Interested in Improving the Sound of Your Stereo? Consider Records

Introduced in 1982, the compact disc was intended to provide better sound than the 40-year-old long-play record album, popularly known as the LP. Using a laser rather than a diamond needle for playback the compact disc was smaller, more convenient to use, and less susceptible to damage than the LP. A bonus was that the format was said to offer "perfect sound forever." "Forever" isn't that long these days; improvements in digital sound have come along in the last twenty years and the music industry introduced two new formats this decade that are designed to improve upon the "perfect" sound of the compact disc. Those formats are the Super Audio Compact Disc (SACD) and DVD Audio (DVD-A.) Over the years, various audio publications have criticized the sound of compact discs, describing the sound as "harsh", "brittle" or "sterile" compared to the sound of the LP. After years of research, SACD and DVD-A were introduced several years ago and introduced sound that was said to be cleaner and more natural than that of the compact disc. In addition, these formats offered multi-channel sound, and artists such as Pink Floyd offered special multi-channel versions of their albums to entice sales. It hasn't worked, and sales of both formats peaked in 2003. What is interesting, however, is that both formats still trail the LP in sales!

According to the Recording Industry Association of America, the combined sales of SACD and DVD-A were less than those of the LP in 2004. The music industry is in a slump at the moment, and sales of all formats were down last year. But sales of LPs were down 13% from 2003, while combined SACD and DVD-A sales were down 33%. It would appear that the new formats are failing, even though they are said to be superior to the compact disc. The LP, on the other hand, continues to have steady sales. While the major labels are still somewhat hesitant to release new product in LP form, labels that specialize in reissuing older material, such as Classic Records, are releasing as much product as their manufacturing capacity will permit. It is worth noting that much of this reissued product comes in the form of high-quality, limited edition LP pressings that often carry premium prices of up to $50 per title. Why are records continuing to sell while the new formats fail?

There are several reasons why records are outselling the new, "superior" digital disc formats:

  • Format wars. Like VHS vs. Beta in the 1970's, the SACD and DVD-A formats are largely incompatible. While players have been introduced that will play either one, most players play either one format or the other. Worse, neither one will play on a traditional CD player. You must replace your player to play either one.

  • Multichannel sound is difficult to use and requires purchasing new amplification equipment. SACD and DVD-A both have multichannel capabilities, but neither format's players have digital outputs. Both must be connected to amplifiers or receivers with special SACD or DVD-A analog inputs.

  • Most of the music fans who preferred the sound of records to compact discs still prefer the sound of records to either SACD or DVD-A. Most will agree that while the new formats sound better than compact discs, the unique "digital" sound of compact discs is still there.

  • Many listeners aren't interested in sound quality. Arguments can always be made about the sound of compact disc vs records vs SACD vs DVD-A, but millions of consumers are content to listen to music in MP3 format on portable players. MP3 format is inherently inferior in sound quality to all of the other formats, but MP3 players are selling as fast as companies can make them.

  • The day will never come when records again become the dominant music format. The convenience of portable players for CD, SACD, and DVD-A discs and MP3 files outweighs the advantages in sound quality that records offer over those formats. Nevertheless, it appears that a small but steady market for records remains very real, and that that market exceeds that of the new "improved" SACD and DVD-A formats, which will probably soon go the way of the forgotten Elcassette, Minidisc, and 4 track tape formats of the past.

    ©Copyright 2005 by Retro Marketing. Charles Essmeier is the owner of Retro Marketing, a firm that operates several retail Websites, including, a site devoted to vintage aluminum Christmas trees and accessories, and, a site devoted to rare records, compact discs and memorabilia by the band Pink Floyd.

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