Should Audiophiles Still Collect Music in a World With Excellent Streaming Options?

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There was no more unifying concept for my college buddies and me than going Compact Disc shopping. In the mid-1990s, the CD was the unquestioned king of all silver-disc media, and when we weren’t spending every free dollar on audio gear, we were investing in our ever-growing music collections. I started my collection way back in the 1980s with countless trips to Tower Records on South Street in South Philadelphia. Building a collection of music, in these ancient times, was an as much a quest as it was a financial transaction. We actually bought printed books that talked about the quality and reviewed many of the best rock-pop records out there. How did you know that Outlandos d’Amour  isn’t as good a Police record as say Ghost In The Machine? You wanna YouTube.com that review? Good luck, as YouTube.com wasn’t to be invented for a good 15 more years. You wanna listen to the record of your desire before you bought it? Again, good luck with that back then, although places like Tower Records and Virgin Mega Stores did eventually offer access to headphones so you could hear the latest record on store shelves. Back then, you also had enthusiastic people working at record stores who made knowing everything about music their raison d’etre, but most of the time we were flying blind and buying a lot of $15-plus CDs blind. That was just how it was back then. Not anymore. 

Should Audiophiles Still Collect Music in a world full of streaming
Collect music or upgrade your audio because everything is streaming… THAT is the question

The Hunt for Good New Audiophile Grade Music Today

For the cost of about one Compact Disc, any music enthusiast today can get access to pretty much every recording ever made at CD quality or better. Any kind of “end point” component or dongle can get you access to the needed streams and you are easily in business. With a smartphone or an iPad in hand, you literally hold a nearly infinite music library and oftentimes search through it without nothing but the power of your voice. . The amount of metadata you can find from a recording, within mere seconds, is beyond mind-blowing. You might know that Philly Joe Jones played drums on that other jazz record and then can chase down other works that he did (that you may or may not like) without any cost to you beyond the monthly subscription fee. That’s game changing. 

The next level of game-changing is turning over the task of finding to music to an algorithm.Google, Facebook/Meta, Uber, and pretty much everyone else in the tech game uses algos to compile data. While one of the more old-school streaming services, Pandora is specifically good at finding music with very little input from you, that you are likely to like. I’ve started Pandora stations with, say, a Rick James song like “Super Freak,” and from that data point alone, the service was able to deliver a very respectable playlist. Copious amounts of thumbs-up and thumbs-down make for even better data into the algo, thus better results. The idea that this was even remotely possible back in the day would have blown my mind. 

YouTube.com is to young people today what MTV was to Gen-Xers like me. I have yet to fail to find the music that I want to hear on YouTube.com (for free). Songs get streamed or downloaded 100,000,000s of times, if not billions-plus. Artists understand today what a powerful tool YouTube.com is and are likely to put out more professionally packaged content for consumption on the platform. Beyond just listening to the music, you can listen to musical experts (the people who used to work at the stereo store) go on and on about music, which can help lead you to new musical pastures. With few good record stores left even a major city like Los Angeles, where else would you find such opinions? It turns out, they are basically everywhere.

Buying LPs at a local record store
An audiophile buying LPs at a local record store

The High Cost of Vinyl Versus Buying More Audio Gear and/or Acoustical Treatments

When I recently re-did the links on the site to add places for people to buy music (good for making a few pennies, but more important to get readers engaging with the site) I learned that collecting vinyl is expensive. Holy crap… Dark Side of The Moon’s 50th Anniversary edition on LP was $299 (publisher’s note – it looks to be sold out at that price). How is that release, half of a century later, worth that much more money? Clearly, people think it is worth the money if the release is sold out. 

If you love vinyl, I am all for you, but if your system isn’t built-out to the level that you’d like, perhaps saving some vinyl money and applying it to equipment or acoustical upgrades would provide a better listening experience? A $1,000 audiophile amp tends to outperform a $500 one by a pretty good margin, and by today’s standards that upgrade can be had by streaming Dark Side, Yes’ Big Generator, and The Best of Motorhead versus investing in their latest vinyl releases. Modest amounts of room treatments can make a huge sonic difference in a work-in-progress audiophile system. The addition of a moderately sized subwoofer can bring much of the lowest octave of music into your listening room for just a few hundred bucks. 

Another factor that some fail to bring up with vinyl is the fact that it is a petroleum-based format that is about 100 years old. Dynamic range limitations are a well-documented physical problem for the format. The same goes for the high levels of distortion caused by the nature of how the stylus vibrates in the V-shaped groove on a turntable. What people fail to talk about is that amount of waste and how un-green vinyl manufacturing is today. Part of the high cost of the format is the limited production runs. 

Am audiophile's happy place - the record store (if you can find one these days)
Am audiophile’s happy place – the record store (if you can find one these days)

Do You Still Collect Music Today, Jerry?

I do.

While streaming is a bigger and bigger part of my modern audiophile listening experience, I like knowing that I have a physical hard copy of the disc ripped on my solid-state drive as well as tucked away in a big 400-disc Case Logic CD storage folder. I still like supporting certain artists that I think might benefit from an album sale. I like being able to have all of my songs on my local hard drive so that I can dump literally everything in my iTunes folder and start over again with a fresh musical outlook. I don’t ever lose any music that way, but I can change the sound of my general, overall playlist as one might change their wardrobe with the seasons.

While I am still collecting music, albeit as a way slower clip than in the 1990s, the size, cost, and overall value proposition has me questioning if I would be collecting today if I didn’t start so long ago. My instinct is that I would be streaming from one or more (paid) locations and not spending tens of thousands of dollars on physical media when you can have all of that media in your fingertips, nearly for free. Most importantly, the opportunity costs of being able to invest that software money into hardware and room acoustics is going to make an entry-level audiophile system into something much fancier in short order. Considering how good today’s streaming can sound and how much better your audiophile system will sound, that seems like a no-brainer for the future audiophile. 


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roy hall

Jerry, You miss the whole point of collecting albums. They are tactile and super interesting to read and look at. Digital music is OK but as you are now removed from the process of choosing, something fundamental is lost. Perhaps a Gen-Xer like you is unaware of this but human beings like to touch, feel and sense things. Digital removes all that is good about listening to music. I feel sorry for those who never expereince choosing an album from the wall, opening it, putting it on a turntable and, surprise, surprise, listening to the whole album from the beginning to the end.

roy hall

You miss the point. To have accessibility, you lose the joy of ruminating and choosing. Now an also does it for you and you end up with the best of, i.e. mood music

Mark Alfson

Ring 58 and have grown up on vinyl I understand your feelings about the matter. But I’ve fully embraced continuing to purchase CDs and avail myself of streaming, and I don’t feel I’m missing anything with streaming. What I’ve gained is exposure to other artists and genres I would likely never have touched otherwise.

And as a separate issue, while there was joy and anticipation to be found when picking the album to put on the turntable, I’d rather queue a CD or streaming service and leave behind the pops, clicks, and warps of albums.

Lastly, I think way too many people have come to romanticize the vinyl experience. I still have all my albums (unplayed for 25 years – I moved to CD pretty early) and while some have great artwork and/or information in them, the vast majority do not.

But, and as I e said elsewhere, while I may not understand anyone’s desire to want to listen to vinyl, I’ll defend your right to do so.

Felipe

Can you please keep politics out of these types of conversations? J.C! I’ve already stopped watching ALL “professional” sports due to politics…. don’t ruin this for me too!

Mike Prager

Beyond what you mentioned, I might buy a CD for a couple of reasons.

Buying often gets you more information. Far too many releases, when downloaded or streamed, have no PDF booklet. If someone is really into a musician or group, nothing can replace the booklet for knowing who’s playing on each track, how the recording was made, lyrics, session photos. This is maddening, especially for small labels run to support artists. To support the artists, how about telling the listener who they are? I wish more labels would get with it, include a booklet, and stop screwing those who stream or download.

Listening in the car is another reason to buy a CD or download. Qobuz is great via cell phone (I assume Tidal and Spotify are, too), but some stretches of road lack data service. So I buy a few albums to add them to my thumb drive for the car.

Even with all that, I still prefer streaming. It’s cheaper. You don’t need to store the CDs of LPs. There’s no need to scrounge boxes when you move. The huge library lets anyone explore different music without spending more.

Of the 3,000 or so CDs I own — how many from 10 or 20 years ago do I still play? Let’s just say, it’s less than half.

In the end, it’s about priorities, isn’t it? I don’t want more stuff. I’d rather improve the playback system, take my wife or friend to dinner, go to a concert, or drive to the wilderness and take a hike. Those provide enjoyment that a stack of physical objects never can.

Dorlan Johnson

Since you mentioned the information not provided when streaming not being available and then Qobuz you should look at Roon. It is the Google of music at the song level. Want to know anything about everything about the music you love Roon gives you access to it. The people, the history, the links, heck even the words to the songs all on the fly and deep inside the music industry information. Have a digital music collection then it includes all of it into your experience like no linear note’s ever could.
Try it out and have fun with this great hobby!

Trevor Bartram

I stream music now because it’s convenient but I miss liner notes. Back in the day, my monthly visits to Tower Records usually yielded a laserdisc & a couple of CDs. I learnt never to buy too much at a time, as I’d inevitably fixate on a favorite at the expense of the others. Playing them was an EVENT, streaming much less so now. For classical, Tower Records had the best music guide books free to browse to help with choice. I miss physical browsing but realize it’s never coming back.

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