Monday, January 30, 2006

Vinyl vs. CD - A Digital Advocate's View

This is really, really off topic.

But it's cool.

I bought my wife a good, German made turntable for Christmas. She has old LP's from her childhood that have sentimental value, and I have 78 laquer records my grandfather listened to in the 30's and 40's through the 70's of greats like Bessie Smith, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington.

Much of what we have is old, and sounds typically record-like. Hissing...pops...distorted high-end, etc. My wife did have a couple of LP's that were 'modern' and stood a chance of sounding good, though. Billy Joel's "The Nylon Curtain", for example. It was a little dusty, but sounded unlike any CD I'd listened to.

Keep in mind that I'm a child of the 70's - I never had a turntable that wasn't in a tiny blue box with a huge white tonearm. Now, I have a really good home theater / sound system - if LP stands a chance of sounding good, it'll be on my rig.

We found a small shop that sells used LP's, and they had a fair selection. Three or four Billy Joel albums, a lot of Beatles in great shape, Doobie Brothers, Chicago 17, Police (The Singles), Smithereens 11, and a Billie Holiday album that was really good.

The Smithereens album was basically unplayed - it looked immaculate, as did several of them. We happen to own the same album on CD as well. I've listened to both - the LP on my new turntable, the CD in my Pioneer DVD player (using S/PDIF optical connection). The CD has more SPL, and I suppose you can say it has better dynamic range (bigger difference between quiet passages and loud ones). I can blast the CD until glass rattles, it sounds clear as day.


The LP sounds like I'm listening to the band perform. It sounds I'm there. It's most noticable with strings ("Blue Period" on Smithereens 11 opens with a cello or something - it sounds 100000x better on LP than CD), and on the low end. CD's sound muddy by comparison. On LP, I can make out each note the bassist is playing, and the kick drum punches you in the chest at far lower SPL's than CD.

In my mind's eye, I know why this is true. It's the same reason that TV and movies don't look as 'real' as life. It's not about resolution or anything like's about reassembly. In life, music and motion come to us instantaneously via our senses - you cannot measure the gap between one 'frame' and another, because there aren't's one continuous feed, called reality. If you stop a movie on one frame (especially a moving frame), you see blurs. Or, you see that an object has moved from one spot to another between frames - even if barely, it's there. No matter how fast you capture the pictures, movies are basically high-speed still frames. Each still frame misses something - the difference is what we call reality.

The same is true with music. CD's bombard your ears with "still frames" of audio, at a rate of roughly 44,000 pictures per second. You're hearing what the sound measured on a microphone at 1 fraction of a second, played back very very frequently. What you get is a pretty good picture of what was being recorded. Unlike video however, it's possible to record audio in such a way that there is no loss....hence, analog LP recordings.

I always blew off LP bigots as unnecessarily esoteric. The convenience, longevity, durability, and quality of CD's are unmatched. I'm a music lover, and I love CD audio. But I love LP audio more. It takes more care & caution, and you appreciate it more when you hear it. All the garbage you hear from CD bigots about LP's being scratchy and filled with static-pops are made by people who've either never heard LP's, or never heard them played on good equipment. This argument & information is lost on them. If however you're an open minded lover of audio & music, I hope you too find the chance to splurge on a high quality turntable & sound system, and invest in some well preserved vinyl. You won't be often can you say that?

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