Can Sound Quality Differences Between Vinyls, MP3 and CD’s Be Perceived?

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Brief History of Vinyl, MP3 and CD’s

The very first successfully developed vinyl was created in 1940. It could store from 20 to 30 minutes of songs by a spin around with a speed of 33 revolutions per minute (rpm) on each side (unlike a CD). That sums up to a total playing time of 40-60 minutes. Vinyls made music much more accessible, as everyone could listen to them at home.

Vinyls enjoyed decades of worldwide success until it started to become outdated with the invention CD’s – the Compact Disk – in 1982. The new technology allowed double capacity of vinyls, were several times smaller and therefore much more convenient to carry and store when compared to a vinyl. Its purpose was to reduce the size of a vinyl, increase the storage capacity as well as the quality of sound.

And CD’s also enjoyed their success until the sharing of a new digital format became popular: the MP3. Developed in 1995 “the main pursuit of MP3 is to cut out all of the sound data that exists beyond the hearing range of most normal people and to reduce the quality of sounds that aren’t as easy to hear, and then to compress all other audio data as efficiently as possible.”

Data was significantly more compressed than it used to be with the CD, but MP3-players were able to store an enormous amount of songs, way more than any CD could ever hold. Therefore MP3 became the most convenient format for listeners.

But Which Media Provides Better Sound Quality?

There’s a long debate between musicians and listeners whether Vinyls have a better sound quality than CD’s or MP3. But has it been scientifically tested? Is it a fact or simply a popular misbelieve?  We at MusicStats.org took on that question and conducted a thorough study.

Study Description

The study focused on measuring the perception of 50 millennials. For the experimental task, participants were asked to listen to 35 seconds of the song “Wanna be Starting Something”, by Michael Jackson.

That song was played via Vinyl, CD and MP3. Following this, respondents were asked to answer various scales measuring perception and future behavioral intentions in relation to three different media. These include factors such as: quality of sound, purchase intention, monetary value and purchase frequency. All factors were measured on a 5-Point Likert scale, ranging from 1- Strongly Disagree, to 5- Strongly Agree. 

Finally, after the experiment, in-depth interviews were carried out with 25 of the 50 participants in order to provide exploratory insights of listeners perceptions and behavioral intentions.

Outcome Of The Experiment 

            1. Sound Quality: With a mean of 2.66,  the MP3 sound was rated significantly worst sound quality than the other two mediums. It indicates that perception towards sound was rated very low, but it must be considered that it is very much dependent of the corresponding device which is used to play the MP3. On the other hand its accessibility and convenience of use seem to outweigh the qualitative inferiority.

              With a mean of  3.54, the CD sound was rated as second best. Even though its accessibility and convenience of use is also very high, some of the respondents – especially during the interviews – stated, that they use CD’s mostly while in the car.

              Finally, with a mean of 3.78 the Vinyl was rated as having the best sound quality. The presence of the high amount of low frequency tones are better to hear with vinyls than with CD’s or MP3’s. The sound was perceived as “warmer” and additionally the “scratching sound of the needle on the records’ surface” were reported by listeners as adding additional value for the listening experience. In general the respondents stated that while using a Vinyl the act of listening to music becomes the behavioral and cognitive focus and, thus, becomes celebrated.

            2. Purchase Frequency: With a mean of 1.58 the Vinyl was the least frequently purchased music format of our experiment. Reasons for that were stated as high price, low convenience, very little availability in stores and not owing of a record player.    (discuss results just like with sound quality. one medium per paragraph. The graph portrays the three factors, so all three must be commented on) and convenience of use seem to outweigh the qualitative inferiority.

              With a mean of  2.56, the MP3 was rated as second most frequently purchased format. Which might be surprising at first makes sense if you think about it more closely. MP3 formats are mostly streamed or even illegally downloaded, not always purchased. Again, the outcome proofed that many people think that MP3s are too expensive if you consider the fact that it is simply a file. 

              In the end the most frequently purchased music format is the CD with a mean of 2.65. The difference between MP3s and CD’s is not of real significance, but still worth mentioning. CD’s are still quite common in older age groups that don’t work with streaming services or MP3s the way younger generations do. Even though the perceived quality of sound clearly speaks for the Vinyl, CD’s are still bought most frequently in general.

            3. Usage Behavior: Talking about usage behavior is quite obvious what the least ranked music format is. With a mean of 2.06 the Vinyl is the taillight of our outcome. The most obvious reasons for this in order to listen to a vinyl one needs a record player and a whole stereo system. One cannot simply play a vinyl in the car or in the kitchen wile cooking, vinyls need costly and spacious equipment.

              With a mean of  3.13, the CD was rated on second place. Its easy to carry and play in various devices, in cars, music systems, computers and laptops.

              The most convenient music format is the MP3 with an incredible mean of 4.55. It’s portable and intangible. Only a small device is needed to play it, it can be easily purchased, transferred, shared or streamed. To play an MP3 one doesn’t need to carry a whole stereo system or device around, the smartphone is enough. I sure each and every one of you can give me many more reasons why the usage behavior of MP3s is the best of all three formats.

Final Thoughts

In the end of 2016 the news came in that for the fist time in many years Vinyls outsold digital downloads – within one year vinyl sales doubled and downloads dropped by more than 50%. I would say that sound’s like a revival of Vinyls, doesn’t it? But let’s face the truth, for convenience and music on the go we accept a loss of quality. In the long run I assume that streaming services and therefore digital music will be the only source for music we will use.

That’s just the way it is.

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