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Vinyl vs Digital

The battle between vinyl record enthusiasts and digital recordings rages eternal. Science provides an incontrovertible answer.

Proponents of digital audio say it’s a more accurate reproduction with better frequency range; while vinyl fans say the sound is simply warmer, richer, and better.

Here's the reason why the entire debate should be moot: whether the music is stored on vinyl or a CD is just not that important a part of the overall system. It's like deciding which of two different cars is best by comparing their spark plug wires. There are many variables in the process of playing recorded music that affect the sound, from the microphones, to the mixing, the mastering, the playback hardware, the amplifier, and (far and away most important) the quality of the speakers and characteristics of the listening room. Whether the recording was vinyl or CD is simply not one of these important variables. Both methods are easily far superior to any differences the human ear might hope to distinguish.

But I know you still want to hear which one’s better, so what do people prefer in testing? It’s difficult to do comparisons, because music recordings are mastered differently. Engineers will make a new master designed for the intended medium. The separate instrument tracks might be individually equalized, spread across the stereo spectrum, or have a dozen other parameters applied. Thus, a CD and a vinyl pressing of the exact same recorded performance are likely to be very different.

Nevertheless, in 2000, Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education published results for the best comparison they could manage: digital and analog recordings of the same concert performance, recorded unequalized and unmixed especially for this test:

"Results showed that music major listeners rated the digital versions of live concert recordings higher in quality than corresponding analog versions. Participants gave significantly higher ratings to the digital presentations in bass, treble, and overall quality, as well as separation of the instruments/voices."

So what is this intangible "better experience" that the vinyl supporters love?

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 an immersive experience to which the listener must dedicate focused attention and time. Vinyl records are a hands-on, personal connection to the musician, and that's something no amount of digital perfection can replicate.

Brian Dunning

Brian Dunning

References & Further Reading

Blech, D., Yang, M. Convention Paper 6086: DVD-Audio versus SACD: Perceptual Discrimination of Digital Audio Coding Formats. Berlin: Audio Engineering Society, 2004.

Gabrielsson, A., Hagerman, B., Bech-Kristensen, T., Lundberg, G. "Perceived sound quality of reproductions with different frequency responses and sound levels." Journal of the Acoustical Society of America. 1 Jan. 1990, Volume 88: 1359-1366.

Geringer, J., Dunnigan, P. "Listener Preferences and Perception of Digital versus Analog Live Concert Recordings." Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education. 1 Jul. 2000, Number 145: 1-13.

Lipshitz, S. "The Digital Challenge: A Report." Boston Audio Society. Boston Audio Society, 1 Aug. 1984. Web. 18 Mar. 2012. <http://www.bostonaudiosociety.org/bas_speaker/abx_testing2.htm>

Liversidge, A. "Analog versus Digital: Has Vinyl Been Wrongly Dethroned by the Music Industry?" Omni. 1 Jan. 1995, Volume 17, Number 5: 28.

Nishiguchi, T., Hamasaki, K., Iwaki, M., Ando, A. NHK Laboratories Note No. 486: Perceptual Discrimination between Musical Sounds with and without Very High Frequency Components. Tokyo: Japan Broadcasting Company, 2004.

Repp, B. "The Aesthetic Quality of a Quantitatively Average Music Performance: Two Preliminary Experiments." Music Perception. 1 Jan. 1997, Volume 14, Number 4: 419-444.

Sourisseau, U. "Stereo Disc Recording." Record Your Own Vinyl Discs. Souri's Automaten, 11 Apr. 2001. Web. 20 Mar. 2012. <http://www.vinylrecorder.com/stereo.html>

 

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