Vinyl or digital – what’s the best format? and does vinyl sound better?
It’s one of the great music snob arguments- the superior aesthetic and sound quality of vinyl over the digital. It’s one that we fall for ourselves sometimes- that’s the powerful spell of vinyl- the format that comes from the days when music was king and has that warm glow of nostalgia to it. Of course it looks beautiful but does it sound better and can we really tell the difference?

 

The argument of digital versus vinyl has been raging for a few years now with vinyl always being assumed to be more ‘real’ more ‘authentic’ and it’s an argument that has been so successful for the vinyl champions that they have totally won the argument and seen an unlikely comeback in terms of sales.

 

Of course like any certainty in music it is an argument that does not come without any holes in it and there could be a real trick of the mind going on here.

 

Many modern vinyl releases are in fact quite digital by the time they come out on the trusted format- many groups will still use digital recording techniques before they cut their music onto the vinyl which makes a lot of the mythology about the so called purity of sound just that- a mythology.

 

For sure they may be getting the perceived advantages of the warmer bottom end and the ‘truer’ aspects of the vinyl recording but in reality they have already crushed their sound through the angry bytes of digital recording and you just cannot magically get that back by pressing it onto vinyl- the vinyl gives it an authentic veneer, a feeling that and a notion that there is something genuine about the sound and a certain holding on to the past an idea that ‘things were so much batter back then’ and vinyl, like an antique chest of drawers or an old house has a musky warmth and reality to when it is actually selling you the good old days of warm cups of cocoa feel.

 

There is certainly a genuinely warmer feel from playing vinyl but is that the ‘real’ sound or just another trick of the ear- vinyl is warmer but is it the genuine sound of what was recorded in the first place or just another misrepresentation of sound and is this fake warmth like a comforting old blanket wrapped around the shoulders or is it the way the music was meant to be heard in the first place?

 

Another problem of course is just how good your record player actually is- is your stereo actually as good as a great pair of headphones plugged into an mp3 player? Maybe your stereo has a poor bottom end? Many times the quality on headphones can be better than a crappy stereo set up badly in an acoustically bad room – there are so many factors at play that it could sometimes be a case of kidding ourselves into believing that a beloved old format, like a smelly yet loveable old dog is the proffered format.

 

We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king and there is nothing wrong with that- if it makes them feel warm and happy then that’s part of the showbiz process.

 

Of course aesthetically vinyl will win, it’s a trusted old friend and their artwork looks great all blown up but the fact that you can’t carry millions of them around with you in your pocket and the genuine suspicion that we may just be kidding ourselves that we can tell the difference in sound between the formats unless we are suddenly like some kind of audio bats is beginning to nag.

What do you reckon sounds best – vinyl or digital and why…

 

 

26 COMMENTS

  1. Any discussion of format has to be accompanied by the listener’s resources. If you have enough money, then I think the experience of vinyl is much more rewarding – you can afford a decent turntable and stylus, a lovely phono preamp and proper speakers. For the vast majority though, convenience is a huge aspect of our listening experience – i.e space, price and the fact that we’re increasingly mobile. So, the argument of “digital vs analogue” is an uneven one, because there are various elements that aren’t equal.

    Similarly, there is plenty of vinyl pressed poorly, whilst there are increasing numbers of digital files being mastered at more optimum conditions. The digital format is one that is improving immeasurably – if you listen to a digital file in 2012 it will most likely be much better than one created in 2003. The same can be said for a CD produced in 2008 to one in 1988. Personally if I had both the money and the space, I’d take vinyl, but at the same time if I could afford a Naim streamer at a whopping £3K I’m sure that the results wouldn’t be too different.

    • Toby,
      You sir are absolutely wrong about the quality of digitally recorded music being better now then the past. I suggest you do some research in this subject so that others are not misinformed by your comments in the future. Are you familiar with the “Loudness Wars”? Today’s recordings are extremely compressed and have minimal dynamics. The best audio equipment that has ever been produced was built in the 1970’s-early 1990’s. When stereo reproduction took a backseat to home theater and then the MP3 format everything went downhill. Building and designing loudspeakers as well as amplifiers has changed dramatically for the worse with major cost cutting and less demand. The revolutionary equipment is now 20+ years old. I have been a drummer for years as well as co-owned a HiFi shop. I agree that vinyl is a more expensive choice and can be more rewarding, however; your comment on digital recording quality really grinds my gears.

    • You dont need a lot of money to get a awsome viny set upl a pioeer amp from the seventies will sound better than modern amps and costs less than £200 on ebay and a good s-shaped armed technics will cost less than £80 on ebay and good floor standing speakers cost less than £50 on ebay or you could spend about £100 for a good seventies of eighties pioner turntable on ebay and most have great shure cartridges on them

      • good floor standing speakers cost less than £50

        What are the brands and models to look for? And the models of amps and turntables?

  2. CDs are still produced to 44.1 khz/16 bit standard, which in many respects rather crude. Digital music is recorded at far higher sample rates than that. Vinyl is considered better because it plays back in real-time rather than clusters of data. This is why I think vinyl sounds warmer than CD. However, as a format vinyl is always reliant on the quality of playback equipment and the standard of the cut (some pressing plants are notorious). Furthermore, certain frequencies always cause problems on vinyl causing it to distort or skip. I will add one thing, I hate MP3s. They always sound over-compressed and thin to me – and yes I can tell the difference.

    • Andy said, “Vinyl is considered better because it plays back in real-time rather than clusters of data. This is why I think vinyl sounds warmer than CD.”

      httpss://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/jaggy.png

      Take note of the section about misconceptions about sampling. This fallacy has long been used as the key argument by vinyl fetishists to “prove” that digital music is missing information due to the “stairstep” appearance in graphic representations rather than smooth analog waves.

      “The most common misconception is that sampling is fundamentally rough and lossy. A sampled signal is often depicted as a jagged, hard-cornered stair-step facsimile of the original perfectly smooth waveform. If this is how you envision sampling working, you may believe that the faster the sampling rate (and more bits per sample), the finer the stair-step and the closer the approximation will be. The digital signal would sound closer and closer to the original analog signal as sampling rate approaches infinity.

      …Looks are deceiving. These beliefs are incorrect. All signals with content entirely below the Nyquist frequency (half the sampling rate) are captured perfectly and completely by sampling; an infinite sampling rate is not required. Sampling doesn’t affect frequency response or phase. The analog signal can be reconstructed losslessly, smoothly, and with the exact timing of the original analog signal.”

      Read more at httpss://people.xiph.org/~xiphmont/demo/neil-young.html

      • Yes, those that believes that digital soundwaves are jagged, should consider that the sound in the end is reproduced by speaker membranes. And not even the most expensive of these work in 44.1 kHz “steps”. Any “jagged” waveform is smoothed by the membrane movement.

        • Sorry, but your comment shows you don’t quite understand the underlying principles of digital audio and the Nyquist sampling theory, which, admittedly, is a rather difficult mathematical theory. A digital device never outputs a ‘jagged’ waveform after conversion. A speaker membrane has no ‘smoothing’ to do.

  3. It depends entirely on how the record was produced in the first place. If something has been produced in an analogue studio with the express intention of putting it on a record (like they used to) then it’ll sound better than the same record on CD. People found this in the 80’s/90s when buying their reissued albums on the new format. That’s where the myth of vinyl sounding better comes from. Ironing out the cracks in production with digital remastering van help, but it’ll never sound quite the same. the studios were set up to capture the best sound for the intended format and before the 80’s it was primarily for vinyl.

    That’s why my Pink Floyd 70s original LPs sound way nicer than the MP3 versions/remasters any day of the week. But in contrast my Mastodon LP, which is just a straight CD to vinyl merchandise sounds fucking terrible.

    If you record something now for vinyl, do it in an analogue studio with all the proper equipment. My recommendation would be: Toe Rag studios in London if you’re asking.

    That’s all there is to it. It’s all in the mastering.

  4. Chimponaut you almost said exactly what I was going to say. My own example is this. I recently bought that re mastered Sex Pistols NMTB box set and, yes, the tweeked versions sound great. Crisp, clear, nice separation etc but compared to my old 36 year old vinyl copies, especially the 45s, oddly enough, I dunno, there’s a clarity, balance and sonic excitement that has been lost. My single version of God Save The Queen, despite the crackles and tics still sounds absolutely raging. A lot of this was down to the mastering and cutting engineers of old who could be regarded as master craftsmen.
    But also, let’s hear it for digital and MP3. The fact that I can transfer 80-odd albums, radio podcasts etc onto my mobile phone and with a decent pair of headphones can listen to good quality sound anywhere I like is pretty amazing I reckon.

  5. Ah the debate that will never die because everyone feels qualified to talk out of their asses rather than research the facts. No one has ever found conclusive scientific evidence via double-blind testing that proved vinyl was superior to digital when using the same master. The so-called “warmth” of the analog sound is just the way the brain perceives a sound that’s distorted in a certain way. Keep in mind that recordings have not been made directly to vinyl since the invention of magnetic tape in the 1930s. The tape, being non-linear, creates low-order harmonics that are perceived as “warm sound”. That effect is quite easily achievable through electronic means in a (yes) digital environment. There are boxes that you can buy and insert in the digital stream that will add “warmth” to the sound through means of adding low-order harmonics (e.g. distorting the sound). This distortion is obviously not true to the original music. However, it is an effect that older generations are used to and nostalgic for.

    Then there’s the debate about sample rates. The bandwidth of CDs are 44.1 kHz sampling rate (44,100 samples) x 16 bits x 2 channels = 1.4 Megabits per second. With a sampling rate of 44.1 kHz you have an effective frequency response of up to 22.05 kHz (way above what most people will statistically be able to perceive as sound). HD-DVD/DVD-audio offers 9.6Mbps, with 128 kHz sampling rate at 24 bits. While the higher sample rates correct the distortion of high-end frequencies that occur in 1.4 Mbps CDs, those frequencies are only audible to dogs, cats and bats, who, when asked, would probably say they prefer CDs as they wouldn’t hurt their ears as much.

    Additionally, the transducers on both ends of the audio chain are too limited to properly take advantage of 128 kHz, or even 96 kHz. Paul Lehrman, a composer, educator, and consulting editor for Mix magazine, points out that the frequency responses of most mics and digital musical instruments roll off at around 20 kHz. Thus, anything recorded above 20 kHz at a 96 kHz sampling rate “is probably junk,” claims Lehrman. In response to the argument that it’s the digital filter in 96 kHz systems, and not the extended frequency response, that’s responsible for the improved sonics, Lehrman says that, in A/B tests, he has “never been able to tell, definitively, the difference between a well-constructed 44.1 or 48 kHz oversampling converter and a 96 kHz converter.”

    Limited dynamics (vinyl’s 70dB vs. CD’s 96dB) and deteriorating sound quality issues aside, hunting for cheap vinyl and handling and looking at records (and for some, luxuriating in the snap crackle and pops) can be fun. Go ahead and enjoy, just don’t try to lord any falsely gained sense of superiority over the rest of us.

  6. I must say I’ve never tested this. I own a good few albums on vinl and cd. I’ve got a recent My Bloody Valentine album that is an entirely analogue recording on both formats, as well as other albums that are digital recordings on both formats (Spiritualized, Verve, Oasis etc). I also have a Rane dj mixer that has an exceptionally clean signal path, Technics decks with Ortofon carts and Pioneer CDJ1000’s.
    I might cue up the same track on two channels tomorrow and cut back and forth and see if I can pick the difference. Should be interesting.

  7. As much as there is a lot of misconceptions about records/digital I’ve noticed records have generally punchier and more defined sound to them. Madness – My House was like that anyway on the same speakers/set up from LP/MP3.

  8. There are more essays on this subject than there are atoms in the universe. Furthermore, one day, someone will write an article on this subject without resorting to the words ‘warm’, ‘warmer’ and ‘warmth’. This is not the day. Sigh.

  9. Growing up in the 70;s I love the act of playing a record. I also love old quality amplifiers and turntables. The old kit does sound matter than today’s offerings which are almost always geared towards making explosion sounds with Blurays.

    But I have compared my IPOD plugged into the aux input with the same track on the turntable …. the difference is so small that I cant really tell in a blind test. The Vinyl is a tad better to my ears but it comes with crackles and pops and the biggie – I cannot carry every album I own around in my pocket. Ipod wins. But I will still enjoy my vinyl at home.

    The sad part of new technology is its impossible to control theft. Vinyl needs to be purchased. Digital files can be copied 1000’s of times over.

    Kids think music is free. Thus we are getting lots or terribly digital recordings. No one wants to cut a great album when they wont get paid for it.

  10. I think vinyl sounds a lot better than CD’s, but Hi-Res digital is the great equalizer. I recorded vinyl at 24 bit/196 and it sounded just like the vinyl, but when I played the same recording back at 16 bit/44.1 it sounded very dull. It seems like 16 bit digital is missing a great deal of low level information.

    I have heard some really great (expensive) digital gear and was impressed, but the average consumer grade equipment is far below it in sound quality.

    Back “in the day” a normal home record player sounded poor compared to today’s CD playback systems. It also sounded poor compared to a higher end turntable with a decent cartridge. The question is, does an average CD system sound better than a good vinyl system? It’s not even close. IMO On the other hand, a really good CD system can better a good vinyl system, but when both systems are equal in quality, vinyl is still better.

    CD quality is not the ultimate format and mp3 even less so, technically speaking. To me, I can’t tell the difference between a CD and a mp3 at higher bit rates at or over 192kbps. Mostly everyone agrees that DVD-A, SACD, and FLAC files sound better than CD’s. These formats have a higher resolution than CD’s. This should tell you that CD’s are lacking in one way or another. In other words, if higher bit rates sound better, then 16 bit sound is not giving us the full package.

    So, we would have to assume that 16 bit audio is “less” than perfect which is contrary to what science and logic says about 16/44.1 audio.

    BTW, vinyl doesn’t just sound warmer, there is a great deal more low level information making things sound more real and the soundstage is wider and deeper than it’s CD counter part. Again- IMO

  11. Really? It is a free country right? Lot of folks fought and continue the battle for it to be this way. Technically, the most accurate recording is the master. Everything else would be at least a generation removed. Interesting question though, is lossless a copy? My personal preference (RPP, Rob’s PP) is MP3 always (LAME VBR@-preset extreme). I love the coldness. Also, the differences among recordings, good or bad is minimized. Thus, average overall mostly higher quality subjective listening experience!

  12. Better = a subjective judgement. Do different set ups of hardware and software sound different? …Course they fucking do….

    I’m not looking to hear an exact reproduction of what the artist/producer/masterer intended just something that sounds good to me. Yes I can appreciate fantastic production; but I can still enjoy music that has been poorly captured to whatever recorded medium. My ears and your ears and Kevin Shield’s ears and Martin Hannett’s ears and Steve Albini’s ears etc. are/were all different and will do slightly different things; and how we react once the soundwaves have been converted to signals travelling round neurons are going to vary wildly…..

    The ritual of playing vinyl vs instant gratification of playing an mp3 without having to get of ones arse – we don’t have to decide one is better than t’other, we can do either as it pleases us.

    My personal preference – I can’t be arsed with CDs, similar amount of effort to play them as vinyl but without all my positive psychological/nostalgic reaction to vinyl; My CDs just get ripped and stored on my NAS so I can stream them from anywhere I have connectivity.

  13. “We tried an A and B test with some vinyl freaks and found that they could not really tell the difference but they still genuinely swore that vinyl was the king and there is nothing wrong with that- if it makes them feel warm and happy then that’s part of the showbiz process”

    Could you try to be a little more condescending with respect to peoples personal preferences? K THX bye

  14. You said it yourself new records are cut from digital source the older better records from analogue as Kate Bush argrees???? and she should no don’t you think

  15. I’ve only recently bought a turntable, the Teac TN-300 & there’s a difference between playing vinyl and a CD. I find the vinyl has a less clean sound, not as loud & a more “warmer” sound. That’s not to say I don’t listen to CDs but it’s more a choice as to what to listen to when I feel like playing some music.

  16. There are differences, sound and experience. Vinyl, you enter (usually alone) a room designed for musical enjoyment and enjoy it with complete lack of distraction.

    Mp3 on an iPod, you can go anywhere. I love to walk and bike listening to a ridiculously wide variety of music styles.

    I prefer vinyl, large oversized artwork, posters, stickers, lyric sheets. Has anyone tried reading lyrics from a CD sleeve?

    I have quite a bit of old vinyl and some new. The Beatles new mono vinyl releases are analogue and sound great.

    Separately, hardware setup is another culprit. Digital uses sampling effects which can zip up a boring mp3 signal or even a high quality source. This can be done with analogue also.

    Coming up with a definitive answer is akin to a snake eating its tail. It is irrelevant as experience is subjective.

    I also have tapes, reels and 8 tracks.
    I enjoy them very much.
    Everyone should enjoy everything.
    Have a wonderful life.

  17. I think it is difficult to say what is most accurate when there is scope for people to go for what is most appealing.
    For instance when you buy some music, you are going for what is most appealing. You like the music and you might follow that particular artist or their genre.
    You may have the equipment that you listen to it on. Those pieces of equipment add and subtract from your experience of the recording. What you know and love about that artist and their output will have been subjectively editorialised by the way you listened to it.
    Hearing the recording on better equipment is always a surprise. The musicianship of the artist and the musicians becomes more apparent. The environment of the recording becomes more apparent. The arrangements and the harmonies become more available. The styles and techniques of each musician becomes available. The production decisions become more available. Better equipment editorialises differently. The best digital or analogue replay equipment brings the performance closer. Digital and analogue systems editorialise differently. Neither is complete and both get better at bringing the performance closer as they become more refined and better engineered. The argument is about preference not better vs worse. The industry wants to sell you stuff in the formats you choose. You choose the artist and the type and level of editorialisation you are used to.
    The engineer in the studio and the mastering engineers might be excellent at making the analogue and the digital masters equally good and totally interchangeable when they play them back and compare them. Once they arrive with the end user no two playbacks between two users will ever be the same. And none will sound like the original masters did in the studio and mastering suites. Whenever we discuss vinyl vs digital we are to all intents and purposes a long way from what the mastering engineers thought they had mastered. We are probably being put one against another to safeguard the manufacture and distribution of product in as many formats as possible. The argument is here to sell product, that’s all!

  18. In the end, we have proper analog measurements for sound quality being reproduced by a cartridge/phono circuit combination vs a DAC playing at 16/44 (CD specs). Most important of these are distortion, dynamic range, frequency response linearity, stereo separation (or cross talk).

    In not one of these measures does the cartridge/phono combination match, let alone exceed, that of a DAC at 16/44. Subjectively some prefer the sound of the vinyl record while others prefer CD or other digital formats. Objectively though, the digital formats always win out and so do sound better to most people providing the recording and mastering of the music is of the same standard.

  19. I like how you talked about vinyl, and how it’s normally digitally compressed first. I’ve heard that vinyl sounds better from a lot of people, but it may just be a trick of the ear, like you said. However, I would still love to have a record player, just for the feel.

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