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Global feedback: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon vinyl vs. digital

  • 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.

    1) Sample A
    2) Sample B

    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:

    [poll id=”3″]

    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.

    Further information: Pro-Ject | PS Audio | AlpineSoft

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. 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. “A” had good dynamics and the guitar had better bloom, but my gosh it was an assault on the ears. The cymbals were a death ray. A minute was more than I could take on the studio monitors I was using for listening, even with tubes in playback the chain. “B” was more listenable but the image was flatter and dynamics seemed compressed. This was a contest between mediocre and terrible.

      Can you attempt the same test with a better recording, say, a small jazz ensemble?

      • Thanks for the feedback BradleyP. I *might* follow-up with a different recording but it probably won’t be a jazz ensemble – sorry.

      • I agree with the flatter dynamics of B. I was listening on Philips X1s and the A sample just sounded more “alive” but thankfully without the harshness.

        • You inadvertently raise a good point, Ty: the hardware being used by poll voters. Thanks for providing some insight.

    2. I agree with Brad. Besides the snap, crackle, pop I immediately recognized the less dynamic pres of the vinyl.
      Thing is we are conditioned to expect more – more resolution, more dynamics, etc. In this respect the vinyl sounds feeble compared to the CD rip. That may be the paradox (trap). If you didn’t compare you would be happy with the vinyl and in the long run your ears could possibly benefit.
      It’s all relative. Real chicken broth tastes great until you compare it to the powdered stuff. Then it seems to be missing something. Personally I think I may have gone as far as I care to with the bigger dynamics and higher resolution quest. Maybe the secret in enjoying the music is in toning it down a bit. I guess that’s the music lover in me trying to convince the audiophile that he’s the problem when most likely bad recordings are the real (underlying) problem.

      • Yes, very easy to get caught up in the journey’s wanderlust, to find yourself always wanting more!

        BTW – don’t you find the CD rip a bit too strident?

    3. They sound very different but choosing which I like better was a tough call. Overall I’ll take the more dimensional, more energetic Sample A to the smooth but flat sound of Sample B. My system is smooth and warm to begin with so maybe that’s why A didn’t tear my ears off.

    4. Yes I did find the CD rip strident on a pair of Grados plugged into my PC’s sound card.
      Then I wondered if it was just louder as it appeared to be. -10dB vs -15dB on the Foobar VU meter if that means anything (I’m no expert)

    5. I agree with RM. Maybe because I’ve tried hard to get a system that sounds GOOD with ripped CD’s I found I prefer that to the vinyl.
      Macbook Pro USB > Peachtree Nova > Magnepan MMG’s

    6. I’m not someone who likes silk shirts or even flannelette shirts. But I like punchy flavours in my food.
      Sample B reminded me of a beige flannelette shirt (silk liner) with buttered toast as the meal.
      Sample A was the crisp shirt you’d wear on a first date to restaurant serving some modern twist of Thai food.
      I love the concept & ritual of vinyl but this confirms again that digital is the right medium for me.

    7. Apologies; I haven’t taken the test but I have a valid experience to pass on.
      Years ago, I had the vinyl album, ‘Happy Moods’ by Ahmad Jamal and played it to death; I adored it.
      Over 25 years later, I found it in iTunes and immediately bought it.
      The iTunes album claims to be ‘Digitally Remastered’ and is delivered in 256kbps AAC.
      Result? I am thrilled as I find absolutely NO discernible differences to the original (given I last heard the vinyl copy aeons ago) with the obvious exception of the lack of the obligatory snap, crackle and pop that accompanied the black discs.
      The digital version is as embracing as the one found in the tatty cardboard sleeve.
      Nothing, but nothing would persuade me to buy a new record deck and dig out the original. And that goes for ALL the other albums that I now own in ‘ones and zeros’.

    8. John, you’re missing an *incredibly* important factor here. Assuming our hypothetical newcomer listens to real music instead of the stuff they play at audio shows, they should absolutely, positively, 100% without equivocation, buy a turntable, and it’s got nothing to do with nostalgia or “vinyl warmth” or tactility or anything else like that.

      In the pure abstract, yes, digital beats vinyl. While I’ve seen some data showing that vinyl’s theoretical dynamic range is closer to 90dB rather than 60dB, and it has an upper frequency response limit of 40kHz+, in addition to a lack of any effects from aliasing or reconstruction filters, it also has surface noise (depending on pressing quality), end of side distortion, potential rumble issues, etc. However, that’s simply not how things work in practice, and if you care at all about sound, vinyl will treat you SO much better than CD.

      Since 1992, the industry has decided that digital audio should be produced for the absolute lowest common denominator, worst imaginable scenario. The person listening to their music on laptop speakers, or on the bus or train via $2 iPod earbuds. So even if you own a $100K dCS digital stack, another $100K worth of Vitus or Boulder electronics, and *another* $100K worth of Rockport or YG Acoustics speakers, the music industry assumes you will be listening to laptop speakers or $2 earbuds, and you get to buy the same CD as everyone else who *is* doing that. The more you spend on your system and the better it sounds, the more revealing it is, the more the music industry punishes you, unless you listen to the music they play at audio shows.

      But! You may say, sure mainstream CDs may all be terrible, but you could go to Pono or HDTracks and buy HD, and that will get the most out of your high dollar system. Nope. In most cases, the mastering for the CD and HD release for a mainstream artist is absolutely identical. Same garbage, just in an HD bucket.

      Vinyl is the oasis for those of us that still care about sound. Those of us that *don’t* use laptop speakers and cheap earbuds. Those of us that want to hear kick drums and bass guitars and cymbal crashes and snare drum reverb, rather than a cacophony of hyper loud clipping distortion.

      Taylor Swift’s 1989 continues to absolutely dominate the charts. Both the CD and “HD” releases are hyper loud trash. The vinyl is not. Meghan Trainor’s “Title” topped the charts at the end of January. The CD is hyper loud trash. I don’t know about the vinyl, but at least there’s the chance that it has some dynamics. In February it was Fall Out Boy. Again, the CD is complete garbage. Same thing with Drake. Same thing with the latest from Imagine Dragons, which is the current #1 album.

      When it comes to the music that most people buy, there’s almost a stone cold guarantee (unless it’s Jack White or Fiona Apple) that some producer will demand that the CD release be smashed to bits so that it sounds “good” on somebody’s laptop speakers, and buy doing so, they slap all of us who care about sound in the face. The days when guys like Quincy Jones would produce fantastic sounding mainstream albums like Thriller are simply gone. They’ve been gone for twenty years, and what’s so incredibly aggravating is that *nobody* wants to talk about it. The industry won’t talk about it, Neil Young won’t talk about it, and what’s worse, Hi-Fi enthusiast outlets like Stereophile generally don’t talk about it either, or when they do, its to say “hey it’s what the kids like these days” or “hey it’s just another form of artistic expression” when neither is true in the slightest.

      Audio reviewers and bloggers should be screaming about this issue from the rooftops, I just don’t understand why it’s treated like the first rule of Fight Club. Can you imagine if all of the best restaurants in the world decided to get together and start serving gruel? How would food critics react to that? Because that’s what happened. In 1992, everybody decided to take Filet Mignon off the menu, and replace it with gruel. But hey, I guess that’s how the chefs want to make it, and the kids keep on eating it, so I guess it’s fine.

      If like me, you still want the Filet Mignon, then you’re going to want to buy a turntable.

      • I’m not *missing* the point about how CD masters are sometimes/often different to those used to press the vinyl, I’m *choosing* to ignore it for the time being. And whilst, yes, a lot of modern CD masters have been compressed out the wazoo, it doesn’t necessarily follow that a new ‘vinyl friendly’ master will be made for the black stuff. I’m willing to bet the majority of releases stem from a 24/96 master that’s used to make both the vinyl and the CD.

        Affecting systemic change with mastering practices in the music industry is an uphill struggle that falls way down my list of priorities when choosing what to write about on DAR.

        • But then what are you testing here *exactly*? The accuracy of the needle drop?

          These files are going to be played in different chains with different house sounds, i.e. if I take your files and play both of them through my digital system, all I am testing is how well you extracted the analog waveform into bits (basically your ADC).

          So with Dave’s point in mind, if you are NOT buying vinyl for its collectibility then you are buying it for either two purposes:

          1) You prefer your vinyl playback chain over your digital one

          2) You believe the vinyl master is less limited and therefore sounds better than its compressed digital counterpart. You can hear this by needle dropping the LP, ripping the CD or downloading the digital release, and comparing.

          Your test obviously covers option 2, but certainly not option 1 (since that is entirely playback chain dependent).

          Was that your intention? If not, I’m not sure what you are driving out here. (I say this with the utmost respect for DAR).

          • I’m not trying to drive anything out myself – I’m letting you guys do that. 😉

      • Dave, I think you’re missing several ‘factors’ here.
        Not everyone is buying ‘rock and/or roll’ (thank you Rev. Lovejoy) or ghastly conveyor-belt pop.
        We are not all listening to our digital files on $2 earbuds.
        Many jazz labels such as ECM are doing a superb job recording and mastering and then handing over to iTunes ‘Mastered for iTunes’ copies which sound stunning, both on big systems and through quality ‘phones.
        Finally, our man Darko has done a superb job of drawing everyone’s attention to it.
        Yes, I miss album sleeves with notes and the beautiful pristine new disc therein but, boy, am I grateful for ones and zeros.

    9. The B sample has less dynamic, it’s true, but it’s more natural. I can hear also a tiny bit of reverb aura around the voice and harmonica that makes it much more pleasant. Another remark is about the consistency of the message. The A sample is harsh and basses have a loudness effect, but stable. B is rounded but I can hear a bit of flutter in the bass frequencies.
      Just my two cents.
      Thanks for your site and greetings from Italy!

    10. Vinyl-
      Sort of nice and rolled off, lacking dynamics
      Digital. Sounds way better to me. Not harsh, but on a spectrum of harsh vs. “soft”, more towards the harsh end than the other.

      I like vinyl, but pretty much every time I’ve heard a comparison like this one, I’ve preferred the digital. The only exceptions are some old extremely “digital” (meaning poorly done) sounding CDs.
      My vinyl loving friends think I’m either crazy or deaf. But apparently what sounds harsh to them sounds dynamic and real to me. To each his/her own.

    11. I agree with most comments above. In the end I found my foot tapping along to A as it had more punch, more forward sound. Sample B was slightly too laid back and warm to rock out to. Interesting as it’s kind of counter intuitive to what I would normally prefer which is a laid back analogue sound. (Listening on itunes via Pure Music + Geek Out).

    12. I do have a couple of thoughts…
      I didn’t find the CD rip too strident…I thought it was more revealing. As previously mentioned, the listening equipment may be a factor (I’m using Momentums, which have a warm tilt…I’ll bet I’d have a different opinion on a pair of Ety’s or something similar)
      I am also used to CD’s as my main source, so there is likely a bias…I don’t have a turntable in my setup.
      I felt I wanted to turn the Vinyl recording louder…that may have been the disadvantage to putting it as the “b” selection, but I did enjoy the smoothness of the sound.
      I have always felt there is a place for both mediums, and this little exercise does strengthen that opinion…for me.

    13. I was ready to cast my vote for A, by what I thought was a significant margin, deciding that A was more dynamic and less veiled than B. Then I upped the volume a bit, and it became harder to choose.
      At lower volumes I prefer A, and by a margin. At higher volumes it’s much harder for me to call. The louder I play them, the more I’m inclined to go with BradleyP’s observations. There’s an edge to A at higher levels that goes beyond being crisp. Are the two samples level matched?
      FWIW, I’m using a Halide DAC HD / Sugden Headmaster / Shure 1840 headphones

      • The two samples are not level matched, no. I did normalise the vinyl sample to -0.5db in Audacity but I’ve had to leave level matching to readers.

    14. I voted for Track B
      I think track A is a bit to harsh in the treble, (the typical digital artifact).
      I reacted on one thing though, the Digital version is at least 2-3 db louder. If track A and track B are level matched, the digital version must be more volume compressed? Right? Or maybe, the people that mastered this particular song didn’t bother to do a special vinyl master for this one but simply used the cd-master with lower amplitude to fit on the less dynamic vinyl format?

      • That’s right – I purposefully chose an album for which I’m fairly confident the SAME master was used for CD and vinyl.

    15. I have no prior experience of vinyl and I am shocked how much different both of these sound, apart from the surface noise. I know about the theoretical DR difference but I always assumed it will not be so obvious.
      Thanks for the comparative files John, No vinyl for me!

      • Be careful here – this comparo only really gives a sense of what the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon might sound like, and not ‘vinyl’ in general. Higher-end turntables might well offer far more. And I shall be investigating this down the line…

        • My last statement was more of an exaggeration than anything else. I am sure vinyl has much to offer. I am just happy with my digital

    16. Follow up: I am doing some comparisons between using the files DAC direct from my Geekout and piped through to my vintage amplifier. I am using headphones BTW.
      I continue to prefer the dynamic contrasts of file A though this also reveals the limitations of the geekout amplifier. The bass response and general tone on my big amp is much superior probably due to higher power delivery.

    17. I just played them straight on a laptop using the crappy little speakers in it and the difference is obvious there.

    18. John, How much close is the needle drop to listening to the turntable with your system?

    19. The first thing I noticed is that A is far louder than B and the second thing is that B has a tad more dynamic range. As it’s unfair to compare 2 audio samples at different levels (the louder one will always sound like giving you more details) I loaded the 2 samples in Adobe Audition, analysed it and, no worries mates, A is 5 dB louder than B. Once level-matched the 2 samples sound a lot more like the same. The analysis also clearly shows that B has more dynamic range than A. I also took the opportunity to start and finish both samples at the same time (getting rid of the needle drop and surface noise at the start). I’ve got 3 Word documents which are snapshots of my computer screen and give evidence of what I described above as well as a flac file with both samples level-matched at your disposal.
      I don’t know if it can be uploaded here or even if John D. is happy to have them published?
      Another thing that can be noticed is that, if John D. made no manipulation mistakes and if, as he said, the vinyl master is the same as the CD one, because of the difference in the dynamic range something went wrong either at the record/CD plant or with John D. equipment.
      Also the fact that the vinyl master is the same as the CD one is very bad news as the first ‘raison d’etre’ of mastering is to make the product (the result of the mix ie the 2-track final mix) compatible with the future medium. If you plan to release your mix on vinyl, CD and radio for instance 3 masters have to be made as these 3 media have different requirements as far as bandwidth, dynamic range, frequency range and EQ.
      I hope I haven’t been too long or pedantic.
      Ah, by the way, I prefer B, sounds more natural to me.

    20. Do the people preferring Sample B who go on to wax lyrical about vinyl’s superioroty to digital fail to realise that Sample B has been ditigisied @ 44.1?


    21. Interesting, I’m staggered that more people haven’t said the test isn’t valid. I would love an A B comparison such as this one but it can only be done in the flesh, I just don’t get it? How can you judge vinyl if it’s been digitally processed. April the 1st is a few weeks off yet.

    22. Glancing through the Dynamic Range Database, of my own records the vinyl copy has either greater dynamic range or at least the same as CD/Redbook. None of them are worse. I haven’t found a real world example of a digital file released with greater dynamic range yet, but my record collection isn’t as large as some of you and doesn’t include any classical. If any of you have time to research, I would love to find some digital files with greater dynamic range. My system is optimized for both so I’m relatively agnostic to source when listening. I prefer buying vinyl because it’s tangible vs. 1s and 0s which are much harder to touch.

    23. Allright John I think I know what you want to do here…
      You compare the MEDIUM cd-vs vinyl. Not what difference there could and SHOULD be if done right, but how vinyl is sold to us? And this case, is it really worth it?

      Or maybe I’m miss understood your attentions…

      In fact, since I only listen to digital tracks these days, I tweaked my system to handle that “digital” harsh sound to work without fatigue. But still, even if there is more ooouump and tight transients, I still missing some of that true analogue sound we got from tape masters and vinyl in the 70:s. 🙂

      And it’s very hard to technically explain what it actually is that some of us prefer that “inferior” analogue sound, but in a more subjective point of view, it sounds more natural. Detail without hardness and over energized treble, maybe, in fact, the only thing I actually think digital usually does better is Bass. I like tight Bass and Mr digital seems to think alike…

    24. Hey! I am a kid of 80’s, so digital age hit me in the right time, but for me it is B.
      A is just pushing too much, like a racer who wants to be first.
      B is more like a leaf in the wind, singing along, enjoying the moment.
      Thank you!

    25. Well, I like how smooth B is but I also like “resolution” on A… High freq. is bit sharp on sample A even with what I consider to be very smooth system (PC -USB- Linnenberg Vivace DAC – Violectric V200 – Senn HD600) . My vote is A but I would like the sound of AB 🙂

    26. Didn’t bother to fire-up the big system and listened near-field from the laptop into Naim Unitiqute driving a pair of Eclipse-TD508Mk3.
      Even without level-matching the soundstage on B was way deeper, even though the whole thing appeared to be generally recessed. With levels matched (roughly) guitar came forward with vocals staying at the same depth (so the overall depth increased). B also had more ambience and a tighter, more rounded bass…
      Still, I believe, the general impression and preference comes down to habit and expectation. I started listening to music live, on vinyl and tape. This is what I’d come to love and expect. This is what I am looking for. Doesn’t make it better or worse. Just keeps it ‘mine’

    27. I didn’t vote cause they both sound bad – get youself a decent cartridge or better yet a decent table. Here’s why this test isn’t fair. At my house the digital side adds up to $1400 – Mac Mini, Schiit Bifrost Uber, Audirvana. The analogue side $600 – Debut Carbon , Schiit Mani. The $800 difference could get you a Pro-Ject RPM 5.1 with Ortofon 2M Bronze. Compare that. (or better still wait for the new RPM 3 or RPM 5 to ship.)

      • I’m not after a fair test per se, Ken. Just trying to see how well an entry level table + vinyl stacks up against its digital counterpart. I do have a MUCH better TT waiting in the wings.

    28. Fascinating that the results at the moment are almost split right down the middle at 50/50.

      I personally prefer the “vinyl” rendition.

    29. While I find the vinyl sample more relaxing and less “distorted” (yes, in quotes seems fitting) the CD sample’s amplitude/volume is higher which could be a factor of perceived harshness here and not what it could have been translated as wider dynamics or higher detail/resolution. If the CD sample had the same amplitude as to that of the vinyl one I would have probably chosen the CD sample. Under certain perspectives the vinyl sample could sound distant for some. But that’s not entirely true as the music piece stands by its own but as it compares to its digital variant. Although I’m a child of the digital age and a high end enthusiast, still not so young (39) as to not have witnessed analog as the standard when I was a kid, I’m going for Sample B simply because distortion (with or without quotes) seems unacceptable in my audio bible. Only second thoughts as of the amplitude argument.

    mp3tag arrives on OS X (sort of)

    Global feedback: Pro-Ject Debut Carbon vinyl vs. digital (reprise)