Here We Go Again: Do CDs Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl After All?
For several centuries -- well, actually the last few decades -- the debate has raged over what is the "best" format for your music to be delivered to your ears.
Initially, it was the vinyl faithful in one corner and those converted to the compact disc in the other. Eventually, the vinyl gang lost that argument in real time as everybody and their neighbor dumped wax like jars of Ebola and switched over to the CD. The vinyl faithful held their ground aesthetically raising one point after another regarding the "warm" sound of vinyl vs. the more "sterile" sound often dripped out by CDs.
As has been well documented, these past few years have seen a huge upswing in all things vinyl. Sales are up -- and with them so are prices and noses. Snobbery has replaced sympathy for many toting their trusty vinyl backpack. Of course, there are arguments to be made pro and con for both formats (only those bordering on the mental edge will make an argument for cassettes being thee format). The bottom line, however, should always be about the sound -- zeros and ones vs. grooves as it were.
According to an article in LA Weekly, CD sales in the United States have dropped by 80-percent since a peak in 2001. Meanwhile, vinyl LP sales are up nearly 800-percent since 2004, 52-percent since 2013 alone. One shining example is the vinyl version of Jack White's latest album, 'Lazaretto,' which has reportedly sold 86,700 units since its release last year. (That's the most for a single title on vinyl in a given year since Nielsen SoundScan started keeping track in 1991.)
But, that still doesn't answer the question: Which format sounds better?
"As long as you can measure the difference, the CD will be better than the vinyl, absolutely," says Kees A. Schouhamer Immink, a former Philips engineer in the Netherlands. "But if you say the whole experience -- just like smoking cigars with friends -- [is better], well, do it. Enjoy smoking cigars with friends, and drink beer and brandy and enjoy listening to an old-fashioned record player. But don't say the sound is better. You may say it sounds better to you. That's OK. That's a subjective matter."
Immink was a member of the Sony/Philips task force that initially created the audio standards for the compact disc.
The vinyl format, obviously, has its own set of limitations: time constraint, poor mastering, inferior vinyl and so on. Take, for example, one of the classic LPs of an era, the Band's 'Music From Big Pink.' At age 23, Bob Ludwig was an up and coming audio engineer at A&R Recording in New York. He was asked to create a test pressing of the Band's debut, and in the process he tried to capture what was on those master tapes. When he heard the final product, however, his ears were in for a surprise: "All the low, extreme low bass that I knew was there, was chopped right off."
It wasn't until many years later when he was called in to do a remastering of the album for compact disc that he found a note in the box of the original master tapes. It was written by the engineer who cut the actual disc for pressing, with the instructions to cut the low end, as it was apparently too much for the vinyl to handle, sometimes causing the needle to jump.
(And for the uninitiated, Ludwig has had a stellar career as a Grammy award winning mastering engineer.)
Another always noticeable issue with some vinyl pressing is the loss of fidelity and dynamics as it nears the end of one side or the other. "The vinyl disc is a steadily collapsing medium," adds Ludwig. "The closer it gets to the label, the more the information is getting compromised, the high frequencies getting lost." Hugh Robjohns, technical editor at Sound On Sound magazine explains, "The end-of-side distortion problem is caused by a combination of factors, but it's essentially a fundamental design flaw of both the medium itself and the standard replay mechanisms, and it can never be completely eradicated."
Another highly respected name in the engineering business is Bob Clearmountain, who has his own issues with the vinyl format. "I'd just listen and go: 'Jesus, after all that work, that's all I get?' It was sort of a percentage of what we did in the studio," he says. "All that work and trying to make everything sound so good, and the vinyl just wasn't as good. If you're a musician like Bob and I, and you get to do a mix and you listen to it and you love the way it sounds," he adds, "and then it's transferred to vinyl and suddenly it's got noise and ticks and pops, for me that's an extremely unmusical event."
Clearmountain readily admits, however, that he was not initially sold on digital, noting that early analog to digital technology was far from perfect. "It wasn't until CDs actually started to sound good [that I went]: 'That's what it sounded like. That's what I remember doing in the studio,'" Clearmountain says. "The great thing for me about digital, about CDs, was that I could do things that I could never do for a vinyl record."
The other aspect of the current trend toward vinyl is the aesthetic appeal of the entire package, and with it, a lifestyle choice, if you prefer, as opposed to simply the sonic experience. "I don't think that is really the appeal for people right now," says Pete Lyman, chief mastering technician at Infrasonic Sound Mastering Studio. "They like the collectability factor. They like the whole ritual and process of listening to it. They're more engaged with the music that way."
So it seems to be about personal preference over some magical equation or definitive sonic test as to which format is truly, and undeniably, the best. "In theory, digital (especially 96kHz sample-rate digital, which takes any filter issues out of the way) should win hands down, because it is unquestionably superior in every measurable way," adds Robjohns. "However, current mastering practice means that vinyl releases can often sound noticeably better from a dynamics point of view, bizarrely."
He goes on to note that "the whole LP-playing procedure, physicality and the 'mysticism' of vinyl does make it a more involving — and therefore pleasurable — experience. Neither format can be described as 'perfect' but, for my money, digital audio gets a bit closer than anything else has done up until now. Despite the technical imperfections, though, I still love playing my vinyl records!"
Read the complete LA Weekly feature here.