It must be confusing for the newcomer joining the audiophile conversation for the first time. Should he go vinyl or digital? The former’s inherent tactility and collectability seem appealing until he reads of vinyl’s surface noise, a more limited (theoretical) dynamic range and inner-groove distortion.
Digital heads will be point to their FLAC/ALAC files’ absence of clicks and pops, ~96db dynamic range – compared to vinyl’s ~60db – and their vanishingly small storage requirements as compelling reasons to go digital; a hard-drive, a computer and a DAC is all you need to get up and running with digital audio.
Fans of the black stuff will then point to digital’s ‘harsh’ sonic presentation as reason to stay the hell away. They’ll bemoan digital audio’s lack of warmth. Some will even be heard saying it has no soul. “It’s easier to relax into a vinyl album than its CD equivalent”, says almost every vinyl fan to our incoming entry-leveller.
Buying and collecting vinyl is also more of a social experience than downloading digital files. And besides, vinyl is back, baby.
Let’s put the recent upturn in sales into perspective though:
What a muddle.
CDs and their associated hard drive ‘rips’ might present as better on paper. Objectively speaking, digital playback seems to best vinyl. However, sit down and listen to a well dialed in vinyl-fronted hi-fi rig and you’ll inevitably pick up on the subjective superiority of the black stuff. So the dogma goes.
I have a couple of questions at this juncture. Could its sometime rolled off treble be why some find vinyl to sound warmer than its digital cousin? Could received wisdom be why many young folk can be heard espousing vinyl’s ‘richer’ sound (when compared to CD)? Is this mindset a mechanism with which vinyl lovers self-justify a purchase whose opportunity cost is month or two of lossless streaming?
Just as it is with tube amplifiers, is it not the colour and distortion inherent in vinyl playback that renders it so enjoyable to many? Instagram filters wildly distort and colour their source photos but in many cases rescue the original from being tonally one-dimensional or lacking in contrast. My point? Filters add colour and that colour can be enjoyable. That’s as true for Instagram as it is for tubes or vinyl.
Our newcomer would do well do separate the subjective claims from the objective. If vinyl sounds better to him then it is subjectively better. However, that does nothing to change digital audio’s objective technical dominance over spinning wax.
Lastly, our newcomer must ask: “Which vinyl?” and “Which digital?”. Not all turntables sound alike. Ditto DACs and digital transports. This in itself effectively renders the whole digital vs. vinyl debate meaningless.
Rather than attempt to re-ignite a theoretical exchange, I thought it would be interesting to field the DAR readership on which they find more enjoyable: a CD-rip or the entry-level vinyl equivalent. I can’t invite you into my lounge room to compare the pair so the next best thing is to put two files online. One is a minute’s slice of a song, direct from the ripped CD, the other is the same song slice needle-dropped from the record and encoded to the same bit- and sample-rate as the CD.
The turntable used, the Debut Carbon DC from Pro-Ject, is widely regarded as one of the best entry-level offerings around. I prefer it to the Rega RP1.
For those keeping score, the Pro-Ject used for what follows was the newer ‘DC’ iteration. Also noteworthy is its cartridge. In Australia the Debut Carbon arrives not with a Ortofon 2M Red pre-installed (as it does in the USA). Aussies get an OM10, also from Ortofon.
Before dropping the needle, the turntable was spirit-levelled and its tracking force double-checked. The cut of choice is Prefab Sprout’s “Billy” (from Crimson/Red), chosen because of its harmonica-driven refrain, acoustic guitar strum, nimble bass guitar line and Paddy McAloon’s velvet-coated vocal.
Doing the digitising is the NuWave Phono Converter from PS Audio (reviewed here and here), essentially a phono pre-amplifier with in-built ADC. It spills ones and zeroes over S/PDIF and USB so I connected the latter using a Light Harmonic LightSpeed 1G USB cable to a Macbook Air running AlplineSoft’s Vinyl Studio. Phono-staging and RIAA curve correction is handled by the PS Audio box.
The PS Audio NPC’s front panel lets us set the data output format – DSD or PCM – and the associated sample rates. I went with PCM, 16bits, 44.1kHz. The file captured by Vinyl Studio was then moved into Audacity where it was truncated to a minute before being normalised to -0.5db. The CD rip was loaded into Audacity so that it too could be chopped down to a minute in length.
Both .wav files can be grabbed here. They’re 10Mb apiece.
The needle drop sound and ensuing surface noise gives up the vinyl rip in a heartbeat so blind testing is probably out of the picture. Instead, the game is simple: listen and then vote for the audio sample you find most agreeable:
The poll will remain open until 18th March 2015. The poll is now closed.
Comments are welcome below but please, play nice. This isn’t a holy war; it’s hi-fi.
UPDATE: A second set of samples for comparative listening and voting can be found here.