Records player sound

September 28, 2016
  • NO, Digital formats including CD can deliver significantly better sound quality than any "record player"
  • BUT the best sound for a given recording is sometimes available only on a record.
Be warned: This is a topic that will bring out the worst in many audiophiles and has been known to cause otherwise-reasonable men to come to blows.

Here's the engineering perspective in a nutshell:

  • Human range of hearing extends from 20Hz - 20, 000Hz (note 1);
  • The sampling rate for CDs is sufficient to fully capture sound in this range;
  • Digital samples allow for perfect recovery of the original analog signal when properly decoded (via the ) (note 2);
  • The Dynamic Range (difference between loud and soft sounds) capabilities of CD audio are greater than that of LP records.

Therefore CDs can perfectly capture and recover sound beyond the capabilities of records. (Note 3).

In other words, if an LP record and a CD are created from the same master source with no differences in settings, and each are played back on properly-designed equipment, the CD will deliver at least as accurate of a representation of the original as the LP (and will be immune to transmitted mechanical noise, surface noise and wear that can impact the sound of an LP).

Now, here's where things get tricky. The above paragraph is a big "if", because the mastering processes - those steps that are taken to move the master recording to the final product - for LPs and CDs are inherently different, and these processes can result in significantly different-sounding recordings.

I mentioned above that CDs can handle greater dynamic range; this is true but greater is not always better in this case. Early CD mastering engineers were determined to "take advantage" of all that range. So we got recordings whose quiet parts could only be heard when listening carefully with the volume turned up in a very quiet room while the loud parts - at over 90 decibels above the audible baseline - would damage your hearing and your relationships. Such recordings are OK for audiophile demos but are largely useless in "normal" listening environments such as cars or personal devices. (Note 4).

As time went on digital mastering trends moved towards less and less dynamic range and higher and higher average levels of signals (a phenomenon known as the ). This, too, results in bad recordings, since some amount of dynamic range is necessary to preserve the impact and realism of music.

Interestingly, the dynamic range capability of an analog LP record (between 50-65dB depending on various factors chosen by the mastering engineer) seems to hit a sweet spot of having enough dynamics to be pleasing but not being so dynamic as to require constant volume adjustments to listen to comfortably. Moreover, LP mastering trends have been much less volatile and more consistent over the years. (Note 5).

As a result many CDs out there are actually worse recordings (for one reason or another) than their LP counterparts. But note that this is not a function of the technology but the way it has been used (and abused).

But there's another factor at work here. Digital music, in the form of CDs or MP3s, is optimized for mobile use. Most of us listen to digital music on the go - through cheap earbuds at the gym or on a car stereo on a noisy road - while traffic or other distractions compete for our attention. Playing a record, on the other hand, requires much more commitment and focus. You are, by definition, in one place (where the record player is). You are actively selecting and initiating the experience rather than "letting it shuffle". You are likely using the best equipment you own or have access to to do this listening and are less likely to be distracted. You have a big sleeve with cool artwork in your hands. Is it any wonder this has gained a reputation as a superior experience?

In the end, though, you could take that same LP, use it to master a CD, pops, clicks, and all, play it on a decent CD player through the same stereo, sit down and listen and get the same audible experience. (Note 6). And sitting down with a really well-recorded and mastered CD and listening attentively will reveal details and subtleties that might easily be missed on a worn, dirty, or scratched LP.

But I don't begrudge anyone their preferences; it's the music that's the thing and if vinyl brings you closer to it, more power to you.

Note 1: LPs can contain signals of higher frequency than 20HKz; some recordings contain content as high as 35KHz. Most adult humans cannot hear nearly as high as 20KHz, however some audiophiles subscribe to theories that these "supersonics" can be sensed in other ways and/or can subtly interact with audible sounds to change the nature of the experience. None of these theories have been actually proven in double-blind studies.

Note 2: This is why you can immediately dismiss anyone who blithely says "analog is better" on the basis that digital music somehow has "gaps" or less information than an analog signal - the output of a properly-designed digital music player is an analog signal, and that signal is a complete and accurate version of the original waveform (within the frequency limits dictated by Nyquist). It's math. Note also that nearly every new recording that makes it to vinyl today (that is, the hipster-preferred LP version of the new Decemberists set) has been through many digital recording and processing steps prior to making it to those vinyl grooves.

Note 3: I am limiting my discussion to CDs here rather than trying to cover both the lower-end of digital audio (ie. low-bandwidth MP3s) and the higher end (high-resolution formats such as SACD) which have had low adoption rates. Poor MP3s will indeed have artifacts and sound worse than records; higher end formats are mostly gilding the lily but are at least as good as the CD technology I'm focusing on. High-bandwidth MP3s (320 kB/s and better) and lossless digital formats have been shown to be indistinguishable from CD originals in double-blind studies, and therefore the analysis here applies to those cases as well.

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