Vinyl records are in fashion with sales up higher than ever before and brand new vinyl now being stocked in supermarkets as well as record shops everywhere (remember them?)
At the same time, the humble compact disc (CD) is dying a death with more and more young folk flocking to digital media and streaming services as a means of getting their music fix.
So how has it happened? How has the format supposedly introduced to replace it’s predecessor somehow been overtaken by the very format it was supposed to be replacing?
One common argument put forward is that vinyl simply sounds better than CD – but is that actually true or are we dealing with style over substance? Is the act of putting on the vinyl, complete with striking sleeve cover art, part of the appeal?
That might well be the case, because when you look at the actual facts behind the differences in sound quality between the two formats, there’s one clear winner – and it’s not vinyl.
The presence of dust particles in the grooves found on the average LP generate the crackles you hear on most recordings and the reality is, however much you clean a vinyl, those noises will remain. CDs have none of those issues as they use light beams.
Of course scratching can occur with CDs, but if you keep them in pristine condition they offer superior sound at a basic level. It’s also worth remembering that when the needle moves over the surface of a vinyl it generates an underlying hiss not present in CDs.
Even the most sophisticated of turntables will generate a low-frequency rumble which is transmitted by from the stylus to the amplifier and then on to the speakers.
While rumble filters can reduce the low-frequency energy that can distort parts of the audio spectrum when playing vinyl, they can also often remove lower-frequency sounds altogether, reducing the power of low octave piano sounds and bass drums.
There’s a significant difference between the loudest and softest sounds a vinyl or CD can play. For LPs, this is set at around 70 decibels (dB). For CDs, it’s around 90 dB. That essentially means CDs boast 10 times the dynamic range of LPs.
Because vinyl depends on a mechanically driven system, minute changes in speed and playback pitch are inevitable.
Even if it’s only slightly warped or has a hole that is not perfectly centred, slow variations can occur while slight imperfections in the turntable’s belts or wheels can cause rapid pitch changes or flutters. CDs are immune to all of this.
The separation between the left and right channels used in recording is set at over 90 dB on a standard CD, compared with just 30 on vinyl LPs. It means engineers have a narrow range when mixing and mastering audio which constricts the overall sound.
Sound engineers are also forced to ensure bass frequencies are always in the centre when recording to LP, as a loud bass signal in one channel could push the need out of the groove otherwise.
Chopped Up Sounds
Some vinyl lovers would have you believe digital audio chops up audio signal into smaller numbers as it cannot carry all the information analog signal does.
That’s not strictly true. Before the signal even reaches our ears its become a continuous analogue wave. It does filter out sounds above 20 kHz but that’s the highest frequency most human ears can hear and no amplifier, speaker or phono cartridge on earth can replicate those. So nothing really changes.
Because friction causes heat, vinyl can easily deform, so every time you play a record the highest frequencies can often end up shaved off and that only gets worse the more you play it. There’s also the issue of dust, which can generate holes in the vinyl’s surface. Once again, none of these issues are present in CDs.
CDs don’t suffer the same wear and tear as vinyl. The sound never becomes distorted and, if kept in the right condition, CDs are capable of playing a better quality of sound a near-infinite amount of time.
Vinyl also distorts more every time you play it and degrades regardless of how much you take care of it. LPs offer less quality when it comes to sound with a reduced range and the presence of defect noises on the record.