This a question that at one time would not even have been considered but is now a little tricky to answer. Some people consider the role of the DJ in using vinyl to be over. New inventions constantly change the workplace and the practical digital opportunities they offer.
But, for those that still love vinyl, and there are many, the 33 vs 45 vinyl question is something to look at.
How It All Started
Going back to the origins of the DJ, the vinyl record has been the medium to use. Way back in the 1920s, the “disc jockey” played vinyl records over the air to an eager listening radio audience. Vinyl records were still the base medium 50 years later until the MP3 arrived.
A Revelation in Manchester, England
It was at the Hacienda Club that the idea of having two turntables was born. It became an art form in many respects, and that led to new technical creations.
Initially, belt-driven turntables were used as that was the only option. The Audio-Technica AT-LP60X-BK is a rather up-to-date variation from a quality mid-range manufacturer that is in wide use today.
But then, the direct drive turntable came along for those that use turntables professionally. A great example of a direct dive turntable is the Audio-Technica AT-LP1240-USBXP.
That made turntablism possible…
Along with new forms of mixing using advanced techniques. Competition was created, such as the DMC, which pushed the skills developed even further.
And then, there was the new and fast-developing digital market. The CD had a major impact. But, some of the professionals found it a negative experience. They, for a variety of reasons, wanted to stay with vinyl.
If you are new to the DJ world…
Or, if you are someone that has not had the vinyl experience, there are some things you need to know. Vinyl, once the essential tool for the DJ, is no longer so important in the digital age. Where once there was no option, now there is, and you can perform without it.
But ask yourself this question, “Why do some DJs still prefer vinyl?” There is something about it. There is plenty to learn, of course, and a good place to start is to appreciate some of the aspects that make up the different vinyl record sizes and speeds.
In my in-depth comparison of 33 vs 45 vinyl, I will consider:
- Record size and speed.
- Track density.
- Quality of the sound.
- Record degradation.
Most Will Accept Both
Most of the turntables you see today will accept both 33 and 45 rpm; that pretty much goes without saying. But is there a difference between using 33 and 45 rpm records and how they perform?
Record Size and Speed
As with most things, there are assumptions we can make, and then there is the exception to the rule. Generally speaking, a 12-inch vinyl album will run at 33rpm. We all know that. Likewise, we know that the 7-in single runs at 45 rpm.
You may come across or even own the EP or “Extended Play.” This is a 7-inch record with 3, 4, or 5 or more tracks on it. But it is still played at 45 rpm.
But you can also get 12-inch singles. These will usually run at 45 rpm despite being 12 inches in size, like an album. Occasionally, you will get a 7-inch record that runs at 33 rpm. And how about a 10-inch record? Remember them, or perhaps you don’t?
Confused? Let’s itemize and look a bit closer at them all individually by size.
Running at 45 rpm, “the single,” as we know it. Very common and the usual standard for 45 rpm records.
Running at 33 rpm. It is reasonable to say that you might never see one. I say might because if I write you won’t, then, of course, you will come across one. Very rare is probably the best way to put it.
Running at 78 rpm. Grandma might have her old jazz or early Frank Sinatra collection in this format. They are very rare today and even rarer in a condition where they could be used by a DJ.
Companies stopped producing the 78 rpm around 1960 and went to 7 and 12 inches. Although, some children’s records were still manufactured. You will find they are not produced anymore.
Whether they even count as vinyl is another discussion, as they are not made of vinyl but a material called “shellac.” I have included them here for information purposes, just in case.
Running at 33rpm. We know this as the “album.” After the 7-inch single, this is the most common vinyl record format. Having said that, these days, many more albums are produced than singles.
Running at 45 rpm. These 12-inch varieties, while not rare, are still what you might call uncommon. They are usually produced for singles and have a wider groove spacing than the 7-inch equivalent.
That means the groove in the record is also longer, which will usually improve sound quality. The first commercially available 12” in a single was “Love To Love You Baby” by Donna Summer. The 12-inch option these days are quite often promotional edits and are sometimes made available to DJs.
The Number of Tracks On The Record
Usually, the operating speed is printed on the central information point on the record. But, on occasion, you may get a copy that is promotional and may not carry this information.
If there is confusion and you need a quick assessment, you can usually tell (again, not always) by the number of tracks on the record. Understanding this is quite important for 12-inch records.
Check The Spaces
Knowing how many tracks is a quick and usually easy way to find out the speed of a vinyl speed. This is particularly useful for 12-inch records. If a 12-inch record has more than three tracks on each side, then it is probably going to be 33 rpm.
If the record has two or fewer tracks on each side, it will likely be a 12-single and, therefore, 45 rpm.
Without a Record Jacket, How Can You Tell?
This one isn’t rocket science. If you look at the record, you will see spaces between each of the tracks. This will tell you how many tracks are on the record. Anything over six or over will almost certainly be 33 rpm.
Having said that, the number six is not a hard and fast rule. There have been albums played at 33 rpm with only four tracks. An example from jazz great John Coltrane is “My Favorite Things.”
So, when counting the tracks, bear in mind that a smaller number doesn’t necessarily mean it will be 45 rpm.
The Quality of the Sound
Quite an important issue. There will, of course, be situations where you have no choice but use one or the other. Not all tracks you want to play were album tracks, and not all album tracks were released as singles.
However, you should find a difference in the quality of the sound. Given that there are no extenuating circumstances like poor production, the 45 rpm is usually going to have the edge in sound over 33 rpm.
The basic reason for this is that the 45 rpm is moving at a faster speed. That means more information is transferred each second, meaning that there is an increase in the amount of detail. You may even hear audio detail that you can’t hear at all from the 33 rpm.
It might seem like a contradiction, but because the 45 rpm travels faster, it can reduce the amount of natural degradation. Less distance is being transferred for every rotation means the amount of grooves affected is going to be less.
In short, there is going to be less wear and tear on the surface of the record. Therefore, faster rpm speeds will be the preferred vinyl record speed when there is a choice.
The DJs Choice
Of the two options, 33 and 45 rpm, the 45, with a faster rotation speed, is usually more popular with DJs. And with the faster speed comes a better sound quality.
Any DJ who is starting needs to be aware of these issues if they are going to use a turntable. But more than this, they also need to know if either 33 or 45 rpm is a better choice to use. By choosing the best formats for you then, you will make yourself a better performer.
Have Some Vinyl Records You Want to Play?
Well, then check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Turntables Under $600, the Best Turntables Under $500, the Best Turntables Under $400, the Best Turntables Under $300, and the Best All In One Stereo System With Turntable you can buy in 2023.
Also, take a look at our detailed reviews of the Best Speakers For Vinyl, the Best AV Receivers Under $1000, the Best AV Receivers Under $500, and the Best Yamaha AV Receivers currently on the market.
33 vs 45 Vinyl – Final Thoughts
It must be said that they both have their plus points and their negatives. We have talked about the quality of the sound. But, there could be a situation where a 33 rpm that has excellent mastering could sound better than a poorly mastered 45 rpm.
Likewise, it might be possible for the 33 rpm to be better if the vinyl pressing factory it was made in is of a much higher quality. But these are quite rare occasions. In 80-90% of cases, the 45 rpm will be considered superior to the 33 rpm.
On this basis, then the 45 rpm is the winner when it comes to choosing between 33 and 45 rpm vinyl. We will pass on Grandma’s 78s.
Until next time, happy listening.