By Jack Sharkey, January 17, 2017
With the hard resurgence of vinyl (sales are expected to top $1 billion in 2017), there's been a lot of debate among music fans as to which format is "better." Each format has its own plusses and minuses when it comes to the user experience, as opposed to the listening experience (they're not the same thing):
• Vinyl requires interaction from the user, allowing the user to become part of the experience
• Digital formats are super convenient to use and extremely portable
• With vinyl, one word: artwork
• Digital files and formats are not prone to background noise and wear and tear
So that's the easy stuff, and as you can see, it's all very subjective as to which format is "better." But what about the listening experience and the actual scientific difference between the two formats? Is there a clear-cut winner?
Let's do a side-by-side comparison and see.
From most technical points-of-view, the CD is the superior format to vinyl, but not the most superior format available. Consider bandwidth. Basically, bandwidth is the difference between the highest signal level and the noise floor of a signal, or the point at which noise overtakes the desired signal. In analog terms, consider it the limits of the audio information transmitted. Generally considered, the human ear hears within a range of about 120dB to 128dB – the range from absolute silence to the pain threshold. Of course, the older you are, or the more you've abused your hearing, the smaller that bandwidth will be.
The Redbook CD standard is for a sampling length of 16-bits, and without getting too technical that equates to a bandwidth of 96dB. Current state-of-the-art digital recordings (Blu-ray, 192kHz 24-bit sampling, etc.) have a bandwidth of up to 144dB.
Most commercially available vinyl has a bandwidth of between 60dB and 70dB.
So strictly speaking, we humans have a hearing bandwidth that is greater than CD and far greater than vinyl, but not wider than the very highest resolution digital files. Of course, if you don’t have the equipment to reproduce the sound as per the bandwidth, you’re not going to benefit from the increased musical information.
Winner: High-Res Digital
The Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem tells us that by sampling at a rate of 44.1kHz (which is roughly twice the highest frequency we can hear) we are able to completely digitize and reproduce a sine wave. There are other factors that have to be taken into account with digital audio gear, especially at higher frequencies where false image artefacts and high-frequency ghosts can appear, (pretty much all modern digital audio gear takes care of this for us), but because of that analog component, the practical limit of a CD is right around 20kHz, give or take. The very purest human hearing maxes out around 20kHz, and for all intents and purposes there really is no fundamental musical information up that high anyway.
An analog vinyl record doesn’t reproduce music through sampling but does so via mechanical vibration of a contnuous signal, so theoretically the vinyl record is a totally faithful reproduction of the original signal.
At lower sampling rates (such as Red Book CD) analog reproduction (vinyl in this case) is marginally superior (depending on the quality of your equipmet). For all practical purposes, there is no difference between the musical information produced by a CD and a vinyl record, even though higher sampling rates and bit depths provide a superior flatness to their frequency response, but not as much as you would think.
Flatness of Response
It’s important to keep in mind that a sine wave is not generally speaking a musical tone. Musical tones tend to look and act more like sawtooth, or triangle waves, which contain lots of harmonics and overtones above the root frequency. It's these irregularities in the wave that give musical tones their unique timbre, so they’re kind of important, but any of this information above 20kHz or thereabouts will not make it onto your CD. This means that if you have an instrument that produces a very high frequency like a violin or cymbals, some of the harmonic information will be lost with the CD format: Not much mind you so I wouldn’t lose much sleep over losing frequencies up that high, but it’s important that your equipment can reproduce up that high in order to preserve the airiness and space of a recording.
This all gets kind of squirrelly with vinyl, and is at the root of a lot of misconceptions about the format. Vinyl can produce frequencies far above 20kHz, and the highest audible frequencies are boosted by 20dB as per the RIAA equalization standards for vinyl, but your tonearm and cartridge will have to be easily in the $2000 range to have a chance for your turntable to reproduce such frequencies.
Low frequencies are cut by 20dB (as per the RIAA standard); if they weren’t three things would likely happen: 1) the needle would skip out of the groove without tracking at all when you tried to play your records, 2) you’d only get about 10 minutes of useable time per side on an album as opposed to the 20 to 22 minutes you can typically expect, and 3) the cutting lathes used to master vinyl records wouldn’t last but for maybe a few sides, which would make the price of vinyl prohibitively expensive as record manufacturers passed the cost of all that replacement equipment on to you.
Because record labels were in a rush to monetize the new format without really caring about the quality of the product, early CDs were reproduced using the vinyl masters that had all of the low frequency information rolled off and all of the high frequency information boosted. That’s why those Bachman-Turner Overdrive and Tower of Power CDs I bought in 1988 sounded so bad.
Caveat Emptor: Record labels are now cashing in on the resurgence to buy vinyl (older recordings make up the bulk of what is being bought). Luckily they are using the old masters that were done for vinyl, but in the rush to make some money I wonder how long it will be before some labels start to release really inferior vinyl product.
Winner: Push, but the edge goes to high-res digital formats
A while back I posted a fairly comprehensive discussion on the problems our music faces due to over-use of dynamic compression (What Is Dynamic Compression And Why Is It Ruining Music? A Look At the Loudness Wars (KEF Blog January 23, 2014), so I won’t get into it too deeply here. Basically, dynamic compression is the process of flattening all of the dynamic peaks of a song while at the same time raising all of the dynamic valleys. The end result is a less dynamic (difference from lowest sounds to highest sounds) song that is actually quieter than the original. But, the mastering engineer then takes this less dynamic, quieter song and boosts the output gain, so what you wind up with is a song with little to no dynamic variation playing at a constant and overly loud volume. All of this loudness at times adds clipping, a harsh and unpleasant distortion, not to mention it is also extremely fatiguing to listen to.
You can’t do this on vinyl because all of that energy would cause the needle to physically jump off the track. So what you get with vinyl is a final mix that sounds more musical in the sense that it is more dynamic, with none of the clipping and noise found in the digital counterpart. Ear fatigue is a major reason most people prefer the sound of vinyl to CD or digital.
This is not a function of the mechanics or science of digital vs. vinyl, but is rather a result of the way record labels run their businesses.
Every musical note also develops a string of other notes that are mathematical multiples of the fundamental note. For instance, an 'A' note struck at 440Hz, also develops significant musical energy at 880Hz, 1320Hz, 1760Hz (secondary, tertiary and quaternary), and so on. Each of these harmonics can in turn develop their own harmonics. Each succesive harmonic has less energy than the fundamental, so by the time you get to very high-order harmonics they are barely perceptible (yet they still exist and are still part of the timbre of the original note).
The human ear and brain finds even-order harmonics pleasing, while odd-order harmonics will typically be processed as jarring or mildly unpleasant. Depending on the type of music and the feeling being illicited, musicians (especially guitar players) will emphasize even-order or odd-order harmonics in their instruments.
Turntables generate even-order harmonics of their own that are sympathetic to the music being played, while the digital process often adds odd-order harmonics to the mix (albeit very slightly).
All things being equal, with vinyl you get lower bandwidth and all of that background noise, yet I think we’d all pretty much agree that we've heard vinyl pressings that sounded far superior to the CD replication of the same source. We know there is nothing missing on CD that isn’t on vinyl (at least as far as current science is able to prove to us) and we’ve taken into account the bad CD masters and inferior equipment and filters, so what’s the deal?
Regardless of what you may believe, CD is still the preferred mass-market format for musical releases (but that will change in the very near future), and as the market shifts, digital masters for streaming will likely still be mastered only to the Red Book because of record label economics. Vinyl is still a boutique market (but that also appears to be changing rapidly), even for mass produced releases, so you’re buying the result of a mastering process that was done with more TLC especially for the format. Because of the physics of vinyl, that is unlikely to change over time.
The same could be said for SACD, which was almost always superior to its CD counterpart, but SACD never took off as a broad-appeal format. This is probably mostly due to the expense of the players and disks, but the same mastering argument could still be made between the formats. XRCD (DVD spec) and Blu-Spec (Blu-Ray spec) audio CDs almost always sound superior to their CD counterparts but I would still contend that this because the releasing label is paying very close attention to the quality of the master. If record labels paid the same attention to mass-market releases as they did audiophile releases I’m pretty sure this discussion would be moot.
I think the main point here is that listening to vinyl is ceremonial and at the time we listen the main focus of our attention. Anything that involves our senses will be better enjoyed simply by paying better attention to the experience.
Winner: Vinyl (for now)
And the Winner Is...
The conclusion of all of this is this: Scientifically speaking, CD is a superior format to vinyl, but practically speaking, vinyl is quite often a better produced product than all but the very highest resolution digital. Add to that the fact that people generally listen to vinyl differently than they do every other format and you get the current vinyl resurgence, a resurgence that I think has proven to be less of a fad than we all first thought. Look at your listening experience as a separate thing from your user experience and you'll be able to detemine which format is better for you (at any given moment).
It seems as if vinyl has regained its rightful place among the incredible number of ways we can listen to our music today, so my advice is just enjoy the music without worrying about the merits of the format. In the end, it really doesn't matter how you enjoy your music as long as you can enjoy your listening experience with a user experience that suits you. From the Muo to the LS50 Wireless to the Blade, that's why we design and offer products that are suited to you regardless of how you want to listen.