Music forums often get quite heated about which is “better”, vinyl or CD? You might as well ask which is better, chocolate or vanilla. “Better” is the wrong word, often a 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 other does that better, you may well prefer it.
Beware the temperature analogy
It is commonly claimed CD sounds “clinical” or 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 is nothing to do with temperature, 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 IN – the quality of the original recording and mastering, “the source”, and the OUT – the ability of the Hi Fi to faithfully retrieve and replay what is captured in the source. Good hi-fi can render neutrally what is there. The very idea of tone controls on a hi-fi is a oxymoron.
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. In many cases (though not always) the best will be the 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. (We could argue about SACD and 24 bit remastered from original tapes etc but to my mind that may close the gap but does not change the final winner)
The output side – audio reproduction – is one you have much more control over, and a wide range of equipment and expense. Your choice of hardware and supporting infrastructure will make a huge difference to sound quality. In my limited 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 stages to stylus to preamp and amp to speakers. Every step is continuous physical signal not digital. However on a cautionary note – good hi fi wont make a bad recording sound better. Counter-intuitively, improved equipment can enable you to hear 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 that 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:
To some people, music is just music, an audio quality dimension does not effectively exist. I guess that applys to the majority of people, especially those with wires trailing from their ears to their phone. And certainly to those who have never experienced a high quality vinyl pressing played on a highly tuned vinyl system, which sums up most people.
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. 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 print.
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. I compare vintage 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.
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 no advantage over CD.
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 hifi 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 1,000, 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 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…