Audiophile Heresy

June 10, 2011

So, if you’ve been paying attention and care (I doubt either of those is the case), you’re aware of my recent personal research into the realm of CD vs. vinyl vs. mp3 and analog vs. digital in general. I have reached a conclusion and everyone is going to tell me I’m wrong.

First, let’s talk about the equipment and music.

The primary test subject is Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by Derek and the Dominos. I listened to other albums in both vinyl and various digital forms, but this was the definitive test subject because: 1. It is my favorite album and I’ve listened to it a million times, in different mixes, and can theoretically pick up small differences in sound and 2. I have both a good vinyl copy and a CD that uses the original mix.

Now, the equipment:

To play the CDs, I used our above-average Pioneer DVD player. It’s not the greatest thing on the market, but it’s very good.

mp3s (AAC files, actually) were played from my iPod, which was plugged into my stereo with standard AV cables.

Vinyl was played on my Dad’s JVC turntable. It is an old turntable, but has been well cared for, and when he got it, it was the best thing on the market (my dad is also an audiophile).

The stereos were my perfectly solid Kenmore digital stereo (with 5.1 and all that jazz) which is about 10 years old (college graduation present) and an excellent Yamaha vintage stereo that was rebuilt and given to me by a family friend who does that sort of thing as a hobby.

Speakers: the primary speakers were a pair of wonderful Realistic speakers that are almost exactly as old as I am.* I also included my supplemental surround-sound speakers at times.

The results:

I am going to be crazy and give each format a rating (from 1 to 10) on three categories: Convenience, Aesthetic Appeal, and Sound. Sound will count for double because we are talking about music here. The total score will give  you their overall ranking. From the bottom:

mp3, AAC, and the like: Convenience -10, Aesthetic Appeal – 0, Sound – 5 (times two). Total score 20/40

Comments: I love my iPod. When I was in college I used to take 20-40 CDs for the four hour drive home because I didn’t know what I’d want to listen to. The iPod does a great job solving that problem, and if I’m driving or mowing the lawn, I can’t really tell the difference. If we’re talk about dedicated listening though, it doesn’t hold up. Plus, no album art or liner notes or anything like that. To those who believe there is little sonic difference between the various formats and CD/vinyl, I refer you to this, and recommend a hearing test. There was a very clear difference (Cate listened with me and agrees). There are, of course, some digital formats that are indistinguishable, but they take quite a bit of memory aren’t readily available in many places. They also sometimes cost more, which makes them moot, if you ask me.

Vinyl: Convenience – 0, Aesthetic Appeal – 10, Sound – 6 (times two). Total Score: 22/40

I wrote a post a while ago about how I love the packaging and feel of a vinyl disc, so I won’t dwell on it here. What I will do is say that, even when I listened to good vinyl, the sound was totally acceptable, but not great. People love to talk about warmth, but frankly, I think they’re nuts. The warmth you’re hearing is distortion that mars the sound of the instruments, especially on the low end. Not to play the, “I’m a musician” card, but instruments don’t sound like that live. Most bands, I think, get a sound in the studio which they want to get down as close as possible on record. Vinyl doesn’t do that. I think the preference some people have for vinyl is the result of nostalgia and that nearly everyone gets most of their music from a recording and not a live performance. Thus, a distorted idea of what “real” music sounds like. Here is an article that fully explains why I’m right about this.

CD: Convenience – 7, Aesthetic Appeal – 5, Sound – 8 (times 2). Total score: 28/40

Comments: CDs sound way better. They just do. It’s much easier to distinguish the different instruments and there’s no mud on the low end. I do understand that there are issues with the loudness wars. dynamics are an important part of music, but failings there are the fault of the people, not the format. If you have a well-mixed album with full dynamic range, it will sound better (where better = more like the musicians likely intended it to sound) on CD than it will on vinyl. I listened for myself and I read up on the subject and both avenues of research tell me this. Also, Tom Dowd agreed with me when  he was alive, so there’s that.

Now, here’s the kicker. I also preferred my digital surround-sound stereo to the vintage one. It was a similar difference when comparing CD to vinyl. I know this is serious heresy, but it’s what I heard. I understand the appeal of analog, I do. I play guitar through a tube amp because I think it sounds awesome, but there’s an important distinction. I use a tube amp because I am trying to generate a certain sound. Once I have that sound, I don’t want recording technology to mess with it. the best way to keep it clean is to record it and play it back digitally through excellent speakers. Do CDs/digital recording techniques perfectly capture that sound? No, they do not, but they come a hell of a lot closer than their analog equivalents as I think anyone who’s spent time around a rehearsing band in a good sounding room will tell you. I’ll never play through a solid state amp if I can help it, but when you’re playing it back to me, keep it digital and don’t compress it.

*How I got those speakers is the best story ever: Once upon a time (1980), my dad had ordered some speakers from Radio Shack and sent my mom, who was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time, to pick them up while he was at work. The salesman was a phenomenal jackass and provided her with no help at all loading them into the car (they were, I gather, fairly hefty). She wrote a letter to the company complaining. A few months later, she received a response telling her to come down to the store and pick out whatever she wanted. On my dad’s advice, she got a pair of fantastic speakers. They are about three and half feet tall and still the best sounding speakers I have ever heard in anyone’s house. The sound is crystal clear, especially if you have nice wood floors.

Years later, my parents were having a dispute because my dad wanted to get rid of a hulking entertainment center which was handmade and very nice, but no longer fit their needs (changing technology and all). My mom had, for some reason, developed an aesthetic hatred for the speakers (they were too “big” as though that’s possible) and struck a deal with dad that she would agree to get rid of the entertainment center if he got rid of the speakers. Thus, the awesome speakers passed on to me where they will live until I die because Cate is sensible enough to know the importance of kick-ass speakers.

5 Responses to “Audiophile Heresy”

  1. Cate said

    Those speakers are never leaving the house. And I love that story.

    Also, there’s no contest re: sound quality. I understand the nostalgia aspect, as I still love listening to mix tapes (messy as they come), but there’s no competing with CDs on a good sound system.

  2. Fred said

    Very interesting, Jason. I really like the story about the speakers since I toted some speakers that I bought in 1993 to Boston with us. I bought them after my mom died and my brother helped me “road test” them. So, they are a sentimental fixture regardless of what they get plugged in to. I still like to think I can hear a difference in vinyl over CD’s, but there are some other factors such as production technology and sound engineering that play a significant role. As for the iPod, the quality of that music is amazing if you have it plugged into a newer stereo system. Case in point is our Prius with a JBL stereo option. The system was almost built for digital music. My CD’s sound great, Sat Radio sounded great, but the iPod or iPhone really lights up when I use a solid cord to connect it to the Prius. I believe you really need a high-end turntable and stereo to fully appreciate vinyl. By the way, I am not sure my hearing is keen enough to catch the subtle differences any more!
    Fred

    • jason461 said

      That’s interesting about your new system Fred. I don’t see how an iPod could sound better than a CD, though. They are both digital files, but the CD has a lot more information on it. I have heard about what expensive systems can do for vinyl, but I don’t know if I’ll ever have the kind of money you need for that.

  3. Rachel said

    Jason, While I do appreciate the sound issue of one medium over the other, I have found that the ipod has won me over with the about of “time” that it plays. Records require me to change something every 6 or so songs, CD’s can play a continious loop of 13 or so; however, the ipod feels limitless. I painted our living room this week and in 5 and 1/2 hours I never heard the same song twice nor did I have to stop and change anything. There are also so many ways you can listen to music on the ipod. Shuffle, genre, artist, albumn. I love the breadth of music that plays on mine when I use “shuffle.” I can be mourning a lost relationship w/ Adele one minute and rockin’ out to Bon Jovi (reliving high school moments) the next.

    • jason461 said

      Yeah, that’s a valid viewpoint. Personally, I am a sound quality guy, but that’s not for everyone, I know. I’m also an album guy, though, so shuffle has never really appealed to me very much. But I do see where you’re coming from.

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