Vintage vinyl or MP3? Jon Bentley puts them head to head
18 May 2016
I was delighted that at Gadget Show Live this year we had the opportunity to conduct our biggest tech test yet. Over the course of the 11 live shows more than 30,000 people had the opportunity to vote on whether they preferred the sound of the same track on MP3 or old-school vinyl which, as I’m sure you’re aware, is currently undergoing a vigorous niche revival. MP3 won overall but it wasn’t unanimous.
Our vinyl recording of Nina Nesbitt’s song Chewing Gum was lovingly crafted by the marvellously artisan Vinyl Carvers of Hackney and played on an Audio Technica AT-LP5 turntable, whilst the MP3 was played directly from a mobile phone. Admittedly the audience could only listen to a short sample of each recording - we didn’t want to slow the live show down too much – and clearly most people don’t do their everyday music listening in the acoustic environment of a giant hall at the NEC. But despite these obvious compromises it was interesting that the MP3 came out on top. Maybe it’s because we’re so used to listening to digitally compressed music these days that our ears receive it more favourably?
However, in one respect I wasn’t too bothered which won. I love it if old technologies stay alive when new ones appear - it makes the gadget world a more varied place. And I always get a particular frisson of glee when any form of old technology gives a new one a run for its money.
There’s the bonus that traditional tech is rarely without some advantages over the newer kind. In the case of vinyl there’s the often delightful sleeve artwork, the feeling of ownership of a physical product, the sense of occasion created by putting one on, and the pleasure in savouring the mechanical precision of the turntable itself. All of which makes up for the bulk of vinyl records, their expense and their tendency to develop scratches and crackles.
And it’s not only vinyl. Old school tech like traditional analogue photography has a great deal to offer and a horde of passionate devotees revelling in film and darkroom printing. In recent years this has even extended to movie and instant photography. Kodak launched a prototype camera at CES this year which uses Super 8 film, and the Impossible Project has also launched a new instant camera which takes its increasingly popular Polaroid-style instant film. Valve amplifiers are now much sought after for their warmth, glow and hum. Even retro computer games arguably fall into the category of old tech which we don’t want to let go.
But not all old technology survives. I can’t see 78 rpm shellac records making a comeback for example, however endearingly eccentric it is that they were made out of beetle droppings. Another technology whose endurance may be tested soon, probably thanks to vinyl’s revival, is the audio cassette. Though I have a soft spot for Sony’s Professional Walkman series I’ve always found cassettes a disappointing fiddle, with heads prone to getting out of adjustment, hiss and poor overall sound, and I can’t see them staging a comeback. But thousands of cassette t-shirt wearing enthusiasts may yet prove me wrong, and generate a vinyl like audio cassette revival. If so, I’ll be very keen to conduct a Gadget Show tech test.