Music media formats have changed quite a bit since recordings were first released to the mass market many decades ago, but is the current favorite, MP3 audio, really the best? In this article we will look at the different standard formats and how they’ve stood the test of time.
It all started with the gramaphone record, which were large platters made of shellac. They ran at a speed of 78 revolutions per minute and required a gramaphone player with a heavy needle to play the record. The records sounded really bad and would break easily no matter how careful you were. The advent of the vinyl record changed all that. Records were now lighter, sounded better, and later when releases came out in stereo, it seemed like there could never be anything better for consumers to listen to music in their own homes. The 33-1/3 rpm vinyl record reigned for decades, throughout the sixties, seventies, and eighties.
Eight track tapes, reel to reel tapes, and other compact cassette formats tried to usurp the record as king, but it could never match the fidelity of a record on a good sound system. However, the cassette tape had a major advantage going for it. It was small, and you could carry a tape practically anywhere. Plus, they were recordable, so it was easy to customize your own “albums” of your favorite tracks. Cassettes were favored by youths in the mid to late eighties, but vinyl records still held it’s place as the preferred format.
Around the mid to late 80’s the compact disc became affordable for the masses, and by 1990, CD’s had firmly taken their place as the preferred format. Vinyl sales dropped off and many pressing factories shut down for good. The CD offered relatively good sound no matter what system it was played on as it was a completely digital medium. The anolog dynamics of a record meant that if you didn’t care for a record or play it on halfway decent equipment, it could sound really bad.
Cassettes soon heard their death knell as well, holding on for dear life in the urban market before being put out of print on a massive scale. The CD was the king of the formats from 1990 until about 2002 when more compact digital formats took over.
The MP3, a compressed audio file, changed everything. Starting off as a way to pirate music over the internet with great quality sound, it later gained acceptance as a viable format for sale and finally in 2003 sales online of MP3 took over CD sales. Mobile devices like the iPod made this change more staggering and record companies scrambled to get a piece of the action as consumers no longer had to buy a full album to get a favorite hit song, they could buy one song for about 99 cents.
The problem with these digital media formats is the quality of the sound. MP3, no matter how good it gets, can sound flat and sterile compared to the warm analog tones of a vinyl record played on good equipment. Enthusiasts have held on to the vinyl format for years, and the proof is in the sales figures. While CD sales steadily drop, vinyl sales are climbing year after year. Used record shops and specialty stores are thriving, while chain CD outlets go out of business. The MP3 and digital format still rules, but it’s not necessarily the best, and the consumer definitely recognizes this.