When vinyl is better than CD

The Guardian has my piece on CD mastering. An interesting point that was omitted for space reasons is how old LP records compare to recent CD issues. Of course LPs still have all the faults we remember (if you are old enough): surface noise, vulnerability to wear and scratches, and diminishing quality towards the inner grooves. Nevertheless, they are quite good enough to show off the benefits of better source tapes or mastering. In the article I showed how a U2 song was mastered much louder on a recently released CD collection than the same track on a CD from 10 years ago. Just for fun, I also pulled out the LP and compared the wave forms. The illustration zooms in on the opening bars. On the left is the old CD; in the middle is the LP; and on the right, the new CD. Note that in order to make this comparison I’ve normalized the volume so that the levels are similar. In otherwords, the “louder” CD has been reduced in volume to match the other two as closely as possible.

Note that the first two images, from the old CD and the LP, are more similar to each other than they are to the third image, from the new remastered CD. Note also the group of peak signals about one third of the way across. This is actually a roll of drums. You can see how these are limited in the remastered version, which looks almost as if someone took scissors to the waveform at that point.

You may be wondering how this affects the sound. The audible difference is not dramatic, but even so the clipped version sounds duller and the drums have less impact than on the other two.

In such cases, if you have to choose between the LP and a newly remastered CD, the LP will likely sound better.

That presumes of course that you have a turntable, arm, cartridge and phono pre-amp of reasonable quality. Nobody said it was easy.

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5 comments to When vinyl is better than CD

  • Philip

    This is not an indication of any limitation of the CD mastering process but rather of the taste of listeners. The general public are now well used to highly processed radio transmissions which severely limit dynamic range and those mastering CDs may, under some circumstances, aim to provide them with this sound on the CDs they purchase. So this is, by and large, a reaction to public taste.

    LPs can be made to sound “nice” but they can not, for many reasons including those you list, be made faithful to the original recordings whereas CD can be made much more faithful, this is why mastering to vinyl is so much of an art.

    Much of the processing applied to modern music adds harmonic distortion and, in truth, you may find that people actually like this distortion and find that unprocessed music sounds “flat” and “lifeless” hence why we see it used so much. This is the very same harmonic distortion which may be introduced in so called “hi-fi” amplifiers and, even, in reproducing an LP and such distortions account for why listeners may prefer one amplifier (say) against another. Most who have such preferences for “hi-fi” would find a system designed with no harmonic distortion hard to listen to and would suspect it of a “fault.”

    So, while highly processed CDs are certainly far from true to any natural sound they often offer a sound that the general public prefer and as record companies are a commercial operation it is easy to understand why they master the CDs in this way.

  • Tim

    Philip,

    I’m not convinced that the public prefers a highly compressed sound. I don’t see any evidence of this. I do agree though that this is not a limitation of CD; that’s exactly the point I was making. Rather, it is a mastering choice, often made by engineers against their better judgement because of a pressure from artists and record companies for a “louder” sound. The irony being that it isn’t really any louder, just more compressed.

    Tim

  • I have to disagree that consumers prefer the compressed sound, i think its more of a case that they just dont notice, especially when a lot of people have low qaulity radios and hifi equipment. This all becomes far more aparent to the serious audiophile who has quality equipment, and when compression becomes a lot more obvious. I love vinyl, i love the sound and partly because i love the nostalgia of putting on a record too.

  • richietyke

    Many DAB broadcasters use compression , to the extent where they are unlistenabale at home on good equipment. The record producers make CD’s that sound good on Blaupunkt not Hi end hifi. So for the serious audiophile unspoiled vinyl is the ONLY choice, as for the conenience of a cd, buy the vinyl, buy a CDR with an anologue input and copy your own, compression free.
    Soundwise, one the the beauties of good vinyl equipment is it’s ability to reproduce a realistic soundstage. This isn’t the quality or clarity of the sound (which is often nicer tho) but the 3D image effect within the stereo system. Most people think of stereo as two speakers creating a two dimensional wall of sound, within which you can move about from one side to another different sounds (like the early beatles stereo stuff) so voacls one side , split harmonies , double tracked guitars/vocals etc. However , what the serious audiophile knows is that using very good equipment and providing , of course, skilled people recorded the source material, you can really begin to ‘seperate’ each of the instruments (often to the extent where it is possible to count overdubs) and vocals. Not only that but each instrument has a place not only in terms of its two dimensional position (left or right or center) but forward or backward in the soundstage. In other words vocals appear up front , clear and almost ‘live’. Drums may sound by contrast 20 feet from the listener and bass and guitars clearly pinpointed. Hearing music like this can come as quite a shock to many people who haven’t heard good equipment before, but for many it sounds ‘ok but not really any different’ , they don’t get it they can’t percieve the 3D image. It is for these people that the CD was born. Because after years of searching I still can’t find a CD player under £3000 that can reproduce this soundstage to recorded music. Long live vinyl

  • Ian

    I know I’m very late joining this conversation but I thought I’d comment anyway!

    I love vinyl but also listen to a lot of CDs and some SACDs (when I can get them!). One of the annoying things about the contemporary trend of maximising volume on CDs, sometimes at the expense of dynamic range (e.g. the top gets chopped off, as the image in the original post), is that the line out level from the CD player is now so high that to listen at low volumes means the amplifier is hardly doing anything. As a consequence the sound quality can suffer.

    My secondary system uses an Arcam Alpha 7R amplifier, whose volume pot is slightly dodgy at the very bottom of its range, which makes it impossible to listen at very low volumes, where modern CDs with high output levels are concerned. This isn’t a problem with most older CDs and vinyl because the line out level is so much lower.