man in a music store surrounded by viny records and CDs

Vinyl vs. CDs: What sounds better?

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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.

Dynamic range

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.

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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.

screenshot of a microscopic view of vinyl record groovesBecause 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.

Analog warmth

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.

Vinyl Guide bannerNow, 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.

Longevity

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.

Your music isn't ready until it's been mastered

Tony van Veen in the Disc Makers lobby

About Tony van Veen

Tony van Veen is the CEO of DIY Media Group, the parent company of Disc Makers and BookBaby. As a college student, he played in indie bands, created his own LPs, cassettes, and t-shirts, and sold them at shows. Today, he collects CDs, vinyl LPs, and concert t-shirts to support the artists he loves.

14 thoughts on “Vinyl vs. CDs: What sounds better?

  1. Another point is the overall distortion of the vinyl reproduction system; it’s about 250 times that of the CD system. In my opinion this is where the “warmth” of vinyl comes from, the higher distortion. Yes, which system is used comes down to personal preference however I think CDs or high resolution audio files are a more accurate representation of the way the artist intended the recording to sound. Does someone want to listen to the music the way the artist intended, or listen to the content plus artifacts of the reproduction system? Also, as alluded to above, for vinyl the the RIAA frequency response curve must be applied to all recordings otherwise vinyl is simply not practical, the disc would need to be almost a metre wide to accommodate bass and the treble would be inaudible (the RIAA curve cuts bass and boosts treble). As far as the CD players go, the major difference between cheap and expensive CD players is the accuracy of the motor speed and accuracy of the clocking used to recover the digital information. Cheaper machines have poorer quality in these area which results in many more errors in the recovered data and poorer overall sound quality. I used vinyl for about 15 years until CDs came along, I understand the tactile bit with vinyl (I learned a lot from reading vinyl album covers) but for me the dynamic range, detail and sound stage available via the digital format is far superior. Note I do not include the MP3 file format in this comparison, being a lossy format it is far worse than vinyl and now storage is cheap and file size is not of much concern in my opinion MP3 has had its day and should be dropped as an audio file format.

  2. Audio CD’s simply didn’t sample enough, unless your talking about telephone quality way back with Nyquist.
    96khz/192kx/24bit is the way it should’ve been, but the red book Audio CD manufactures only cared about quick corporate quantity and NOT audio quality. !

  3. I have a very good friend who is devoted to vinyl, such that we avoid the subject. For me, I couldn’t wait for CD to arrive in the early ’80s and happily mothballed my Garrard 401, SME arm and Shure V15. Most of the points of difference have been made here, but I’d place more emphasis on the D to A converter. The DAC in both my Quad CD player and my Quad Platinum DMP are not just run of the mill, they are selected on test and so marked. The point I’m trying to make is that many people make the comparison based on a top-of-the-range Tone arm and cartridge, and a CD player of doubtful heritage.

    We’ve had all this before you know. Those old enough will remember the same bad comparisons between the new fangled tinny “Transistor Sound” against the lovely old warm sounding valves (tubes to you US guys). Mostly based on comparing a 3″ speaker in a little ‘transistor” radio with a nice big one in a valve set. Well, the valves were certainly hot!

    Slightly more esoteric back then were badly made comparisons between early germanium transistors; lovely and soft and smooth (germanium devices were very leaky); against harsher edgy silicon devices.

    I once read that if you analysed the dynamics of a vinly sound system you’d conclude that it would never work. Well, it does and I must admit that the return to vinyl has invigorated those lovely old recod shops that still survive.

  4. A very interesting and enjoyable read that makes plenty of valid points, especially on the pros and advantages of CD and digital playback.

    I think one of the reasons people (myself included) enjoy vinyl is due to the compressed sound, which makes the music sound more punchy; plus the mastering process cuts a lot of the mid range, which makes the music sound smooth and less harsh. And I think there is something about the psychoacoustics of analogue playback that makes records sound more ‘realistic’ (to these ears).

    Of course the downside of vinyl is there are so many things that can make playback sound poor, like a poorly pressed record or a worn stylus or a record that’s been played many times or needs cleaning.

    Sometimes I just simply want to play + hear a pristine recording without having to worry about these issues, and for the convenience factor, CD or digital wins, no contest.

  5. When I first accumulated records (late 60s early 70s) the available media were reel-to-reel tape, cassette tape, and, of course, vinyl. CDs didn’t exist, and the best recordings you could purchase were necessarily vinyl. And by this point in history, audio engineers with the recording companies had, since the 50s, worked diligently to get the highest fidelity onto a vinyl disk. I studied horn, desiring a symphony job, and the ONLY practical limitation in hearing accurate reproduction sourced in vinyl from Angel, DG, RCA, etc., etc., etc. was the playback equipment. I still today have the Sherwood speakers I used back then (hardly the best, but still very good), and, in mothballs, a Dual 1017. You could hear the Chicago Symphony under Solti play Mahler, and it was very close to being in the hall (recording was sometimes done in Wheaton College’s Edman Chapel or Medinah Temple instead of the acoustically superior Orchestra Hall, I think for various engineering reasons).

    Not many years hence came CDs. I had the great privilege of studying for a number of years with Frank Brouk of the Chicago Symphony, a magnificent performer, a brilliant teacher, and a very kind gentleman. When CDs entered the market, I asked him his take on them vis-a-vis vinyl. His response was, essentially, no difference – meaning, of course, no difference to his highly trained ears. When playing head to head the vinyl and CDs of some of these great performances taken from the same masters (CSO Mahler 5, 3rd movement was notable for a peculiar echo defect at the very beginning), I would agree that the ear could find nothing significant to favor one technology over the other. Of course, all the technical statements here posted are quite true, and, particularly, CDs just don’t experience wear the same way as vinyl. But for disks in good condition and with the appropriate equipment, the difference in sound is approximately zero, save the noise floor when you can hear it; good systems minimize it well.

    Still, manufacturers can impose differences in equipment favoring preferences of the mass market. Those of us of a classical bent simply want highly accurate reproduction. Many others want bass that no acoustic instrument can produce, sometimes even enough to hard-boil eggs (a trick some rock concert-goers used to try in the early 70s by setting raw eggs on the edge of the stage in front of those horsepower speakers). The characteristics of signal output from many CD players are hardly identical to those of my old Dual, and while most amplifiers can handle either input, still the output may be different. My ears tell me that such differences are generally within the scope of the different results as obtain in different halls, at least for the recordings I care about. And most amps can be adjusted to compensate “enough”.

    1. True. However, in my admittedly limited experience (limited in the sense that I treat my playback surfaces with love) a scratch on a CD tends to be more forgiving than one on a vinyl record. Your mileage may vary…

  6. This is the second article on this I’ve run across in the last couple days, and all the same valid points have been made. But I’m dumbfounded why there is not a single mention of ‘wow and flutter’. In my opinion, this is the most major factor of all differing vinyl from CD (this factor actually encompasses all anlalog media vs all digital media)! For those that don’t know, wow and flutter are unnatural variations to pitch. This anomaly tends to occur with vinyl playback due to the mechanical nature of the motors rotating the record, and also will occur with records that are slightly warped. Wow and flutter can be quite noticeable with cheap or poorly maintained turntables. Even with the most expensive audiophile turntables, there is still a degree of wow and flutter. By sharp contrast, digital media has absolute zero wow and flutter, so the pitch throughout a recording is completely the same as the input and therefore completely natural. Am I the only one able to perceive this?

    1. Great point! The reason I didn’t mention it was because I’m not an audiophile… I just know enough to be dangerous. But, for what it’s worth, I also feel that most consumers can’t actually notice wow & flutter.

  7. “…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.”

    This is mathematically inaccurate. Unless you have the high-frequency hearing range of a dog, there is no audible sound that a CD cannot reproduce exactly. I’m no expert on the Nyquist theorem, but essentially it boils down to the fact that the sampling rate determines the highest frequency that can be exactly reproduced – the sampling frequency has to be at least twice the frequency of the highest frequency that is to be reproduced. That is why CDs are sampled at 44,100 Hz – that allows a sound up to 22,050 Hz to be reproduced. Not only can most people not hear a frequency higher than 20,000 Hz, consumer speakers and headphones cannot reproduce frequencies higher than about that.

    The idea that a smooth curve cannot be reproduced based on digital dots is understandable, but it is not factual.

      1. Not a technical response. My 2 cents.
        Michael’s answer is great piece of science that does it for me. However to your point Tony, isn’t the sound of music a mind thing? You don’t measure frequencies, feel them. And as music lover that I won’t get to hear the riff of Metallica’s Sad but true on a 1991 LP cut from the original master tape irks me. Grew up and till high school it was always LP and then tapes, audio CD, mp3, flac et.al., Spotify. Vinyls would do it for me but for the fact that current Vinyls are probably cut out form digital source, may not be from the master tape. Especially true if you are looking for your music from albums from 70s, 80s, and even 90s.

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