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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

    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. An excellent and, dare I venture, quite original article. I particularly enjoyed the wonderful analogies of the first 2 paragraphs! But that’s personal taste.
      Now to the point and story of happy co-incedance from over 10,000 miles away this weekend.
      In my study I have one ‘Analog’ system and one ‘Digital”…..

      System 1: KEF LS50 on Linn Kann stands, fed by TAG Mclaren P60 power amp on the end of a Meridian 562(?) controller with phono stage and a ClearAudio turntable with Rega arm and Benz Micro cartridge. A Request server provides the zeros and ones content. Speaker cables and all interconnects are all Nordost Valhalla.

      System 2: A pair of KEF X300AW. Erm – that’s it! :-))

      I had a couple of lifelong pals round and played them the same song three times, Having just taken delivery of a promo copy LP of Kokomo’s excellent 1982 LP, off which which I also had access to the 44.1/16bit digital copy – submitted to Request server and also streaming in red book via my subscription.

      I played the lead track “A Little Bit Further Away” 3 times.

      1) The LP on LS50s
      2) Request playing the digital file on LS50s
      3) streaming Red Book via Airplay to the X300AWs.

      Both my friends are successful and tech savvy blokes (ardent bikers) …… who both astutely remarked – isn’t that the same driver on both speakers just different colour?

      The entirely unprompted results and preferences were clear in this order. 1,2,3.

      I asked why to be told the LP sounded more authentic and “emotional”.. yeah, emotional bikers, perish the thought!

      HOWEVER!……. I then revealed the price of system 1 (about £9000) and system 2 £800.

      Both exclaimed wow – I’d happily make-do with a pair X300AW thanks, with one saying “Jesus I got to get my LPs down from the attic and revisit, I had forgotten about the whole loving process of putting an LP on, which practically forces you to admire the sleeve and read the notes plus play at least the whole side…..” His words, not mine.

      But in answer to your last sentence – perhaps that’s a reflection of how far one has to jump up the totem pole?

      • Johan, you know what would make both your real as well as virtual friends really really happy.
        A pair of SELF-POWERED and/or DAC’ed LS50s!!!
        They may never think about listening to vinyl again.

    2. I was rather surprised to see another article relating to vinyl v digital using ripped tracks from vinyl. Surely the three strikes and you’re carted off to the funny farm should apply here, however your last comment about how far do you have to go up the tree to get the jump on digital is one I would love to hear.
      I’m guessing you would have to spend serious wedge before getting close to a good digital front end but there’s not many of us in a position to try this. I would love to read about a shoot out and trust your opinion but without the vinyl rip please.

    3. Dar –
      I think a better test, and perhaps a better observation, woukd be to ask them how long do you typically listen during a typical session. I say this for a couple of reasons.

      1: if a someone for whatever reason, can ‘only’ listen for say 15-20 minutes before he/she has o get up, get a drink, go to bathroom, check your email – you know there is something is significant to distract their minds from listening—enjoying, to another task.

      What if these people, listening to the same complete album/playlist, can go through the whole thing, holding off going peepee, checking Facebook, etc. I would bet their actual preference—over time, would be their true preference.

      2: think about this… If you know, as the testee, what the experiment is for, the results will be squed because the testee is now in control of the outcome.
      If you ask them to write down, for a month, how long they listen to their source of choice, you will get a more accurate measure of their ability to hold back on doing something else. From that observation, I beleive a truer sense of enjoyment—can be deduced. Thus a prefernce based on the fact that user “a” can listen through an entire album without being distracted, as opposed to the same user “a” being able to make it through 3 or 4 tracks (same source over time) would yield the deduced preferred source.

      Have a great week!

      • I listen to digital, but it seems that vinyl is more successful towards conscious listening and enjoyment.

        Thomas, your methodology seems to be the best.

    4. I am not going to take sides, for I enjoy both formates and only will say they sound different. I never left vinyl, still using the same turntable I bought in 1985.. I added digital when it came available at an affordable price. I did spend more on digital upgrades “to get better sound”
      My only comment is that there are many adjustments to TT/arm/cartridge that could effect sound, that one should be carefull

    5. Sigh, John these extreme generalizations are really not helpful at all, one way or the other. Does anyone actually claim that vinyl is superior to digital in 100% of cases, no matter what? That person shouldn’t be taken seriously. Not even Michael Fremer believes that. He mentioned when discussing The Beatles stereo vinyl reissues from a few years back, which were cut from digital files to just buy the digital files. When you take a PCM digital master, and you cut vinyl from that exact master, it’s physically impossible for the vinyl to sound *better* than that master. If you have a high quality rig, and a very clean pressing, at best you’ll have something that sounds basically identical to that digital master, minus some channel separation, and with a bit of extra distortion. That’s it. That’s what vinyl does. It’s not magic, there’s never been anything magical about it. It’s a *format*. Vinyl doesn’t sound like anything. Vinyl doesn’t have bright or soft treble. Vinyl doesn’t have loads of dynamics or none. Vinyl sounds *like the recording it was made from*. Why is this *impossible* for audio journalists to understand? Why do they ascribe sound characteristics to what are essentially empty vessels?

      You came to the conclusion that digital audio wins out on “dynamic punch, layer separation, and soundstage width.” Based on what? Two samples? On what planet is that statistically significant? I can point to a dozen samples that show the exact opposite. I can point to needle drops done on an even cheaper table than the Pro-Ject, with more dynamics, better layer separation, and wider soundstages than the CD version. How? Because they had *better sounding vinyl masters*. It’s about the *source* John, NOT the format.

      What you’ve tested is how does digital sound in two examples vs. poor quality needle drops, and come to sweeping conclusions based on reaction to those two samples. If there’s a point here, I don’t see it.

      • There are many, many people who happily pay forward the mantra that “nothing sounds better than vinyl”. I wanted to show that this wasn’t always the case. Two samples isn’t statistically significant (true) but I don’t have the time or the inclination to put up rip after rip for polling. I’m pretty sure readers would get sick of it pretty quickly. What I do know is that these samples are fully representative of the delta I’ve consistently heard between Debut Carbon DC and PS Audio NPC and Antipodes DXe server feeding any number of DACs this past 6 months.

        I agree with you that there’s no ‘magic’ to vinyl. I see it at a series of colourations: tonearm, cartridge and phono stage (to name a few). And I suspect those colourations are what people enjoy. And that’s fine – we buy hifi gear for precisely that: enjoyment. But at the entry-level, a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC just can’t get close to CD rips.

        It’s about the source? That precisely why in my second poll I used a vinyl record that I knew was pressed from a master with good dynamics and pitted it against CD remasters of questionable quality (one from the 90s, one from the 00s). I stacked the cards in vinyl’s favour and it still pulled up in last place.

        Yes, I agree with you that the source is critical. Unfortunately, the majority of contemporary releases don’t enjoy a separate master for the vinyl. They’re often cut from the same master as used for the CD (as per the Beatles box set you mentioned being cut from 24/44.1).

        Perhaps you’d be kind enough to direct me to a modern rock/electronica record whose vinyl master sounds noticeably superior to the CD and I’ll buy it.

        • To me, saying “nothing sounds better than vinyl” is akin to saying “nothing sounds better than SACD,” or “nothing sounds better than “DVD-A.” What does an SACD sound like? Now when you start talking about specific albums, then we have an argument. Somebody could say for example, nothing sounds better than the original first pressing Beatles mono vinyl. That vinyl has a specific sound to it, and it could be argued that no digital version released to date is better. But to just say “vinyl is better than digital” in the abstract I think is rather silly.

          If the LP and CD come from the same source master, then I agree, the Debut is definitely going to sound worse than the CD. I’m not somebody who believes that “bits are bits” or that all CD players sound the same, but it certainly is much easier for even an average level CD player to extract “everything” from the disc than it is for an entry level turntable to do the same with an LP. I do think that the Debut can beat a CD player though, but the appropriate question for that to happen is “how bad does the CD need to be?”

          I’d be happy to give you some examples. 1. Marilyn Manson – The Pale Emperor | 2. Nine Inch Nails – Hesitation Marks | 4. Purity Ring – Another Eternity | 5. Thom Yorke – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes to name a few. Soundgarden’s King Animal is another good one. The CD is typical squashed, bland crap. The vinyl is punchy and sounds great. I would be rather surprised if you preferred the CD version of that, even compared to your lowly Pro-Ject.

            • Er.. nope. I thought it was, but I just checked with my own rip perfectly level matched against the CD, and they sound pretty much the same. The others though are definitely all dedicated vinyl masters.

              Incidentally, where I think you begin to really hit diminishing returns with a vinyl rig (cart, arm, table, motor controller/power supply, and phono pre) is around $5-6K. It’s extremely easy to spend more than the price of the Pro-Ject just on a phono cart, and even that would still be considered “affordable.” It’s hard to buy a moving coil for much less than $300-400, and the really good ones are $1K+. Vinyl is an expensive proposition, no question.

        • In repsonse to your last sentence, I suggest the album “Trouble will find me” by The National. I have purchased the HDtracks version at 24/96 which sounded NO different to the CD or the TiDAL version. But on Vinyl, they were a wholly different proposition. And the lead singer usually takes the centre stage so vocals are really upfront which may help with discrimination.

    6. Interesting experiment with a number of variables to account for. On a slightly different note, I’ve found that the mastering can vary quite a bit from vinyl to digital releases of the same album. Even though I know that the process for mastering each format should be different and that vinyl is supposed to sound better, it often doesn’t. At the end of the day, quality is quality and formats shouldn’t be the only deciding factor.

    7. I was at the Montreal show over the weekend. To me the best sound was a Brinkmann TT, Luxman pre + monblocks and Vivid speakers. I kept saying to myself ”this rig is awesome…vinyl is the best”
      After walking in and out of the room a few times I hadn’t noticed but they had switched from vinyl to digital source. Before realizing there was a switch I was still saying to myself ”I’d kill for sound like this…”
      That being said – I think TTs and vinyl are great but I’m just not ready to go down that road again. I’m nostalgic but not that much.

    8. Great post. I have vinyl records that sound bad (Adele’s 21) and 16/44.1 recordings that sound amazing (James Taylor’s Hourglass – PONO). As nice as it would be to have a simple which format is better discussion, it will always come down to mastering and dynamic range vs. loudness.

    9. No matter what anyone says, nostalgia or whatever, vinyl is NOT coming back. Yeah, some folks might buy it but the convenience factor is just not there. those spikes that are constantly reported by the audiophile press are miniscule. Even recording engineers find it to be a chore
      But on a more general level, I’m curious if ‘audiophilia nervosa’ or ‘upgradeitis’ would really have been an issue if vinyl had not been around. If the vinyl format is really that inconsistent, I can see the audiophile in the 70s finding differences in quality just by blinking one of his eyes. This would have been great for the hi-fi industry and they could ask for ridiculous amounts of cash to ‘improve’ the customer’s system.
      John and others, I’d also like to know from your experience, whether the variability introduced by gear is higher with vinyl than digital and dollar-to-dollar, which is the better investment?

      • That’s what I’m trying to find out. I’d say, at this stage, digital gives you a better sound at below $1000.

        • Nailing your flag to the mast and why not, it’s an opinion and you listen to a lot more kit than I do!
          I’m surprised at the $1000 cross over point for the TT to win out, I was expecting it to be much higher. I’m running an Aries front end through a Benchmark DAC1 USB running off a QNAP NAS with cat7 cables so total is circa £3000, if a $1000 turntable and cartridge combination can sound better than this I’m surprised. I’ve not owned a turntable since the late 90’s let alone a decent one and would love to check this out for myself.

          • You misunderstand Mike: I’m not claiming $1000 as the crossover point. I’m saying that below $1000 vinyl doesn’t seem able to keep its head above water where digital swims quite nicely.

    10. To be honest, I think the whole comparison is crippled by the (yes, I’m going to say it) shitty Ortofon cartridge. I’ve never heard one I’ve liked, and despite that, bought a 2M Black that was such a poor tracker (not to mention very “forward” sounding), I sold it off four months after putting up with its shortcomings. For not much more than what I originally paid, I have a Dynavector 17D3 now that plays (and tracks) circles around the overinflated good reputation of the steaming turd that is the 2M Black.

      Yes, far more expensive than your Carbon/OM10 combo, but that’s not my point–there are plenty of good cartridges out there that could do way more justice to the music than some freebie OM10. Those who want better tracking tend to gravitate towards an Audio Technical 440MLA (and often need to adjust its loading to counteract the excruciating brightness of that cart…but find it well worth the effort). There are also lower-cost high-output moving coils, or plenty of other moving magnet or moving iron cartridges that easily put the OM10 to an early grave.

      The Debut Carbon DC now comes with an equally poor 2M Red. But to me, that’s like putting Walmart-grade Ford Pinto tires on a Porsche 911. Well OK, not that drastic, but the pre-installed cartridges with most turntables don’t do the turntable OR the vinyl format any favors. It is a good, affordable starting point, but there is so much lost potential.

      For the record (no bad pun intended), I am happy with both my vinyl rig and digital playback, and enjoy both equally. It did cost me a bit to get there in both cases, but it has been worth it.

    11. Just how do you convince a reputable hifi store you are interested in purchasing a decent turntable then arrive with your digital kit for comparison? Hmmmmm maybe worth a try as I’m itching to hear the result. An average cd player is a poor relative to a decent vinyl set up but I bet a half decent streamer dac combo will trounce it. As the majority of studio recordings are done using digital technology I feel streaming will win out in the end. Only listening will give us the answer. Anyone out there with both options ?

    12. I know you already have it, but xylophone on The Auteurs’ New Wave sounds much better even on Debut Carbon with the standard 2M Red cartridge than through Metrum Hex. (Everything sounds better, with xylophone it is just more audible; check out Parking Cars, for instance.) And I am not even mentioning Bowie cd-ed atrociously throughout 😉 Plus, in my system and in my room, vinyl is invariably more forward-sounding, even when lacking in other attributes.

    13. 1. RHCP’s Blood Sugar Sex Magic is a great album. Everything after that is disposable. And talk about compression! Californication has the dubious honour of being one of the ‘hottest’ masterings going around.

      2. I’ve heard enough gushing praises of PS Audio’s Directstream DAC from boomer vinyl die-hard guys to be convinced that digital is *now* better than vinyl. Granted this is a $6000 DAC but their turntables would be in that range too, and I’m assuming turntables haven’t undergone the massive leap in improvement that DACs have in the past ten years.

    14. A little late, but I’ll throw in a few comments:
      1. With an even better ADC (like the much more expensive Ayre), if you play the hi-res rip and the vinyl back over the same system the recording and vinyl playback was was made on, they can’t tell them apart. Even vinyl die-hards can’t. I know of this happening, and the vinyl guys are shocked by it. Read JA’s review of the Ayre converter in Stereophile:
      “with a 192kHz sample rate I could not distinguish between the LP and the digital rip. And believe me, I tried. I A/B’d the two versions until blood came out of my ears and I was heartily sick of this music I hadn’t heard for, in some cases, decades. ”
      So much for superiority of vinyl.

      2. The whole debate is in the end a little silly. Can’t we just chalk it up to a matter of taste? I generally prefer the sound of digital, even though I like vinyl. Others have the opposite reaction. So what? What is there really to argue about.
      3. I’m a huge Beatles fan and have multiple versions of every album in every format. Guess what? I like the 2009 digital releases better than the “audiophile” LPs made from the original master tapes. Does that make me a Neanderthal with no taste? No, it means I have a good digital rig and generally prefer digital, unless it is one of those really old very “digital” sounding recordings from 20 years ago or more when digital recording was still developing.
      4. Most LPs nowadays are made from digital masters. So if they sound better to you than a digital copy in the same resolution as the master file, it doesn’t mean vinyl is “superior” – by definition such a record can’t be “superior”. It just means you prefer whatever coloration the vinyl playback adds. That’s fine, but don’t tell me the vinyl is somehow superior and more accurate.

      • Hey Danny – I’d love to be able to chalk things up to taste but to do so first requires a the general consensus among the majority of audiophiles that neither format sounds better than the other; that digital files can cut it with the black stuff. You don’t tend to hear too many digiphiles proclaiming ones and zeroes as superior. And if you do, they don’t come close to the piety of the more hardcore vinylphiles who really LOVE to peddle the ‘nothing sounds better than vinyl’ mantra as if it were accepted wisdom. Such is the righteous nature of some vinyl die-hards that any challenge to their preferred format’s (alleged) superiority is often met with condescension (“You’ve obviously not heard a good vinyl system”) or off-hand dismissal.

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