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How Records Got Their Groove Back

As CDs fade away, there's a new vinyl answer.

"They lied to us, man," he said.

Flipping through old vinyl albums at a used-record shop, I did what anyone does when a fellow human bares his soul: I ignored him. "They said CDs would sound better," he persisted. "They lied!" He rapped a vintage Ramsey Lewis album on the edge of the bin, like a gavel, releasing that distinct scent of dust and decomposing cardboard.

"I got rid of my record player. I let my records go. And they never even bothered to bring back half of my old jazz albums. Not half. It was like they hooked us, and then they gutted us."

It was a spontaneous outburst, but the gist of it I've been hearing for years among frequenters of the vinyl bins: despite the advantages of compact disks (CDs) over vinyl—you'll never hear a CD pop or click, and you can access any track instantly—the supposed perfection of the format was overstated. Of course, the companies were just as over-the-top about LPs. Here's a quote from my vinyl copy of Tony [Bennett]'s Greatest Hits, Volume III: "You can purchase this record with no fear of its becoming obsolete in the future." Pioneer audiophiles felt that way about Edison's cylinder phonograph of the late 1800s and the 78-rpm shellac disks of the early 20th century. And even as the "never obsolete" vinyl promise was being made in the 1960s, guys in lab coats were dreaming up cassette tapes and eight-track tape cartridges.

Then came the CD in the mid-1980s, and everyone knew that vinyl's days were numbered. But like those ancient tiny mammals that predated the dinosaurs—and then kept skittering around the feet of T. rex and his pals—vinyl never completely disappeared: throughout the '90s, hip-hop DJs spun vinyl disks, manipulating the turntables by hand for musical effect.

Now record companies are making money from vinyl again: vinyl-record sales soared 89 percent in 2008, while CDs, falling prey to Internet downloads, continued to trudge down the road to extinction. Music giant EMI has rereleased some 65 classic albums on vinyl, including acts ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beastie Boys. U2's newest album (No Line on the Horizon), Bruce Springsteen's latest (Working on a Dream), and Harry Connick Jr.'s Your Songs have all done brisk vinyl business.

And it's not just a generational thing. Newer acts such as The Killers and Ryan Adams are finding an LP audience as well, offering vinyl and MP3-download versions of their latest releases as a single package. In fact, whereas Borders and Best Buy stores have been reducing their CD space, both retailers have installed new vinyl-LP racks.

The Sound of Silence

It wasn't the sound that sold us on CDs—it was the absence of it. Your first CD experience was probably a lot like mine. I was working at a tabloid newspaper in Florida, and one day the publisher called me into his office. "Siddown," he barked. As always, I did as I was told. He just sat there staring at me, cigarette aloft in one hand. Then, suddenly, the crashing opening chords of Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien came barreling out at me from two large speakers. I leaped to my feet, as if to escape. My boss clapped his hands and laughed, sending ashes flying.

"It's the silence," he said gleefully. "A record warns you something's gonna happen with all the noise it makes. But this is a compact disk. When it's quiet, it's damn quiet."

Maybe too quiet. Even after CDs nudged vinyl out the record-store door in the late 1980s, enthusiasts stuck to their position that vinyl's sound reproduction was ultimately more satisfying than digital's. Warmer is the word used most frequently, and Jason Boyd, who oversees vinyl-record production and sales for music giant EMI, tried to explain it to me.

"The imperfections of the sound—the low ends—are sonically appealing," Boyd says. "CD is most pristine. But vinyl has the warm, full sound of the music. The cracks and the little imperfections that pop up seem to enhance the music. It's a way of experiencing music rather than just consuming it."

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