What's your take: vinyl vs CD

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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    My credentials...

    TITLE: Analog Archivist, Music Historian, and general Music Snob.  Founder of Innerspace Labs.

    MY LIBRARY: ~8,000 albums, 750 CDs, 2,000 LPs (95% original pressings), and the rest are 320CBR or FLAC EAC + logs.  Complete discographic archive of all artists in the Library.

    THE LISTENING ROOM: Denon DP-60L Rosewood Turntable
    McIntosh C39 Pre-Amp
    Integra ADM2.1 Power Amp
    Sonance SonAmp
    NAD L40 component integrated amplifier/CD player
    Harmon Kardon 1950s Solo Tuner (mono)
    Focal 814v floorspeakers
    Cambridge Audio DACMagic Digital to Analog Converter
    Sennheiser HD380 Pro Studio Monitors
    XLO Ultra speaker cable
    Tributaries Silver series RCAs
    AudioQuest Python XLR interconnects

    My next investment will be acoustic panels for the room.

    1) Original Mono Mastered Pressing wherever possible
    2) Original Stereo Pressing
    3) A-A-A modern pressings by reputable engineers and labels
    4) FLAC + EAC log

    It all comes down to the mastering process.  50s and 60s jazz LPs are best experienced from the original mono pressings.  Weeks of labor went into perfecting these recordings, and at the time Stereo was a sloppy afterthought.

    By the time CDs peaked, there was a shift in audio engineering and many of the best-produced recordings were mastered FOR CDs.  There were exceptions, however.  The Ninja Tune future jazz label continued their dedication to producing great-sounding LPs all through the 90s slump when vinyl sales were at their lowest.

    There are exceptional recordings of Russian Basso Profondo vocal music on compact disc, and I've yet to hear a vinyl recording match its quality.

    Then came the Loudness War, where nearly everything was mastered like shit.  German minimal ambient music and the darkjazz genre are two glorious exceptions to the contemporary dark ages of mastering.  William Basinski's Disintegration Loops and the Kilimanjaro Darkjazz Ensemble's From the Stairwell are among the quietest and most delicate LPs ever recorded; a sure sign that we will survive the Loudness War.

    I've written several papers on the vinyl vs digital debate, but I'll highlight a few of my favorite statements.

    The first is a short but spot-on article titled, Down With Fascist iPods.  It was written by Adam Mansbach, author of Go The Fuck To Sleep and was published June 13th, 2012 on Salon.com. 
    And I'll close with a quote from the Skeptoid Podcast about the romance of vinyl.  This is from Episode 303, Mar 27, 2012.

    "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."

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    The other thing I miss with direct-to-digital is the subtle preview you get when the master analog tapes would sometimes sit around a bit to long and start to bleed to the adjacent revolution a bit and of course the subtle wow and flutter that was sometimes evident.

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      Gregg R Thomas

      Analog at very high fidelity is more dynamic then Digital.

      Analog is a curve, Digital is a series of points.

      The human ear is limited, not everyone can detach the nuance of Analog over Digital.

      Vinyl degrades with each playing, Digital is the same every time it's played.

      Analog has a richness Digital can't match.

      To be honest neither can compare with a quality orchestra in a concert hall.