Does Vinyl Really Sound Better than CD?

AvatarMarc Henshall
Uncategorized19 Comments

This blog (when I have time to update it during my downtime working for Shure in the UK) is fast becoming focused on the resurgence of vinyl. So far, I’ve covered vinyls potential in the changing face of music retail, and I also went on to describe the benefits of vinyl in the well-documented loudness war. Taking this into consideration, I thought it was worth highlighting the technical differences between digital formats such as CD’s/MP3, and analogue formats such as vinyl. Audio enthusiasts often praise the merits of vinyl, but what does this all mean to the average consumer – does it really make that much difference?

gold-discs-smaller

The Difference Between Vinyl & CD

This is a big topic, but I will try to cover it on a high level. In really simple terms, the answer lies with the differences between analogue and digital. Sound sources are by definition, analogue, so from that perspective analogue is closer to the original sound source and technically superior. If you look at the picture below, you can see a basic demonstration of the difference between analogue waveforms and digital. Notice the fact that analogue is one continuous line, whereas digital appears as a broken block line. This is because digital recordings take a snapshot of the analogue signal at a certain rate (for CDs it is 44,100 times per second) and measures each snapshot with a certain accuracy (for CDs it is 16-bit). Using higher sample & bit rates, will represent result in a more accurate representation of the original waveform and will reduce the amount of information lost and subsequently filled in with random digital information.

Analogue = Red

Note: This is a simple high-level explanation of the basic differences between analogue and digital, and does not take into account processes such as dithering and correction of resolution. This post covers common reasons for having a preference to vinyl only. For a more in-depth description of the technical process of creating high-quality digital audio – read Production Advice’s post on why there is no stair step in digital audio

Now… on to the point of this article….

Why 44.1khz for CD’s?

This all essentially comes down to a well know audio theory call Nyquist Theorem, which dictates that in order to sample audio accurately the sample rate should be at least twice as high as the maximum frequency you need to capture, and with full the range of human hearing ranging between 20hz and 20,000hz, you should in theory be able to capture any sound at a high enough quality for even the best of human hearing. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. But that’s a story for another day – click here for more information on sample rates and Nyquist Theorem

Basically, and before this gets more complicated than I intended – even though CD sample rates capture the full range of human hearing according to Nyquist – many claim there are still some audible artifacts, such as aliasing, which means that analogue recordings are in theory better. However, there are many other factors to consider here, including the fact that digital recordings have the ability to products greater dynamic range without noise floor issues, amongst other advantages. However, advocates of vinyl often praise its warmth and richness.

The Downside of Vinyl

So what’s the catch I hear you ask? Well, analogue audio signals are a representation of physical waveform intensities in a different form, such as voltages on a wire or magnetised particles on a cassette tape. In the case of vinyl, these wave intensities are represented by grooves carved into the record, which mirror the original waveform. In a perfect world, this means that little information is lost when compared to digital samples. However, it’s not quite as easy as that, and unfortunately, if only by physical wear and tear, or from specks of dust, or damage to the disc – analogue formats such as vinyl are subject to noise and static with age. The lesson here – look after your vinyl, and they will reward your ears for much longer!

Nostalgia

Audiophiles may bicker over the differences between vinyl or CD, or digital vs analogue, and a well-kept record, played on a great sound system is truly a wonderful thing. But for most people, the benefit of vinyl goes beyond this. It’s about the romance of it all, the procedure of putting a record on, and the joy of the format. In the words of Jack White (and I do love a quote to summarise) “There’s no romance in singing about an I-Pod”

( – Over 300,000 Vinyl Titles on Amazon – )

  • Avatar Ian Shepherd says:

    Sorry, but some of this is badly misleading.

    The idea that "there are still some audible artefacts, such as aliasing, which mean that analogue recordings are technically better" is false – any correctly designed digital system will eliminate aliasing.

    And, once the signal is decoded, there are no "stair-steps", as the image suggests:

    http://productionadvice.co.uk/no-stair-steps-in-digital-audio/

  • Avatar Eddy Lite says:

    "It's not the carrier, it's what's on it" and more importantly how it's gotten there.

  • Avatar Eddy Lite says:

    Agreed Ian Shepherd and I'm a huge #vinyl fanatic! (;D)

  • Avatar Kevin Gross says:

    Well, the Downside section seems to be accurate

  • Avatar Mike Brown says:

    Phonograph records fall at the first hurdle. If you put a cutting lathe in a box and told any recording engineer the specs of the system "variable distortion, variable frequency response, random clicks, surface noise about -45dB, crosstalk about -20db, don't record too much hf in case it overheats…" can you imagine the reation? Most likely you would be told to stop taking the piss, take it away and get it fixed.

  • Avatar Maarten de Hoog says:

    It's just a different way of getting from A to B.
    Each with it's own limitations, restrictions, benefits and advantages.
    If used correctly in a proper system they'll both sound the same.

    So what's your thought on Dave Grohl's sound city?
    A lot of artists want to go back or did go back to analogue equipement.
    There seems to be a belief in something like the magic touch of a real tapemachine (propper maintained, no one like hissing capstains like om a marvelous album of venice – 2 meter sessies, the song guineverre with david crosby if I'm not mistaken is spoiled by a nasty hiss)

  • Avatar Lee Lucas says:

    Well for me neither of the formats are any better than each other, and at the end of the day it all boils down to how good the recording was in the first place, the production work carries by far the greater element here as to how good any recording is no matter what format it's shoved out on.

    I must admit when CD's first hit the market back in the 80's they churned out loads of older material on the format and they did a pretty bad rush job of it all just to make money, there was no way 99% of that stuff churned out back then sounded better than the original vinyl albums I already had, and they sounded pretty naff in comparison to them, but the newer releases that hit the marked in DDD format were pretty impressive in relation to the vinyl record. I also felt they could handle bass far better without releasing any hum or feedback which could destroy some vinyl recordings for that matter.

    I also think that in today's world a lot of the remasters of the old 60's stuff put out on CD is way better than them vinyl originals especially as most were in mono and even the ones done in stereo was pretty much tin pan alley recordings in comparison with today's standards of how sound quality as improved over the years.

    But in my world I would place SACD in 5.1 well above both of these formats and it leaves them behind by miles for sound quality and separation. To think I spent thousands of pounds on HiFi years ago to get great sound quality, can be done today by spending far less, and if they think that the price of new vinyl records sold these days are worth £33 a pop in relation to buying the same album on a CD for a tenner is beyond the joke if you ask me.

    I can remember even back in the late 70's vinyl was getting way thinner and the amount of static on a brand new album was a complete joke, and I had to pay an extra couple of quid to have it professionally cleaned on top of the price of the album. Would I want to go back to that again. I certainly do not think so.

  • I like the closing quote at the end of the article Lee. It's the sense of the past that makes records great for me. I remember my first record was 'Never Mind The Bollocks' – gazing at the cover art work over and over again.

  • Avatar Monty Johnson says:

    Dude, do you still do vinyl rips? I'm looking for your Black Sabbath Live Evil one.

  • Avatar Eddy Lite says:

    hahaha I'm famous! LOL I still do them but it's terrible to share them. They are removed from the hosters without a blink. But, I am thinking of posting new ones again on the eddylite.blogspot.com site. Checking out new hosters in the last few weeks. I have also been upgrading the signalpath. New turntable, new workingtower. Same process, obviously! (;D) I'll keep in mind to post the Live-eviL album first Monty! Cheers.

  • Avatar Eddy Lite says:

    P.S. The latest remasters, and particularly the SHM-CD versions of the Sabbath albums aren't that bad BTW. Sadly they (read: Universal) decide to brickwall the '13' album. I bought it on vinyl.

  • Avatar Eddy Lite says:

    Which, ofcourse underlines the truth in my initial post; "It's not the carrier, it's what on it."

  • Avatar Leisl Aetna Bonell says:

    Thanks for this, Ian. We've been having the digital vs analogue arguments … er, discussions … as we're preparing to head back into the studio in a few months. This post is perfectly timed.

  • Avatar Lee Lucas says:

    Yeah I must admit you cannot beat the artwork on Vinyl that's for sure, and let's face it, good artwork even sold records back in those days too.

    But for me these days the music that's on it, is what matters the most in relation to looking all nice and pretty on the outside. The same thing very much can be said regarding HiFi. It was never about looks, and I can assure a good Hifi does not look like a Christmas Tree with a load of flashing lights on it, and says Hello to you when you turn it on and Goodbye when you switch the thing off 🙂

  • Avatar Andi Picker says:

    I checked to see when that was published, expecting something like 1968; nope – July 2013 – No steps, just a little tiny bit of noise.

  • Avatar Martin Giles says:

    I still remember trying to cut a bell tree, exposed by itself, at the end of a side of vinyl. The first test cut I did I just left to see if the cutting amps would trip, which somehow they didn't.

    I have never heard such roaring, rolling THD on the playback – before or since. In the end, I had to pack the whole side so it was all over by 50% through the recording area, with the bell tree dropped by about 15dB AND a low pass filter doing some serious rolling off. The client was adamant that it should stay in, but I made damn sure he knew what he was getting before he left the cutting room!

  • Avatar Graeme Robertson says:

    Vinyl was not a robust format and I've seen re releases going for silly money too which i would worry about accidentally scratching. I've never got round to making digital copies of all our stuff in the loft!

  • Hi Ian, Yes, perhaps it is a bit miss leading if one wants to go a little more technical.The point was simply to cover the ground on a high level, and make the point that the differences between each format are at the end of the day irrelevant – it's simply the romance of vinyl that really draws people in. Thanks for the link though, useful reference for anyone seeking something a little more technical.