CD or Vinyl?

(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.

The Source

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

58 thoughts on “CD or Vinyl?

  1. Having read the posts in this part of the blog and particularly yours, Heisenberg, let me try to add just a few words.

    The wealth of vinyl rips presented by LJC, fascinating as they are – they’re all digital, aren’t they? If “digital” were a category of its own, then comparing vinyl discs in this way wouldn’t make any sense. Which, of course, everyone including myself would object to.

    Speaking in terms of sound only, and ignoring a vinyl record’s other qualities, the best thing you can do is: Digitize it the best way possible! No more groove wear, no more stylus adjustment, no more speed issues, no more cleaning and so on and so forth.

    But this is exactly what nobody wants. The sound of vinyl would be crap without all the solemn ceremony surrounding it. Apart from that: What prevents me from getting rid of my vinyl department is the fact that records are “real” and I can read the liner notes without having to fiddle with CD booklets.

      • The rips here are digital because mp3 it is the only music medium WordPress supports. I would post out thousands of Blue Note vinyl originals to readers, but I am still waiting for my Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant.

        The intention is to provide a sample of the music to support what is written about it, not to represent the quality of vinyl. If you share any enthusiasm for the music it may encourage people to go get it on their format of choice, or if they already have it, nudge them to rediscover it. The blog is to stimulate a conversation about the subject, because I already know what I think, and that’s a bit boring.

        I like music that sounds as close as possible to the original instruments in original performance. Vinyl gets me closer to that goal than any other medium. It has nothing to do with loving vinyl, holding it, smelling it, the ritual of handling it, or the pleasure of album filing, though if some people enjoy that, good for them.

        I’m attracted by the possibility of improving the quality of sound through improving components and infrastructure of vinyl playback. It is infinitely perfectible, in small affordable increments. When I replaced the (made-in-PRC) valves in phono and pre-amp with Telefunken new-old-stock valves (made in Berlin, 1964). Shazam! everything just sounded “right”, faster and more fresh, that’s worth walking to the turntable for.

        I hardly ever play my CD-sourced digital streaming, the sound is just lifeless in comparison to vinyl playback, which I admit has seen more than its share of investment. I don’t think it’s worth further investment in digital, and if I digitised my vinyl I would be replaying it through inferior solid state components of the digital streamer compared with the analogue side , sounds like a retrograde step to me.

        You could say I’m a bit of a stuck record on this subject, so I’ll stop….

        • Now come on, LJC, you’re not just collecting “sounds” (“as close as possible to the original instruments” – whatever that may mean to different people) – you’re collecting records! Labels! Inner & outer sleeves! Deep grooves! RVG stamps! – No?

          • Yeah, well, begrudgingly maybe there’s that too…

            ..the thrill of the chase, the excitement of treasure discovered, the gambles, deadly forensic skills, the artful-bidder…the bargains, disappointments and disasters,…Hi Diddly-Dee, a Collector’s Life for Me..

  2. I have a moderately priced sound system around 30k $AUD with the cost split between an analogue and digital rig. The digital rig includes a NAD M51 DAC which was WHAT HIFIs top DAC award winner for 1200 pounds or above in 2012. This DAC although far from the best money can buy, can keep up with many that are much more expensive however like analogue equipment, the benefits between DACs vary for different measures. The quality this DAC produces for digital music I play through it is amazing and very analogue-like in terms of silky smoothness with noticeable omission of digital edginess. I also use JRIVER MC for playback, USB transfer, WASAPI protocol, upgraded power supply and upsampling where of benefit.

    As mentioned by others, the mastering is always key to how good the end result is on that format. However when having both formats Digital and Vinyl of a similar mastering quality, which does require that the best record pressings are used for comparison as I find bad pressing or poorly mastered / recorded analogue material certainly sounds worse than digital, I also consider that scientific measurements shouldn’t be the method for discerning what actually sounds more real and true to life to the listener.

    In summary, 70% of my vinyl collection sounds better on vinyl than the CD or high-resolution counterpart I have. Depending on the recording it can sound 5% better or 50% better. In terms of sounding better, it is distinctly better in its ability to sound NATURAL & TRUE TO LIFE with a 3 DIMENSIONAL SOUNDSTAGE and is by no means a subtle difference. How does digital stack up compared, well it doesnt sound as real, alive or three dimensional, it tends to sounds like a recording, despite having fantastic clarity, dynamic range and channel separation it still generally provides only a two dimensional and flatter soundstage, with less decay or reverb. Higher res digital or SACD tends to open the sound stage, provides some of the 3d characteristics of vinyl and a smoother overall sound but still lacks in living up to vinyl in the category of being TRUE TO LIFE sounding.

    What do I mean by true to life, well Vinyl clearly has liveliness to the sound, voices are definitely more natural (less clinical or sanitized) with smoother decay, drums sound like I have never heard on CD/digital (to the point the instruments sound like they are in the room). vocals sound like they are being sung in front of me there and then. I can immediately discern if what I am listening to is a vinyl record or a digital track, there is a clear difference between the two with vinyl sounding taller, wider, deeper and smoother.

    I have upgraded my analogue equipment over time and am progressively reaching new heights of what vinyl reproduction can be taken to. I have a LYRA DELOS MC cartridge which is one of their entry level MC cartridges but still in the high end cartridge brand categories. I would love to upgrade to their Titan cartridge but will wait to get one second hand. I have a NOVA ii PHONO amplifier which was an outstanding upgrade over my nova phenomena but there is still much better yet available. The better the equipment, the lower the noise floor, increased clarity, separation and lower distortion. I also use outer ring and top mount record clamps. The quality you can obtain from analogue is proportionate to the money you invest in the equipment and on record pressings, while analogue equipment is improving each year so we still haven’t reached the pinnacle of extracting what is in those grooves from the relic like source of a vinyl record. While materials used in modern high end vinyl releases by specific pressing plants often results in purer materials and proper pressings such as sterling or palace that can deliver on having no clicks or pops and a much lower noise floor compared to mass production record plants that may use recycled vinyl with nil focus on sound quality.

    I can only imagine how much better my vinyl rig will get over time as I invest in upgrading each of the various components progressively. Digital can do great things, but in the current generation of components, delivering on realism tends to be one where it can suffer. What is also interesting is that motion picture is still best captured on analogue 65mm IMAX film stock. The Red 4k digital camera is amazing and has made leaps and bounds in digital motion film capture, however the IMAX format is the most superior format to capture motion picture even in today’s advanced digital world.

    • Hi Digifan,
      Visitors to this blog may find it boring, but I tend to return to the same basic question in regular intervals. So, please take one of your really good vinyl discs which, in your own words, sounds “better than the CD or high-resolution counterpart” you have. Listen to

      a) the vinyl,

      b) a high resolution (WAV) rip of that vinyl, and

      c) the CD counterpart.

      Does (b) sound “better” to your ears than (c)? If it does, and I’m sure it will, then it is not because the CD is “digital”. The WAV rip of the vinyl is digital too, but it preserves the typical vinyl sound that you have come to like. It hasn’t got that purported “two dimensional and flatter soundstage” that your CD seems plagued with. But it’s digital, isn’t it? Why does vinyl sound “more true to life” even in the shape of a digital rip? – It doesn’t to me, to be honest.

        • But the master tape doesn’t have any of the the vinyl characteristics that your digiphobes are looking for, does it? Technically speaking, there is only one near-perfect way to preserve the merits of the master tape: Digitize it. The CD version will not sound like vinyl – how could it! – but it will sound closer to the original recording than anything else. Still, if someone doesn’t want any digital element in his signal chain, no problem for me. I am not saying vinyl sounds bad.

  3. Thanks for the subject, many of us searching for a better sound sooner or later will start to wander what is there so interesting about LP`s!? My recent experience was, late at night, I was listening to SAGA “Worlds Apart” album on CD-R that was recorder from High End Rega turntable (as source) via valve preamp, Kinmber KSAG interconnect on Philips CD recorder, played on my Naim and Arcam audio gear. I can tall for certain, I was taken over emotionally even though it was a CD. Similar reactions noticed by my wife, there is something naturally emotional and dynamic in a sound that grabs you and suddenly a music has stronger contact with you that you can actually feel 🙂 even though the play back was on CD not to say the Vinyl experience directly 🙂 I came to conclusion that a music enjoyed most when there is connection between a listener and musicians and that is what is all about. Unfortunately more music available on CD than on Vinyl, hopefully producers will go back to press what is missing. My Kind Regards.

    • What you are saying is, in effect: In spite of its digital character, a CD made from an LP will preserve the characteristics of the LP (and audio equipment) that you have come to like. I am the last one to disagree, but I would like to take it one step further: A silver disc is less evil as long as you know (or believe) it was made from your treasured LP.

      I mean after all, what are we doing here? We are passing judgement on the quality of vinyl pressings, based on LJC’s digital rips, which – excellent as the are – are still below CD standard. It’s schizophrenic in a way.

      In other words: I am ready to call a CD inferior if its mastering is lousy. Which has happened all too frequently. But that’s about the only thing that can be said about sound quality.

      • Hi Eduard,
        You are absolutely right that some CD’s pressing is horribly and that IS the fact. I found that GRP Records for CD to me are probably BEST! When I buy a CD a pay attention on whether it was recorded by GRP I also forgot to mention that when someone makes a copy from Vinyl, please use either MAM or TAIYO YUDEN CD-R`s they are BEST if not THE best! 🙂

        • Hey – it doesn’t matter what kind of CD-R you use. The digital information will be ABSOLUTELY the same, so the sound will be the same too. Only difference: One brand may last longer than the other. But I have never encountered any problems of this kind. If they are given proper care, they will last VERY long.

          • Add to that: There is no CD “pressing” that is “horrible”. It’s the mastering that matters, nothing else.

            • I used to work as a production control expediter in the custom records division of the RCA Victor pressing plant in Indianapolis. To say that only the mastering matters is pure nonsense. Many things affect the final sound: the lacquer-master-mold-stamper production in the matrix department, the quality of the vinyl used (that plant had four grades of vinyl available to customers), how many LPs were pressed, how the “hot” discs were handled from press to quality control, the degree of scrutiny in quiality control.

              • Gary, did you read what I wrote? I said that the CD (!!) “pressing” is irrelevant because Mikhailo obviously thought the “CD pressing” might affect the sound. Not a word about vinly here!

          • An addendum: “Vinyl” is not the be-all, end-all most devotees think it is. The woman who operated the mold-test both at the Victor plant was a jazz fan and knew that I was. Now and then, she would call me to come take a listen to a particularly fine jazz record. The highest of high-end equipment in a small room dedicated to faithful sound reproduction and a fresh stylus played on a metal mold beats anything I have ever heard come off of vinyl.

            Also, I still recall the shock of hearing Kenton’s “Contemporary Concepts” album played on an expensive reel-to-reel tape system. Again, hard to beat with vinyl

            However, as music reaches the marketplace, vinyl nearly always wins out over CDs–especially when played through the expensive equipment favored by vinylphiles.

            • Welcome Gary, you have uniquely qualified insight into vinyl manufacturing processes most of us have only at third hand. Please chip in. Four grades of vinyl??? Tell us more!

              I take the view that vinyl is the best quality affordable means of recording distribution, if you have the right quality gear. I have no idea how it compares with 3/4″ 15 ips tape, or intermediary metalware. I’m quite willing to accept those sound far better. Problem is I can’t play them in my home, and I can’t source the recordings I want to listen to in those formats.. I hope I haven’t implied that vinyl is “the best” in absolute, only that it sounds better to me than its’ commercially available alternatives -CD, streaming and download. Beyond that I am completely open to persuasion.

              I listened recently to rare original 50’s vinyl through audio equipment three to four times my affordability pricepoint, and I found it “lacklustre” and I know why. Too much attention to the brand names of the equipment and insufficient attention to the unglamorous but expensive business of power cables, interconnects, equipment support, mains conditioning, and all the rest of that voodoo. Not all vinyl is equal, neither are all vinyl playback systems.

              Everything matters.

          • I just had to intervene here…The kind of CD-R does matter, in a big way…I tryied making a CD mix to listen in my car with a cheap brand CD and it started to sound like an old vynil record in less than a week, no so with a high quality CD…

            • But Hugo, that’s impossible. A CD either works or doesn’t work. Never, ever will the sound of a CD deteriorate the way you describe. It may begin to skip, or just fail to produce any sound at all. If that is what you mean by “an old vinyl record”, be it so.

              • I don’t know about deterioration vs skipping, but I concur that the brand/quality of the CD matters. In some cases, you can actually see a difference in the “impression” your recording makes on/in the CD. On another quality matter, in my experience Memorex has the highest rejection rate–i.e., “medium errors” occur during the recording process 10-15% of the time. Maxells, not quite so bad. Early on, CDs seemed to be “tougher.” The commercial recordings were made in clean rooms and the blanks on sale seemed to be more “solid.” But some of those early CD recordings sounded bad. Victor’s first attempts to digitally “clean up” early recordings by such as Bessie Smith were gutless. The second go-round was much better.

                Sorry to use such vague terminology in here, but I actually don’t know how to precisely describe the differences. Does anyone in the loop work in the CD-manufacturing or -recording business? Such professional input would be valuable.

                As for the whole CD vs LP, digital vs analog thing, questions will never be settled, especially by those of us old enough to have grown up with vinyl. That sound is how we became accustomed to hearing recorded music. But I’ve never heard a band or combo performance that sounded close to the way it sounded on LP. One of my favorite jazz recordings is “Art Pepper + Eleven”. I first owned the LP, then bought the Contemporary CD, then the Mobile Fidelity SoundLab CD. Each had a distinctive and distinctively different sound. I have no idea what Mart Paich’s arrangements sounded like “in the flesh.”

                • Re: “I don’t know about deterioration vs skipping …”
                  Let’s put it this way:
                  On a digital medium such as CD, the sound is stored in the shape of a file. If some of the information gets lost, something like “skipping” might be the result. Other forms of deterioration, such as loss of high frequencies, loss of dynamics, in fact any change related to “sound”, will NEVER occur as a result of “quality” deficiencies of a CD. It either works or doesn’t work.

      • I know I tease the cd-fraternity, partly it’s tongue-in-cheek, a bit of fun, but there is a more serious side. There was a time when CD and vinyl were neck and neck on my home system. I know nothing except what I hear, sometimes streamed CD was better, other times not. (Emphasise, not modern reissue vinyl, but the original analog pressings from original tapes)

        Then over a couple of years a lot of solid state equipment was junked, replaced with valves which also benefitted streaming playback , but the big expenditure was on the vinyl source – separate PSU for the turntable, bearing upgrade, valve phono amp, and of course the Godzilla cartridge and the SME tone-arm..

        Vinyl pulled ahead so much I can hardly bear to listen to the (same) digital source now, the gap is so huge. I am pretty well convinced that replay of vinyl source is more perfectible than CD, though it is at a cost. If the same expenditure had been instead targeted on improving digital streaming – who knows? I for one don’t.

        In a two horse race, if you put all your resources into training one of the horses to run faster… you see where I’m headed? I have no idea whether one is ultimately better, given unlimited investment.

        There is a fascinating chain of comments on Neil Young’s assertion recently that vinyl is a “nothing but a fashion statement” on Michael Fremer’s Analog Planet site:

        http://www.analogplanet.com/content/neil-young-vinyl-resurgence-nothing-fashion-statement

        There are an awful lot of people with hardened opinions on this, but the place of “original vinyl” seems largely unrepresented, because it is so complex and difficult to source. Well, that’s where I am coming from! Tell me about it.

        • Thanks for that interesting link, LJC. To start with, I’d like to contradict Michael Fremer saying:

          “You are conflating “digital” with “CD”. They are two different things…”

          This is ridiculous. Of course CD is digital! The only difference to MP3 is resolution. I know many people are using the term “digital” to describe downloads etc. as opposed to CD, but it’s nonsense. So much for that.

          But I would like to ask you a question, LJC: Would you prefer a high rez rip of your Six-Eye Kind of Blue to the Columbia Legacy CD?

          • I have no idea, as I have no experience of either. They would both be limited by passing through the DAC/streamer, which I think of as a “digital sausage machine”.

            Vinyl-originating signal passing through the fully analog chain of amplification equipment has a character of its own, a world apart.

            The big discussion seems to be about the merits of Super Hi-rez digital vs low-rez MP3 . I have no dog in this fight. I don’t listen through headphones or “on the move” so to me it’s a case of ” two bald men arguing over a comb”.

            • Elegant parry, LJC! – My view is that people who have reservations about “digital” sound (whatever that may be – I really don’t know!) will not be convinced by n-th degree “high rez” digital either. (It’s not only a case of high rez against MP3 as you say, because what is generally meant by high rez digital audio surpasses CD quality by far.)

              I agree that “vinyl-originating signal passing through the fully analog chain of amplification equipment has a character of its own”. I just wonder HOW different the result would be if the source was a “vinyl-originating” digital file and all the rest of the signal path remained the same. You can’t tell because you’ve never tried to send a HQ digital rip through your fully analog chain of amplification, have you? Nor have I, because nothing I have is fully analog, except the turntables.

              But my guess is that the vinyl sound will be preserved in the HQ digital file, so the sound difference between vinyl and CD is not primarily a question of analog vs digital.

              For me, it’s very hard to imagine a better version of KoB than the 1997 Columbia Legacy CD. The only conceivable improvement would be to serve it in an original LP sleeve…

              • I think we have been down this road before, Eduard, vis-a-vis the earlier comments in this thread. In every measurable way that I am familiar with, digital files of Redbook designation or higher should trounce analog vinyl, but it does not. It may sound better, but certainly doesn’t trounce vinyl. And while many or my cd’s do sound as good as the vinyl version, there is still something missing or added in the digital process that makes listening to cd’s less engaging for me than cds or even SACDs. I believe it is that character, that unmeasured factor, that engages vinyl lovers to seek out all-analog recordings rather than the same in digital format. As an EE, this makes no sense whatsoever, but there it is. It may indeed be that vinyl adds a spacious and fullness that is really not apart of the recording itself, many have said the same about some types of tube amplification topologies, and thus the truthfulness of such media and playback equipment is suspect. However, at the end of the day, it is about what YOU like to listen to, whether that is a medium with flaws that engages you totally, or one that has accuracy that is the desired effect. The reality is that hifi music reproduction systems are not very good at really reproducing live music, hifi sure as hell sounds good, great even, but any knuckle head could in an instant tell the difference between a live performance and a recorded one.

                • Well said. – Well, well… you know what I’m asking myself? I wonder if vinyl lovers would like the sound of the analog tape mix (I’m talking about historical technology, of course) immediately (!) before the lacquer is cut/digital master is made. Because that is what serves as the basis for CD re-issues, and I am damn sure that sitting in the studio you couldn’t tell the difference between that analog tape and the digital master made from it. No way!!
                  I suspect that it is the shortcomings of the vinyl disc itself that vinyl addicts have become addicted to – and I’m not blaming anyone for that either. If I take myself as an example, I know what it feels like to put an old record on the turntable and watch the stylus tracking that worn-out groove. It’s magic. But at the same time I’m aware that the music sounded very different in the studio. Now it’s up to the listener to decide which sound to prefer. I like it both ways, as long as that historical artefact called vinyl record is in reasonably good shape (no warp, no eccentricity). But for real focussed listening, I prefer a really good transfer.

  4. I think the last phrase (“Realistically, you need to equip yourself for the best of both worlds…”) summarizes things very nicely for me. I like vinyl and I find myself buying more and more music on it, especially for things that it was the primary medium they were recorded in, it feels good and plays good and that’s enough for me. But, and regardless of whether vinyl is better than CD and by what margin, the music generated during the past 20 years is mostly available on CD and it’s a also a joy for me to buy and listen to the music on CD (again the primary medium it was recorded for). In fact I have no problem also listening to music in cassettes, tapes or any other medium I find available and although I will look for the best possible sound I try to always keep in-mind that no audiophile system can actually come close to the experience of a live. Let’s also not forget the convenience factor that digital has brought: right now my mobile carries around 80 albums that I can play on the go: yes conditions are not perfect (it plays on a mobile phone with a cheap set of headphones) but still I have my music with me and that’s what matters. So I think there is a place for both, I’m happy I’m using both and as Woody Allen would put it “whatever works”!

  5. “The number 44,100 was chosen in order to fit the length of music onto the CD medium, not because it provides the best resolution of the sound image.”

    The number 44.1k was chosen because it is over twice as large as the highest frequency humans can typically hear. The reason for this number needing to be doubled is as follows (I will try to explain this without pictures): Consider a 20kHz sine wave tone. This signal goes up and down 20,000 times in a second. Now think about what is happening each 1/20,000th of a second: the sine wave is going up first then down, completing a single cycle. Now, let’s say our sample rate is 20k, and continue to think about that 1/20,000th of a second, which has one full cycle of our sine tone in it. The problem with a 20k sample rate is our computer will now only take ONE picture of the waveform within that 1/20,000th of a second…sooo where is the sine wave at at that moment? Is it positive or is it negative? Is it both? This is why we need sample rates to be greater than 40k. That way the computer can take TWO pictures for each 1/20,000th of a second, thus accurately reading both the positive and negative oscillations of a 20kHz tone.

    Preference is part physiological, part psychological; it’s part what we actually hear and part what we *know* or *think* about what we are hearing. Sometimes I prefer vinyl, sometimes I prefer digital. But with vintage modern jazz, I pretty much always prefer an original pressing on vinyl–for a plethora of reasons I am not going to get into here! =)

    • Thanks for providing a crisp answer to an often-posed technical question. As for the CD vs. vinyl issue itself, there seems to have been some mutual misunderstanding between LJC and myself (see contributions below). What I was trying to say was: No one will be able to tell whether what he is hearing is his Columbia Six-Eye “Kind Of Blue“ or a HQ rip of that same record. Presented with both versions alternately, he may notice some differences due to the signal path, but still the question is: Which is which? Especially when it’s someoneone else’s high-end equipment he’s listening to. There is no such thing as an inherently “digital“ sound.

    • actually, that is not true. The Redbook standard came about by Phillips from a digital standard that they developed for voice-grade digital transmission, it was NEVER developed with music storage and playback in mind. It was later that Phillips “upgraded” their digital format to be used with music, that first “upgrade” was a disaster as they used a 14-bit word that made the sound so shrill and horrible that they removed it and came out with the current 16-bit standard which is still not enough to capture all the musical info from the analog masters. An interesting exercise is to read some of the old Penguin catalogs where they talk about remastered analog recordings (classical) and how many of them have better detail at the expense of shrill upper-stave notes. And I am guessing the reviewers equipment was still not up to what many audiophiles listen on…

      • Good point. Still, I am not sure whether what you say about (early) remastered analog recordings is due to

        a) the shortcomings of early digital sound, or
        b) inadequate re-mastering regardless of “digital/analog” sound

        Probably both. As I said, I am not sure.
        But we are talking about contemporary technology, aren’t we?

        • yes, probably both in an attempt by the music industry to “cash in” on the early digital train. No doubt the more recent remasterings have gotten better, that just goes with 1) going back to the master tapes, not safeties or 3rd gen running masters, and 2) better understanding and use of the digitizing equipment. That said, you cannot walk into ANY studio as see them using 16-bit, 44.1 khz digitizing gear, it’s at least 20-bit, 96 khz, which is then downsampled to Redbook, so what is being thrown away? And I should note as LJC has stated here, and is the basis of this blog, the WAY the music is mastered makes all the difference, no matter digital or vinyl!

  6. Dear LJC,
    There are many reasons for me to be in love with old vinyl. The analog vs. digital issue is not one of them. In your illustration above, the difference between Gioconda I and Gioconda II is “not to scale”, as you readily admit. In fact, it is wildly out of proportion.

    If someone ripped one of your favourite Blue Note records in WAV format (perhaps even in MP3 format), I am jolly sure you would never be able to tell the difference. Depending on the playback system, it would probably be difficult to eliminate differences caused by different input levels and EQ settings, but these things have nothing to do with the analog vs. digital issue. Moreover, if you didn’t know which is which before the blindfold test, any such differences wouldn’t provide any cue to you.

    There are good and bad CD editions, and there are good and bad vinyl records. But the analog vs. digital issue AS SUCH doesn’t bother me at all.

    • I have all my thousand -odd CDs ripped into FLAC streamed through the same amplification system as vinyl, the only difference is the source. In more than a few cases I have the “same ” recording in both formats. I can tell CD apart, instantly, with my eyes shut. The difference is very significant.

      Among my thousand CDs there are no more than handful where the CD does a better job presenting the music than original vinyl on my system. It happens but not very often. That said, most of the few modern vinyl records I have,where I happen to have them both, the vinyl edition is to my ear significantly inferior to the CD.

      I have a few theories about why, which may or may not be right, but theory is just that, a theory. The experience is quite clear, even if the reasons why are not.

      • Dear LJC, what do you mean by saying you “have the same recording in both formats”? If I compared a Columbia Six-Eye “Kind Of Blue” to the Legacy CD, of course I could tell the difference straight away. I am not talking about LP versus CD editions. What I mean is: Did you ever convert your own (!) vinyl to digital and compare the two versions under similar conditions? I strongly doubt that the digital transfer would be as instantly recognizable as Gioconda II is. No way.

        • I misunderstood, you are referring to the difference between vinyl ripped down to the same file format as CD and MP3. for comparison. Sounds an interesting test though I don’t have the means of doing it, and quite possibly I wouldn’t be able to tell. People tell me there is a difference in quality between rips at 160kbps and 320kbps, likewise between these high definition SACDs and ordinary CDs, or between high definition downloads and ordinary MP3. I have no personal experience but I assume someone thinks these differences in sampling rate are significant.

          The original point was that vinyl is infinitely resolvable – there is always more information in there in the groove if you can get it out- and that a digitally sampled medium has thrown out that information because the sample is “good enough” for most listening purposes. The Madonna is only a metaphor for this process.

          • See what I mean? I think it would be interesting to even play a number of your 160kbps rips through your high-end amp and ask people whether they can hear the difference. (Would be fun to play LP rips all the time and no vinyl… no, I would never dare to do that to my friends.) My point is: Some people seem to think of “digital” as if it had a particular kind of flavour. It hasn’t as long as you get enough resolution.

            I do, however, appreciate your point that vinyl is infinitely resolvable. I rather like the idea, although I think it is a philosophical question rather than a practical one.

            • Oh, I would like to add: I am still talking about the differences between

              a) the vinyl, and
              b) the digital rip of that same vinyl.

              I claim: You can’t tell the difference.

              • I would find that hard to believe, I can instantly tell a lo-rez digital file from the same analog recording, particularly with respect to the brushwork on cymbals and hi-hats, and the “air” in the recording. But the biggest difference is “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.” That is exactly how I hear it, my cds and SACDs sound great on my system, but after a while, its kind of boring. OTOH, when I am listening to most vinyl, it just draws me into the music to the point that I often stop what I am doing (mostly reading for University or enjoyment) and go “wow, that is just outstanding music!” For whatever reason, vinyl draws me into the music, whereas digital pushes me away, there is just something about the digital format that doesn’t really excite me. I should also say that MOST of my listening is digital, at work, in the car. Vinyl is less so because my rig is at home…

                • I fully agree with what you say about lo-rez digital files. I was thinking about WAV rips in the first place, but there are very good MP3 options too.
                  Re: “CD sounds pleasant… (but!!)” – Imagine a CD made from one of your favourite LP’s. Are you sure you could tell the difference? To be precise: There is a difference due to the signal path (I have often pointed to this caveat), but still the question is: Which is which? And if you were to listen to one version only, would you be able to assess it correctly? My point has always been: Beyond a certain level of resolution, there is no such thing as “digital” sound.

                  • I was listening to some rock on vinyl a while back, and was enjoying the music and placed on one of my favorite rock cds, I was stunned by how flat and compressed the sound was! Needless to say, that is not a valid comparison, but what is interesting and drove me to investigate vinyl is when my vinyl playback system got up to a good quality level, that my records sounded as good as cds of the same albums. I have not made a direct comparison of that since 2 years ago, and my vinyl playback has taken a fairly large increase in quality since then, so I am guessing the vinyl may indeed be even better than the cd playback. I am not setup to do .wav rips, but that would be an interesting experiment to try and see if there is an inherent quality to digital that keeps it from being as involving as analog, the numbers would favor digital by a large margin, but soundwise, it seems to be the opposite…

      • The reason why most of your modern vinyl sound comparatively poor and some of your CD’s sound better (albeit not a few) is because of a big myth about Vinyl that I hear ALL the time.

        Vinyl does NOT inherently sound better. CD has the utter potential to sound better, because by taking 44,100 samples per second you are not only eliminating a lot of artifacts, you have a sampling rate more than sufficient to make the music seamlessly smooth. If people say vinyl sounds better because of any ‘warmth’ they might as well state it sounds better because it’s more distorted.

        No, the CD has plenty capability to sound equal and indeed better. So why do a lot of CD’s sound worse? Simple. Recording & Mastering. Despite advances in technology, the acoustic environment and mastering used to record modern CDs is generally worse than it was years ago.

        Mastering has gotten worse – see ‘Loudness Wars’ for more information. In particular, early CDs sounded quite bad – not because CD is bad, but possibly because recordists either hadn’t taken full advantage of the technology, or were applying un-necessary compression. Modern music now aims to be as loud as possible which causes clipping (more distortion) and will sound bad no matter what medium it is delivered on.

        • and for the record I can’t tell any difference either. I have Vinyl rips of various songs, the vinyl themselves and the CD version of the song. Aside from the distortion, pops and crackles, they sound IDENTICAL. This is through a high-end headphone setup.

          • Most important of all: There is no such thing as an inherently “digital” sound. Play your vinyl rip to anyone, telling him it’s the original vinyl he’s listening to, and he won’t be able to prove the contrary from his listening experience. As I have said many times before – there might be some differences (e.g. in volume) due to the signal path, but still the listener won’t be able to tell which is which. If you play him both versions you might say something like: “The first version you will hear will be a little louder than the second version – so what? Is it the vinyl? Is it the rip?”

            • Thing is though, CDs are a bit rubbish compared to records. Dragging a rock around a groove is a much better way of listening to music than sticking a CD in a CD player. Why? It just is.
              It sounds better because it’s just a better way of consuming music and it also has a way of expressing sound in a way I prefer to CDs. That’s probably bias but I don’t care.

                • I perfectly understand. I was talking about what you hear, not about what you can see and touch. Among other things, the problem of CD packaging has remained unresolved. CD booklets have always been, and still are, an infliction.

              • Presenting your idea as a fact when it is really opinion, i.e. I doubt you have heard well-mastered CDs or hi rez files played on an audiophile-grade system. The difference is obvious: in terms of accurately reproducing a recording, CDs are superior! The “warm” or “analog” sound the hipsters love about vinyl, I have another word for it – DISTORTION! Minor harmonic distortion, crackles, pops, wow & flutter, and a signal-to-noise ratio and dynamic range far inferior to CD.

                As far as this statement in the article:

                “With a vinyl source, there are variations in mastering, re-mastering and pressing of different editions. You can influence potential quality for better or worse by your choice of vinyl pressing…..With CD/digital source, you have got what you got: the file is the same from one copy to the next.”

                Huh? Different masterings fundamentally change the way CDs sound, just like with vinyl. Compare a high quality remaster from original 1st gen tapes, from MFSL, DCC, or Audio Fidelity, to the typical compressed, hot-mastered, major label stuff. The difference is huge, just like with poor vinyl compared to a 180gm remastering from the original tapes.

                I like vinyl, and agree it offers a satisfying aesthetic experience – but that is very different than arguing that vinyl is somehow inherently better at reproducing music. This is demonstrably false.

                Response:
                It’s all opinion, Charles, it’s a blog, and calling something “demonstrably false” is not the same as demonstrating it to be false. It’s all just opinion. Mine is on record. Thank you for sharing yours.
                LJC

                • to LJC,
                  No, some things are not “opinions”. Some are measurable facts. And it is a measurable fact that CD’s are more accurate (i.e. better) in reproducing sound than LP’s.

                  LJC Response:
                  So, it is your opinion that it is a “measurable fact”. It is my opinion that musical quality is subjective which can be experienced but not “measured”.
                  See how this opinion thing works?

              • That’s circular reasoning and not remotely logical. It is because it is. Brilliant. Pros that what is really happening here with the vinyl vs. CD debate has nothing to do with experienced ears or science; it has everything to do with nostalgia. And today’s youths getting sucked up into it are the victims of worshipping someone else’s nostalgia, namely my generations. It is because it is. It simply is. Jeez.

                • My means of understanding are based on logic, reasoning (based upon my experience as an EE and scientist) and human responses. Thus there is no way vinyl should even be competitive with digital and that is simply not the case, my vinyl sounds every bit as good as digital (of course I speak only of 16/44.1, mp3 is NOT even close to vinyl and anyone who says so is totally bullshit), assuming both are from the same mastering chain. The thing is, with digital I can listen for an hour or two and then I get bored and move on to some chore or other, with vinyl I can listen all day and find myself constantly pulled into the music, digital seems to push me away instead. I don’t know why this is, but is it a FACT, for ME, and at the end of the day it is all about ME. Audio reproduction is a subjective thing as different people hear or want to hear different things in their audio systems, system that even at highest levels are not even close to the real thing. Your brain knows this. I cannot understand the reasoning why I enjoy vinyl more than digital, but I find it to be the case and at the end of the day, it is all about me, I am the one I need to please, not anyone else.

                • What strikes me whenever I go into a record store, there are a dozen or more people flipping through the shelves, and every one of them is there for a different reason. I think that kind of diversity is healthy, pigeon-holing it as “nostalgia” is wide of the mark, like most pop-psychology.

                  What worries me more is when I go to a hi-fi show, and the old crusties are sitting there still listening to Pink Floyd Dark Side of the Moon. In marketing we used to call the demographic “SLITS” – Still Living In The Sixties. Or may be Seventies, I won’t argue.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s