Saturday, April 19, 2014

Vinyl Love: Agency Bias and Audio Elitism

There has been a fun debate going amongst the Accidental Tech Podcast crowd regarding the merits and science of vinyl LPs audio quality versus CDs. I won't rehash that here, but the summary seems to be:
  • Science strongly supports digital as a vastly more accurate means of capturing and transmitting recorded sound. (In fact, after reading the Marc Edwards analysis, I found myself marveling that vinyl does (did) work as well as it did.)

  • Probably the most common underlying reason people profess to find vinyl superior is the "tea ceremony" aspect. I.e., all the loving handling and ritual involved in accessing and preparing a vinyl LP for listening is an inseparable aspect of the overall experience. In many cases, the vinyl lover may not be fully aware of their reasons for finding vinyl superior, in which case it also takes on some strong overtones of placebo effect: they expect vinyl to sound superior; and since the vinyl experience involves close, purposeful listening, it is easy for the listener to convince themselves that the sound is better.

  • Another possibility raised, is that the distortions created by analog mastering and vinyl reproduction are a feature, not a bug.
I agree with the above, primarily the first one, but I suggest two other reasons may explain some cases of vinyl preference.
  • First, there is a variant of "agency bias". Agency bias is the belief that things don't "just happen"--there is always an active agent. E.g., it wasn't luck that caused me to miss my connection and avoid a fatal plane crash--there was some active force (fate, God) that was the agent of my good fortune.

    The mental phenomenon I have in mind is the idea that there has to be a payoff for effort. It's the same reason many people insist on overpaying for high octane gasoline, when it has no benefit for their vehicle. Or want to buy $40, gold-tipped cables that don't deliver a digital signal any differently than generic $3 cables. Vinyl takes effort to get a good result. CDs don't. This just seems wrong, if you are prone to "effort bias". Anything that easy can't be very good.
  • The other factor is audio elitism. With vinyl, you could easily tell who cared about their audio and who didn't. Just randomly examine one record from someone's collection, or watch them prep an LP for listening. Doing it right requires careful storage of the albums, loving removal from the sleeve, taking care to only hold the sides, and then the Discwasher ritual of cleaning the record. Every. Single. Time. Anyone who didn't care about their music would be marked by beat-up records, and punished with crackly sound. With the advent of CD, any slob can have the same excellent sounds as the audiophile.

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