Saturday, April 30, 2016

CD vs Vinyl

A friend sent me this article recently called Why CDs May Actually Sound Better Than Vinyl. It mostly explains why CD sound is better than vinyl. Because it must be, since there are so many things wrong with vinyl: surface noise, scratches, roll-off of higher frequencies, lack of dynamic range. CD sound is better because it has none of those disadvantages, and it is far more accurate because of its inherent lack of noise and wide dynamic range. By the way, the dynamic range issue is true, but very few CDs take advantage of this, and most of them are classical recordings. Most modern rock and pop music is compressed to a fault when it is mastered, so it sounds louder on the radio or streaming though small speakers. The people who apply this compression, especially the more egregious offenders, should be taken to task, possibly even sent away to a small jail without electricity.

I have no real problem with CD quality sound, and I think that newer DACs and ADCs sound way better than they did 30 years ago. Some jazz and rock CDs are recorded well, and not over-compressed, and sound pretty darn good, especially through better digital players that can do away with most of the jitter and other technical glitches of CD playback. Clearly ripping CDs to a dedicated digital storage medium and transferring that data to a quality DAC without the real-time playback problems associated with CD can help a great deal.

But vinyl still sounds better. Yes, the high frequency roll-off is responsible for some of the warmth of the sound, but the real problem is digitizing music.

Here's my take: With digital, the music is chopped up into discrete pieces and then put back together again to return to analog. Discrete pieces are the problem. Music is a continuous sine wave, an analog, physical event. Dividing it up into discrete, single value moments SCREWS IT UP, period. It destroys the sine wave, and frankly, it can never be put back together again. So, new vinyl records that are recorded digitally sound only marginally different/better than CDs, mostly because of the pleasant warmth distortion of the medium. But vinyl records recorded originally on tape, and then transferred to vinyl, can and do sound better than CD because the sine wave has never been disassembled in the recording process.

You can't measure it. Analog music is what music really is. But the ability of a true analog presentation to connect with the listener on an emotional level cannot be achieved in the digital domain. You can't measure it only because we don't know how to measure it. The idea that humans know how to measure everything is bunk. We are naked apes who have only scratched the surface of scientific understanding.

Signal to noise is BS too. Does 1000:1 sound better than 500:1? Noise inherent in analog tape is too low to bother you unless you are frantically listening for it. Vinyl surface noise and scratches are problematic, but the the original sine wave is preserved. And that trumps digital no matter how thin you slice it.

Do higher resolution digital files sound better than CD? Yes, of course they do, because they lessen the chopped up problem by chopping the sine wave up into smaller pieces (higher sampling rate), and expand the bit depth to a more appropriate level. But do they sound better than a never-digitized analog format? No they don't. And they can't. Are they more accurate? Maybe in at least some sense, but accuracy is overrated. The emotional response to a sine wave that has never been dissected is a response that digital cannot produce.

I don't care that it can't be proven with measurements. I have ears. Ears are clearly analog devices designed to detect continuous sine waves. My ears hear something different when they listen to music that has been digitized. If you don't hear it, I'm fine with that. But don't even try to tell me that I'm wrong because you can measure something.


  1. The statement 'The emotional response to a sine wave that has never been dissected is a response that digital cannot produce' is so disturbingly bad that it sound like someone's reasoning as to why there must be a god.

  2. Thanks for reading the post, and caring enough to comment.