(Last updated: August 1, 2017)
Music forums often get quite heated about which is “better”, vinyl or CD? Seems everyone has a dog in this fight. You might as well ask which is “better”, chocolate or vanilla? “Better” is the wrong word, often shorthand for preferable, for things which are a matter of personal preference. I prefer vanilla. Better is properly reserved for how well each performs the task of reproducing music. If one or the other does that better, you may well prefer it.
Beware the temperature analogy
It is commonly claimed CD sounds “clinical” and vinyl sounds “warm“. If they do, the listener is describing a hifi artifact, a symptom of a music system being unable to render bass and treble balance in correct proportion. The only thing it should sound like is what was being played during recording, or at least what the engineer recorded. It has nothing to do with temperature. For me, the difference is one of enthralment: CD sounds pleasant, I can take it or leave it; vinyl sounds thrilling, it compels me to listen. The difference is emotional.
Inputs and Outputs
There are two important variables in reproduction of music: the INPUT – the quality of the original recording and mastering, “the source”, and the OUTPUT – the ability of the Hi Fi to faithfully retrieve and replay what was captured in the source. Good hi-fi should reproduce simply what is there, without adding anything. Admittedly, all the hi-fi systems I have listened to tend to impart a unique character of their own. Some are dry and analytical, others are punchy and bass-heavy, each more suited to particular types of music, so this may be difficult to achieve in practice, but it should still be the goal. The hi-fi returns what was recorded.
With a vinyl record, there are variations in mastering and pressing of different editions. You can influence potential quality for better or worse by your choice of vinyl edition. In many cases (though not always) the best sounding edition will be the first edition, closest to the original tape master. With CD/digital source, you have got what you got: the file is the same from one copy to the next. Some argue the merits of high resolution files, 24bit/192 kHz or higher, re-mastered from original tapes (if they still exist in usable condition) In my limited experience, that may close the gap, but does not change the final winner.
The output side – audio reproduction – is something you have much more control over, a wide choice of main component equipment and expense. Also power management (dedicated mains supply, balanced mains transformer, purifiers) and interconnects ( high-end plugs and cables) will also make a huge difference to sound quality, allowing you to get the most out of your main components. Don’t take my word for it – or anyone else’s – try it for yourself.
In my experience, what sounds best is “analogue end to end”: from acoustic musical instrument recorded with valve-based microphone, to magnetic tape, to cutting head to vinyl master (no digital preview), to stylus to preamp, and amp to speakers. Every step is continuous physical signal. However on a cautionary note – good hi fi wont make a bad recording sound better. Counter-intuitively, improved equipment can enable you to hear more clearly how bad a recording is. On the other hand it will often breathe new life into a good music collection, which is a big return on investment.
There is a loss of musical information in the transfer from the original musical performance onto various digital storage media – CD or download-quality MP3. Simple illustration, as they say, not to scale, not everyone accepts that the difference is audible.
To some people, music is just music. An audio quality dimension does not effectively exist. I guess that applies to many people with wires trailing from their ears, who have never experienced a high quality vinyl pressing played on a highly tuned vinyl system. They are in for a shock.
Digitally recorded music is sampled information. CD sampling rate is 44,100 times a second, a rate chosen in order to fit the typical length of music onto the CD medium, not because it provides the best resolution of the sound image. It is often the very smallest bits that make the sound “life-like” – the attack and decay of a note, not the note itself, the air around each musician.
Irrespective of the issue of sampling, CD playback has insoluble physical problems in information recovery due to jitter and other unwanted interference. Streaming is a better solution for digital files however it too merely “closes the gap” with vinyl.
To audiophiles, sound quality contributes significantly to the enjoyment of music, particularly when the instruments are acoustic, as in most jazz. Acoustic instruments move air, and capturing moving air and reproducing it faithfully as moving air requires a good hi-fi system. Information that can be recovered from vinyl is the very smallest detail – the “brushstrokes” – the difference between the experience of a real painting and a printed reproduction. It also includes frequencies which are theoretically outside the range of human hearing, which some studies find evoke a more favourable response when included.
Listening trials have been done to test whether people can correctly identify different grades of audio equipment differences – usually a very expensive component and a cheap one. Good journalism – subtext : you are being conned – but not always very scientific – we did this test with “some people” on “some equipment” and “they” couldn’t reliably tell which was the more expensive. You must draw your own conclusions. Comparing sounds has a host of issues – noticing new information due to repeat listening, listening for the wrong things (more bass vs less bass, deeper bass vs tuneful bass) never mind expectation bias. Very often things sound “different”, but which is the better “different”?
I listen on high quality equipment to both vinyl and streamed cd and I can tell the difference between digital and analogue sources in the opening seconds. Ialso compare vintage pressings with modern pressings of the same recording, different generations of vintage, and the difference can be night and day. Opinion at LJC is based on listening tests – A:B:A:B:A:B. I do my own “science”, based on observation. More than a few times, my expectations are confounded, demonstrating the primacy of listening over thinking.
Often you hear the “but I don’t have golden ears” disclaimer. No-one has, or more correctly, everyone has. However not everyone has built up a palette of experiences, a range of reference points, a thousand points of comparison. Think of your first glass of wine. Now think of ten thousand glasses later. Now you can begin to understand, and describe what you are tasting when you taste it, because you have developed a palette of experiences and vocabulary to go with it. Think about the times you read some one describe something as “great” and how meaningless that is, beyond “I liked”. It’s what most people settle for, a recommendation, but it is no guide to greatness.
Vinyl vs CD : LJC Verdict
In listening pleasure, vintage vinyl beats CD around 90 – 95% of the time. Every now and then, something surprises. The exception is modern vinyl (pressed in the last ten years), which is disappointing on 90-95% of occasions, and offers little advantage over CD. Bear in mind, not all modern vinyl is equal.
The effectiveness of Hi Fi with different types of music
I have listened to some modern sound sample based electronic music on LPs – laptop composers – and if this is your thing, personally I would just get a Technics rig with the maximum bass and volume amplification. You can not recover what is not there in the first place and I wouldn’t bother with hi-fi sophistication unless you enjoy equipment and modding in its own right – though that is a legitimate interest.
Life at the upper level of hifi
Once you get to the point of good source faithfully reproduced, you can move up to the next level – the music, rhythm, timing, emotion, more easy to follow, freshness. It’s a good experience.
However you will have to struggle with a number of issues, such as storage volume. Research has never been done on this, but I would bet money it would prove that marital difficulties ensue when a record collection exceeds 3,000. At only 1,800, my own can be the subject of robust discussion.
Then there are clicks pops and scratches, because original owners of your records in the Fifties will have played them on a vinyl-destroying machine, known as a portable record player: Eight to twenty grams tracking weight arm, the autochanger, and a chipped sapphire stylus that was never changed.
Realistically, you need to equip yourself for the best of both worlds…