/ Technology

Does vinyl really sound better?

Can a vinyl’s warm, natural sound be beaten? We listened to the Beatles’ recently remastered White Album to find out.

If you listen to music regularly in digital formats then suddenly switch to a vinyl, you’ll really notice the unique sound of a good turntable.

There’s a warmth to vinyl β€“ and it’s not just a placebo effect β€“ it’s what happens when the bass is at just the right level to be fully integrated with the rest of the sound.

The imperfections of turntables, such as crackling and varying pitch, are ‘analogue’ in nature β€“ they can even be charming. But get a digital copy with faults and the music can end up sounding horribly synthetic.

That being said, CDs can claim to have more ‘detailed’ sound β€“ turntable needles will pick up a lot of noise, including ticks and bangs as dust and static is encountered on the record’s surface.

So which offers a better all-round listening experience?

The White Album remastered

We revisited the recently remastered White Album across CD, MP3 and vinyl to see if we could settle the debate, and every format did the 1968 classic justice.

The vinyl version sounded clear and clean with a lack of ticks and pops β€“ about as good as a vinyl can be.

Which? News: vinyl sales are surging

The CD was equally good, delivering more detailed sound than the MP3. This was to be expected, given that the CD can store a great deal more data.

But that doesn’t automatically mean it’s the better option. As you can imagine, source material from the 1960s can end up sounding slightly sterile when listened via a CD’s digital cleanliness.

It’s for that reason that our lab marginally preferred the vinyl. But it’s worth bearing in mind that this might not be the case for other albums.

The evolution of music tech

CD tech has come a long way since the 80s, when sound could be flat and boring with no tunefulness and shrill treble that was tiring on the ears.

Breakthroughs mainly occured around 1990, when engineers solved many of the technical challenges.

But there’s a limit to the scientific debate. Music has never just been about the sound itself β€“ it’s a sense of occasion evoking memories of moseying around old record shops or taking a vinyl from its sleeve.

Careful handling and respect is required, which appeals to the purists and has rejuvenated the vinyl market.

With streaming and digital formats it can be easy to ‘track hop’ β€“ changing songs before the end amid a wealth of distractions. The very inconvenience of adjusting a turntable preserves the ‘performance’ element, meaning you tend to take the experience in.

And then there’s the full-size artwork of a record β€“ timeless designs that just aren’t the same when viewed on a screen. As you can tell, I’m a big vinyl fan.

But what about you? Which format do you think is the best way to enjoy an album? And what are your favourite albums and accompanying artworks? Let us know and share some of your photos with us.

Comments

The digital formats far, far exceed the overall quality of Vinyl. The header comment about the bass omits to mention that the comment refers to the mixing, and although in theory the vinyl might sound wonderful, the reality is that without a top of the range valve amplifier and matching speakers the sound quality will always be inferior to the same set up with digital.

I speak as one who has a massive library of both digital and vinyl. Most of the vinyl are classical and LP classical pressings were done with more plastic than pop LPs – a fact few realise. Around 25% more plastic was used for Classical LPs.

But the quality of all vinyls is affected by the recording methodologies, transient artefacts, the studios used, the age of the record and more, and the reproduction at home was affected by the turntable quality, position, the types of floors in the house, the mains supply, dust, temperature, dust, sunlight, wine, women, dust and song.

The audiophile community has always comprised the knowledgeable and the impressionable, and the cult of the LP may be a symptom of he latter’s prevalence. But for sheer convenience, ‘pure’ sound – whatever that really means – and ease of use the digital AAC is extremely hard to beat.

Derek says:
9 March 2019

Hear, hear!

I have no plans to buy any more vinyl records but occasionally play the ones I have, on equipment bought in the mid-80s. Though my record collection is modest, I never saw the point in spending money and replacing them with CDs or downloads.

I prefer the concert hall. However I clearly have no fine ears as I’m quite happy listening to the music I like – mainly “classical” – on shellac, vinyl, CD, my solar-powered Freeplay radio in the garden surrounded by rural noise, in the car with the calming background of engine and road noise plus conversation…….. If I do sit down just to listen to music I do find the clicks and crackles from vinyl that has been a little mistreated to be distracting. What I also found irritating was a Decca LP of Beethoven’s 5th piano concerto played by Clifford Curzon; it contained one bum note on the piano that I was always anticipating.

That was my first L.P. purchase and I was very proud of it. That and Mendelssohn’s Italian concerto, also on Decca. I think both were Mono recordings.

I agree with Ian. At the end of the old vinyl era records were quite thin and warped easily. A few also had off centre pressings when manufacturers became careless. The latest versions are better made but the limitations are the same. There is physical contact between stylus and disc. The needle needs care, cleaning and replacing. The turntable needs to be accurate and the arm balanced carefully. Records need a lot of care, they naturally attract static and dust and are easily scratched.
At the beginning, critics told us that CDs would deteriorate and become unplayable. They haven’t and they don’t. The silent background (apart from the recording ambience); the reliability of the disc and player; the detail that can be obtained; the ease of use and programming all make the CD my preferred choice. Through my equipment I get a wonderful experience that satisfies me. Granted, one can spend many tens of thousands on state of the art amps and turntables, and one can enjoy the process of fine tuning everything to the “perfect” sound. I love listening at home either with a score or without distraction, but I also get enjoyment from portable equipment elsewhere and compensate for the lack of quality by listening to the skill of the playing and the melodic flow. Since its inception the CD had transformed music listening, allowing a continuous performance of music, and only music. I would never go back to the vinyl days, though I still have my vinyl collection stored somewhere together with my grandfather’s and parent’s 78’s and Rachmaninov playing his own piano concerto -warts and all – the Queen Of Sheba coming to a staggering halt and George Thalben Ball coaxing an organ and reluctant orchestra to play five minute segments of Handel on to a tortured wax disc.

I well remember some of the poor quality records when the demand was declining and CDs were the way forward. On the other hand, some of the early CDs of historic recordings were very poor, removing the ambience of the concert hall. We moved on quickly.

I am with Ian and Vynor on this and much prefer the fidelity of CD’s.

Obviously, the quality of the reproduction equipment has a large bearing on it, but something which sits on a platter revolving on a spindle, wobbles up and down, and is in contact, via a bouncy tone arm, with a stylus that gathers micro-fluff as the record goes round will never be entirely satisfactory. Some friends had auto-turntables that let the records clatter down on top of each other which probably did the motion no favours. Modern CD players can be tuned to compensate for balance deficiencies across the harmonic range.

I had a large collection of vinyl LP’s and all the high-end apparatus to play them on. I even had duplicates of some works to preserve for when the original disc became too scratched or pocked for comfort – most of the spares were never taken out of their sleeves because I didn’t want to damage them! I got rid of the lot as soon as high-quality CD’s and players became available and I won’t be going back to vinyl.

A good collection of LP’s weighed a ton, took up loads of space, and didn’t look particularly attractive as an object in the sitting room. I can hide the CD’s away in a drawer. The thing I hated about LP’s was the need to turn them over and play the other side in order to finish listening to a symphony. Why people who consider themselves to be serious music aficionados want to go back to that era defeats me. And as for the mystique of carefully opening the sleeve and addressing the black plastic disc with admiration like it’s a long lost friend, words fail me. The pretentious programme notes were also unnecessary, but unfortunately, before the supremacy of CD’s became recognised, they translated, in condensed form, to the CD box in order to provide a matching experience and the habit has got stuck in a groove.

When moving home I reviewed all my CD’s and realised I was only playing a small number of them so I reduced the collection to about sixty favourites and gave the rest away. I am quite happy at times to take pot luck on what turns up on the radio but I generally dislike Classic FM [far too full of itself] and went off BBC Radio 3 a few years ago when there was too much talking. I read recently that a new classical music station is coming along.

I think the reintroduction of vinyl is largely down to marketing, John. I agree with your comments about Classic FM, and the changed format of Radio 3 has little appeal to me. It’s encouraging to hear that we may have an alternative soon. I greatly enjoy live music and can put up the odd cough and the sound of the passing ambulance. πŸ™

On the subject of ‘noises off’, a long time ago I used to record BBC promenade concerts on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. During one particular performance of a Beethoven symphony there was a sound like a ping-pong ball bouncing down a flight of steps and I got so used to it that I missed it when listening to the same work on a record.

Most people can go many days without a cough, but put them in a concert hall and suddenly, between movements, it’s like the intensive care unit in an acute bronchitis ward. I believe Ian is a concert pianist so I expect he laments this phenomenon, and I wonder whether the first throat-clearance is a genuine and delayed response to the need but the following ones are just opportunistic and Pavlovian reflex reactions of no symptomatic necessity whatsoever. And then there’s the snoring during the slow movement . . .

I still have some cassettes with music recorded from Radio 3 – many years ago – and it’s interesting to hear comments by presenters. Did I admit to still using cassettes? It’s not very often.

This is one of those topics where I’m very much on the fence.

My experience of music has very much been shaped by the digital era – clean and crisp sounding, portable, easy to acquire, and therefore pretty much everywhere. When I play music now it’s either the result of a CD I’ve ripped into a digital format, or available from a streaming service with a couple of taps or clicks. I can hear the latest sounds almost instantly, if I like them I can download them in some form, if not I can forget about them without having had the buyer’s remorse of going out and buying the physical object that I won’t use again.

Why would I not like this wholeheartedly? It’s not the format of the music at all, what’s missing for me is time I invest in experiencing the music. You can listen to a digital format pretty much anywhere; I often do so on the tube, and if you ask me about my journey afterwards I’d tell you about the experience of the train, not of the music in my headphones. With a physical object experiencing music is so much more deliberate as it involves scarcity and choice – you can’t afford every album in the store (both for cost and for space), and you can’t fit every CD or vinyl you own in your stereo to be ready to play at a moment’s notice, and these days you probably don’t carry the device needed to listen to it around with you by default. If you want to skip tracks, you might have to walk across a room to press a button or move a needle. Having to make these deliberate choices made me a lot more invested in what I was listening to, and this investment is very easy to lose in the world of a streaming service.

I have eleven (plus) days worth of “tunes” on an i-player in the car. (According to i tunes each symphonic movement equates to one tune! That’s almost as bad as eulogising about “The World’s Greatest Music.”) but unlike John, with whom I also agree, I have kept my CD collection with the sad knowledge that many will never be played again, but the happy knowledge that I can dip in anywhere at any time. I still buy CD’s now and then when Benjamin Grosvenor produces something irresistible or C.D review on a Saturday plays something I like enough to buy. I have never taken to the streaming or downloading technology as I like the solidity of the CD and am happy to have my shelves stacked with them. Streaming would mean buying more equipment to reproduce it properly. I remember the happy buzz when those discs arrived at random intervals from Soli Dei Gloria and I learned more of Bach’s mastery of the cantata and gazed at the enigmatic and evocative pictures on the front of their black cases. And yes, they do get played.

JC Bach wrote more than 200 of the things, and then combined several to make Oratorios. He was a dab hand at writing them, I agree, but I’ve long thought Orff could have taught him a trick or two. Probably the least well-defined musical form there is, the Cantata, as it evolved continuously. Very soothing, however, to listen to Bach’s.

While digital formats are excellent for clarity, portability and general ease of access, I have to admit that when we found some old Beatles 12″ vinyls in the loft a few years back and played them it sounded magnificent – so raw and energetic – it was like having them play in the room.

As for favourite artwork, the first that came to my mind was Oasis’ Definitely Maybe, although I never owned the vinyl:

Sgt. Pepper, Revolver, A Hard Day’s Night and Abbey Road are obvious classic album artworks, and I’d also give worthy shouts Muse and Pink Floyd for being consistently good, especially Dark Side of the Moon and The Division Bell.

I never understood why people had to buy music they don’t like to get a picture that they do. Or vice versa.

Not related to the sound of vinyl, but to those of us who were used to having only vinyl a while ago, handling a CD (or a memory stick, b’js…) is the least satisfying thing in the world, in particular if there were inserts in the albums, or if they were double albums. I have the White Album and Sgt Pepper’s both on vinyl and on CD and there is no comparison.