Are Vinyl Recordings Better than Digital?

Many audio aficionados split into two camps, those supporting modern digital audio, and those supporting vinyl records.

by Brian Dunning

Filed under General Science

Skeptoid #303
March 27, 2012
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Also available in Russian
 

For as long as there have been competing standards — horses versus steam, paper versus parchment, Android versus iPhones, Whigs versus Tories — fanatics have taken sides and promoted them as superior with nearly religious passion. The comparison of sound quality between vinyl records and digital recordings stands tall among these platform debates. Nearly all audio enthusiasts take one side or the other, some openly and with zeal, most with subtlety and qualifying their preference through acknowledgements of the pros and cons of each. Either way, one basic question supersedes either preference: Does it make any detectable difference?

Again, those full of zeal, on both sides, assert that the difference is detectable, implying that they would be able to tell. In a few moments we'll take a look at some of the testing that has been done to study this claim. But first, a quick overview of the salient technical points.

The principal difference is the nature of the storage medium, which is either analog or digital; a smooth-flowing waveform as cut into the grooves of a vinyl record, or digital representation of the recorded sound with numeric amplitudes sampled at a high frequency. There's an exquisite elegance to the way that a stereo signal — two discreet, simultaneous channels of music — can be encoded into a single groove that one needle follows. As the groove moves side to side, a single channel is produced, with its frequency determined by the speed at which the needle is pushed left and right, and its amplitude determined by how far it's pushed. To add a second channel, we bring in a second axis of movement: vertical in addition to horizontal. Tip them both over at 45°, and we have a groove that varies in depth as well as in its horizontal axis. How fast and how far the needle vibrates down to the left describes the signal in the left channel; how fast and how far the needle vibrates down to the right describes the signal in the right channel. Adding the two signals together produces the instructions for how the groove is to be cut; at every instant, there is one smoothly flowing waveform describing the left channel, and a second describing the right channel. It's a beautiful system.

A digital audio recording is defined by two basic parameters: the sample rate, which is how many times per second the height of the waveform is sampled; and the resolution, which is the number of possible levels that can be measured at each sample. For a compact disc, this resolution is 16-bit, when means that the height of the waveform is measured, at each step, on a scale of 0 to 65,535, which is very precise. This measurement is performed at a sample rate of 44,100 times per second. This number is chosen because it's just over twice the highest frequency that the best human ears can hear, which is around 20,000 Hertz. A formula called the Nyquist rate shows that this is the minimum sample rate needed to produce the full range of human hearing. Lay each word of sixteen zeros or ones end to end, double it because there is a separate measurement for each stereo channel, stream them past at 44,100 measurements per second, and the speed at which those bits go by is called the bit rate. The higher your bit rate, the higher resolution and sample rate can be used. If this stream is to be recorded on a compact disc, it goes through another conversion to change it into a completely different series of ones and zeros that can be more accurately read by the laser. If it's stored on a computer, it can be algorithmically compressed via any of a number of different schemes, producing tradeoffs between file size and preservation of data.

So there our battle lines are drawn. There are myriad things one could say in addition to each. Vinyl and digital both have good points and bad points. But here's the reason why the entire debate is stupid: whether the music is stored on vinyl or a CD is just not that important a part of the overall system. It's like deciding which of two different cars is best by comparing their spark plug wires. There are many, many variables in the process of playing recorded music that noticeably affect the sound, from the microphones, to the mixing, to the mastering, to the quality of the playback hardware, the amplifier, and (far and away most important) the quality of the speakers and characteristics of the listening room; whether the recording was vinyl or CD is simply not one of these important variables, with apologies to the zealots. Both methods are easily far superior to any differences the human ear might hope to distinguish.

A lot of vinyl proponents say that the difference is subjective, for example that it sounds warmer or just better. Digital proponents tend to point out objective difference, such as the fact that a digital signal can accommodate a higher dynamic range, which is the difference in loudness between the quietest and loudest parts of the recording. But can they actually tell the difference under controlled conditions?

Well, unfortunately, this is a bit like asking which race car driver is most talented if you put them into identical cars. That car would always suit one driver's style and preferred setup better than the other. Finding an identical recording on vinyl and on CD to compare doesn't really exist. In the early days of CDs, record companies sometimes didn't bother making new masters of the old recordings; they used the same masters that had been used to press the vinyl. The results were CDs that sounded tinny or thin. The master suited vinyl, not digital. Now mastering engineers will almost always make a new master designed for the intended medium. A master is a special mix designed by an engineer who knows who's going to be listening, how they're going to listen, what other music it needs to sound good against, and so on. The separate instrument tracks might be individually equalized, spread across the stereo spectrum, or have a dozen other parameters applied. Thus, a CD and a vinyl pressing of the exact same recorded performance are likely to be very different. If they're not, that means an inappropriate master was used for one or the other, and the test will be biased.

Moreover, the vinyl playback method includes giveaways: clicks and pops, hissing, and other noise produced by the mechanical playback experience. Indeed, much of what's often lauded about vinyl recordings — such as the "richer, warmer" sound — is not a result of accurate reproduction, so much as it is an artifact of the playback mechanism itself.

It's a hard science fact that digital is capable of reproducing higher frequencies than vinyl, above the range of what most people can hear. But, can people distinguish whether a piece of music contains those frequencies or not? According to research performed at Japan's NHK Laboratories in 2004, the answer seems to be no. They took 36 people and ran 20 tests with each. Only a single 18-year-old girl was able to beat random chance, and so they retested her separately, but the effect disappeared. Nevertheless, the researchers issued a somewhat qualified conclusion that they could "neither confirm nor deny the possibility that some subjects could discriminate between musical sounds with and without very high frequency components." Whether that recording is vinyl or digital, any frequencies it may or may not have above 20,000 Hz make no difference.

Controversy also exists between various digital formats, lending credibility to the whole format war concept. Two high end consumer digital formats, Super Audio CD and DVD Audio (technically Direct Stream Digital and Pulse Code Modulation), have been bantered back and forth by industry experts. But in 2004, a paper presented at the 116th Audio Engineering Society conference in Berlin found that:

...No significant differences could be heard between DSD and high-resolution PCM (24-bit / 176.4 kHz) even with the best equipment, under optimal listening conditions, and with test subjects who had varied listening experience and various ways of focusing on what they hear. Consequently it could be proposed that neither of these systems has a scientific basis for claiming audible superiority over the other. This reality should put a halt to the disputation being carried on by the various PR departments concerned.

In 2000, some excellent research was published in the Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education where subjects listened to digital and analog recordings of the same concert performance, recorded unequalized and unmixed especially for this test. They were able to switch back and forth between the two at will, and everything was blinded and well controlled. Overall, the digital version was preferred in all ten scoring areas. However the recording media for this test were compact disc and cassette tape, so it's not directly comparable to a vinyl record. The researchers concluded:

Tip Skeptoid $2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

Results showed that music major listeners rated the digital versions of live concert recordings higher in quality than corresponding analog versions. Participants gave significantly higher ratings to the digital presentations in bass, treble, and overall quality, as well as separation of the instruments/voices. Higher rating means for the digital versions were generally consistent across loudspeaker and headphone listening conditions and the four types of performance media.

To summarize the science, digital is the superior reproduction format, but analog (particularly vinyl) offers a particular type of sound that some people prefer. I liken it to a Ferrari versus a Mustang. They may have different metrics, but the people who like them for what they are don't care so much about that.

The best argument in favor of vinyl recordings need not be bolstered by unsupported claims about the technical quality of the recording, and that's the physical, tangible experience. Lowering a needle onto a record engraved with an actual audio waveform is comparable to building your own hot rod with greasy hands and case hardened tools. Its performance compared to that of a factory produced BMW is simply not relevant. It's about an experience, not about metrics or tabulated results. More senses are involved: the smell of the album cover, the touch of lowering the tone arm into the groove, the sight of the stroboscope indicating the precise turntable speed. It's a full experience to which the listener must dedicate focused attention and time. Vinyl records are a hands-on, personal connection to the actual audio, and that's something no amount of digital perfection can replicate. You can debate the validity of that connection all you want, and you'll find that it's a metaphysical, philosophical issue. There is no logic or practical connection. But some things, these types of connections — those for which no practical, quantitative explanation exists — are sometimes the most important.

Brian Dunning

© 2012 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Blech, D., Yang, M. Convention Paper 6086: DVD-Audio versus SACD: Perceptual Discrimination of Digital Audio Coding Formats. Berlin: Audio Engineering Society, 2004.

Gabrielsson, A., Hagerman, B., Bech-Kristensen, T., Lundberg, G. "Perceived sound quality of reproductions with different frequency responses and sound levels." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 1 Jan. 1990, Volume 88: 1359-1366.

Geringer, J., Dunnigan, P. "Listener Preferences and Perception of Digital versus Analog Live Concert Recordings." Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. 1 Jul. 2000, Number 145: 1-13.

Lipshitz, S. "The Digital Challenge: A Report." Boston Audio Society. Boston Audio Society, 1 Aug. 1984. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.bostonaudiosociety.org/bas_speaker/abx_testing2.htm>

Liversidge, A. "Analog versus Digital: Has Vinyl Been Wrongly Dethroned by the Music Industry?" Omni. 1 Jan. 1995, Volume 17, Number 5: 28.

Nishiguchi, T., Hamasaki, K., Iwaki, M., Ando, A. NHK Laboratories Note No. 486: Perceptual Discrimination between Musical Sounds with and without Very High Frequency Components. Tokyo: Japan Broadcasting Company, 2004.

Repp, B. "The Aesthetic Quality of a Quantitatively Average Music Performance: Two Preliminary Experiments." Music Perception. 1 Jan. 1997, Volume 14, Number 4: 419-444.

Sourisseau, U. "Stereo Disc Recording." Record Your Own Vinyl Discs. Souri's Automaten, 11 Apr. 2001. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.vinylrecorder.com/stereo.html>

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Are Vinyl Recordings Better than Digital?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 27 Mar 2012. Web. 1 Oct 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4303>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 134 comments

I listen to both on relatively good equipment and for me the very low frequencies seem better in vinyl. I suggest as an example listening to Little Neutrino by Klaatu on both formats, there is a definite difference and vinyl comes out on top in the low range but Little Neutrino has some extremely low frequency sounds recorded very loudly so it might not be a fair comparison if the CD is limited to the range of human hearing.

Michael Hissom, Wilmington, NC
February 25, 2014 8:59am

all of this seems to completely ignore a basic concept. our human ears are designed to hear sound waves. digital audio takes sound and turns it into zeros and ones. then another process interprets those digits and produces a very good simulation of the original sound. however, the moment audio becomes digital, there is inherent loss. higher resolution just means a simulation closer to the real thing, but it will never been the very thing, by it's very nature it can not ever be the real thing. a high-resolution scan of a painting that is then printed out on a high-quality printer is not an "exact" reproduction. you can create a high enough resolution that it's "close enough" for all practical purposes, but pixels are squares, and will never be brush strokes, no matter how many of those squares you cram into a file. a very high-resolution digital sound file might be "good enough" for the average listener to not be able to tell the difference, but it drives me nuts when people insist that digital sound is "true" sound. it's not, it's a simulation, designed to fool our senses, not to faithfully reproduce.

(by the way, I recognize that this pretty much only applies to music produced by actual instruments and voices, while computer-generated music is digital from the get-go and therefore digital is obviously the best format for it)

Dr Proximo, Summerside, PEI, Canada
February 25, 2014 10:06am

As a long-time student of human behavior, I believe I can say without any doubt that the best music format is the one that generates that full-contact visceral joy that you find in what you like best.

In other words, if that works best for you, that is the best one.

After all, the point is to enjoy it.

Swampwitch, Gainesville Fl
February 27, 2014 11:54am

I have to say that to my ears Digital is FAR superior to anything analog...I know that some will disagree...we all have our own preferred equipment...I have done research on the web about superior turntables and unless you have more money than you have sense then maybe...just maybe you can get the intended sound from vinyl...I don't think I will ever have the funds to find out...I have some turntables and it must be PROPERLY set up most likely taking enormous amounts time (the ones I can't afford) I just want to listen to my music drop in the CD and press play put on my headphones (another subject... they aren't that 20 Hz to 20,000 kHz crappy type) and enjoy nice deep rich bass, crisp, clean highs and clear distortion free sound with no detectable or unwanted artifacts...that ANALOG equipment adds to the sound. Oh and by the way sorry to disappoint all you vinyl lovers out there but today's vinyl is recorded from a digital audio systems. check it out here... http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8rEmHkumWXI

Trekman, Juliette, GA
March 1, 2014 3:24pm

Problem I have is the 'digitally remastered CD's. I have many old vinyls that I also have CD's of. The sound mixer has really screwed up the 'remastered' on many of them. So while both may be the same, the old Vinyls were true to the original recording.

Paul, Topton, NC
March 2, 2014 4:45pm

To make digital music good a good digital to analog converter is needed, same as a good LP player with a good stylus..

Dr Sound, Bern
April 18, 2014 12:19pm

Its really the over compression of todays music thats a problem, volume wars and putting as much material on or in the digital format. ..the compression minimizes the dynamic range between the loudest and softest passeges or peaks of the music. .music in the studio is compressed initial using either true analog compressors/ limiters such as universal audio compressors or inferior digital compressor built to emulate analog vintage gear .before the recordings are mastered alot recordings over compressed from the get go.unfortunately more often than not the needed headroom ( and over eq' ing) is not there for proper mastering, hence more compression is added..and if that isnt bad enough any Am or Fm station really hits the recording with considerable more compression..

Though on any portable digital playback format.the dynamic range of the music is truly comprimised to get X amount of the digital material to fit the capacity of the
Format. .the material or abilty to store more music in the device is increased by memory and additional compression of the music. ..

Though on vinyl if the analog recording is a superior recording the first couple tracks on the album will sound excellant if played on high end gear . The low end end reproduction on vinyl is awesome on the first couple of tracks because the wide grooves .

Though as the grooves get closer to the center of the album they get narrower the sonic quality dregrades ,compression increases.

The low end especially suffer.

dave festa, florida
April 18, 2014 2:49pm

Howdy! Do you know if they make any plugins to protect against hackers? I'm kinda paranoid about losing everything I've worked hard on. Any recommendations? cddefcgkfdef

Pharma588, rttprooy
April 23, 2014 12:35am

Amazing comments from all!
My experience, after 50 years of music love.
I passed from analog era to digital era and ... back.
I jumped into the FLAC era, the HiRes new wave and have hi end equipment for that.
I can take a very good vinyl recording and take it to ADC and DAC it back.
I use on a daily basis Vinyl, very good Quantegy Master Gold reel tape and hi res digi files.
To me, the most time it was what the Specs revealed. And I did believe that for a long time. I don't trust it anymore. The engineers may tell me that the machine can achieve that many dB and KHz etc. Its all just another way to make us buy new toys.
Nothing sounds like vinyl. There is space, feeling, emotions and suspense. I can take a vinyl record of great quality and place it on hi quality tape and do a blind test with my friends. They simply can not tell the difference on a blind test. They can tell, if a CD or a Hires is added, that is sounds flat. No space behind it. Less emotional. Blind test means that they don't know what the source is. They see 3 or 4 machines running but can not see the front of the amplifier.
On a simple scale: Vinyl and Reel tape are the best.
All these are my tests and trials. Not internet researches nor other's opinion. I may look strange to many of the readers, but that's what I found and life is beautiful again when I find a sealed Vinyl for only $4.

Constantin, Victoria BC
May 23, 2014 12:20pm

In todays world of pro recording studios ,the music is recorded on a marrige of digital and anolog gear,then mixed down to a digital format. ..one of the truly great aspects of recording on 2" tape which is still done,is the ability to saturate the tape with loud transient peaks, such as snare drum hits..the tape records these loud peaks as usefull vintage sound.though unfortunately if these loud transient peaks are recorded in digital anything over a certain decibal level, is useless audio noise, over compression or limiting the peaks during the recording process is part of digital recording process once again limiting the dynamic range if the original performance .though the up side of digital recording world, is ease of editing,production creative flexibility.and the minimal cost of equipment that give home studios the abilty to record good to excellent sounding recording on a small budget assuming the talent is there musically and with knowledge of proper recording techniques.

dave festa, florida
May 23, 2014 1:30pm

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