Vinyl or CD - Which is Better?

By Daniel McAdam.

Having grown up listening to vinyl LP's, and having had at one time a fairly large record collection, the current interest in turntables and vinyl records is not surprising to me. There is a tactile satisfaction in carefully removing a vinyl record from its sleeve and gently placing it upon a turntable that one does not experience when opening a CD jewel case and delivering the compact disc to a compact disc player. But which provides a better listening experience - a vinyl record or a compact disc?


Non-Aural Aesthetic Considerations

If one is willing to concede that the "listening experience" is dictated primarily, but not solely, by what one experiences through one's ears, then there is reason to consider the non-aural lure of the turntable. Simply put, turntables are more visually appealing than CD players. CD players, even nice ones like the Marantz SA-11S3, are primarily boxes with controls on them.

A similarly-priced turntable, like the Pro-Ject Xtension 10, is a work of art by comparison, reminding us what people alive during the Age of Steam already knew; that machines can be beautiful.

The larger size of the vinyl record - and, hence, the larger size of the record cover art - also provides an advantage to analog recordings from a visual standpoint.

Do such non-aural considerations actually matter? The answer depends upon one's personal taste, to be sure. Watch Jason Statham's character in The Mechanic place a record on his turntable (which looks to be a Pro-Ject RPM 9), and then ask yourself if you would have formed a slightly different opinion of the character if he had simply fed a CD to his CD player.


Sound Characteristics

Sound, like everything perceived through the senses, is subjective. Two people can hear the same music played through the same sound system under identical conditions and come away with starkly differing opinions. Thus, from a purely personal point of view, either recorded format - vinyl or digital - can sound better to a particular individual. One often encounters a reference to "warmth" when discussing analog versus digital recordings, but warmth, when the term is applied to sound, is an entirely subjective issue.

From a purely technical point of view, compact discs win the sound-reproduction competition. Specifically, low bass is better captured on a CD because low bass is often reduced on vinyl pressings. Sound quality also varies on a vinyl record based upon the physical location of the groove one is playing; the grooves at the very outside of the record sound better than the grooves toward the inside of the record. There is no similar variation on compact discs. Then, finally, there is the sad truth that the act of playing a record can, over time, have a destructive effect on the record itself, which in turn will reduce the record's sound quality.

All that said, there is no doubt that a well-made vinyl LP will always be superior in sound to a less-well-made CD. Consideration should also be given to the idea that a vinyl record's limitations may actually work in its favor; a more restricted dynamic range may actually sound more appealing.


Maintenance and Convenience

Ironically, part of the appeal of turntables and records is that they require a great deal more maintenance than do CD players and CDs. Connoisseurs like to lavish care on the things they love, whether those things are things to listen to or things to drive. Returning to the protagonist in The Mechanic, one might watch him with his record and record player and think, "Here is a man who takes very great care of the few things he loves."

Which might be precisely the way you want to be perceived the next time you have a guest over.




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