Category: Analog Vs. Digital

Which is better, CDs or Vinyl Records?

Perhaps you have heard of the debate about which is better, vinyl records or CDs. This question can be reduced to studying their differences. When playing vinyl records you are typically listening to an analog representation of a musical performance.  When playing a CD you are typically listening to a digital representation of a musical performance.

Analog Chart

“Analog” sound is natural sound as it is created and heard in our daily lives. We hear analog sounds as smooth, continuous wave of air pressure pulses (vibrations).

How Sound is Created and Heard

This discussion begins with the creation of sound itself.  Everything in nature that creates a sound creates an analog sound, which also happens to be the only kind of sound that we can hear.  And don’t forget the importance of air because without air we have no sound.  It is the air pressure pulses in the form of vibrations that allow our ears to hear sound.

Only in a studio using digital sound synthesis being directly recorded into a digital recorder is a digital sound actually created(but not heard). Even then you cannot actually hear it until it is converted to an analog sound and reproduced via a speaker.

Analog to Digital Conversion

Analog Conversion

Have you ever seen this displayed on a CD or a vinyl record?

“This is a pure digital recording”

Well let’s stop right there.  First you must realize that a digital recording can be converted to analog for playback on vinyl, and that an analog recording can be converted to digital so it can be played back on a CD.

What about CDs?

Let’s talk about CDs.

First you must remember that the specification for CDs was developed way back in 1979. At that time the cost of electronics was quite high compared to what it is today, particularly as it relates to their speed.

The CD specification just barely covers the audio spectrum that the human ear can hear, that is, 20 cycles to 20,000 cycles per second.  This represents the lowest and highest sounds that a typical ear can hear although many of us hear though a substantially narrower range, and a few of us can hear beyond this range.

My Thoughts on Digital Vs. Analog Sound

The vinyl record is my preferred media for active listening to recordings made in the 1950s and into the 1980s.

As discussed earlier, analog recordings played back on vinyl records add a certain amount of their own “noise” to the listening experience.  Some of this noise is not desirable such as the tics and pops associated with a record that is no longer in mint condition.  But it also adds a certain “warmth” and “life” that is missing from CDs.

To help explain my opinions in that regard I have several analogies and examples:

Vintage Car

Listening to vinyl as opposed to a CD is like looking at the paint on your car before and after you wax it. Vinyl sounds like a fresh wax job looks. It didn’t change the basic color but it enriches it making it fuller and more vibrant and full of life.

Another way of describing the difference between the sound of vinyl and the sound of CDs is to describe it in terms of visible and non-visible light rays;

Ultraviolet light is not visible to the human eye, but if you place an ultraviolet filter in front of your eyes you can see the difference made by removing ultraviolet light. I think of CDs as possessing a filter that does not allow all of the “colors” of the audio spectrum to be heard.  Perhaps that is good, or perhaps it is bad, but it is different, and I prefer the full spectrum of sound that vinyl provides.

Here is one last way of describing the fuller, richer sound that vinyl provides;

The CD specification stops abruptly at 20,000 cycles per second (20 KHz) whereas vinyl can reach all the way up to 45 KHz and beyond. Sounds above 20 KHz are simply not present on a CD which is OK in itself since it is above the hearing range that most humans can hear.  But that does not mean that the sounds above 20 KHz do not affect the sounds that are within the audible range. These higher tones can reflect tones back into the audible range.  This has the effect of enriching the sound that we can hear.

An imperfect analogy is to take a pure 440 Hz tone and compare it to its equivalent primary pitch on a piano which is referred to as A-440 (A below middle C). A pure tone of 440 Hz is dull and lifeless. The same fundamental tone on a piano causes many other “sympathetic” tones to be heard and for harmonics of the 440 Hz string to be amplified or augmented by other strings on the piano. So these inaudible pure tones above 20 KHz that are present on a vinyl record do have an effect on what you hear when playing back a vinyl record by affecting or generating tones that are audible.

One last augmentation should be mentioned and that is the sound that you hear when playing music back through a tube based preamp and amplifier when compared to transistor based amplifiers. Again, it adds “color” to the sound which you either like or not, but I do.

That’s my story and I am sticking to it.