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Quasi-related


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?

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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
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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
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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. photoshoptutorials.ws/photoshop-tutorials/photo-effects/…). –  vartec Oct 16 '11 at 22:41
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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
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44.100 snapshots a minute? No, per second! –  Jens Apr 19 '13 at 9:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 29 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.

Example

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.

Introduction

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.

source

However the production process of vinyls and CDs changes.

Vinyl

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.”

source

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.”

source

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.

CD

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.)

Conclusion

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".

source

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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
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@Oddthinking they do. In any case that's not what I said: both formats need to be mastered for... –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Oct 16 '11 at 8:13
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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
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@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. :-) –  Ebenezer Sklivvze 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.”

-source

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.”

-source

A CD reproduces sound with accuracy up to just over half the samplying rate and with a dynamic range determined by bit-depth (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulse-code_modulation) youtube University of Illinois

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

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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). –  Ebenezer Sklivvze 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 www.bostonaudiosociety.org, emusician.com, and sterling-sound.com. –  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
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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

When we talk about the 44.1kHz re-sampling rate of the CD format, or the 48kHz of DAT and now the 96kHz+ rates, what this literally means is that, for 44,100 HZ(44.1KHz) the continuously changing signal's state is being measured (sampled) 44,100 times per SECOND. 44.1kHz was chosen because it is TWICE what the upper limit of our hearing range is- 22KHz.

I'm sure you're familiar with the image of a digital waveform being comprised of tiny "steps" as opposed to the smooth curve of the analog waveform. People point to this and say that this is why analog will always be "better" or "more accurate". However, the waveform has to be made into sound via a speaker for us to hear it. A speaker oscillates with the waveform in order to push air and make sound- do you think that this speaker moves in tiny little steps when playing back a digital signal, but is smooth when the signal is analog? Of course not- the speaker has inertia and its oscillation is most assuredly "analog", or continuous. Because the 44.1kHz is TWICE as fast as the fastest oscillation we can perceive, it was considered sufficient to guarantee the accurate sampling of anything which we are able to hear.

Vinyl has a "warmer sound" (supposedly, though I've heard digital that's plenty warm), however it is MORE prone to inaccuracy than digital sampling and playback for a number of reasons... dust alone is enough to make it FAR less accurate. IF YOU CAN HEAR A CRACKLE, POP OR HISS- AT ALL- you've just been beat by a CD.

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This post does not cite any references or sources. Please help improve this post by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed.

1  
I suggest you research some sampling theory and - in particular - the Nyquist rate. It's not just "considered", it's mathematically proven. –  Darth Satan Apr 21 '13 at 10:43
    
Welcome to Skeptics! Please have a look around; you'll see we aren't really looking for tutorials; we are looking for support from empirical evidence. Please provide some references to support your claims. –  Oddthinking Apr 21 '13 at 10:59
    
Gotcha- sorry, I'll see about rounding up some refrences and whatnot –  Ron Kyle Apr 21 '13 at 18:48
    
@DarthSatan: Sampling at a rate which is more than twice the frequency of the highest-frequency component will yield a sequence of samples containing enough information to yield a mathematically-precisely reconstruction of the original. Difficulties arise, however, when trying to ensure that the signal being sampled contains nothing above Nyquist, or when trying to reconstruct signals which contain components that are anywhere close to Nyquist. Further, the fact that someone cannot hear a single-frequency signal greater than 20Khz does not imply that combinations of signals... –  supercat Dec 1 at 21:33
    
...over 20Khz could not be audible. Suppose a diaphragm which sits very close to the side of a box is driven with a combination of 40KHz and 40.05KHz signals whose combined beak is strong enough to make the diaphragm hit the box. Even though driving the diaphragm with either signal individually would have no discernible effect, driving it with the combination would yield an audible 50Hz "buzz". –  supercat Dec 1 at 21:38

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