Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
I’d like to discuss a topic that is sure to spark a lot of passionate debate: I want to talk about sound quality. Specifically, I want to try to answer the question, Does your music sound better on vinyl vs. CD?
Now, I want to start by stating that the preference for the sound of any one format over another is completely personal. If you love the sound of vinyl better than the sound of a CD — or vice versa — who am I to argue with what you like?
Because of this highly personal nature of each of our preferences, I’m going to try as much as possible to stick to facts rather than opinions. And let me start with this caveat: I am NOT an audio engineer… or even an audio expert. But I do know enough to be dangerous about analog and digital audio technology.
In the debate of vinyl vs. CD, the first topic to address is dynamic range. Very simply put, dynamic range refers to the difference in volume between the quietest part of the audio and the loudest part of the audio on the recording.
The CD, which is a digital medium, has a wide dynamic range — as much as 96 dB — which is higher than the dynamic range of a vinyl record. This is partly driven by the fact that a vinyl record has a so-called “noise floor.” Basically, when the volume level of the recording gets low enough, it can get lost in the surface noise that is inherent in every vinyl record. This noise floor limits how low the levels of a quiet piece can be.
To clarify, the surface noise I’m referring to is basically the sound you can hear when your stylus is playing in the lead-in or lead-out groove of the record. Unlike a CD, a vinyl record is not completely silent before, between, and after the songs play.
That noise floor can actually get higher as a record ages and wears out, and the tics and pops that come with an older record, while they can be charming, will appear to narrow the dynamic range of a record even more.
So, while a well-pressed record can have an impressive dynamic range, it empirically does not compare to the dynamic range of a CD.
Compression and the CD medium
Now, before you wag your finger at me and tell me “CD masters are so loud because of compression and limiting which limits their functional dynamic range,” let me say, yes, you are 100 percent correct. But that is done by choice.
Today’s record labels (and mastering studios) have trained a generation of music fans to prefer music that is loud from start to finish. However, the achievable dynamic range of a CD — think of recordings of classical music that have really quiet and really loud parts — is actually quite wide.
The volume of the recording
Since I mentioned compression and loudness, let’s talk about volume. Here, again, the CD is technically superior. As a digital format, there is no downside to having a CD pressed with the program as loud as the medium can handle for the full 74-plus minutes of music you can fit on a CD.
With a vinyl record, a louder record means your grooves have to be deeper, and they need to be farther apart. That means a vinyl record recorded at maximum volume can’t be longer than 18 or 19 minutes per side. If you have 20-plus minutes on a side, the mastering engineer is going to have to start making adjustments in how they cut the lacquers, because a longer program on a fixed 12” diameter disc means the record needs to accommodate a longer groove.
That means you need less space between the grooves to fit the program, which means the grooves need to be shallower, which means lower volume. Therefore, for most vinyl album mastering, the mastering engineer will lower the overall levels to accommodate. Which, apropos to my first point about dynamic range, lowers your dynamic range for the record.
So in the war of the formats, the CD can more consistently provide higher volume than the vinyl format.
What about the bass?
Some of today’s music — hip hop and rap, for example — include some super low bass sounds. You know, the kind that make your teeth rattle when a car is pumping music at outrageous volume.
Well, vinyl cannot come close to replicating some of the deep bass sounds you can hear in digital recordings. First, the priority of any mastering engineer is to make sure a vinyl record will play without skipping. More bass requires deeper grooves — grooves that will literally jiggle the stylus more. A record with a ton of bass means more of a risk that the grooves touch each other, which will lead to your stylus skipping.
Because a record needs to play on a variety of turntables — not all of them to audiophile standards — vinyl mastering generally involves making some compromises in how the record sounds, which frequently includes some compression, limiting, and EQ adjustments that might reduce lower frequencies.
As you can see in the image, our mastering engineers look at the grooves of every record they cut through a microscope to make sure that they don’t touch or partially overlap – known as a crosscut, which will cause a record to skip — so that we can ensure the playability of every record we ship.
OK, so a CD has louder overall volume, softer quieter parts, and more bass capacity than vinyl. So, what about this “analog warmth” we keep hearing about?
The whole concept of analog warmth comes from the fact that vinyl is an analog medium and that analog soundwaves are smooth, as opposed to the ones and zeroes in digital music which can’t fully replicate the smoothness of an analog soundwave. And, according to some folks, you can actually hear the difference in a way that makes a vinyl record sound “warmer” than a CD.
Is analog “warmth” real? Probably, though I have to admit that I personally have never been able to hear it. But like I said, I’m by no means one of those “golden ears” who can hear such nuance.
Digital sampling rates
So let’s look at the facts. For starters, the digital sampling rate of a CD of 44.1 kHz means that there are 44,100 samples per second of any audio. And that, my friend, is plenty enough to make a natural sounding audio wave. Perhaps more importantly, most LPs currently released are recorded digitally. If you believe in the analog warmth argument, that only works if your whole process is analog, starting with multi tracking on analog tape.
Now, I don’t remember when we last got an open reel master for an album (we can still accept them, by the way). Fact is, pretty much every studio today is digital. So, if you want your digital recording to sound as analog as possible for pressing on vinyl, you need to start with the highest possible sample rate. A 24 bit, 96 kHz sampling rate is more than twice the standard for CDs, and will yield the best results. We will certainly also cut lacquers from a 16 bit 44.1 kHZ master, and they sound great.
And one last note: We occasionally get clients sending us MP3 masters, and that’s where we draw the line. We will ask those clients to send a higher resolution recording, because it makes no sense to cut a CD or record from a compressed MP3 file.
Vinyl and CD players
While technically not a matter of the format, the system someone uses to listen to your recorded music will impact the sound. What you’ll find is that there is a much wider difference in playback quality based on the player when we’re talking vinyl vs. CD.
A well-pressed record played on an entry-level Crosley turntable will not sound as good as one played on an audiophile turntable. There are so many factors at play: the quality of the stylus cartridge, tone arm, the motor that drives the RPMs of the turntable, the electronics… Many people today play their music on lower priced turntables and that does not help your records sound their best. There is a large difference in quality between low-end and high-end turntables.
With CD players, there is much less of a quality difference. While there are certainly difference in quality of the DA (digital to analog) converters between low-end and high-end CD players, the audible differences between a low-end and a high-end CD player are much less than between a low-end and a high-end turntable.
The last topic I want to discuss is wear. Since there is physical contact between a stylus and a record’s groove, a record gradually wears out the more you play it, which impacts the sound of the record over time. Add in some dust particles attracted to the static and you have some pops and ticks. You may love them because you love vinyl, but in a pristine listening environment, they’re not supposed to be there.
A CD, if handled properly, does not experience wear and tear like a vinyl record and will sound as good the thousandth time you play it as it did the first time.
So, if we look purely at the technical aspects, CDs sound better than records, and if you were to go to recording and mastering forums, you would find that most mastering and recording engineers will confirm this.
That doesn’t mean that a record can’t sound better to you. The sound we prefer is extremely personal. A well-recorded, well-mastered record, if properly cared for and played on good equipment, sounds amazing! Add in the aesthetics of a vinyl LP — the ritual of handling the record, dropping the stylus, and admiring that 12” x 12” album art — and it is clear why records are the physical medium of choice for so many music fans.