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This is the Modem World: Why we go retro


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Each week Joshua Fruhlinger contributes This is the Modem World, a column dedicated to exploring the culture of consumer technology.

So I was listening to Howard Stern on my way home from work the other night. Satellite radio came with my car and, whether you like him or not, Stern's a pretty good companion in LA traffic. I happen to like him. Anyway.

"You know Gary," he prodded, "I'm gonna use a horse and buggy instead of a car, just because it's cool."

Turns out he was giving Producer Gary Dell'Abate a hard time about his love for vinyl. Gary did his best to defend the hobby, saying it has been scientifically proven that analog sounds better than digital, that it's just something people do for fun and that it's a really interesting subculture.

Of course, he didn't win.

But it got me thinking: Why is it that we -- or at least some of us -- technologically adept have a love for analog?

I'm one of them. You know, the guy who threads flea markets on the weekends looking for rare vinyl, the guy who imports diamond styli from Japan, the guy who won't shut up about how listening to records is so much better than MP3s or even FLACs. You either love me or hate me for this. You want to talk about your '70s Thorens that you found on eBay or you want me to just shut up and hit shuffle.

Either way, you can't deny that hifi turntables as a home-listening alternative to digital files have taken off in recent years. According to Nielsen SoundScan, people bought 4.6 million records in 2012, a jump of 17 percent, and that doesn't even account for the likely millions sold to enthusiasts at flea markets and in dusty, old record stores. In short, people are dusting off their childhood records, seeking out the classics and enjoying music the way it was once meant to be enjoyed: actively.

Listening to records as opposed to listening to music files is a lot like the difference between going to the movie theater and leaving the TV on in the background. Sure, you might seek out a song or album and pay attention, but nothing comes close to the act of taking a record out of its sleeve, checking for scratches, giving it a gentle brushing, gently dropping the needle and waiting for those first fat analog notes. You sit nearby, excusing the crackles and dust noise, listen track by track, waiting to flip the record for the last 20 minutes.

You listen to the songs in their intended order. You read the liner notes in glorious widescreen cardboard format.

It's good stuff.

There's nothing wrong with listening to digital music. I do it all the time, probably 90 percent of the time, in fact. Sometimes I just want to hear the music, and nothing beats simply finding the song and firing it up. The alternative involves a record-spine hunt and finding the track on the surface of the vinyl. What's more, I can bring digital music with me on the road, to the gym and to work.

It's also good stuff.

I look at books and e-books in almost the same way. For those books that I want to really enjoy, to smell the print or gawk at the cover art for the first edition, I'll read a real book. On the other hand, if I just want to check out a novel, take it with me on the road and save some space, I'll grab the digital version.

The difference, though, is that books don't read any better in their analog forms -- you're reading the same story at the end of the day. Perhaps the author did some interesting things with layout like Vonnegut did so well, but for most cases, you're going to walk away having read a book. For the nostalgia and physical-object pleasure, though, reading a real book is a lot like pulling out a real record.

Analog is good. But it's not better. Here's to hoping we never let it go. Choice is a good thing, don't you think?

And Howard, if you're reading, I'm not about to take a horse and buggy home from work. After all, I wouldn't be able to listen to you, would I?

Joshua Fruhlinger is the former Editorial Director for Engadget and current contributor to both Engadget and the Wall Street Journal. You can find him on Twitter at @fruhlinger.

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