Feature

Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl

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See also: Seven Reasons Vinyl Really Is Better Than CDs

At Portland's Reed College, Russell studied physics and built his first turntable. Unsatisfied with the standard needles of the day, he used cactus needles, which he sharpened with sandpaper, to play the first LP he purchased: Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade. Even so, with his sharp ears, he could hear the quality of his LPs disintegrate after the 10th or 12th spin.

After he graduated in 1953, Russell took a job in the research laboratories at Washington state's Hanford Works, the nuclear reservation that produced the plutonium used in the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Longtime classical music fans, Russell and his wife, Barbara, were subscribers to the Seattle Opera, even though it meant a 400-mile drive round-trip for each performance.

He worked on projects tangentially related to nuclear reactors for several years, then convinced his superiors to let him research ways in which optics -- the use of light -- could be used to improve the recording and reproduction of music.

Russell wasn't trying to make recorded music more convenient or portable. He was trying to make it more accurate, a clearer reflection of the performance. "I wanted the symphony to sound like the symphony," he says.

On a Saturday morning in 1965, Barbara took the kids to buy shoes. Home alone, free to think about his problem, Russell figured out how to bring optics, digital technology and other disciplines together to create the digital optical storage and playback technology that would be used in what is now known as the compact disc.

The CD revolutionized the music industry, but it was never cool. Even as CD sales eclipsed and nearly exterminated vinyl, the format was plagued by accusations that its sound was inferior, that it was merely a convenient alternative to the LP.

As consumers flocked to the convenience and ubiquity of downloadable and streaming music, they unsentimentally abandoned their CD collections. But as CD sales have plummeted, vinyl's sales figures have been moving in the other direction. The CD-versus-vinyl debate -- and, by extension, the debate over digital versus analog sound -- has only grown.

By 2014, vinyl's resurgence as a marketable product and fetish property appeared to be hastening the CD's obsolescence. While CD album sales in the United States had dropped by 80 percent since their 2001 peak, LP sales hit 9.2 million, up 52 percent from 2013 and nearly 800 percent since 2004. Jack White's Lazaretto moved 86,700 LPs, the most units in a calendar year since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track in 1991.

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Chris Kornelis