The third and final post by The Lonely Note on the difference between vinyl and CD’s. The first post dealt with the technology difference between CD’s and records. The second dealt with mostly the physical differences between LP’s and CD’s. The third part deals with the actual difference between the same album on both CD and vinyl LP.
As I alluded in Part 1, many advocates of vinyl claim that the LP actually presents a richer, more robust sound than the CD. Are they correct? To discover for myself I decided to listen to both vinyls and CDs of the very same album. And to make sure I wasn’t missing out on any sonic nuances, I performed this “test” using higher quality Phillips headphones. The turntable I used was the Sony PSLX250H. The same EQ and volume settings were used for all CD and vinyl listening sessions as well.
I decided to listen to two different albums; one new and one old. The new album was The Killers’ Sam’s Town. The old album was Steely Dan’s Aja. I chose these albums that hail from very different eras to examine an important point regarding the vinyl v. CD debate: does an album that was cut with a specific medium in mind tend to sound better on that intended medium? In other words, does The Killers album, which was mixed primarily for the CD, sound better than its vinyl counterpart? Or does one medium tend to rise to the top regardless of the producer’s intent?
Finally, before I continue on with my analysis of both albums, I must emphasize that my test is by no means scientific. Instead, my findings are based on my personal and subjective conclusions. Please keep that in mind if my determinations run counter to yours.
The Killers – ‘Sam’s Town’
Recently I splurged and purchased the special edition picture disc vinyl of The Killers’ Sam’s Town from a local, independent music shop. It came with bonus artwork that folded out, and the disc itself looked very cool. But how did it sound?
Because this Killers album was released in 2006, it is safe to say its production staff had the CD in mind when it cut the record. This means that all of the mixing and layering was tweaked to sound as good as it could on a compact disc. And I’m willing to bet that many of the dubs were recorded digitally as well. With that in mind I figured I’d be lucky to have the vinyl version of Sam’s Town provide me with an equally mastered sound. But, needless to say, I was pleasantly surprised.
To be perfectly honest, there was such little difference between the vinyl and the CD that it was quite negligible. In fact, it was only because I was focusing so intently for the purposes of this post that I even began to notice the subtleties of each medium. The first thing I did notice, however, was that a slight crackle and hiss inherent of vinyl was present on each track when I listened to the wax version of Sam’s Town. Of course I did have headphones on, and I did have the volume cranked way up, but it was still a difference that weighed in silicon’s favor where no hiss existed under the same settings. Depending on whether you like pops and ambient feedback imposed on top of your music, the CD version ended up being the better option.
But as I listened further, I noticed that the vinyl version, aside from those slight hisses, actually provided a bit more of a richer sound. The instruments were more pronounced, and they had a sharper zing to them. Bass drums actually overtook Brandon Flowers’ vocals at times, and it began to feel like I was sitting in the studio with the band live as they were laying down each track. The CD, on the other hand, sounded relatively tinny when compared to the vinyl, and every instrument seemed to have been amplified to share one uniform volume level. The CD had a much cleaner sound though, and the production focus was definitely on Flowers’ singing as I never detected any moment where an instrument once overtook his voice. The CD was certainly a little more “sanitized.”
Like I said, the differences between the vinyl and CD versions of this modern album were minuscule. The fact that the vinyl could sound as good as its CD counterpart in 2008 was definitely unexpected, but in no way did the LP sound better. While the vinyl provided a more pronounced sound than the CD, the CD was cleaner in that it didn’t have that faint hiss. That clean sound did lead to making the CD sound tinnier, however, and I preferred the vinyl slightly if only for its ability to capture every instrument’s true sound without reducing them all to the same volume level below that of the vocal.
To be sure, the distinction between the vinyl and CD of Sam’s Town is a true toss-up. The album was definitely custom made for the CD, so from that standpoint it probably makes most sense for the average audiophile to enjoy the album on that medium. Yet, if you value full fidelity and don’t mind a weak LP crackle on a modern song, then the vinyl version is for you. Not to be too much of a fence sitter on this one, format preference for Sam’s Town truly lies in the ear of the beholder.
Steely Dan – ‘Aja’
Unlike my Sam’s Town purchase, in no way did I need to splurge to pick up the vinyl version of Aja. For a whopping $1.99 I bought a non-warped, near-mint version of one of Steely’s finest albums from the very same independent record store as before. If only for the bargain price alone, I could not wait to spin this record as soon as I got home.
In large contrast to my Killers experience, the difference between Aja on vinyl and Aja on CD was DRASTIC! The wax disc was louder, fuller, and richer than its silicon counterpart in very acute ways. One of the most dazzling observations was the fact that the horns really shone through on the vinyl when they were pretty much a non-element on the compact disc. The backing vocals were also warmer on the LP, and every single sound was pure vibrancy. The CD, on the other hand, had every instrument mixed to the same level, and the entire package was so silent I felt like I was listening to a distant band in a vacuum, as opposed to a very near band in a recording studio. To say the least, the studio perfectionism of Steely Dan lore was stripped of all its nuances on the CD. Talk about no fun!
Similar to my Killers listening test, Aja also had the inherent crackle and hiss present, but the overall sound was so evidently superior to the CD that after a very short while I didn’t even pay attention. That is not to say that the CD sounded bad—the CD actually sounded very good in and of itself. Its just that while the CD sounded great, the vinyl sounded greater.
My test by no means provided conclusive results. Scientific conditions weren’t maintained, and there was a very limited random sample: Me. But through this small, three-part exploration, I did discover that vinyl, a medium I formerly wrote off as an antiquated relic, can sound just as good, if not better, than the contemporary CD.
Surely, as the compact disc is increasingly dwarfed by hard drives and iPods as the preferred place to house digital tracks, vinyl will remain the one bastion of tangible music. It will be the last place where music can actually be held in hand and admired without the need for a computer screen. And as more and more artists begin to release albums with vinyl as one of their intended formats, it will not be surprising to have modern day LPs sound better than their digital counterparts.
There you have it. An actual test. Try it yourself and see what happens. If you do try it, let me know here in the comments about your findings.
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