Vinyl records see surge in popularity

SAN FRANCISCO, CA -- Vinyl records, remember those? Well, you don't have to. They're back. Sales of records grew 52 percent in 2014. The increase in popularity has reignited a debate over which one is better -- digital music or vinyl records.

Ever since the first recording, people have been looking for the best way to listen to music. For a long time, that meant putting the needle on a record. Efforts to improve sound quality came along from the 8-track to the cassette tape then compact discs and MP3s.

Now a whole new generation of high definition digital music players are promising even better sound. But can you really tell the difference?

"Our sales have been going up year by year now for about six years," said Tony Green with Amoeba Music.

At Amoeba Music in San Francisco's Haight District, record lovers say a renewed interest in the rich sound of vinyl records is driving sales.

"I think if you are a real music fan, if you are really into it, that you want to have something tangible and hold it," Green said. "It's certainly part of the experience."

More and more artists are releasing albums on vinyl to cater to the growing audience. They sold more than 3 million records last year, over the previous year.

But do records really sound better? To find out, we went where the music industry goes for audio advice to the leaders in sound at Skywalker Sound in Marin County and Dolby Laboratories in San Francisco.

"If you want to compare an MP3 to vinyl, it's very different," said Dennis Leonard with Skywalker Sound.

Brett Crockett with Dolby added, "There's definitely a difference. Vinyl is a very old format."

Both Leonard and Crockett admit they collect vinyl records and enjoy them. But they also admit that digital offers musicians more he says digital music gives artists more tools.

"Because you can do so much with fine editing in the studio," Crockett said. "It has really changed the production techniques of music and you can really hear it in modern music. It is very precisely edited and recorded."

Digital music is played at different sample rates, measured in kilohertz.

"Digital has the ability to have higher sample rates," Crockett said. "You hear people talk about 44 kHz or 48 kHz or 96 kHz. That's how many samples exist in a digital signal in second."

The higher the kilohertz, the more accurate the recording.

"Some people really believe it sounds better," Crockett said.

"I would say that ultimately, digital is much better," said Leonard.

But Leonard says most of us are listening to music at a low sample rate. And therefore, we're missing out.

"It's very compressed and it misses a lot of the high frequency information," he said.

Leonard says records degrade over time, and that dust and dirt further diminish sound quality.

"Digital is just ones and zeros," he said. "And if you preserve the data, it's never going to change."

So there you have it. Digital recording can be better than records. Not to mention, they're more convenient to carry around.

"If you are going to go jogging, you don't take a record player or a vinyl record, you take a digital device and headphones," said Crockett.

Sound advice from the audio experts.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel.
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