featured 33 1/3 rpm vs 45 rpm

33 RPM will generally lead to more playtime fitting on a record side. Going with 45 RPM will generally lead to playtime and low production costs being sacrificed for more audio quality. This is due to the fact that a higher speed allows the recording to fit more sound information in each second. Statistics indicate vinyl collectors generally prefer 45 RPM records over 35 RPM. Mastering engineer Kevin Grey from Cohearent Audio seemingly shares that preference.


Introduction – 33 RPM vs 45 RPM

I’ve known the basic difference between turntable rotational speeds for a while now, but lately I’ve been wondering whether or not the assumptions I made were actually true or not. During my research on this, I found some significant differences that I found to be very interesting. So I decided to write an article about it.

Something I’d like to add, before I get into it, is when I refer to 33 RPM I’m actually referring to 33 1/3 RPM. Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’ll quickly cover the topics I discuss in this article.

I’ll start with a brief explanation of what RPM is. If you’re already familiar with this you can just skip that section. I’ve added this just in case someone needed to quickly be brought up-to-speed.

After that I’ll quickly go over the history of vinyl record speeds. This is really just to give some extra context to me and you. Again, if you’re not interested in this you can just skip it. The core of this article comes after this.

In the next part I’ll actually compare 33 RPM and 45 RPM records. Here I’ll look at the benefits and downsides of both. I’ll take record sizes and usability in consideration in this part too.

Then I’ll show some statistics of data I’ve gathered and share an expert’s opionion on the subject to provide some more context and validation for the conlcusion that comes afterwards.

So finally I’ll conclude all the previous sections in the conclusion to give a clear final answer. If you’re short on time, you can only read the conclusion and you’ll walk away the most important bits of this article. Alright, let’s get into it.


What Is RPM?

RPM is an abbreviation for Revolutions Per Minute. What this essentially means is how many times the platter on a turntable rotates a full circle each minute. The pressings of a vinyl record are designed around this rotational speed.

The three commonly recognized speeds are 33 1/3 RPM, 45 RPM, and finally 78 RPM. Now, 78 RPM is very rare these days, but we’ll quickly cover why that is in the History of Vinyl Record Speeds section of this article.

So you’ll mainly find records made for 33 RPM or 45 RPM. There is quite a good correlation between record size and play speed. but it’s not as decisive as you might think.

What I mean with that is that Most full-size 12-inch records are made for 33 RPM, but 12-inch EPs, singles and some other 12-inch variations will actually play at 45 RPM. Most 7-inch records will play at 45 RPM, but not all of them. Most of the time, there’s a good reason for going with one or the other, but I’ll get into that during the comparison section of this article.

comparison record sizes

I should probably also mention 10-inch records. I really just consider these wildcards when it comes to play speed. If you’re interested in the max playtime of a record you can determine it by its size and RPM. I’ve added a simple table for this in the comparison section too.


History Of Vinyl Record Speeds

78 RPM

In 1877 the first record play speed was based on the first phonograph invented by Thomas Edison. This early record player worked off of a hand crank. Because of this the used RPM would vary, but it was cranked at around 80RPM.

After this came the electric motor record player, invented by Emile Berliner in 1888. This played records between 70 RPM and 80 RPM. This was quite succesful and led more audio manufacturers creating record players. Peak performances were demonstrated to be at 78.26 RPM which led to 78 RPM becaming the norm during this time. In 1925 this became the official standard.

33 1/3 RPM

During the early 20th century, when 78 RPM had become the standard, technology had advanced enough to print audio information of smaller records without the loss of fidelity.

This allowed for the production of smaller records to be played at 33 RPM. These came with some benefits including lower production costs. However, radio had become a popular medium for music at this time. Because of this 33 RPM never really took off on the consumer market until 1948 when Columbia Records began selling a 33 RPM record player.

45 RPM

It didn’t take very long for smaller records being created that played at 45 RPM. The general theory that made this popular was that the faster a record spins, the better it sounds. I’ll get into that theory more in the next section.

But because of this record player models started being designed for both 33 RPM and 45 RPM records. Around this time 78 RPM was left behind because of the better alternatives.


33 RPM vs 45 RPM Comparison

RPM – Play Duration

Record SizePlay Duration at 33 1/3 RPMPlay Duration at 45 RPM
7-inch7:00 minutes5:00 minutes
10-inch13:30 minutes10:00 minutes
12-inch19:30 minutes14:30 minutes
(play times are for one side)

As this table suggests, the faster a record is spinning the less playtime it can hold. That means that you’ll have to walk to your record player to flip the record more often for 45 RPM records.

That’s clearly a downside of 45 RPM vinyl records right? So what’s the upside of a higher RPM? Well the theory is that the higher the playback speed or RPM, the higher the audio quality will be. Let’s get into that theory.

RPM – Audio Quality

So why would a higher RPM mean a higher audio quality? The higher the RPM, the faster the vinyl passes under the stylus. What this implies is that for each second the record is playing more sound information goes from the stylus to the connected speakers.  Because of this, records that are made to play 45 RPM have the potential to have more audio quality and less distortion when compared to 33 1/3 RPM records.

45 RPM will generally provide better high frequencies, especially at the end of a record side. That last inch before the label is often sounds a lot worse at 33 1/3 RPM. This is influenced by the circumference of the groove spiral being smaller at the end of a record.

I hope that made sense. If it did, then it sounds like a pretty clear answer that 45 RPM audio is better than 33 1/3 audio, right? Well in a general sense that is true, but if the recording doesn’t actually utilize this then it won’t matter and you’ll just end up with less playtime.

Kevin Grey, a Mastering Engineer and owner of Cohearent Audio in L.A. said the following things on 45 RPM vinyl,

Why 45, you ask? Because it sounds better! (…) if we spin the disk at 45 RPM we now have a 35% increase in groove velocity at any point on the disk. This is a huge advantage!

(…) The only problem is that the amount of recorded time is now also reduced by 35%. (…) Yep, twice the mastering cost, plating cost, pressing cost, label and jacket costs. It’s enough to make the bean-counters break down and cry. But the sound! Oooooh, yeah! This isn’t sales hype, it’s physics. Listen for yourself. You tell me if it’s worth it. A lot of music lovers think so… and they are right!”


Statistics – Record Speed Preferences

data statistics 33 1/3 rpm vs 45 rpm
Record speed preferencePercentage of 107 vinyl collectors
No preference25%
33 1/3 RPM16%
45 RPM59%

I surveyed 107 vinyl collectors on Facebook and Discogs to get some insight in record speed preferences. As the diagram above suggests, generally people prefer 45 RPM records. After some discussions in vinyl collector Facebook groups I found the general reason for this preference to be actually be the increased audio quality.

A significant percentage of the surveyees didn’t have a preference at all. Now at 107 surveyees it’s a bit of a small sample, but it does give me the impression that generally 45 RPM records are preferred.


Conclusion – 33 RPM vs 45 RPM

33 RPM will generally lead to more playtime fitting on a record side. Going with 45 RPM will generally lead to playtime and low production costs being sacrificed for more audio quality. This is due to the fact that a higher speed allows the recording to fit more sound information in each second. Statistics indicate vinyl collectors generally prefer 45 RPM records over 35 RPM. Mastering engineer Kevin Grey from Cohearent Audio seemingly shares that preference.

Hopefully I made this 33 RPM vs 45 RPM comparison complete enough to help you. If you liked this then I suggest you take a look at my other educational articles. If you’re interested in buying a good and affordable record player then you can check out my affordable record player top list or my other reviews.


References:

  1. Kevin Grey, Mastering Engineer & Owner of Cohearent Audio https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kevin_Gray_(mastering_engineer)
  2. Vinyl Collectors’ opinions, from https://facebook.com & https://discogs.com
  3. Electrohome, from https://youtube.com

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