Do Vinyl Records Sound Better than CDs? (Spoiler: Nope)


I’ve been discussing a number of audiophile myths here on Kirkville, and today I’d like to address another one: the myth that vinyl sounds better than CDs (or downloads). Vinyl sales are booming, reaching the highest levels in more than ten years. To be fair, this isn’t difficult; as long as sales continue to increase, they’ll be higher than any time since the Great Vinyl Decline of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

People abandoned vinyl for several reasons: CDs were more convenient, less fragile, and sounded better[1]. Turntables were annoying and fragile, and you had to manually change sides of records; with CDs, you can play an entire album without flipping discs.

I grew up with vinyl, and, while I miss the bigger artwork, and the added room for liner notes, that’s all I miss. I don’t miss the clicks and pops of vinyl, or the way that, if you bumped into the turntable, or whatever shelf it was on, you could scratch a record, damaging it permanently. With older, scratched records, sometimes the only way to listen to them was to place a penny on the cartridge to add weight to it. Also, the quality of the plastic used for vinyl records was often poor, meaning that records wore out quickly. Oh, and you had to deal with dust, records that warped if exposed to heat or were stored flat, static electricity that could perturb things, the spindle hole that might be off-center, and wow and flutter that added noise to playback.

But the biggest problem with vinyl is simply that records wear out. Audiophiles tout the higher frequency response of vinyl over CDs, saying that vinyl can play back those frequencies that we can’t hear.[2] First, this is only true with a pristine record, a perfect stylus, and a high-end stereo system; in most cases, vinyl’s frequency range is lower than that of CDs. Bear in mind that needles used to play records are made of diamonds, a very hard substance, and each play of a record wears it out a bit. This wear results in lower frequency response and lower overall fidelity. Stereo separation is poor on vinyl; there is spillover from one channel to the other, which is an inherent weakness of the playback process. And, because of RIAA equalization[3], the sound on a recording is manipulated, both for pressing, to reduce low frequencies, and for playback, to attempt to restore them.

But there’s another problem with vinyl that most people don’t consider. The first grooves on an LP offer 510 mm of vinyl per second, but as you get to the end of a side, there’s only around 200 mm per second; less than half the resolution. This is similar to the difference in tape speeds dropping from, say, 15 ips (inches per second) to 7.5 ips. Anyone who has worked with tapes knows that this speed difference results in much lower fidelity. Back in the LP days, musicians would argue about who got their songs on the beginnings of sides, and the music you listen to on an LP gets lower in quality as you get closer to the center.

Most people, when discussing vinyl, talk about an “analog sound,” saying that vinyl sounds “warmer” or “richer” than digital. It does; because there is less frequency response (poorer reproduction of high frequencies), and more distortion. Just as tube amps may sound “better” because of the distortion they introduce into playback, the same is true for vinyl. That “warmth” you hear is simply the poor quality of the playback; the distortion caused by the analog chain, and its lack of detail.

“But the other part of it is that the experience of listening to an LP involves a lot more than remastering and sound sources. There’s the act of putting a record on, there is the comforting surface noise, there is the fact that LPs are beautiful objects and CDs have always looked like plastic office supplies. So enjoying what an LP has to offer is in no way contingent on convincing yourself that they necessarily sound better than CDs.”[4]

There’s a fetishism around vinyl, it’s about the process of listening. If you take more time to prepare for something, it’s likely that you’ll enjoy it more. If this is what you want, then by all means, go for it; but the sound of vinyl is actually inferior to that of CDs or digital audio.

So this is yet another myth that’s used to market products to people who don’t know better. You may like the idea of vinyl, but my guess is that, if you grew up with vinyl, you are probably aware of its limitations, and don’t want to go back into the past. I find it interesting that many audiophiles prefer a format that provides audio in a lower quality, and with more distortion.

Let me close with a few tidbits from turntable reviews in hi-fi magazines.

Each instrument and voice sat unambiguously in the soundstage with a largeness and roundness at its edges—the opposite of an analytic and etched sound.

Kraftwerk’s The Man-Machine sounded brilliant on the Clearaudio Ovation, which lent just enough warmth and body to the sound to humanize this music while not obscuring its drive and pulse, its stops and starts.

the music was a steady stream of sound that quickly became a river, then just a few drops

produced a big, slightly warm orchestral sound. String tone was rich, with a pleasing golden glow. The piano’s lower register was cleanly rendered and remained well defined against the hall’s reverberant field. The upper keyboard sounded supple, with a rich, woody, yet sparkling bite. Image stability and solidity were never in question, and the system’s dynamic punch announced a turntable that seemed in complete control.

And, I’ll finish with another gem from What Hi-Fi?:

Play an album such as Nirvana’s Nevermind and the Point 5 delivers an energetic sound that combines fluidity, stability and authority brilliantly.

Where most rivals render a sharply etched sound packed with detail, the Point 5 has a more rounded presentation where the leading and trailing edges of notes aren’t overly emphasised, but the bits in between are defined richly.

The result is an immensely likeable presentation that’s big and muscular without suffering from a lack of agility or finesse.

  1. Yes, many early CDs sounded bad, because mastering engineers initially used masters created for LPs, and it took a while for them to, well, master the process for the digital medium.  ↩

  2. See Music, not Sound: Why High-Resolution Music Is a Marketing Ploy.  ↩

  3.  ↩

  4. Pitchfork: Does Vinyl Really Sound Better?  ↩