With the vinyl re-issue of Annie Lennox’s Diva, me and Spouse decided to put vinyl versus streaming to the test. I’m a simple soul who likes good music well played, but Spouse is an actual musician and former science teacher, with a fairly extensive vintage vinyl back catalogue. He has VIEWS on music quality.
We got the turntable out, switched off the sub-woofer, fiddled a lot with the equalizer settings on my phone and the stereo so we were just hearing the album clean. And then we set to work.
Accessing the media:
Say what you like about streaming, it is quick. Getting ‘Diva’ took less than two minutes, 30 seconds of which was typing ‘Annie Lennox’ into Apple Music and selecting the right one of her many albums. We stuck my iPhone onto the Lightning ‘prong’ into the stereo, and that was it.
We were sent a free copy of the reissued ‘Diva’ for this review. We tried and failed to source an original 1992 copy locally and decided not to buy it online. That was partially due to cost (between £25-50), but also because we couldn’t have seen the quality of the vinyl itself. The reissue costs £20.
Just opening the vinyl was an elaborate affair. Spouse carefully pierced the cellophane, before taking the album out of its envelope with a flourish and putting it onto the turntable. The album’s envelope had the lyrics printed on it, which was a nice touch. And then, for the first time in years, I heard the gentle click of the stylus arm rise from its plastic holder, before it silently turned and lowered the stylus onto the virgin vinyl. There was another click as the stylus found its groove. Crackle-free, the first notes from the first track ‘Why’ sprang from the stereo, while me and Spouse sat butt-cheek to cheek on our sitting room floor to listen.
We listened to ‘Why’ a LOT. Switching between the iPhone and the album repeatedly, we listened carefully to the bass and the synth in the opening chords, the delicate treble of a picked guitar filling out the verses, and the sustained mid-notes of the vocal. There’s a lot of multi-layer work going on in ‘Why?’ and we found that on the iPhone, the stereo focused on the treble, and the bass was mushier. It’s not that the iPhone was bad, but it just didn’t sparkle in quite the same way the vinyl did.
While ‘Why’ is all about extended notes, ‘Walking on Broken Glass’ is punchy, mixing synths and orchestra together in a series of deftly syncopated rhythms. I’ve listened to ‘Diva’ hundreds of times, but on the vinyl I noticed a funk guitar filling out the chorus for the first time. We switched back to iPhone. The funk guitar was there, but it was far less noticeable. Spouse nodded sagely, “They haven’t remixed it. It’s just the iPod dropping out the mid-range.”
The virgin vinyl had none of the hiss and crackle I remembered from the 80s. And the album itself is exquisitely engineered. Some of it is a bit dated now – I don’t think I’ve heard much phaser work shifting from speaker to speaker like that in some time. But overall, the quality of the thing on every level was really great. The needle clicked and rose before sweeping across and placing itself back on its stand, and our test was over.
God knows there’s a place for both streaming and vinyl. Streaming is infinitely faster, more convenient and practical. In the 80s and 90s, every album I owned was full of crackles and jumps because I didn’t look after my vinyl well. On the night of our user test, me and Spouse clenched every time our cats walked past, and as they like being with us and the user test took some hours, we clenched a lot. Which has its own advantages, I suppose.
Music really matters. It is the rhythm of our lives. But these days, it is rarely the main event. I learned a lot from spending a night locked up with Spouse actually listening to a classic album. I’ll review Diva separately, but very few albums could have dealt with being listened to as carefully and often as we did without becoming deathly dull. The album was mostly new to Spouse, and he was shocked by how many hit singles were on it, and how complex and well crafted they were.
In short, if you are doing anything else whilst listening to an album, just stream it. It’s far cheaper and faster and will always do the job. But if there’s an album you really love and you have the time to source and listen to it, do. Shoo out the cats, dust off the turntable, and sit down and listen to some vinyl. It makes more of a difference than I would ever have guessed.