl records are second best in terms of the sound accuracy and dynamic range. The album art is a big plus, too. You can find old singles for around $0.25 and albums for $1.00-$3.00 at Half-Price Books. I do hate having to change the needles when the treble starts to dissappear though. As weird as it sounds, I do enjoy cleaning my LPs once in a while.

    Reel to Reel Tape recorders are the best tape format. I worked with these at my High School Radio Station and the user friendly editing was just awesome. You’d tape an entire lecture in a classroom and edit it with scissors and scotch tape and play it back on “Open Classroom” early on sunday morning. The big Pain in the @$$ was you needed to rewind the whole reel onto a Spare reel before playing and the end of the magnetic tape always became crunched.

    Eight track tapes were pretty much the worst format, even though I have one in an old 8-Track recorder in an old Soundesign System that I still use. The 8-Track, even with my awesome 1956 Acoustic Research Speakers, Sounds no better or worse than AM Radio. Still, they make a great novelty.

    Cassette Tapes are an okay format, I like how its so easy to record, re-record and play a tape. My Mom Gave me her old mixtapes a lonng time ago when she had them transfered to CD, theyre from the 70’s and 80’s, yet they sound as if they were recorded yesterday. They durability of a cassettes hard plastic case cant be matched either, no skipping, scratching or smudging like with CDs or wear-out, gouging or warping of a Vinyl Record. There still is the occasional tape salad problem, but my tape player rarely does that.

    CDs are the best format when it comes to conveniance, ease-of-use, computer-compatability, and Sound Accuracy. Mix CD-R’s in my opinion are better than mixtapes. You can personalize the track listing and album art work easier than a cassette or vinyl. Not to mention that CD players and CD-ROM drives/CD Burners are nearly universal, where you can play you CD and you can even rip your CD’s to MP3 and put them on your iPod. You can even cram 8-10 albums on an MP3 CD-R and play it on most modern players. Sadly, discs can get scratched and smuged and then it may never play again.

    MiniDiscs are the second best digital format when it comes to having the digital quality of a CD with the component recordability of the format and durability of a cassette tape. MiniDiscs can fit 60, 74 or 80 minutes of uncompressed PCM data or 2 to 4 hours using ATRAC encoding. I don’t record anymore on MD, but I still use it to play all my old mixes. Sadly, there was never a steady pre-recorded MD business in the US or Europe, I only own four myself.

    iPod are the okay. Its nice to have my entire music collection on one devise. Though MP4s and MP3s do have a lower sound quality than CDs, MDs or Vinyl.

    My verdict is CD>MD>LP>iPod>Tape>R2R>8-Track