Friday, January 18, 2008

Vinyl vs. CD: An Analog Revival in a Digital World (Part 3 of 3)

(This is the third part of a three part article discussing the format wars between CD and Vinyl.)

As I alluded in Part 1, many advocates of vinyl claim that the LP actually presents a richer, more robust sound than the CD. Are they correct? To discover for myself I decided to listen to both vinyls and CDs of the very same album. And to make sure I wasn't missing out on any sonic nuances, I performed this "test" using higher quality Phillips headphones. The turntable I used was the Sony PSLX250H. The same EQ and volume settings were used for all CD and vinyl listening sessions as well.

I decided to listen to two different albums; one new and one old. The new album was The Killers' Sam's Town. The old album was Steely Dan's Aja. I chose these albums that hail from very different eras to examine an important point regarding the vinyl v. CD debate: does an album that was cut with a specific medium in mind tend to sound better on that intended medium? In other words, does The Killers album, which was mixed primarily for the CD, sound better than its vinyl counterpart? Or does one medium tend to rise to the top regardless of the producer's intent?

Finally, before I continue on with my analysis of both albums, I must emphasize that my test is by no means scientific. Instead, my findings are based on my personal and subjective conclusions. Please keep that in mind if my determinations run counter to yours.

The Killers - 'Sam's Town'
Recently I splurged and purchased the special edition picture disc vinyl of The Killers' Sam's Town from a local, independent music shop. It came with bonus artwork that folded out, and the disc itself looked very cool. But how did it sound?

Because this Killers album was released in 2006, it is safe to say its production staff had the CD in mind when it cut the record. This means that all of the mixing and layering was tweaked to sound as good as it could on a compact disc. And I'm willing to bet that many of the dubs were recorded digitally as well. With that in mind I figured I'd be lucky to have the vinyl version of Sam's Town provide me with an equally mastered sound. But, needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

To be perfectly honest, there was such little difference between the vinyl and the CD that it was quite negligible. In fact, it was only because I was focusing so intently for the purposes of this post that I even began to notice the subtleties of each medium. The first thing I did notice, however, was that a slight crackle and hiss inherent of vinyl was present on each track when I listened to the wax version of Sam's Town. Of course I did have headphones on, and I did have the volume cranked way up, but it was still a difference that weighed in silicon's favor where no hiss existed under the same settings. Depending on whether you like pops and ambient feedback imposed on top of your music, the CD version ended up being the better option.

But as I listened further, I noticed that the vinyl version, aside from those slight hisses, actually provided a bit more of a richer sound. The instruments were more pronounced, and they had a sharper zing to them. Bass drums actually overtook Brandon Flowers' vocals at times, and it began to feel like I was sitting in the studio with the band live as they were laying down each track. The CD, on the other hand, sounded relatively tinny when compared to the vinyl, and every instrument seemed to have been amplified to share one uniform volume level. The CD had a much cleaner sound though, and the production focus was definitely on Flowers' singing as I never detected any moment where an instrument once overtook his voice. The CD was certainly a little more "sanitized."

Like I said, the differences between the vinyl and CD versions of this modern album were minuscule. The fact that the vinyl could sound as good as its CD counterpart in 2008 was definitely unexpected, but in no way did the LP sound better. While the vinyl provided a more pronounced sound than the CD, the CD was cleaner in that it didn't have that faint hiss. That clean sound did lead to making the CD sound tinnier, however, and I preferred the vinyl slightly if only for its ability to capture every instrument's true sound without reducing them all to the same volume level below that of the vocal.

To be sure, the distinction between the vinyl and CD of Sam's Town is a true toss-up. The album was definitely custom made for the CD, so from that standpoint it probably makes most sense for the average audiophile to enjoy the album on that medium. Yet, if you value full fidelity and don't mind a weak LP crackle on a modern song, then the vinyl version is for you. Not to be too much of a fence sitter on this one, format preference for Sam's Town truly lies in the ear of the beholder.

Steely Dan - 'Aja'
Unlike my Sam's Town purchase, in no way did I need to splurge to pick up the vinyl version of Aja. For a whopping $1.99 I bought a non-warped, near-mint version of one of Steely's finest albums from the very same independent record store as before. If only for the bargain price alone, I could not wait to spin this record as soon as I got home.

In large contrast to my Killers experience, the difference between Aja on vinyl and Aja on CD was DRASTIC! The wax disc was louder, fuller, and richer than its silicon counterpart in very acute ways. One of the most dazzling observations was the fact that the horns really shone through on the vinyl when they were pretty much a non-element on the compact disc. The backing vocals were also warmer on the LP, and every single sound was pure vibrancy. The CD, on the other hand, had every instrument mixed to the same level, and the entire package was so silent I felt like I was listening to a distant band in a vacuum, as opposed to a very near band in a recording studio. To say the least, the studio perfectionism of Steely Dan lore was stripped of all its nuances on the CD. Talk about no fun!

Similar to my Killers listening test, Aja also had the inherent crackle and hiss present, but the overall sound was so evidently superior to the CD that after a very short while I didn't even pay attention. That is not to say that the CD sounded bad---the CD actually sounded very good in and of itself. Its just that while the CD sounded great, the vinyl sounded greater.

My test by no means provided conclusive results. Scientific conditions weren't maintained, and there was a very limited random sample: Me. But through this small, three-part exploration, I did discover that vinyl, a medium I formerly wrote off as an antiquated relic, can sound just as good, if not better, than the contemporary CD.

Surely, as the compact disc is increasingly dwarfed by hard drives and iPods as the preferred place to house digital tracks, vinyl will remain the one bastion of tangible music. It will be the last place where music can actually be held in hand and admired without the need for a computer screen. And as more and more artists begin to release albums with vinyl as one of their intended formats, it will not be surprising to have modern day LPs sound better than their digital counterparts.

For further reading on this trend, check out Time Magazine's very recent article.

(You can also read parts 1 and 2 of this article by clicking on their respective number).


Anonymous said...

Hey, good article. I've never tried that test myself, but I've always wanted too. I just don't own the same records as I do CD's.

One thing that would make a difference, is that older music from before and into the eighties, was recorded analog. Today it is recorded digitally. This will affect the sound also.

I think that the next step for this test would be to try to hear differences between albums that are recorded analog vs digital.

Anonymous said...

Good article but the assessement of the vinyl performance is unfair because you are using a picture disc. Picture discs are rubbish and you never get a good audio pressing since the picture is glued to the vinyl and then the grooves are pressed into the picture. The hiss is down to the fact that it is a picture disc. Picture disc pressing have a lot of background hiss.

The difference in the 'loudness' of different instruments (the dynamics) on the vinyl comparred to the CD is nothing to do with the format directly but the misuse of the mastering process. The CD has been mastered using digital compression and the volume set loud. The peaks and troughs have been flattened to create a constant volume and then maxed out to 0db (sometimes clipped seriously). This removes the dynamics and is known as 'hot mastering'. The results are dire and known as 'squash'. Both Killers albums have been squashed/compressed and maxed out in this manner. This is well documented and the process used on all rock/pop/indie CDs since 2000. The vinyl master can not be mastered in this way because volume is physical in vinyl and limted so the dynamics are maintained which is why I buy vinyl where I can. You should comparre Hot Fuss and you'll hear that the vinyl is so much better. You are right to notice the drums, especially snares and high hats. Google search on the 'Loudness War' and you'll understand where the dynamic differences between modern Cds and Vinyl come from. CD as a medium has a wider dynamic range than vinyl but the mastering results mean you actual loose that range at the expense of volume and get a wider dynamic range with the vinyl.

Compare Kasabian's last album on vinyl and on CD, its a different album and I mean seriously different.


Anonymous said...

I never really heard this conclusion before until you and that site you mentioned in the beginning discussed it - that vinyl will outdo cd as the physical medium for music because of internet downloads. It really does make sense, as everyone ditched their CD player for an Ipod, and most people either download music illegally or from itunes.

Jane Elizabeth said...

Thanks for the article. My comment is not intended to deride at all, but merely to point out that your Sony as a playback medium was way, way, at the bottom end in terms of turntable quality.

If you got results as good as you did, that shows that vinyl can be excellent even with some of the least expensive equipment available, which may surprise some audiophiles, who while extolling vinyl often say that you need to spend between $500 and $1000 on turntable and cartridge.

Steve said...

Thanks for the comments, guy. Many of you know a lot more about his subject than I do, so it's a pleasure to be enlightened.

Anonymous said...

Good article, but get real. Try playing the LP 100 times on a $100 turntable and the CD 100 times on a $100 CD player, then compare them. I'll bet on the CD.

Anonymous said...

You inspired me to do my own test with Miles Davis' "Kind Of Blue" on LP and CD. The LP I used was a re-release of Kind Of Blue from the original master tapes on 200 gram. The 200 gram version is virtually like the original 1959 release in thickness and microgroove but pressed on Quiex SV-P vinyl which claims to reveal more detail and less surface noise. Since there are a number of remasters of Kind Of Blue on CD, I selected the 20 bit remix which utilized an all-tube 3 track machine also from the original master.

I used a Denon CD/DVD/SACD player and a Micro Seiki DD-40 turntable equipped with Grado Gold cartridge. Headphones were Sennheiser HD-555.

Listening between the two mediums, I immediately noticed differences. On the LP I experienced warm full bodied sound. But the real surprise came from playing the CD. Since Columbia re-mastered Kind Of Blue using old fashioned tubes I was expecting the sound to parallel the tonal range of the record without LP hiss. Strangely, I found the CD to be sharp and brassy. In fact, some instruments sounded overpowering, particularly the cymbals which was too bright at times. Miles Davis' trumpet and Coltrane's sax sounded great but felt tinny on some passages. Comparatively on vinyl, all the winds gave a lusher consistent tone. The bass was muscular and drums tight. The CD however contained some qualities of the vinyl but sounded louder with too many bright spots and dull bass is a few areas. Interestingly, the hiss I was expecting to came from the vinyl was actually more pronounced on the CD version. The hiss are technical artifacts coming from a limited piece of equipment so I expected the noise to be present. I just didn't imagine how noticeably louder on CD it would be. On the vinyl however, the hiss was less apparent throughout.

But even when I cleaned the record the inevitable pops and clicks interrupted Bill Evans' elegant solo during Blue in Green. The contact of the stylus onto the vinyl is the one inherent problem when playing records. Each time the stylus traces the record groove it produces wear on both the vinyl and needle which in turn affect the sonic quality of the sound. On CD's, the sound does not degrade since there is no physical contact between the player and the CD surface.

But I suspect new music is digitally mastered, meaning that old tube amps and tapes aren't used during the recording process. The funny thing is that the digital master is compressed but is then transcribed to vinyl, which ironically begs the question, is it analog!!!??? Yes and no.

Anonymous said...

Steely Dan vs The Killers is not a good A/B test imo.

One band from an era when music was handled with care by recording engineers and mastering engineers the other from an era when music is treated as video game and tv commercial background music and is recorded as such.

I like vinyl very much but I'm under no illusions as to the nuetrality of its sound. Vinyl adds its own aesthetic so dont necessarily think you're listening to the most truthful version of the original master tape. Compact discs on the other hand do not flatter the material in any way. There is no hiding place with a cd, if a wrong turn was taken in the recording or mastering phase that little piece of plastic will expose it quite ruthlessly.

Anonymous said...

your belt drive sony is junk, and I'd bet your needle is too. Analog produces a true curved waveform whereas digital is a pixlated squared off version of the original. If you ask any professional musician they will always go with vinyl. If you are serious about listening to music buy a technics 1200. If you just want to listen to the latest pop chart hit, buy cd's.

Anonymous said...

To anon above, you Technics, to be fair, is a total pile of junk itself... it's a DJ deck... not a proper grown-up turntable and is about as refined as a bag of chips with mushy peas.

Maybe you ought to get yourself into a hi-fi shop and hear a proper one and stop taking the piss out of honest folk. Get back to playing with your toy and enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

Good article
Analogue is no doubt a winner at this stage, but it does come at a price, of considerable pain and attentiveness as you rightly point out leading to time and cost inefficiency. You cannot do two things at the same time while listening to vinyl something which does give a strong lead on the side of CDs.

CDs are no doubt obsolete nowadays as a MEDIUM since there are ways and technology see DVD A SACD blue ray to pack a lot more information which translates into sound detail, in a medium.

The comparison is similar to digital photography where you have the die hards who are always trying to convince everyone that film is superior, and it still is but until when? the way technology moves or probably commerce as well, digital is the way forward in all walks of life. It is only a matter of convincing the big boys, the sonys the philips etc etc that people do need and want better quality out of their DIGITAL machines.

Compare a blue ray CD with today's technology recorded as meticulously as a vinyl record or a 50 mb mp3 and I am sure it will be a more fair contrast. In ten years time there will be no more war to fight.

Anonymous said...

My take on the whole thing is this. To me the difference between cd (digital) and vinyl is similar to a realistic painting vs a digital print out. The digital printout may see more accurate, but if you look close enough you'll see it's not full tones, but made up of little dots. The painting may not be as accurate, but the colours and such may be richer due to continuous tone, and even if it is not as accurate many people may prefer the 'aesthetics' of it's 'look'. That last point is the gist of it to me. I believe CD is more accurate, but people may prefer the abstraction vinyl adds to a sound.

Anonymous said...

You've concluded that your test was inconclusive. ???

Meade Skelton Haufe said...

The reason why you noticed the record sounding as bad as the CD was because it was recorded digitally. Digital sounds are not analog, and thus you aren't really getting a true analog sound on the record, but a hybrid. Also as someone stated earlier, they decided to put a picture on the vinyl, which frankly almost destroys any use of it. I have found that it almost created a defect on mine and I had 2 copies. While I think you picked a lousy LP anyway (The Killers?) I own it only because its on vinyl.

You should not hear pops and clicks on vinyl . This means there is dirt in the grooves- and it can easily be removed. It also dependso n the quality of needle/stylus you have. Surface noise is practically inaudible on a great stereo turntable hi fi.

Furthermore, modern day vinyl is usually recycled vinyl (to save cost) and of lesser quality. Older records however, have truer quality vinyl and last almost forever if taken care of properly.

Next time play some good music such as Patsy Cline or Hank Williams Sr, and you will hear a better vinyl sound.

Unknown said...

There is no inherent limitation to the technology behind CDs that would prevent them from sounding as good as vinyl in any situation.

However, many vinyl recordings will sound better than their CD counterparts because of the studio mixing on each. A well-executed vinyl rip can sound just as good as a bunch of digital files as the original did.

For some reason, studios will compress the sound heavily on CDs, mixing every layer up until there are no loud or quiet parts in the song, it's all the same. This problem has gotten worse in the past couple decades. New albums released for CDs can still sound a lot worse than their vinyl versions.

Anonymous said...

I jsut bought a brand new record "audiophile" 180 gram remaster and played it back to back with the origianl release compact disc from 1990. Really there was only one difference, poping, grinding souund in the back ground, I am tempted on taking the record back and never buy one again. I have been listening to records back to back for weeks now and yes there are some older ones that sound better than the CD release but the noise in records do not make them sound better. If you prefer listening to music with grinders and two bowls of rice crispys next to your ears that does not make it "better" sounding. I used to beleieve that records sounded better but the more I listen to them the more I love compact/digital formats.

Meade Skelton Haufe said...

With a proper needle and good turntable a clean record should NOT sound like a bowl of rice crispies! Also, I have cds with wear and tear that will make griding noises as well. CD players-especially older ones allow for plenty of background sound. Whats your point? Both formats have their limitations, but records can sound just as clean as CDs can, and provide a deeper sound.

Husband. Dad. Geek. said...

Good article.

I do think the quality of the system is critical. A £100 CD player will be a lot more forgiving than a £100 turntable, but as you ramp up the cash the CD players don't really improve whilst the turntables get a lot better, until you get to about £6-700 when diminishing returns get you into Emperor's New Clothes territory.

Comparing a base-model audiophile CD player (Arcam Alpha 7se) against a base-model audiophile turntable (Pro-Ject Debut SE) there is a noticeable difference. It's not huge by any stretch, but it's there. My reference album is The The's Mind Bomb, which demands (literally by the artist in the sleevenotes) playing late, loud, in one go. Such an emotional, evocative album did 'sound' better on vinyl. By 'sound' I mean I felt more entangled in the stories Matt Johnson is telling, more lost in the experience. The odd crackle didn't detract from it, any more than the tinkle of a wine glass at a neighbouring table would an enthralling conversation on a date. With the CD I felt passive, looking in from the outside by comparison. I guess it depends on your definition of listening to an album. Are you after soundwaves to be detected by your ears, or are you after a more wholistic experience?

Reading back over that it does come over a bit audiophile tosh. But it's more or less why I'm embarking on replacing, slowly, all my most-cherished CD's with good quality vinyl.



Anonymous said...

I'm surprised at how many comments this article is getting. I commented almost two years ago, and every few weeks I get an email saying someone new has commented.

zack said...

This is the most informative and in depth comparison I have read. I now know what to pay attention to on my next pressing...

Anonymous said...

Vinyl all the way for me I have a very high quality vinyl and CD playback system and the vinyl is better both dynamically and in terms of soundstage on ost occassions, but hey if you prefer CD enjoy it!

Keep an eye out for 24 bit 192 sampled downloads. If well mastered 24 bit 192 downloads become available (some jazz is available for Linn and Naim) they will end the debate once and for all blowing vinyl and CD out of the water.

The issue with modern CDs (exckuding jazz and clasical) is first the mastering and then for all cds its the 16 bit capacilty and only 44.1 sampling.

Most new music is recorded digitally in 24bits with 96 or 192 sampling rates. If record companies can pull their finger out this is the audiophile way forward.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait for DVD audio or SACD!!!
They're supposed to balance analog sound quality and digital conveince!

But seriously, a $30 DVD/CD/SACD player from Walmart that plays all CDs great and having money left for retirement or a $5000.00 tube amp and a $1000.00 Technics turntable and not being able to pay the rent, for me the choice is easy.

Anonymous said...

The reason vinyl sounds better has a couple of reasons:
- vinyl mastering is better (an extremely loud mix can actually cause the needle to pop out of the groove! with cd this is no issue)
- vinyl has a natural highs-attenuation, making the music sound a bit softer in the highs

Bad mastering will however be very evident on cd's. The Killer's album Hot Fuss is a good example. If you stand close to the speakers you will hear lots of tiny high-pitched pops: all of which are sound waves that are so loud that they 'break' when they hit the digital noise ceiling, becoming square waves, producing high-pitched noise, making the sound quality less 'precise' and introducing noise.

It is often pretty hard to hear differences in loudness, but there is a test: turn up the volume. Your ears will get tired and you will get annoyed by the loud noise. A vinyl record will do better in these cases.

By the way: ALL modern vinyl records (including the Killers) are digitally mixed. THEN transferred to analog (including quality loss). Big difference is they are mastered for vinyl, with more subtlety.

If you want to hear a truly great cd, listen to Dark Side of the Moon by Pink Floyd. It is extremely well mastered and will sound really good, especially on good speakers. Rich sound, high definition, warm, no clipping, not too loud. Might very well convince some vinyl-lovers that the medium cd isn't so bad. It's just the way it's used nowadays...

By the way, if cd is used properly 96/24 recording doesn't even add a lot (it does during the mastering stage though, but not as end-medium).

Audrey said...

Very well written, I enjoyed every word. I'm thinking of evaluating the sound of vinyl records for my English class and found your article. I am 28 years old(as of 2011) and discovered vinyl records at the age of 13. I think perhaps I had my VERY high quality cassette player lurking in my memory when I first pestered my parents into buying a turntable for me. My dad thought it would be a passing phase, but it has turned into an extremely enjoyable hobby of mine. Not only do I love to browse used record shops, I also love to order brand-new vinyl records. Nothing sounds better to me than a brand-new vinyl with a brand-new or near new needle. I've grown so accustomed to them that I actually miss the occasional 'crackle' when listening to the digital format of a specific piece of music. I also have a horrible habit of misplacing or damaging Cd's. It is hard to misplace a twelve inch vinyl record lol. And since a 180 gram vinyl costs 30.00 vs a CD costing around ten, I tend to be a lot more careful with them. I love the convenience of being able to store my music on the PC, but I suppose I have the heart and soul of an audiophile. Given a choice I'll gladly put my old copy of Dark Side of the Moon on the turntable. Or for that matter, even Nine Inch Nails.

Anonymous said...

Interesting comparison. However, your first comparison leaves me confused with an apparent contradiction.

First you say" in no way did the LP sound better" but then you say " the vinyl provided a more pronounced sound than the CD". "the CD sound tinnier, however, and I preferred the vinyl slightly if only for its ability to capture every instrument's true sound without reducing them all to the same volume level below that of the vocal."
That sound like the vinyl did sound better in several ways!