DOES MUSIC SOUND BETTER ON VINYL RECORDS THAN ON CDs?

July 27, 2016 – 2:54 pm

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Paul D Lehrman, a lecturer in music and director of the music engineering minor program at Tufts University, weighs in on the debate.

Vinyl is back, no doubt about it. Sales of vinyl records have been soaring, although they still represent only a tiny fraction of the music industry’s revenues: about 2 per cent in 2014. Is this growth because, as some respected sources breathlessly state - I’m looking at you, Wired magazine - vinyl sounds better than digital media? Or is there some sort of retro-hype going on?

It’s true that some digital media really don’t sound very good. Low-bit-rate MP3 makes compromises in fidelity, as does low-bit-rate AAC, the higher-tech successor to MP3 that is used by iTunes and YouTube. Low-bit-rate AAC files are also what you typically hear on Pandora, Spotify and SoundCloud, and on your phone. While they are OK for casual listening in the gym or the car, many people can hear their limitations in a quiet environment.

But what about compact discs, which some claim compromise the listening experience as well? Certainly the act of putting a record on a turntable and having to change it every 20 minutes makes the listener feel more involved with the music. It’s different from sitting back and letting your CD changer do its thing. However, by any measurable criterion, CDs are superior to LPs. And so are MP3 and AAC files with bit rates above 300k, which in most cases are indistinguishable from CDs. Here are the reasons why:

Dynamic range. The difference between the loudest and softest sounds an LP can play is about 70 decibels (dB). CDs can handle over 90 dB. In practical terms, this means that CDs have more than 10 times the dynamic range of LPs.

Surface noise. Dust particles in the grooves of an LP cause crackles and ticks that are present and audible no matter how well you clean the record. CDs are not affected by surface noise, because they use light beams to read the musical data, which ignore any foreign substance on the disc. Besides that, vinyl records have an underlying hiss generated by the needle moving over the surface.

Mechanical noise. Every turntable, even the most expensive, generates a low-frequency rumble that is transmitted by the stylus into the amplifier and speakers. The system has to work much harder to handle all that low-frequency energy, and that can cause distortion in other parts of the audio spectrum. Many audio systems include a rumble filter that can reduce this, but that filter also removes the lower-frequency sounds on the record, like the bottom octave of a piano, or the low tones that give a bass drum so much of its power.

Speed variation. Listen to a recording of a solo piano on an LP, and then on a CD. I’ll bet you can hear the difference immediately. Vinyl depends on a mechanically driven system, and any such system will introduce minute changes in the speed and pitch of playback. A vinyl record that is even slightly warped, or has a hole that is not perfectly centered, will have “wow” - slow variations in pitch. Tiny imperfections in the belts or wheels of the turntable will cause more rapid pitch changes, known as “flutter.” CD players, because they use super-accurate digital buffers, are immune to this.

Channel separation. On a CD, the separation between the left and right channels used in recording is over 90 dB. On LPs, it’s 30 dB at best. That means engineers have a much narrower range to work with when they’re mixing and mastering the audio, and the result, for the listener, is that the stereo “image” is highly constricted. It’s worse at lower frequencies; a loud bass signal in one channel of a record can push the needle out of the groove, so engineers have to make sure bass frequencies are always in the center.

Continuous vs “chopped up.” Some people believe that because digital audio “chops up” the signal into discrete numbers, it cannot carry all of the information that an analog signal does. But before the digital signal reaches our ears, it is reconstituted into a continuous analog wave. The process does filter out sounds above 20 kHz, which is the highest frequency the most acute human ears can hear. However, no phono cartridge, amplifier or speakers can reproduce those frequencies anyway. So really, nothing is taken out that affects the sound.

Longevity. Friction causes heat, which softens plastic and makes it easy to deform. This means that every time you play a record, the smallest peaks and dips - the high frequencies - soften and can literally get shaved off. The more you play it, the worse it gets. Also, whenever the needle encounters a dust particle, it gouges a hole in the soft surface, so that pop or crackle becomes permanent. By contrast, CDs will sound the same essentially forever, unless you leave them on your car dashboard on a sunny day. And you can always make as many perfect copies of them as you like.

CDs reflect exactly what the artists recorded in the studio. Vinyl distorts it. Some listeners honestly feel that the defects vinyl introduces somehow make it more attractive or “warmer.” But from any objective standpoint, there’s no justification in calling the sound of vinyl records “better.”

Note: The above article was posted at tufts.edu. Tufts University is a private research university located in Medford/Somerville, near Boston, Massachusetts. The university emphasizes active citizenship and public service in all of its disciplines more than any peer school and is well known for its internationalism and study abroad programs. The article was also posted at phys.org.

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WHY ELP REISSUES WON’T BE ON HEAVYWEIGHT 180g VINYL

When Emerson Lake & Palmer’s first three albums are reissued on July 29, 2016, there won’t be any versions on ‘heavyweight’ 180g pressings. Greg Lake explains:

To all friends of vinyl.

Ever since producing and recording with King Crimson and ELP, it has been my personal goal to achieve the best possible sound quality and that remains true to this day.

Regarding the audio reproduction quality on vinyl, the popular perception for some time has been that the best sound quality is achieved by using 180gsm weight. The reality, however, is that particularly when using modern decks, the best audio quality is actually achieved using the lighter 140gsm weight. I am honestly not sure why this trend of using heavyweight vinyl came about. Probably because of the ‘more equals better’ in the world we live in. However, in the interests of delivering the best quality audio to our fans we have decided to go for quality rather than quantity.

Just to underpin the above vinyl quality issue, here below is a short explanation/statement  from Mr Helmut Brinkmann of Brinkmann Audio, a leading authority on this subject.

Greg Lake, 2016

180 or 200 grams records often don’t sound as good as the thinner ones. In my opinion this comes from the massive acrylic material. As this is plastic of quite some softness, it reacts in the form of resonances during the tracking process.

As good as the recorded music may sound, the plastic sound of vinyl does not… the music is disturbed by those resonances.

Though the thicker record may be stiffer than a thinner one, the resonances are heavier because of the sheer mass of the material (which is not that stiff compared to the dynamic tracking forces).

We know that the needle is accelerated to a few G gravity, and that causes back force resonances in the vinyl material. The more vinyl is under the needle the more these resonances can arise.

Helmut Brinkmann, 2016
www.brinkmann-audio.de

Note: The above sidebar was posted at superdeluxeedition.com.

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  1. 13 Responses to “DOES MUSIC SOUND BETTER ON VINYL RECORDS THAN ON CDs?”

  2. All the science in the world makes it clear that CD’s are better sounding. Fair enough. What LP’s give us is the ritual and organic feel of preparing the music media, cleaning it, feeling the heft in our hands, having a large sized cover with legible writing (a nice feature now that we are older). It takes care and attention to properly play a vinyl record. Anyone who has dropped their favorite disk, while inebriated at a party can attest to this. In short, it’s a much more interactive experience than the compact disk.

    Perhaps another reason is that the output is Analog - a continuous stream of music as compared to digital, where blocks of music are sent at high enough frequencies where our brains can “fill in the blanks”. Either way, the listener can decide what they prefer. I like both. Of course a 320K MP3 is fine for the portability factor as well.

    By Dave D on Jul 27, 2016

  3. @Dave D: Did you read past the first paragraph? The output of a CD player (or mp3 player, or any player of any digital format) is ALSO analog, ALSO a continuous stream of music. The whole stairstep/dots/blanks thing is a myth that can be, and has been, disproved by simply piping the output to an oscilloscope.

    By Mark H on Jul 28, 2016

  4. In large part, even if I have been a vinyl die hard for nearly 30 yrs, I agree with what most of this article says.
    There are exceptions, however. You have to remember that the thrust of the argument here comes on a theoretical basis, and in reality it is not always that way.
    For instance:
    1. The horrible compression tactics used in modern digital recordings, where almost nothing is soft; everything is loud and one dimensional. Vinyl releases bypass this absolute crime to music. (this however doesn’t prove vinyl superior, just that they have lost the plot in modern music production)
    2. The mastering for a lot of CD recordings by people or bands which aren’t hugely popular (and don’t guarantee the industry huge profit thru the reissue process), are incredibly slack, and sound much worse than the original vinyl releases.
    3. the huge variation in quality of vinyl, depending on where it was/ is manufactured. Great vinyl sounds great, but a lot of it is terrible too. In order to articulate the true depth of the sound of good vinyl, rather than bad, is a difficult process, and I doubt that the generalisations of the outputs, etc, mentioned here actually do the sound of great vinyl justice, because there are so many exceptions.
    There are more points here that I could mention, too.
    One other thing I have noticed through the years is that a lot of people out there actually notice the hiss and crackles a lot more than the quality of the music, per se. Hence, I think digital music- CDs, mp3s, whatever, are actually more appropriate for the bulk of people, unless they have the headspace, money and time to experiment with vinyl, in more than a casual way.

    By Albert Lyncher on Jul 28, 2016

  5. That’s okay. I still like vinyl

    By M L on Jul 28, 2016

  6. So do I!

    By Albert Lyncher on Jul 28, 2016

  7. I think that we are continuously focusing on wrong things. The answer on the question “which sounds better” lies only partially in the format. The complete answer is a combination of factors; one of the important factor is the recording quality. Way too many recordings today have been processed to death (dynamic compression, too much produced, “loud is better”, etc). Many modern recording are not mixed as good as they used to be too.
    No format is going to solve bad recording, not vinyl, not CD and not high resolution audio formats. The music industry needs to re-focus on the recording quality.

    By Pascal on Jul 28, 2016

  8. I would disagree with the statements in “Continuous vs “chopped up.””

    I was making a digital copy of a vinyl album at standard CD speed of 44.1 KHz. I could hear the quality change. On investigating the album had sounds well beyond 20KHz. On re-digitising at 96KHz the copy sounded like the original.

    Two factors here. I understand the aliasing issue but the filters used in the digitisation process need to drop to as close to zero as they can by approx 20KHz in order to avoid that problem. Firstly no filter is that perfect so there will be some aliasing interference and secondly practical filters introduce phase distortion starting approx at 4 kHz for a filter that drops to near zero at 20KHz. In my opinion that phase distortion will be heard.

    My copy at 96KHz sample rate avoided both those issues and the sound was indistinguishable from the Vinyl original.

    This second point is much more controversial. It is commonly accepted that we cannot hear above 20KHz. But my recordings of instruments at 96KHz sample rate show that there is often content in the sound up to 30KHz. Acc Guitars or Brass instruments for example. Do we perceive those sounds in some way? My testing shows speakers I commonly use operate up to 30KHz. I’d rather capture those sounds as well when I’m recording.

    I agree with the comments about care in recording. A lot of modern recordings over compress and over produce. I enjoy recording a band all together - as live. You capture the musicians vibing off each other. Albums with every track recorded separately, sometimes the players never meet are much less satisfying. Although I understand the practicalities.

    On a technical note about this, modern digital EQ’s can do things an analog could never do and the result is not always very musical. I’ve seen Q set to 150 to produce a deep notch for example. An analog EQ would be hard pressed to come anywhere near. The digital EQ’s have to be very good to avoid introducing all kinds of nasty artefacts into the sound. Even using digital processing I try to be aware of these factors to avoid the shortcomings of digital EQ.

    All that said the editing capabilities of a modern DAW in a studio are so very much better than the limitations of tape.

    I could go on but will stop there.

    Enjoy the music

    Ken

    By Ken Smith on Jul 28, 2016

  9. Eh….I still like my vinyl.

    By Dave D on Jul 28, 2016

  10. The sound quality from either vinyl or cd (or from your hard-drive or music server) is dependent on the quality of the execution of the technology.

    So, if you play your vinyl on a poor-quality turntable, it will produce rumble and resonances, and can sometimes sound worse than even a fairly cheap cd player, which has little or no such acoustic interferences.

    This seems to be true for most people, as not everyone can afford a top-of-the-range turntable - myself included!!
    However I am fortunate enough to know a couple of people with top-class kit; one has a Michell Orbe, the other has a VPI Scout.

    I prefer the Orbe, but the Scout is not that far behind.

    Both are preferable to MOST - not all - cd’s, as mentioned above, the sound on lots of cd’s has been compressed to the point of ruination. Jazz recordings on the ECM label are very good indeed. However, they also need a good cd player to bring out the best.

    It is very difficult to compare turntables and cd players, as the technologies are so different, so all in all I would say that make sure you can make as fair a comparison as possible.

    If you have a plastic midi hi-fi tower sitting on the bedside table, the cd player section will sound better than the built-in plastic turntable which will rumble like a freight train.

    If you have a Michell, VPI, Teres, Clearaudio, etc then you’ll need to pay a lot of cash to have a comparable cd set-up.

    Most people have something in between these extremes, and often the comparison between cd and vinyl in any particular hi-fi system is not comparing like with like. Many systems cannot reproduce differences between the two formats - remember your first hi-fi system? You thought it was great because you couldn’t hear the difference between your cassettes (containing music copied from vinyl) and the vinyl original. Then you upgraded ……

    Also people tend to dislike vinyl not because of the sound quality, but simply because it’s more difficlut to set up a turntable/arm/cartridge than a cd player, which in fact simply needs to be taken out of a box and placed on a shelf or table!

    Anyway that’s my contribution, I suppose I should declare my 350 vinyl LP’s for the sake of transparency!!

    By Tony in th UK on Jul 28, 2016

  11. Another issue to be wary of is any CD that has been re-mastered. This essentially means that the original recording levels for each channel (think instrument) in the mix have been tinkered with. This makes the re-mastered version essentially a re-mix of the original. Sometimes they sound great. Sometimes the new version will sound markedly different from the LP you memorized as a kid. Typically re-masters tend to emphasize bass and drums, as current tastes (like beats headphones) have made popular. Guys like me who love vocals and guitar solos can be left wondering WTF happened to my favorite album. Bottom line: Buyer beware. Don’t throw away your old CD when the newly remastered version with bonus tracks comes out. And if you can, get yourself a graphic equalizer and make your music sound the way you want it to.

    By RollingStoner on Jul 30, 2016

  12. Please, please, PLEASE do not shoot down CD’s - I actually refer them. The expanded dynamic range, which no one mentions, vinyl has no where near the dynamic range of a CD even if they have more of the sound wave. Number 2: ni surface noise: once you play an LP it degrades in quality…I have had some CD’s for almost 30 years that sound as good as the first day I got them (Hello Ryko Bowie CD’s!!!!!). Ad No. 3: CD os STILL A PHYSICAL FORMAT!!!

    Why are people & the press trying to kill physical format music. Poeple like vinyl, people like CD’s leave it at that, please????

    By michael1984 on Aug 6, 2016

  13. Unless you are an Audiophile can you really tell that much difference ? I have two versions of Pet Sounds,one CD the other an original 1966 vinyl sterio copy,although much louder,than the vinyl it lacks the warmth and sounds over produced which is a way of recording that started in the 80s.It seems that almost every new recording was over produced,to computer like perfection,but missing were the warm analog feel from decades past.Compare Fleetwood Macs Rumours from 77 to Tango in the night 87 and hear the difference.The perfect sound was there but lost was the warmth and the feel that they were all in the studio at the same time.Also when CDs became the rage in the mid 80s record companies started mass producing old albums from the 60s and 70s to milk the cash cow.Most sounded terrible as they were recorded in analog and meant for vinyl.I personally dont even like it when all band members arnt in the studio at the same time but i guess Brian Wilson started that with Pet Sounds and then George Martin followed suit with Sgt Pepper.I prefer analog to digital and if it was recorded pre 85 ill go vinyl anything after 85 CDs,but it still bothers me the over production on albums that began in the 80s and continues to this day

    By COREY M on Aug 17, 2016

  14. It depends on goals and values. Clarity is not musicality. Think of drawing with pencil or charcoal .. smudging the clear line reduces clarity but increases emotionality.

    By Tapani Rauha on Jul 5, 2018

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