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Challenging the universal superiority of vinyl

  • Can o’ worms. Radiohead fans are a sensitive bunch. Don’t believe me? Sit one down over drinks and try challenging their favourite band’s artistic merits. You’ll be met with a long face at best, your beer in your lap at worst.

    It isn’t just Radiohead. This experiment works just as effectively with Red Hot Chilli Peppers fans. I once dared to challenge RHCP’s credibility as an artistic force (beyond their obvious ability to rock) and witnessed one member of our pub party taking genuine offence at my opinion that they are perhaps one of the most overrated bands of our generation. Cough, splutter, sulk.

    But why take offence at criticism of something in which you played no part in creating? Our musical allegiances run deep. They transcend the intellectual. The very nature of music sees us making emotional – even spiritual – connections with the songs we (natch) love.

    With musical taste being so subjective it’s impossible to prove one album’s superiority over another. Modest Mouse’s We Were Dead Before The Ship Even Sank might well be a better record than Creed’s Human Clay in many an alt-rocker’s mind – but how to prove it? You cannot.

    A similar sensitivity can be found within your average vinyl enthusiast. Try telling him that vinyl might not be all that it’s cracked up to be and you’ll find yourself cut short shrift. With the black stuff’s resurgence in full swing the chorus of we-told-you-so rings louder than ever in both the mainstream and audiophile press. “Nothing sounds better than vinyl”, is what we are told over and over again. It may well be true. And it may not. As with everything in hi-fi, there are no absolutes and nearly all questions pertaining to “What’s best?” are met with “Well, it depends”.

    Take entry-level turntablism: I recently needle-dropped two different cuts with PS Audio’s NuWave playing phono pre-amplifier and A/D converter to a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon fitted with an Ortofon OM10 cartridge. I was curious as to how these vinyl rips would stack up against their digital cousins, especially as the Pro-Ject ‘table is regarded as one of the best in its sub-US$500 class.

    Rather than call out the differences myself, I put them to reader vote. Before we proceed, a reminder that DAR’s musical tastes don’t span classical, opera or audiophile recordings. I’m interested in how things play out with rock n roll or electronica – not exactly music from the margins then. I’m into music occupies the mindset of your average Quietus or Slicing Up Eyeballs reader. If that’s not you, then feel free to alight here.

    First up was Prefab Sprout’s “Billy” (from Crimson/Red Icebreaker Records 5060211501777). Comparing the two from a least-worst perspective, the CD-rip’s occasional stridency is far preferable to the needle-drop’s tack-flat dynamics. With 139 voters polling 52% vs 48% in favour of the digital version it’s impossible to call out a winner so let’s call it a tie. As inconclusive as the voting might be, what we can draw from these results is vinyl’s superiority isn’t necessarily guaranteed.

    Some readers pointed to dynamic range compression negatively impacting results. Consequently, a second poll was established. A Robyn Hitchcock & The Egyptians release from the mid-80s was chosen. The Glass Fish/Elemental release (88561-8130-1) of Element of Light stems from a master with good dynamic range; here it would have an inherent mastering advantage over CD rips of subsequent Rhino (1995) and Yep Roc (2008) re-issues.

    Surely the needle-drop would come out on top this time ‘round? After all, nothing sounds better than vinyl, right? I made it more difficult to pick the vinyl from digital by cleaning up the sound of the needle hitting the record using Audacity.

    First: which was which? Sample C was the Yep Roc CD rip, Sample B was the Rhino CD rip and Sample A was the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon vinyl rip.

    With 70 votes collected, the Rhino CD rip came out on top netting 46% of preferences. In second place, the (overly-loud) Yep Roc remaster garnered 30% of all votes. Only 24% of voters preferred the needle-drop – a bronze medal for vinyl.

    Of course, the notion of ripping vinyl to digital files might be anathema to analogue die hards. Fair enough. Others might not be convinced that needle-dropping to a 16bit/44.1kHz digital file could possibly be sufficiently true to the original. That was the case when explaining these experiments to a party of Australian hi-fi dealers over pre-dinner Tsing Tao’s in the PRC earlier this week. The ensuing conversation reminded me of the Ethernet cable debate. One more outspoken fellow from Queensland suggested that I had “offended everyone present” – hence my opening comments about some vinyl lovers being overly sensitive about their preferred format. Follow-up one-on-one conversations revealed that I’d offended no-one (phew!) but the delicacy of the issue remains.

    With Record Store Day just around the corner, Pro-Ject will no doubt sell thousands of Debut Carbons. This entry-level turntable remains a great way to get up and running with what some reckon is the only physical format worth buying nowadays. For what it’s worth, I thoroughly enjoy buying and playing records. It’s the slow food of audio and I dig the physical nature of the product and its attendant artwork.

    What I’m now less convinced of is vinyl’s universal sonic superiority. As evidenced by this entry-level experiment, digital audio wins out on dynamic punch, layer separation and soundstage width.

    This then begs the question: how far up the turntable totem pole must one travel to get the jump on digital?

    Further information: Pro-Ject

    Written by John

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

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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