Which format sounds better, CD or vinyl?
It’s a subject almost as layered and nuanced as religion.
No doubt, there’s a roaring fire in the belly of a growing crowd of vinyl-loving folks who swear the end of the ‘dark age of digital music’ is nigh, as though we’ve been suffering a kind of musical tribulation at the hand of the evil emperor M-P-3, so it’s quite possible that you move in circles where this stuff is discussed and it’s even possible you may have felt pressure to appease the analogue evangelists by buying some vinyl – even if you don’t currently own a working turntable, because ‘one day you might’. Crazy right? Not really…
This kind of pressure is interesting, not because we’re all fickle, but because at some level when we’re confronted with such a strong view that is not our own and that is not supported by the mainstream it causes cognitive dissonance and our subconscious works hard to get rid of the source of discomfort. Picture the scene, you’re watching a big crowd that is moving steadily down a street, all their attention is focused on pushing ahead. You notice a small group suddenly divert and move off down a side-road, as though they know something everybody else does not. That is the moment you’re least likely to pay attention to the crowd steadily moving forward because despite having no idea whatsoever what it is that the small breakaway group knows, you suspect that if you knew, it might give you some advantage over the crowd. That curiosity is driven by the most basic of survival instincts and it plays out in our lives all the time. The CD-Vinyl standoff is no different, but what’s down that side-road might surprise you.
First of all, what does ‘better’ mean when it comes to sound?
In the interests of answering that question from a typical music consumer perspective (and to limit the scope of this article) I’d like to suggest that there are three discrete elements to music that should be considered separately in order to have a productive conversation on this topic. The first element is the quality of the song from a lyrical, melodic and arrangement perspective, the second is the quality of a song from a recording, mixing and mastering perspective, and the third element is the consumer-format of the song – whether vinyl, CD, mp3. How each consumer-format imposes or lifts technical (and consequently creative) limitations on the music is very important, it can have a significant impact on the listener’s experience.
By carefully focusing on only the format-related discussion, we can quickly get clarity on the merits of each format without spiraling into discussion of musical taste or audio-engineering factors over which the listener has no direct influence or control. As consumers trying to decide which format generally sounds better we must accept the performance and audio-engineering ‘as-is’, as it comes to us as consumers, for playback on our CD players and turntables with no commentary on the merits of the respective recording, mixing and mastering techniques employed. To this end, I won’t be commenting on recording, mixing and mastering factors either, other than to say that when budget allows, the audio-engineering anticipates the final release format and makes technical adjustments to allow for maximum benefit of each format, and, although this technical adjustment is a further subjective change to the music itself, it must simply be accepted because if you’re buying music at all you’re buying the creative and technical decisions of everyone who contributed to that production anyway. As music-buying fans, we trust the artists we support and the production team they choose to work with to deliver to us a product which exactly represents their artistic vision – so that we can, in turn, decide in the comfort of our homes and cars whether we in fact are, still fans.
So, with the taste and engineering factors out of the way for practical reasons (we can’t all own the first pressing of Born in the USA), once we agree on the the technical merits of each format, I believe you – like me – might suspect that forces non-technical are at work in the psyches of those declaring the sonic superiority of vinyl on the street corners.
Here’s why I believe that:
- If released as CD, the audio approved by the artist is unchanged since the CD-production process is robust and invulnerable to errors which degrade the audio. Consumer experience is vulnerable to the quality of the CD player’s digital to analogue converter, the amplifier used, the speakers and the acoustic environment they’re in.
- If released on vinyl the audio is altered to varying extents to allow for technical constraints of the vinyl format. The production process is fraught with opportunities to significantly alter the audio from the state in which it was provided by the mastering engineer. ONe pressing can sound very different to the next. High fidelity vinyl pressing is as important as high quality audio mastering when it comes to vinyl releases because when badly done they disconnect the listener from the artistic intent of the artist. Consumer experience is therefore vulnerable to the quality of the pressing, the quality and condition of the turntable, the amplifier used, the speakers and the acoustic environment they’re in. Turntable needles and the vinyl disc itself wear out – degrading the audio over time. The turntable performs best only under very specific conditions and the build-up of dust on the surface significantly affects the playback quality. Turntable setup and maintenance is everything.
- If released as MP3, the audio will acquire something called inter-sample distortion if the masters are anything like what is released every day with high average and peak volumes. The mp3 will use an algorithm to make the song take up less space on your hard-drive, it strips away musical detail that it doesn’t think you’ll notice, leaving only the ‘surface’ layer of sounds for you to enjoy as a song. Consumer experience is then also vulnerable to the quality of the mp3 player, the amplifier used, the speakers and the acoustic environment they’re in.
As you can see, the CD is a very robust format in terms of production-process and offers the most reliable delivery of the artists creative-intent to the consumer – leaving only what the consumer plays the music on as a variable beyond the control of the artist. The vinyl is a fragile and fast-decaying format requiring constant intervention to keep the system performing at it’s best. The mp3 is a tragic development necessitated only by DATA bandwidth limitations.
If the best that can be said of vinyl is that it performs well for a while & then requires very high maintenance, what’s the appeal? It’s not even the absence of that ‘digital sound’ because it’s safe to say that if you’ve bought vinyl within the last 10 years at all – then you’ve bought vinyl pressings created from digital masters. And, considering vinyl’s ability to faithfully reproduce audio when done properly, it is obvious that the same sound of the digital master is transferred quite reliably to the vinyl medium and delivered to your ears. So, it’s not inconceivable that the growing appeal of the vinyl format is just another way that people are pushing away from consumer-culture to embrace a more curated way of living. It’s a similar mechanism at play when someone decides to not drink instant coffee, rather investing in a real coffee machine and grinding their own beans to perfection, choosing their favourite brand of milk, setting up the machine and painstakingly perfecting their process.
Birds don’t discriminate, they shit on shacks and architectural masterpieces alike, it’s just that people living in architectural masterpieces are more likely to have conversations about them.
The vinyl enthusiast might be pushing away from the CD toward vinyl in the same way that the coffee fanatic is moving away from instant coffee to something that accommodates ritual, creates sentiment and conjures a meditative and fully present state. It’s about the deliberate, curated listening experience. They are willing to endure the effort it requires to have that relationship with music. The effort required to keep a vinyl system working well is just part of the deal. Just like the house-proud home-owner, there is a commitment to maintaining an aesthetic that is inherently vulnerable. Birds don’t discriminate, they shit on shacks and architectural masterpieces alike, it’s just that people living in architectural masterpieces (or just homes they’re proud of) are more likely to have conversations about them.
Rejecting a format because it requires maintenance provides some degree of insight into your relationship with music just as it might with a home, coffee, art and wine.
If the CD delivers artistic intent most reliably, and MP3’s deliver least reliably, and the vinyl delivers reliably if done well but requires good (obsessive) buying, attention and maintenance, the appeal of it might exist in the ritual, or possibly in some unexpectedly pleasant by-product of the characteristics imparted to vinyl’s sound by the physical mechanisms involved…the rumble of the needle as it courses through the microscopic channels. Some argue that the subtle ways the system picks up and plays back low frequency environmental noises makes an organic contextual connection to the music beyond what’s possible on CD…who knows? But it’s safe to say that the vinyl is ‘music-plus’ because it’s not just about the music, but about what the medium adds to the process of listening to music and the rituals it facilitates that makes it appealing.