The debate, surprisingly, goes on. 

Proponents of vinyl insist vinyl sounds better. And there are a lot of proponents of vinyl out there, supporting numerous small shops specializing in vinyl records.

At the same time, in blind tests, vinyl doesn't have a good record against digital recordings. Not that one is better or worse than the other, but that in double-blind tests, vinyl believers can't even seem to tell which is which. If they were able reliably to identify "this one is analog" or "this one is digital." One would think that if vinyl sounds better, there'd be no problem distinguishing the one from the other. 

If it's a myth that vinyl sounds better than digital, perhaps can we trace it back to where it began. When CD's arrived on the scene, most of the first recordings offered were analog to digital rerecordings. A preexisting analog master was digitized onto the CD format. Often (indeed, almost always), the rerecordings were done in a rush by engineers who were new to digital audio and, thus, were on a learning curve.

A few pioneering companies such as Telarc started producing original digital recordings which were almost invariably given 5-star reviews by the critics, but for many years there were almost entirely a classical and a bit later a jazz label, so many interested rock, pop, hip-hop, etc. were almost totally unaware of them.

It took a considerable time for most recordings to be all-digital. 

As I understand it, the explanation given by proponents of analog/vinyl goes like "In digital recording, music is sampled. In other words, you're not hearing it all. It's like a movie with so many frames per second. If you'll notice, at times you realize that the movie is basically a string of stills, especially when rapid motion is involved. Then you realize you're seeing the action in a series of jerks. Digital audio is analogous to that." 

It seems the experts on perception aren't buying. They point out that our senses aren't truly analog. We perceive through specialized nerve endings, and all a nerve ending can do is either fire or wait to fire. A visual or auditory nerve does not provide us with a continuous perception of any sort. Our brain, in effect, becomes a kind of digital to analog converter. 

A seldom-recognized fact is that, aside from a very few direct-to-vinyl recordings which are then processed in analog form all the way to the final pressing, most so-called analog recordings are digitized at some point along the way and then converted back to analog before pressing the vinyl.

This debate will probably never die as long as people can convince themselves that vinyl sounds better, even if the belief seems to be something akin to the placebo effect whereby if you think it should sound better you will think it sounds better.

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The same argument about Tube vs Digital amps was a big issue among guitarist I knew for years.  Personally I think it's just opinion. 

Even if someone can reliably distinguish between analog and digital recordings under laboratory conditions—which seems to fly in the face of the double-blind tests I have read about—it's still just a matter of personal taste and they're entitled to their opinion I suppose. I put it up there with things like "French press coffee tastes best" or "Justin Timberlake is better looking than Matt Damon."

Also, isn't it just possible that it all depends upon the selected recordings? One problem, of course, is that a true 100% analog recording is just that. It's analog. There is no digital version to compare it with, unless for some reason a digital recording was made in parallel, which I don't think has ever happened. 

I suspect a lot of the appreciation of vinyl has less to do with sound quality and more to do with the ritual of pulling the record out of the sleeve, blowing or wiping any dust or dirt off, laying the needle down, and then waiting for the music to start so one can listen and read the liner notes (even a digital music lover has to grant that the liner notes that come with CD's generally suck). I think it's kind of like how smokers not only miss smoking, but miss the rituals involved in lighting up.

I was weaned on vinyl. I had a few hundred vinyl albums and singles. However once CD’s arrive in the 1980’s I stopped buying them.  I agree that digital sound is much better. I tried listening to some old blues on vinyl recently and decided that the “scratch” did not add to the enjoyment of it. Now most of my collection is in MP3 format.

I do however think that getting a new album does not have the same sense of occasion to it without all the cover artwork and the extras that often came in the sleeve. That could just be nostalgia on my part though.

Jimi Hendrix was once asked how it felt to be the world’s best guitarist. He answered “You better ask that of Rory Gallagher”.

Regarding Rory: I'm guessing you're Irish.

Actually, I'd go with Jeff Beck or, perhaps, Adrian Belew. Both know how to do things with a guitar that Jimi and Rory could only dream about. And the great thing about both of them is that neither one is a "look at what I can do" show-off. 

Here is Jeff Beck in a relatively slow piece demonstrating the level of virtuosity he has attained:

BTW, the tiny girl bass player is Tal Wilkenfeld.

Now that I don't even buy CD's anymore (I can get all the music I want off the Internet), I simply depend on the Internet to give me something that passes for liner notes.

Adrian Belew:

I don't know. Plainsong gives me a headache.

The big difference between digital and vinyl is the ultimate goal when mastering. I feel more skill is required to make an LP, plus they do use different compression techniques. As far a playback, well if you take an LP and digitize it correctly, no difference to me.

Back in the days of mono, the groove cut on the disc was a simple spiral, and it was shifted back and forth in the plane of the record with the signal (this is called lateral cutting). The engineer could adjust the groove pitch (that is, the spacing between each successive rotation) so that for loud passages the grooves were widely spaced and for soft passages they were tightly packed. This maximized the amount of time on a side, while still allowing a lot of dynamic range on peaks.

When stereo came along, there were a number of odd schemes used first off, but the industry quickly settled on what was called the 45-45 system (see Figure 1). With this method, the lateral movement of the groove carries the mono signal (that is, the L+R sum of the right and left channels), while the depth of the groove is varied to reflect the differences between the channels (that is, the L-R signal). This meant that the new stereo records could be played on older mono equipment accurately.


I tend to agree this is a "religious" issue to a large extent; i.e., one where people argue over it a lot and the objective answer is probably either "neither" or "both"  With one caveat:   An overcompressed (or rather, undersampled) MP3 will indeed sound like shit.  Also a lot depends on the quality of the D->A conversion.

I'd be interested to see empirical double blind studies to try to determine if people can hear a difference between 44KHz (CD) sampling and lower and higher standards.

Almost everything I own is on CDs; I came into possession of a budget suitable for getting music (mid-late 80s, no such thing as pirate downloads) about the time that CDs came out, and I could see this was the future; I was buying CDs before I owned a player.  A couple of years ago I ripped them to FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Compression)  which basically takes a full CD and turns it into about 350 MB of stuff (depending).  It's possible to precisely re-create the CD tracks from FLAC files, absolutely nothing is lost.  I then converted the FLAC files to MP3 files of differing sampling rates so I can readily decide what to stuff into MP3 players depending on circumstances.  If I expect to be listening in my very aged car on the crap stereo in it, I don't worry too much about having 320K sampling!

Of course now that eveyrthing I have is bits in a computer, I can keep up with whatever new form of media comes out.  I've been on jobs where the only thing *allowed* in the building for security reasons was CDs played in a CD player, so I would stuff a bunch of MP3s onto a disc and find a portable player that would handle that; typically the capacity of a disk goes up by a factor of ten under those circumstances (unless you undersample).  Beat the hell out of carrying hundreds of CDs around.

When digital audio started being available to consumers via CD, a lot of content was rushed to CD by engineers who had just switched from analog to digital and hadn't yet developed the techniques and instincts needed to produce the best possible result. Every day "Please Please Me" wasn't on CD in a record store (remember those?) was dollars out the window.

However, I challenge anyone who  thinks digital is inherently inferior to go out and buy a highly-rated CD by Telarc and give it a good listen. Compare one of their recordings to a top quality recording of  the same piece on vinyl. Telarc pioneered engineering digital audio and to this day (a little googling tells me) they are still the most highly regarded company when it comes to connoisseur digital; recording. Sadly, they have been sold, so we'll have to  wait and see if the sale lowers their quality standards.

I have tons of vinyl, which I haven't used in a few years due to a component in my turntable that needs to be replaced. Not always easy to find stuff like that living as I do at the bottom of Africa. But what I miss most about my vinyl is not so much the sound, but the process of listening: taking the record out, cleaning it, sitting looking at the gorgeous artwork that the sleeves contained. This, I think, was the biggest loss: the reduction in size of the packaging. And I do find the sound a bit warmer and fuller, but it's only really noticeable when listened to via a valve amp and good speakers, which I don't have.

One criticism often levied against CD's is that the sound is "too crisp," "trebley," or "brittle sounding." However, I wonder if this isn't the way the music sounds in live performance, more accurately captured digitally.

What may seem as irritating treble in CD's is likely nothing more than more accurate capturing of the original auditory image. "The dynamic range of vinyl, when evaluated as the ratio of a peak sinusoidal amplitude to the peak noise density at that sine wave frequency, is somewhere around 80 dB. Under theoretically ideal conditions, this could perhaps improve to 120 dB. The dynamic range of CDs, when evaluated on a frequency-dependent basis and performed with proper dithering and oversampling, is somewhere around 150 dB. Under no legitimate circumstances will the dynamic range of vinyl ever exceed the dynamic range of CD, under any frequency, given the wide performance gap and the physical limitations of vinyl playback." (source)

In other words, that famous "warmth" of vinyl is likely its limited dynamic range. You may like missing all those crisp highs, which may make the music feel warmer, but what you are not getting is more accurate reproduction.

Vinyl is a physical substance with physical limitations. Just as you can create a digital statue that no physical medium could capture without falling apart, you can only push vinyl so far before the fact that it's just vinyl, subject to the physical laws of the universe, takes over and it fails. Digital suffers far fewer limits on its ability to capture sound.

I go back to the analogy with smokers, who remain addicted to the rituals of smoking long after the longing to puff a fag is gone. 

I'm a photographer and there is a certain type of photographer I call "the equipment collector." These are the guys with $20K in equipment whose photos look like shit. A true photographer will get an exceptional result from a $69 point-and-shoot.

As a pro photographer, I'm pretty cold-blooded and practical when it comes to equipment. As long as I have gear that does the job and won't fall apart immediately, I'll try to spend as little as I possibly can because the money I save shows up on the bottom line. I study reviews for inexpensive gear that does the same job as the more expensive stuff...and sometimes does it better. For example, I have $75 Yongnuo speedlights for my Nikon D900 rather than an equivalent Nikon model that costs maybe 4x as much, or more. I forgo TTL speedlights because I know how to use my camera and flashes manually, which saves a lot of money right there.

I even go the DIY route sometimes to save money. A flat panel of white wallboard costing a couple bucks (or salvaged from a construction lot) might do as well as a reflector instead of something from Adorama costing $50, $100, or $300.

A lot of hobbyist photographers buy top drawer stuff, and because they've spent all that money they convince themselves that they are taking better photos. And sometimes perhaps they are, but the differences are really more measurable than perceivable. The usual photo customer does not go around with highly sensitive lab gear to make sure the photo is absolutely 100% optimal. If it looks good and does the job for them, they are satisfied and so am I. Job well done.

I'm sure there are equipment collectors among audiophiles as well who—because they've invested so much time and, more importantly, money into researching and buying their playback gear—are convinced that whatever comes out of those speakers must sound better than the sound coming out of gear costing less. And perhaps it does in a measurable sense, but not in a perceivable sense. However, the mind can trick one into thinking one hears a qualitative difference this isn't there or is hardly there at all.

A "pro" anything has to be practical, or else he's a fool. Unless, of course, he's an academic spending someone else's money.


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