Sign up ×
Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. It's 100% free, no registration required.


I've heard this here and there in various casual conversations (hopefully others will also qualify this in the "commonly heard" bucket of claims), but one can also find references online:

Portability is no longer any reason to stick with CDs, and neither is audio quality. Although vinyl purists are ripe for parody, they're right about one thing: Records can sound better than CDs.

Although CDs have a wider dynamic range, mastering houses are often encouraged to compress the audio on CDs to make it as loud as possible: It's the so-called loudness war. Since the audio on vinyl can't be compressed to such extremes, records generally offer a more nuanced sound. (Wired Magazine - Vinyl May Be Final Nail in CD's Coffin).

Question: It is generally agreed among the serious listeners of classical music that the best of the now obsolete vinyl LP records had a superior tonal quality and better fidelity than any CD. Is this true, and why?

Answer: For a CD recording they take 44,100 snapshots in a minute. These snapshots are then converted to digital information with a certain precision... You can probably see where I am going: by definition a digital recording doesn't include all the sound information... A vinyl record has a groove carved into it that mirrors the original sound's waveform... Therefore vinyl recording sound richer than CD recordings... (Google Answers: Vinyl LP sound versus CD sound).

The last three years have each set successive records for vinyl sales in the CD era. In 2010, 2.8 million LPs were sold, up 14% from 2009...

Vinyl’s lasting appeal stems from a heady stew of nostalgia, tangibility and, perhaps most important of all, sound quality that musicians and fans often prefer to any other medium.

“Digital is zeroes and ones, man, anyway you look at it,” says Chuck Leavell, keyboardist for the Rolling Stones. “Whether it’s a CD or a download, there’s a certain jaggedness to it. Vinyl wins every time. It’s warmer, more soothing, easier on the ears” (Forbes Magazine - Vinyl vs. CDs: The Tables are Turning.

One reason I'm skeptical of the quality comparison has to do with how records are made. In that video, around 1:25 the interviewee states that a master is made from pre-recorded, mixed music. This implies that it is already digitized. Around 3:10, he states that the music signal is amplified and made to vibrate the stylus cutting the record master. Thus, I see two paths from media to one's ear:

  • Live music -> conversion from electrical signal to digital recording (file of some sort) -> conversion to amplified electrical signal to vibrate a cutting stylus -> engraved record -> turntable -> conversion back to electrical signal to vibrate speakers
  • Live music -> conversion of electrical signal to digital recording (file of some sort) -> conversion back to electrical signal to vibrate speakers

I could be wrong in this interpretation.

Ideally, this question might have been tackled in a manner similar to this question on bitrate and noticeable quality -- essentially, with a Pepsi challenge between vinyl and CDs.

Summarizing, Is there evidence that the sound produced by vinyl records is either a) of better quality (via some declared standard of measurement) or b) more pleasing to humans compared to the sound produced by CDs?

share|improve this question
It's worth noting that for modern vinyl releases, the mastering is done digitally anyways, so it's a moot point. Both formats are effectively "digital", one just has another analog stage in the middle. – Fake Name Oct 15 '11 at 22:58
The difficulty I have always had with these sorts of claims is the vague, often synaesthetic, language. What, in the language of frequencies and waveforms, does "warmer", "soothing", and "nuanced" mean? – Oddthinking Oct 15 '11 at 23:47
I don't think it's about technical superiority in accurately reproducing the original. For example many people like actually prefer 24 fps movies to 60 fps, even though later is far superior. Some prefer photos with visible grain (so much, that it's very popular to photoshoping that in, see eg.…). – vartec Oct 16 '11 at 22:41
I dunno -- I had a $300 Revolver turntable with the "default" Goldring 1040 cartridge and never had a pop/hiss problem (unless the album was physically damaged). And it certainly sounded better than most of the CDs of the era (which were played through a top-of-the-line Wadia player). It wasn't a digital-versus-analog "purity" thing (or my golden ears); it was the brick-wall filtering they used to do to record and master at 44.1KHz -- it completely mucked up the phase relationships of the harmonics. (Cont'd) – Stan Rogers Oct 18 '11 at 2:42
Another thing to take in account when talking about CDs, is the Loudness War, which meant basically pumping everything to the max, at the same reducing the dynamic range. Which is not really related to the format. See: – vartec Oct 18 '11 at 12:30

2 Answers 2

up vote 39 down vote accepted

There is certainly a difference.

The difference should not be looked for in sampling rates or performance, etcetera. The difference is in the production process.


Please compare these two examples to have a specific idea of what the difference is. To easily see the difference, do listen to the plosives and sibilants like the letters "p" and "s" in the singing.


Humans are not capable of distinguishing "digital" from "analog". See for example the following conclusion:

In summary, then, no evidence was provided by Tiefenbrun during this series of tests that indicates ability to identify reliably:

(a) the presence of an undriven transducer in the room,
(b) the presence of the Sony PCM-F1 digital processor in the audio chain, or
(c) the presence of the relay contacts of the A/B/X switchbox in the circuit.

The tests were conducted in an amicable rather than confrontational atmosphere, and the parties departed feeling that the day's work had been worthwhile. Further carefully-conducted blind tests will be necessary if these conclusions are felt to be in error.


However the production process of vinyls and CDs changes.


Sounds are etched on the surface of an LP. There are therefore physical limitations to how much dynamic range can be stored. In practice, too much range would result in having the needle skip the groove.

Many of the engineers I spoke with noted that a wider frequency and dynamic range can be cut into a vinyl master than can be reproduced in playback. For example, extreme transients and high frequencies will distort because the stylus cannot properly track them in the disc's grooves.


At the other end of the spectrum, there are things to consider when working with bass and low-midrange content destined for vinyl. “Low frequencies use up the most space, especially if they're heavy and constant,” Golden remarks. “Care must be taken to control excessive low end. The lathe can cut it just fine, but if the volume exceeds a certain level, the record could skip when played back.”


Also, there is a lot of difference in the frequency response in the external part of the disc from the inner part. In practice, inner songs will sound darker than outer songs.

As a result, the inner tracks will sound duller than the outer tracks. The high frequencies “simply can't be reproduced the same as if they were cut on the outside of the disc,” Golden adds. “And no, it can't be fixed by adding extra high end. That would add more distortion to the inside cuts.”


Albums are therefore mastered in a particular way to make the wide-dynamic-range masters "fit" on the media. This modifies the overall sound - a lot.

Furthermore the media itself tends to saturate musically (in the way that a valve amp has a "musical" distortion). This is put to good use during mastering as well.


Sounds are digitised on a CD. There are many advantages to this, like a much better dynamic range, higher frequency response and so on. However, this completely changes the mastering process, resulting in a different overall sound.

(I couldn't find a citable source, however the fact that CD mastering is very different from vinyl mastering is quite obvious from Sterling Sound's web page (wayback machine copy). Sterling Sound is widely regarded as one of the top 5 mastering studios in the world.)


Now--which one is better? It depends what you are looking for: vinyls have a characteristic sound which is probably a better fit for some kinds of music. Alternatively, other kinds of music, e.g. classical, do benefit a lot from the increased dynamic range of the CD.

One of the first and largest supporters of digital audio was the classical conductor Herbert von Karajan, who said that digital recording was "definitely superior to any other form of recording we know".


share|improve this answer
So CDs have higher fidelity, while the vinyl adds some distortions that suit some forms of music. My follow-up question is "If the vinyl distortions improve the sound (of some music), why don't digital mixing desks have a big 'vinylise' dial that can be cranked up to improve the CD sound?" – Oddthinking Oct 16 '11 at 0:51
@Oddthinking they do. In any case that's not what I said: both formats need to be mastered for... – Sklivvz Oct 16 '11 at 8:13
Nice! So anyone saying that vinyl sounds better should have a chat to the person mastering the CD version to say (preferably with a Christopher Walken accent) "Needs more vinyl". – Oddthinking Oct 16 '11 at 12:37
@Oddthinking that's pretty much how it actually works. You go in a mastering studio and you say, "more vinyl", then they proceed to do their stuff ignoring you completely. :-) – Sklivvz Oct 16 '11 at 13:17
@Sklivvz - managed to find one useful link, but tbh your answer is much better than mine:-) – Rory Alsop Oct 16 '11 at 13:28

"Better" is a vague term which could be "more accurate", "more often preferred", or a number of other things. For simplicity: I will assume the question is one of fidelity.

A CD has a lower minimum frequency at volume and a greater dynamic range (Fries, Bruce; Marty Fries (2005). Digital Audio Essentials. O'Reilly Media. p. 147. ISBN 0-596-00856-2) than exsiting "record" recording processes.

“It is true that the more low frequency you mix on the sides, the more vertical up-and-down movement will be required of the cutter to make that sound. And with more vertical movement, the groove will use more space on the disc. Significant amounts of low end panned hard left and/or right can also cause a record to skip during playback. For the record to have fewer problems, you should try to keep most of the low end near, or in, the center of the mix, especially percussive sounds like the kick drum and bass guitar.”


An album does have the theroetic ability to output past 30khz wikipedia youtube diamondcut endino, but human hearing drops off below 20khz sources.

Sibilance, the high-frequency noise burst that you get when the letters s, f, and t are emphasized, is a major issue that mastering engineers encounter. “Problematic sibilants typically fall in the 6 to 12 kHz range,” Golden observes. “Because a CD can reproduce it without trouble, it isn't recognized as a problem area until you decide to make a vinyl record.”


A CD reproduces sound with accuracy up to just over half the samplying rate and with a dynamic range determined by bit-depth ( youtube University of Illinois

CDs are also not vunerable to Rumble, Wow and Flutter, and degredation of sound quality from play. Records are.

share|improve this answer
Welcome to the site - please address the question with scientific or reputable references. To be specific, you say (wrongly) that "'Better' is a subjective term which cannot possibly be addressed.". This is evidently incorrect, and such questions are routinely addressed by scientific studies using proxies. The rest of your answer does not address the question, nor is supported by references (Wikipedia is not reputable enough and some of your statements are incorrect). – Sklivvz Apr 23 '13 at 21:30
@JerryLove Wikipedia is fine if you're merely using it to define terms (as Sklivvz does in the top answer). However, it is not generally considered sufficient as the sole source for an answer, especially if the answer is primarily "read what wikipedia has to say". Your comment that wikipedia is the "primary cite of the #1 answer" is incorrect, incidentally. It uses wikipedia to define a couple of terms, and one semi-anecdotal quote, but meat of the answer is sourced from,, and – Beofett Apr 24 '13 at 12:20
The #1 post cites are, in order, wiki, wiki, you-tube, you-tube, bostonaudiosociety, wiki, emusician, emusician, sterling-sound, wiki. With 4 references, it is the primarcy cite. Is "emusician" reputable? Is "Sterling-sound" reputable? Perhpas I am failing to understand how to tell reputable from non-reputable here. – JerryLove Apr 24 '13 at 12:32
@Sklivvz, so I should have said "It depends what you are looking for" like the #1 answer did? I consider the two statements similar. I've added a lot more citations, including videos of physical tests and cites from actual companies doing mastering; and rephrased the problem with "better". – JerryLove Apr 24 '13 at 13:09
BTW, thank you for adding in the references and improving your answer. I've changed my downvote to an upvote. – Beofett Apr 24 '13 at 13:23

protected by Sklivvz Sep 5 at 17:36

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.