An LP is completely analogue in its sound reproduction, just like actual musical instruments, the speakers on a stereo and, of course, the way the human ear then deciphers these sounds. Making something digital between the actual playing in the recording session and the playback on the stereo was just adding in a middleman. Digital is a stepped response, whereas analogue is a smooth curve between the frequencies. This meant that there were a whole host of subtle frequencies that would be lost in the resolution of a digital disk (CD) that weren’t on an analogue one (LP). Add to that that certain very high frequencies and very low frequencies were lost outside of the range of a CD. Whilst these cannot be heard by a human ear as actual discernible sound, they are nonetheless detected and their absence will make music sound somehow not quite right.
The difference in reproduction quality between a cheap turntable/stylus combo and an expensive one is massive; the format’s sound reproduction is easily destroyed by the cheap midi turntables that were once so common. The difference between a cheap and expensive CD player is not audibly anywhere near as much, so the average listener would be more likely to hear a poorer reproduction of an LP than they would a CD. The quality of the pressing too could make a massive difference, as cramming each side of the LP with as many grooves as possible, or pressing out of recycled vinyl and pressed thinly would also affect the sound quality. Anyone who has heard anything on the Telstar label, or the last three or four NOW LPs pressed to vinyl will know exactly what a rubbish pressing can sound like! However, 180gram virgin vinyl, with an album typically pressed to two, three or even four disks will give an excellent sound reproduction without any of the “this was recorded down a length of scaffolding tube” sound distortions of cheaper pressings.
I have put it to the test, with CD and LP copies of the same album. We aren’t talking old pre-CD mastered copies either – I have Massive Attack’s Mezzanine, Röyksopp’s Melody AM and Kate Bush’s Aerial on both formats each and have played them in a radio studio off a combination of the best Denon Cd players and Technics SL1210s with Ortofon stylii and faded between them for listeners in another room to guess which was which; nearly all guessed wrong assuming that the better bass and treble reproductions must have been coming from the CD. In reality, the difference isn’t massive, and a lot of people will not easily tell the difference.
Looking after your LPs makes a difference. They are not as forgiving a format to poor treatment. But a clean and well cared for LP will never pop, crackle or hiss like frying bacon. Incidentally, LPs also out last CDs. One of the biggest issues with CDs is their known lifespan. After a couple of decades (less if stored badly or are defective) they will de-laminate, with atmospheric moisture creeping in from the edges showing up as a slightly milky band. There is nothing that can be done to retrieve a disk that has done this, and once it reaches the portion of the disk where the music is, the CD player’s laser will struggle to read the data and ultimately will stop reading it at all. It isn’t known how long LPs last; they haven’t been around long enough to be certain. I have pressings from the 1950s that are still in good condition and play without surface noise. I also had some CDs from the early 1980s that have all gone to CD de-lamination heaven.
MP3s are just nasty, compressing similar frequencies together in a way that leaves the ear and brain knowing that there is something not fully right when comparing it to either a CD or LP. I also refuse to subscribe to a format that doesn’t leave me with an actual physical tangible playback media with sleeve notes I can read through even though I’ve legitimately paid for it. I’ve also had too many terminal hard disk failures to trust anything that sits in the magical ether inside my computer.