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The inconvenient truth about vinyl

  • TL;DR. What follows might take several passes to absorb fully. Here’s a dumbed-down summary:

    The mainstream press raves endlessly about the warmth and richness of vinyl. Their implication is that vinyl sounds better than any digital format at every level, even the entry level. The mainstream buyer reads this and says, “Hey, I need to get me some of this!”. He scopes out a new turntable at the entry level and pushes his budget to the absolute maximum and buys an RP1. Audio nirvana is just around the corner? Except it isn’t. With record after record, the RP1 sounds rolled off in the top end, lacks separation and overall resolution, even when compared to a 320kbps Spotify stream and thus eroding the benefits of hearing a slightly different master (should the vinyl be pressed from one).

    Don’t just take my word for it, have a listen for yourself. These RP1 needle-drops were augmented by the same two slabs of wax digitised by the KORG ADC using a second Rega: a P3/24.

    Neither does entry-level turntablism hold a candle to higher-end vinyl rigs. This matters not a jot to those in it for the ritual, the collecting and the tangibility. Judged purely from a sonic perspective, buying a budget vinyl setup – like a Rega RP1 or a Pro-Ject Debut Carbon – is loaded with the very real risk of disappointment.

    An inconvenient truth because 1) this isn’t what the mainstream (read: non-audiophile) press, per the quotes below, wants us to believe and 2) because of the furious debate it will no doubt generate among those who mistake my conclusion – that ‘entry-level turntable sound quality is disappointing’ -for ‘digital sounds better than vinyl’.


    Vinyl. Maybe you’re into it because you enjoy the tangibility of a physical format: that large cover art, those lyric sheets. Or maybe you’re into the ceremony of playing a record: dropping the needle, flipping it halfway and then waiting for the next groove run-out. Maybe this process helps you take music listening from the passive to the active.

    Or perhaps vinyl keeps your inner collector fit and healthy. You enjoy the thrill of the chase – finding a hidden gem in a bargain bin in a store halfway across town; or on the other side of the world. Buying records, taking them home and playing them reminds you of years gone by. Few forces are as powerful as nostalgia’s emotional tug.

    These reasons – and more – are why vinyl is now six years deep into a revival that pretty much no-one would have predicted and more mainstream news outlets, including music magazines, just won’t shut up about stop covering.

    room-DAR_2
    My own record collection. Yes, I’m into vinyl in a BIG way.

    Most recently, we saw detailing of Nielsen/Soundscan’s half-yearly report for 2016. One highlight: vinyl sales are up 12% for the first six months of 2016 compared to the same period last year. Furthermore, vinyl now makes up 12% of all music sales revenue. Last year it was 9%. (A broader context can be seen here)

    These upward balance sheet shifts are far too large to be driven by the audiophile world alone. As reported last year, it’s the under 25s – millennials – who are driving vinyl’s revival.

    The best selling home audio product on Amazon.com for the Christmas period of 2015 was a turntable. Good news, right?

    Not so fast. If the record breaking Jensen turntable-cum-loudspeaker is anything to go by, the average millennial’s audio system is unlikely to reveal any of vinyl’s alleged superiority over MP3.

    Cooling our enthusiasm jets further is a recent survey that suggests a large portion of record buyers don’t ever spin their purchases. Could it be that some mainstream (i.e. non-audiophile) record buyers simply see vinyl as just another piece of artist-branded merchandise like a t-shirt or a poster?

    I have so far deliberately dodged the matter of vinyl’s sonic prowess. An ankle-deep Google search shows article after article remarking on vinyl’s ‘rich’ and ‘warm’ sound. Rich and warm. Warm and rich. Rich and warm. [See footnote 1].

    Laying out the red carpet for a game of vinyl revival-related buzzword bingo is this opening line from a recent FOX News piece: “A tiny needle slips into a groove on a hard vinyl disc and suddenly a rich, warm sound fills the room.”

    In quoting a Philadelphia-based DJ, SBS Australia claims, “The sonic quality of the vinyl format is so warm and full compared to all digital mediums.”

    truthaboutvinyl_1

    UK supermarket chain Tesco are now selling vinyl again. In the Express’s coverage: “the [vinyl] sound has a warmth to it that no megabyte can match”.

    Even as far back as 2012, Australia’s ABC asked, “Why do devotees of records describe the tone as ‘warm’ and ‘rich’ and how is digital different?” 

    The Philadelphia-based DJ interviewed by SBS continues, “It’s ridiculous. There is no reputable argument for that point [that digital sounds better].”

    Oh yeah? How about a digital file’s technical superiority: higher dynamic range, lack of inner-groove distortion and wider bandwidth?

    Here the discussion edges into audiophile territory. “Vinyl has a certain unassailable magic”, the wax wavers counter, “Digital is cold and harsh”. Lines are drawn and emotions are charged. Someone sounds the alarm for moderation and mediation. Cooling the flames: “If it sounds better to you, then it’s better”.

    Diffusing the debate before it reaches full heat is the notion that digital vs. analogue or CD vs vinyl is simply a matter of individual preference.

    Wind the tape back a bit though and we find ourselves a long way from the heavy implication consistently found in the mainstream press that digital is fine but if you really want a higher quality listening experience, vinyl is the way to go.

    Which is it? A matter of preference or is vinyl really the audibly superior format?

    Pity the poor consumer looking to get started with his first turntable when also faced with such mixed messages.

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    Recently, I put myself in the entry-level turntable buyer’s shoes and opted to look past the high cost of software when starting a record collection. The average new release LP [see footnote 2] goes out into record store display racks for around US$30. That same cash in the streaming world will buy you six weeks of Tidal Hifi’s “CD quality” tier.

    Our newcomer isn’t your average millennial – he’s thirty-something, has a little more disposable income nowadays. Some of his favourite artists include The White Stripes, LCD Soundsystem and Joanna Newsom. His favourite album of all time is Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Our newcomer has already sourced loudspeakers and amplifier, the latter sporting an in-built phono stage. The final piece of the puzzle remains an entry-level turntable. What to buy?

    The all-plastic shell of Audio Technica’s LP60-USB US$99 is a bit of a turn off. For thrice that, the metal chassis and direct-drive of the Technics-SL-1200-aping Audio Technica LP120 makes for a more compelling proposition.

    However, bringing home more audiophile credibility is the belt-driven Rega RP1 (US$445) [see Footnote 3], which comes with a Rega MM Carbon cartridge pre-installed. Setup could not be easier: slide on the counterweight all the way to the stop position and you’re done. Tracking force and anti-skate are already taken care of.

    After fifty hours of run-in, the stage was set for a showdown: CD rip vs. vinyl rip. I could simply tell you how the turntable’s output, shot through the Vinnie Rossi LIO’s phono stage, came up short on dynamics and clarity compared to digital files fired through its DAC.

    However, this time out I’m offering evidence so readers might get a taste of what I’m hearing.

    KORG’s DS-DAC-10R + AudioGate 4.0 were deployed as ADC – a pairing that offers digital-domain RIAA EQ correction and a choice of hi-res PCM or DSD file encoding. Feeling a little sorry for the RP1, I lent it a yellow Funk Firm Achromat.

    Now we needed an album for an A/B. One that offered a range of musical intensity, from heavy guitar grind to more fragile plucks, but also an album whose provenance remained unclouded by remasters or reissues. Preference would be given to an album that pre-dated the loudness wars.

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    Using the Rega RP1, each side of the vinyl LP was recorded to DSD64 in AudioGate running on an 11” Macbook Air and then exported to a 16bit/44.1kHz PCM file using KORG’s AQUA dither algorithm. The .wav was then converted to FLAC with XLD. Playback took came via a Vinnie Rossi LIO fitted with DAC, its MOSFET stage driving a pair of ELAC Debut B6.

    With the DS-DAC-10R sucking on USB power only and therefore easily transported, the same KORG ripping rig was setup across town with the same record meeting with a different turntable and cartridge combination: a Rega P3/24 fitted with a Dynavector 10×5 cartridge, which, like the Rega Carbon MM cartridge, offers a voltage output of 2.5mV.

    Why two ‘tables and two carts? To show how a digital file is a more-than-capable container for capturing the ‘magic’ (read: colouration) of vinyl playback…as well as its flaws.

    Unbeknownst to be at time of needle dropping side B of this desert rock record with the P3/24, the Dynavector stylus picked up fluff as playback progressed. Clarity took a serious hit and eventually the needle jumped during a macro-dynamic swing during the penultimate cut. In the interests of showing off the KORG ADC’s ability to leave no stone unturned, I elected not to re-rip.

    Back to the RP1-derived needle-drop. Perhaps its most obvious audible quality is a full body, which also means more congeal between layers and a lack of separation as heard from a FLAC’d CD rip of the same album (same master, same release date).

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    We also hear the RP1’s treble roll-off arrive earlier than the CD-sourced version – forgivable – but the lack of presence and immediacy from this Californian band’s lively drum section – one that really pops on the digital take and is pivotal to the some of the rockier moments’ emotional charge – has me wondering about vinyl’s ‘richness’ being a more polite way of saying “lacks resolution”. Is the RP1’s midrange simply too gloopy to allow safe passage for kicks and snares?

    On the other hand, one might describe the CD rip as more alert and cleaner. Accusations of sterility might also hold water but it’s the digital take that gets my vote on every single one of this album’s ten cuts, predominantly (but not only) because the digital take clears more space between proximate transients.

    Readers wanting to listen for themselves can download of a zip file (here) that contains the RP1 version and the P3/24 take, complete with fluffed side B. However, the digital version won’t come from yours truly – that’s a matter for you and your streaming service provider.

    As this site also caters to electronic music fans, a second piece of vinyl was chosen for the KORG A/D treatment before pitting the results against the CD-ripped equivalent.

    I’ll not say which record for obvious reasons (grab the zip file here – available for 48 hours ONLY) but again, the CD rip pulls ahead of the RP1 on layer separation and digs a fair way deeper into the mix.

    truthaboutvinyl_2

    For me, the digital file’s higher levels of caffeination really come into its own with this kind of music. Those who prefer their corners rounded at both ends of the frequency spectrum might put a hand up for the vinyl take. Possible – but doubtful.

    What isn’t really in any doubt is the baby Rega’s inability to deliver a superior listening experience to a digital file of the same bit-depth and sample-rate. One could argue that even a Spotify stream maxed out to 320kbps sounds better than this particular slice of entry-level turntablism.

    What that means for the record-spinning newcomer is a good deal of expense for very little (if any) gain over what s/he may already hear from digital files, which dollar for dollar, are considerably less costly, especially when sourced from a streaming service. This jives with my earlier experiments with the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon.

    The Rega RP1 isn’t all turntables. I’ve heard FAR better from more luxurious units (as probably have you).

    What has a harder time sticking to this scenario is vinyl playback’s alleged warmth, richness and the associated, heavily implied sonic superiority over digital, which is more likely a case of received wisdom being paid forward.

    Some might point to the importance of the mainstream covering the vinyl revival, irrespective of whether or not it puts the format’s supposed ‘rich’ and ‘warm’ traits to the test. And they’d have a point. But what if this positive coverage leads to numerous incidences of end-user disappointment? To the mainstream buyer, US$450 for a turntable is some serious wedge.

    My own experience correlates with word from more seasoned vinyl-philes: getting records to sound as good as, and then move past, digital’s performance standard takes serious cash. Thousands, not hundreds.

    Of course, this doesn’t stop anyone from enjoying records for their tangibility, their cover art, their lyric sheets, the listening ceremony or the hunt-and-kill of building a collection – all of which are sound reasons to look past a somewhat inconvenient truth that, in this entry-level instance, the sound of vinyl isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be.

    Further information: Rega | KORG


    Footnote 1: Occasionally we also see ‘organic’ and ‘authentic’.

    Footnote 2: Used records can be less expensive but, like used hardware, supply levels vary with time and place.

    Footnote 3: At time of writing, Australians have it unusually good. One can score a brand new RP1 for around AU$400 (~US$300) down under right now.

    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

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