Is CD audio better than vinyl?

17 Aug

August 17, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

The vinyl LP is a ghost, blissfully unaware of its own passing.

Rendered obsolete and all but obliterated by the compact disc and mp3 formats, LP’s aren’t extinct. At least, not yet.

A handful of major recording artists have held séances, insisting that new releases be made available on vinyl. And some audiophiles continue to insist that vinyl sounds better than digital.

The debate is moot by now, since albums are not likely to stage a comeback. But if the core of the argument is correct – that vinyl actually sounds better – then we have all been manipulated by commercial interests into accepting an inferior format.

So what’s the truth of it?

The case against vinyl is pretty clear. Records scratch easily and, if you play them much, eventually wear out. You also have to listen to them in a linear fashion – that is, the only way to skip a song is to get up and lift the needle (which bugged me).  Flipping the disc over was always a nuisance. LP’s are also cumbersome and heavy, so it’s a chore to carry them around.

What I always liked about albums was the big jackets, which allowed plenty of space for graphic designers and photographers to create amazing cover art. There isn’t nearly as much real estate on CD cases.

The advantage of CD’s was their compact size, greater storage capacity and apparent indestructibility (we have since learned, of course, that a CD can scratch as easily as an LP).

And then there’s sound. Some audiophiles say that CD provides clearer, cleaner sound because of the digital playback. Fans of the vinyl LP complain that CD sound is cold and sterile, whereas vinyl sounds “richer and warmer”.

For a truly informed perspective, I spoke with Derrick Moss, owner of Aurum Acoustics, which designs and manufactures high-end audio component systems. As is so often the case, the truth is somewhere in the middle. For quite a long time, Moss was a vinyl hold-out, investing in several new turntables during the 1980s – when everyone else was switching to CD – and refusing to buy a CD player until 2000.

“Those turntables sounded better than any CD player I had heard at the time. The decision was clear: put my money into a better turntable, which was my recipe to better sound, hands down.”

Moss bought his first CD player only because he couldn’t buy records any more. “I didn’t exactly love it. When I bought another one in 2002, that started to do some things decently but it still wasn’t as good as my turntable. I bought another one in 2003 and finally, that one got me listening more to CDs than records. I bought a really good one in 2004 and also started developing our own (at Aurum) and there has been no looking back… I since sold my turntable. So as one of the final holdouts and supporters of vinyl, even I switched over to CD. I think it is hard for vinyl’s best areas to match the best potential of the CD.”

In other words, the format that we were railroaded into buying during the 1980s was indeed inferior, and until very recently the vinyl purists were correct. Moreover, Moss says you need to invest in a good quality CD player to truly appreciate the audio quality of CD.

As I said, the truth is somewhere in the middle. And the solution is to forget the argument and enjoy all formats together, as I do.


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