Vinyl as a High Resolution Format

<Please note below that words in bold are links to other webpages>

I continue to be perplexed when vinyl is proclaimed to be “high resolution” with the implication that digital, and especially “redbook” digital, is not. For example, the Audiophiliac recently posted this. Now I took a previous shot at this discussion here. And I intend to write a more technical post later sharing some interpolation experiments I have been doing.

For now let me offer a few brief points:

1) Most vinyl today is produced from a digital recording. Arguments that claim vinyl (analog) audio is inherently superior to digital are clearly nonsense for cases where the final product (say a vinyl lp) has a digital audio master tape as its source.

2) Digital audio technology is often not well understood and incorrect arguments are made about its inadequacies. For example, I have read assertions that “vinyl tracks the analog signal exactly, while digital is quantized into steps.” Both analog and digital systems have noise, and digital quantization, handled properly, is another form of noise that is likely to be much lower in level than noise from an analog source. A lot of good information is written up as vinyl myths.

3) I like vinyl, and I have heard vinyl systems that sound really good.  But it is clearly an imperfect medium – the vinyl suffers from wear and tear, it gets dirty, etc.  In terms of dynamic range, I’ve read that vinyl has about 80db, clearly a lot less than 16 bit digital. When making a vinyl master from say a 24 bit digital recording a lot of processing has to take place to limit the highs/lows/softs/louds of the audio signal so that during playback the turntable’s stylus will not jump out of the groove; there are limits on what grooves can be successfully tracked. There is a well known equalization process (which surely must introduce noise and distortion) to reduce the bass and high frequencies for vinyl (see stereophile), and the overall sound is compressed – soft passages are made louder, loud passages made softer (more information).

4) In this blog I have made frequent mention of my high regard for Spendor loudspeakers.  Another very fine speaker company with a BBC pedigree is Harbeth UK, and I would wager a fair number of Harbeth owners are also vinyl owners.  There is a very sophisticated and enlightening discussion thread in the Harbeth User Group forum.

5) It is hard to objectively compare say vinyl and digital because often the recordings are different, or mastered differently, and one can put together a system that better flatters one medium or another.  A digital system is going to be more neutral in frequency response, so a system (cartridge, preamps, etc.) that flatters vinyl by deviating from neutrality in a pleasing way may sound bad with a more neutral system (e.g., digital).  I have digital and vinyl versions of certain recordings and in some cases I like the vinyl version better – not because there is something wrong with digital technology, but because I don’t like what the mastering engineer did to change the recording for digital or I do like what was done for vinyl.

A final comment, for what it’s worth.  About a year ago, I went to a boutique high end dealer, very nice fellow, I wanted to hear a certain brand of loudspeakers.  This shop was clearly “pro vinyl” and the dealer, in a non-pushy way, was trying to sell customers on his customized turntables and related equipment, and made frequent comments about the “organic sound” and “warmth” of vinyl. I brought in and played several of my vinyl records, and they sounded great, it was clear that his turntable/cartridge/phono pre-amp were a cut above my home system (albeit a lot more expensive too!). The dealer also had a vacuum tube DAC, and my compact discs sounded worse through his system than through my home system. If I had measuring equipment we could probably explain what was going on, it seemed to me though that the dealer had put together a system that was optimized for vinyl.



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