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Digital vs. Vinyl (TONEAudio – Part 1)

  • Rather than dive straight into the vinyl vs digital debate, I’ve been biding my time, building experience with different setups and getting a feel for what it’s like to maximise vinyl sound quality on a tight(ish) budget.  This playtime has been going on the best part of two years now.  Here’s a diary-summary:

    November 2011 – January 2012. I bought a few Talking Heads records at a market for old times’ sake. They sat unplayed for weeks and weeks….but I soon crumbled though and spilled for a Rega RP1 – “just to play them”.  What harm could come from spending a few hundred bucks on a basic turntable?  I already had an amplifier with an in-built phono stage: a Sansui AU-417.  This would be a simple setup that I’d feed with a few records each month.  The Sansui soon gave way to the punchier Rega Brio-R though. Then came a move to off board phono pre-ing with a Graham Slee Communicator.

    February 2012 – March 2012. A $100-200 upgrade wouldn’t hurt, would it?  Time for a new cartridge. An Ortofon Blue was bolted to the RP1. The Slee went when I scored a bargain-basement-priced PS Audio GCPH. Better bass, bigger, bolder, brasher – a more American sound.


    April 2012 – October 2012. The vinyl seeds had taken hold.  Damn!  I sold the RP1 and bought an RP3. The Ortofon cart was shown the door after scoring a Zu-modded Denon – ah, so this is where all the tone and timbre had been hiding! I went record shopping in Portland. I filled a flight case and had to fake its lightness in order to squeak it onto the plane as hand luggage.  Swinging thirty kilos to make it look like less than ten isn’t easy. I did this twice within six months. The collection grew. I dropped dollar after dollar at Amazon, Vinyl Eye, PopMarket. The big black discs kept coming…but they’d started eating up space huge chunks of space in my lounge room. That which I owned had begun to own me. (Personal) Vinyl playback began to encroach upon my (professional) digital audio investigation time.


    November 2012 – March 2013. The chaff was trimmed from the record collection and the PSAudio GCPH done got eBayed. In its place: a loaner Pro-Ject USB Box. The record-buying habit needed a tighter leash. Out went the Rega RP3. There was a temporary fling with a Technics SL100 MKII. A buddy encouraged me to drop a coupla hundred bucks on a (Goldring) Lenco L75 found on eBay.  The stock tonearm hit the bin immediately (in favour of Grace). With this ‘table came more drive and propulsion. The final piece of the budget puzzle? An iFi iPhono stage (US$399/AU$449).


    I’ve no plans to start reviewing turntables, phono stages or tonearms – I simply don’t have the experience.  However, I thought it might be interesting to test the generalisation that vinyl is superior to digital by comparing very specific price-matched setups from both camps: Lenco L75 + Zu DL-103r + iFi iPhono vs. MacMini + iFi iUSBPower + Resonessence Labs Concero .   You can read my (somewhat inconclusive) findings in Issue 55 of TONEAudio (P132).

    Further information: iFi Audio | MaxMedia

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. You better reserve now while you still can!

      Here’s my take on digital vs. vinyl, and it’s analogous? Yeah, I just used a word with analog in it.. They both can have their place. What is the better tool for the job? For the amount of money I have at my disposal (and right now as a college instructor not that much!) the amount of digital I have stored on a 14TB Drobo 5N is incredible. My apartment would look the the Record Collector Vinyl Showroom at THE Show! And damn vinyl can cost a proverbial arm and a leg.

      Would I like to have a decent vinyl rig?! Hell yes! I like the kinetic-mechanical nature of it, and the hypnotic trance of the spinning platter that seems to invoke the same relaxing state-of-mind as say oh the dashed street line on the detour from the street going nowhere somewhere in the hinterlands between Cali and Nevada. Problem it by the time you add in a decent turntable, arm, cartridge, phone amp, cleaner, brush, and cables I am out of both of my kidneys.

      A Linn Sondek LP12 one day my friend, one day…

      P.S.: Hopefully, next time you are out this way I’ll show you what the new MacMini sounds connected directly to a 450W quad-balanced amp and some supremely valued Vandersteen 2Ce’s sound like. What DAC? Now I know I’m missing a lot…namely anything about 24/96 but really not that bad at all. Actually, it sounds pretty damn good.

      DAC first, turntable next, music always!

    2. I laughed when I read this as it mirrored my experience. Who says this hobby isn’t addictive. I agree that the whole vinyl/digital debate is plain silly, for me it’s about contrasting approaches for different times and moods. I’ve owned tons of DACs and couldn’t live without a good DAC/computer system. Got back into vinyl a couple of years ago and have been improving incrementally. The Zu/Denon/Lenco is really killer, add a step-up transformer and it’s even better. My point though is: I listen to music constantly through my computer audio system but suffer from a kind of musical attention deficiency syndrome, it’s just too easy and compelling to change tracks or albums, this is not a bad thing, I spend more time listening and re-discovering my music collection as a result, but I rarely listen to the whole album after I’ve owned it for a few months. Having a vinyl set up for me is the perfect adjunct; sit down, grab a drink, get tactile with the album sleeve, let the music flow and listen to one of your favourite albums uninterrupted. Different horses for different courses.

    3. Typical CD releases measure DR5 or DR6 on the TT Dynamic Range meter, and have since about 1996 or so. Typical vinyl measures about DR10-13. That’s really all you need to know right there. Ironically, most artists began abandoning tape for Pro Tools rigs at about the same time, so most modern vinyl releases are cut from high-res digital: 24/48 to 24/96 being most common. So there’s nothing REALLY that analog about modern vinyl.

      You could make the argument back in the 2″ tape days that an AAA straight tape to vinyl cut was inherently better than an AAD CD release, and you’d probably be right. Early CDs despite the lack of any Loudness Wars brickwalling were usually destroyed by their vinyl equivalents, likely due at least in part to poor performing early A-D processors and the limitations of what were essentially Beta tapes that were used for transferring to CD. That’s all over now. Vinyl cut from a high-res, uncompressed digital studio master can never beat that master. A Continuum Caliburn will likely sound much better than say a laptop playing the high-res master connected to a $200 USB DAC, but with Caliburn level digital equipment, say from dCS or MSB, the digital master will win easily. No surface noise, no rumble, no clicks or pops, no wow and flutter, no tracking issues, etc etc etc.

      Mikey Fremer of course still believes that live vinyl playback > all, including the best vinyl rip in the world, but he’s mostly alone on that, and I don’t think even he would argue that reel-to-reel tape masters make short work of even the best turntables. What’s the equivalent of reel-to-reel in the digital age? High-res digital studio masters.

      Vinyl sounds better than CD because the vast majority of CDs are terribly produced. There’s nothing “magical” about it’s analogness, it’s just that the engineers that create vinyl masters are allowed to do their jobs without some industry executive (or sadly, the band members themselves) yelling at them to MAKE IT LOUDER!!!!! That’s it, and that’s been it for a good 20 years.

      • One can also posit that other than fairly well-known to audiophile LPs, the vast majority of LPs suck – just as the vast majority of early CDs do. Compression is a big problem among other things, but vinyl’s dynamic range is really limited anyhow.

        Today most LPs are mastered digitally, so where’s the percentage in this business?

        Where you can actually hear how poor analog tape can sound – regardless the hype and tech talk – is to compare the tape masters to Direct 2 Disc versions of the same. The D2D is generally far superior. Analog tape is NOT…the cat’s meow…LPs certainly are not; and for more on this discussion see:

        The loneliness of the digital audiophile…


    4. Great articel, vinyl is indeed addictive. And there is so much music to find. I am looing for an phonobox AD/DA, and have considered both the NAD and Project boxes. However I am doubt wheather quality will be acceptable, or are there other options – cheap DJ gear i.e.? Advice highly appreciated!


    5. Excellent point concerning the majority of contemporary vinyl recordings.
      Few production efforts are at a standard musically to warrant investment.

      It is great to cruise second hand store’s and discover someone has (for various reasons) decided to let go of an older vinyl collection. A good cleaning and my Thorens make for an easy listening combination.


    6. I like to listen to music recorded with analog technology on vinyl, and music recorded digitally with a DAC/transport. The fewer a/d or d/a conversions the better. Ideally I think listening to 2nd generation tape might be the best, but is too cost prohibitive. I can’t wait for the industry to really throw its weight behind hi red PCM and DSD so the catalog of available titles isn’t so limited.

    7. Hi John. I was looking forward to part 2 of your Digital vs Vinyl in Tone Audio issue 56, but I did not find it in that issue. Is Part 2 in the works for the next issue maybe?

      • I’m reviewing KEF’s M500 headphones for next issue, so perhaps issue 58.

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