Monday, February 6, 2017


(Earlier on this blog, we discussed vinyl versus MP3's... this is part two of the discussion)

Do Vinyl Records Sound Better Than CD’s?

If you Google the question I’ve raised, you’ll be wading through dozens of angry rants from any engineer that has ever worked in the recording industry emphatically telling you why your ears are being deceived by vinyl, and how the analog music format is miserably pathetic when compared to the superior science, accuracy and longevity offered by a compact disc.

I strongly prefer the sound of vinyl, but my honest, peace-seeking answer to the question “Do vinyl records sound better than CD’s?” is simply, “It depends.”  

Without any question, both formats sound different. And it's not hard to find LPs that sound better than CDs, or vice versa.

Having the right equipment in place can produce heavenly-sounding results for almost any music format. Mastering, production, playback equipment and manufacturing variables can tilt the scale either way.

I’ve never owned an $8,000 Mark Levinson “Reference” CD player and played music on it. And maybe if I did, there’s at least a small possibility this vinyl blog wouldn’t exist.

But it’s clear from my own years of experience in buying, trying and carefully evaluating all kinds of audio equipment, that a thousand dollars wisely spent on today’s analog equipment will deliver a vastly more satisfying and revelatory plunge into music than one can get from spending a grand on a good CD rig.

The biggest problem in critical--or comparitive--listening is finding the words to express our perceptions and experiences. So often, we hear things in reproduced music that are difficult to identify and put into words. Frank Zappa said it best “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

Now that I’ve framed the absurdity of attempting to definitively debate the merits of CD’s versus LP’s, here are a few technical stabs at why the sound of vinyl is a growing preference by so many.

On the whole, the music on a record has been mastered differently. (Mastering is the final processing of the music before it gets sold). On a CD, the ability to manipulate the dynamic range of the music and make it seem louder is available and used way too often. If the same approach was used for pressing music on vinyl, the needle might not even stay in the groove. The short video below does a great job of explaining this simply with music.

Vinyl master recordings have a lower average volume (but potentially, a higher dynamic range), which has several benefits. Music that's well mixed can sound deeper and more open with an un-doctored dynamic range.

Ironically, vinyl actually has a smaller potential dynamic range than a CD. But the problem is that music that gets mastered for digital formats is all too rarely mixed or mastered with dynamic range in mind. 

Vinyl beats the pants off of a CD almost every time when it comes to “3-D imaging,” or reproducing music with a soundstage. (i.e., when you can close your eyes and envision where the instruments and singers were positioned on stage, from right to left.) Sure, a CD gives you all of the notes and gives them to you very cleanly --  but vinyl gives you the space between the notes, and the air between the instruments -- it puts you right there in the room with the performer more often than digital does. You can get there from digital -- if you have deep pockets.

Most people don’t realize it, but the DAC (Digital Audio Converter) is the cornerstone of a digital reproduction system. It’s a little box that converts those zeroes and ones into analog audio. Cheap DACs cause problems, of which the primary symptoms are music reproduced with a lack of depth, solidity, and a smearing of the stereo image. Vinyl, an analog format, doesn’t have to go through this conversion process. And many believe vinyl has more depth and solidity.

Several years ago, I countered this digital music problem by buying an expensive, high performance outboard DAC for my CD player. The result? I had a CD player that delivered a pleasing, vinyl-like listening experience.  DUH!!!!

I decided…. why not just stay with the real thing?

Michael Fremer, longtime senior editor of Stereophile, and the world’s foremost authority on vinyl, sums up the whole vinyl-versus-CD debate in one short comment. “One format sounds real, and the other sounds fake.”

But even if you disagree, vinyl’s explosion in popularity is being driven by other factors that are hard to dislike.

MP3s, iTunes, Napster and illegal downloads combined to kill the CD, but they also diminished the perceived value of recorded music.  Music became an art form no longer on par with television and film.  Music was cheap, or even free if you stole it off the internet.  In fact, you weren’t considered clever if you actually paid for it. Music became portable and disposable.  Worst of all, music was something you played through earbuds to distract yourself from the tedium of something else, like jogging, walking a treadmill, doing homework, or riding a bus.  Portable digital audio not only killed off the CD, but relegated music to being little more than a passive pursuit.

But turntables, and the return of vinyl, have once again made music an active pursuit.

In order to listen to a record, you can't be driving; you can't be jogging; you can't be doing much at all. In fact, you need to be at home; you mostly need to just sit there and listen to music. 

Listening to music from a turntable requires you to disconnect from everything else in your life, to slow down, and just relax…something most of us living in a firestorm of ping-ponging tweets and cell phone texts every day are woefully inept at doing. There’s a tangible “quality of life” of bonus that comes with listening to music on vinyl -- even if it's just for 45 minutes at a time.


  1. Having recently gotten back to vinyl with a very nice setup for a modest cost I know what you are talking about. However, when I'm awake in the middle of the night, "disconnected" from everything else, I pick up my ipod next to my bed. And, by the way, it's 22 minutes at a time before you have to get up and change.

  2. Thoughtful, perceptive column that includes both the technical and social factors of the digital vs. analog debate. If you want to be a more physically active vinyl listener, try curating an evening of playing 45s -- you'll get some aerobic benefits from changing the records (and perhaps dancing if you're playing some sweet rock-and-roll and R&B) and some creative stimulus from putting together the set list on the fly.


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