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When hi-res audio can’t compete with vinyl…

  • Why bother with vinyl in 2023 when hi-res audio versions of selected titles are streamable? It’s not an unreasonable question. Walking right past the oft-expressed arguments about a large physical format, its artwork, ownership and collecting, vinyl pressed prior to the early 1990s allows us to get as close to the master tape as possible, often netting greater dynamic range compared to any subsequent remaster. Back in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, dynamic range compression had yet to become fashionable and mastering studio lacquers were cut by feeding the master tape’s output directly into the lathe that cut the lacquer. The lacquer was sent to the vinyl pressing plant for it to produce many thousands of vinyl copies.

    Nowadays, most mastering studios work in the digital domain, first encoding the master tape’s output to a digital file before adjusting its contents and cutting a new, ‘remastered’ lacquer by feeding the remastered digital file into a DAC and then its analogue output into the lathe. A record label’s marketing department will often obfuscate the interstitial digital step with a hype sticker that reads “Cut from the original master tapes”. Yes. But also no.

    And so we ask again: why bother with vinyl when we can stream – effectively for free – the digital file from which the lacquer was cut? The short answer is that the streaming file and the vinyl record are very often made from different masters.

    In two recent posts, we took a deep dive into the dynamic range scores of three different digital editions of Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense: the 1984 CD with DR14 (that contained 9 songs), 1999’s ‘Special New Edition’ CD with DR11 (that almost apes the movie’s tracklist and sequencing with 16 songs) and this year’s Deluxe Edition with DR9 that comes to us as a streamable/downloadable 24bit/44.1kHz file (with the 18 songs found on the original VHS and laserdisc releases).

    This is a common story where each subsequent remaster of an album sacrifices dynamic range in favour of a little more punch and improved detail. That punch often comes from the new master being (quite literally) louder than those that have gone before it. Record labels often demand ‘louder’ masters from mastering engineers even when those same mastering engineers know that the end result will be compromised. The engineers are simply giving the client what he or she is paying for.

    Fortunately for the sound quality-minded among us, the process of mastering for vinyl is often different from mastering for a digital release. Vinyl is intrinsically a more restrictive format: it puts technical limitations on just how far a mastering engineer can go in various directions. A vinyl master will generally a) sum low bass to mono (below 150Hz) and b) roll off the top end above 15kHz. In extreme circumstances, when a punchier cut closes out a side, the tracklisting will be re-jigged (see Peter Gabriel’s So). Ultra-loud (read: dynamically compressed) masters must be given more vinyl surface area or have their dynamic range compression dialled back.

    Resequencing the tracklisting obviously wasn’t on the table for the mastering engineer cutting lacquers for the 2LP Deluxe Edition of Stop Making Sense. Could it be that s/he cut a second, less dynamically compressed master for the vinyl edition? I was curious — and so were a handful of commenters responding to my most recent video on this topic. There was only one way to find out…

    Here was a chance to test out for the first time an E1DA Cosmos ADC that I’d bought just after Munich High-End this year. The ADC’s balanced XLR analogue inputs were connected to the analogue outputs of a PS Audio Stellar Phono pre-amplifier and its digital USB-C output to a MacBook Pro running Reaper recording at 44.1kHz.

    I’m no pbthal. In hindsight, I could’ve tweaked the cartridge loading to deliver a little more air and separation from the sound as the Cosmos ADC leans towards a subtly darker tonality (which isn’t a  bad thing). On turntable duties, I fed the PS Audio unit with a Thorens TD1500 turntable whose tonearm was fitted with a Thorens TAS 1500 MC cartridge. Whilst not an uber high-end vinyl front end, I’d still call it respectable.

    Reaper was used to cut the four-sided vinyl rip into 18 separate tracks and export them as 18 individual 16bit/44.1kHz FLAC files. I used mp3tag‘s MusicBrainz look-up to tag and rename those FLAC files before running DR Offline MKII across their surface:

    This vinyl rip returned an album average of DR13. Colour me surprised. As a control, I plucked a second vinyl rip of the same double LP from the internet aether – one that was obviously created with a different turntable, cartridge, phono stage and ADC – and found that it too had DR13. That’s a full four dynamic range points above its digital counterpart. And that second vinyl rip was encoded at 24bit/96kHz, thus underscoring my original article‘s main point that a hi-res file’s bit depth and sample rate tell us nothing about the more potent influence of mastering quality. Conversely, I could convert my vinyl rip FLACs to MP3 without touching the 2023 vinyl master’s dynamic range.

    Muddying the waters of today’s story is Roon. In analysing the dynamic range of an album, it uses a different algorithm and scale to MAAT’s DR Offline MKII. Roon reports DR5 for both the 24bit/44.1kHz digital download and the 16bit/44.1kHz vinyl rip.

    What does it sound like? Listening back to my own vinyl rip through the same Lyngdorf TDAI-3400 integrated amplifier and KEF R3 Meta loudspeakers (to which the PS Audio phono stage was previously connected), I heard less crisply defined layer separation and softer transients than the hi-res download played back through the same system but also more meat, especially in the midrange.

    The vinyl rip didn’t sound as nervy or as uptight (or as detailed!) as the hi-res download but if asked to choose only one set of FLACs as my forever version of Deluxe Stop Making Sense, I’d go with the vinyl rip. Whilst it doesn’t best the hi-res download/stream in all respects, here we have a solid example of why many people buy vinyl records in order to access a less dynamically compressed master.

    Further information: Talking Heads Official

    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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