... and other music-related stuff

LP vs CD

Since the 1980s the CD has become the primary format for the distribution of commercially-produced recorded music, replacing the vinyl LP after several decades of development. CDs are the result of significant technological advances in digital recording and data storage. But are CDs better than LPs? Well, yes and no.

2011 update: The CD is now only one of a number of formats for the distribution of recorded music, commercially-produced or otherwise. However, similar LP-vs-CD arguments as presented below can still be applied to newer formats such as the MP3.

In terms of of convenience, the CD wins hands down, giving the user the ability to change tracks at the touch of a button, or to listen to music on the move. The CD easily beats the LP for durability, with zero playing wear and resistance to damage of the stored recording if handled reasonably carefully.

Things are not so clear-cut when it comes to sound reproduction, though. Many people still refuse to 'go digital' because they are convinced that their old analogue LPs simply sound better. Are they merely Luddites who resist the advance of technology because they prefer the old ways? No: the answer is that they hear their LPs played on equipment that actually does the job of extracting the signal from the record efficiently.

What analogue audiophiles have realised is that those little grooves contain GREAT SOUND. In the 1970s, a Glasgow engineer by the name of Ivor Tiefenbrun researched turntable design, and concluded that even the most expensive available at that time could not adequately get that great sound off the record. In subsequently designing the Linn Sondek LP12, Tiefenbrun recognised that a record-player is primarily a mechanical system, and that the tiny modulations in a record groove cannot be properly interpreted by a system that introduces its own vibrations.

This is why I continue to listen to records played on a Linn Sondek rather than an inferior, vibrating direct-drive turntable. When played on a turntable such as a properly set-up Linn, vinyl can more than match CD for sound accuracy. To the listener, the differences are immediate and obvious in comparison with any turntable which is not properly designed, however expensive.

Before the advent of CD, in the 1970s and 80s the Linn Sondek became established as by far the most successful way to play vinyl, though many other designers have since gone to similar lengths to design high-end turntables that equal or even surpass the Linn's capabilities. The problem is that all such devices are expensive, usually costing a four-figure sum. Because of this, most people's experience of records is that they sound poor and have background noise which can drown out a low-level recording.

CD players, on the other hand, generally extract the maximum information from the disc, and without background noise. However, CDs contain a lower-quality version of the original recording (dithered down to 16-bit from 20/24-bit), otherwise CDs (compact discs) would not be compact! With a CD you don't get everything that was recorded in the first place, whereas an LP contains a faithful copy of the original master. No-one can deny, though, that CDs sound pretty good. In fact, in the experience of most people, CDs sound much better than LPs ever did, because they only ever heard dreadfully abused LPs played on a poorly-designed plastic box.

From reading this article you may be wondering whether to invest in a high-end turntable. As an analogue audiophile myself, I'd encourage you to do so, if you have a significant number of vinyl records or a ready source of supply. You will hear your records like you've never heard them before. Have a look at the current version of the Linn Sondek LP12.

While high-end analogue hi-fi is sonically superior to digital as represented by the CD, we also know that even 16-bit digital audio can come close to analogue in quality if handled by sympathetic engineers, and is much more consistent and durable.

A question often asked:

Can CDs made from LPs ever sound better than CDs made by the recording company from the original master tapes?
Yes, it is very possible. Imagine an LP made in, say, 1971 from a fairly new analogue master tape. The LP contains a faithful copy of the original recording. The same recording was digitised by the recording company in, say, 1991. The original master tape will have had twenty years in which to deteriorate, and as magnetic tape is not a permanent audio storage medium for analogue signals, deterioration will definitely have taken place to some degree. The freshness and clarity of the recording will have been affected and print-through (unwanted magnetisation of adjacent tape layers) increased. A sympathetic digital restoration of the signal from a mint copy of the 1971 LP could exceed the quality of the commercial CD released by the recording company.