Enter the Void of Cygnus X-1: A Vinyl vs. CD Comparison (Kinda)

After filling my speaker stands with kitty litter, the bass warble tones on Stereophile’s Editor’s Choice CD were less boomy from start to finish with greater depth within each warble tone and lower frequencies not heard previously were now audible thanks to a quieter noise floor, but after weeks of warble tones, I needed some real music.

First on the platter was Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding which features 3-piece band orchestrations, punchy yet meandering bass lines, and anguished harmonica playing from Mr. Zimmerman. While listening, the bass player’s melodic fills on “All Along the Watchtower” muddied the mix and masked Dylan’s vocals. One week later, my problems of unruly bass had returned.

Now I worried that the bass resonances were not a result of lively corners and speaker placement but because resonant frequencies were traveling back up through the legs of my flimsy turntable stand and vibrating through the cartridge, something SM had warned me about. I was particularly suspicious of this since since my Editor’s Choice CD’s bass warble tones seemed tamed played back through my Oppo DV-980H.

To settle this, I compared two of the same recording: one on CD and one on LP. Unfortunately the list of duplicate recordings in my possession was very short. It included The Police’s Synchronicity and Rush’s Moving Pictures and A Farewell to Kings. These groups offered a choice between two prominent bass players: either the hypnotic and driving pulse of Sting or Geddy Lee’s tarantula-like fretboard crawls spinning webs of both melody and rhythm. Since I was most familiar with Geddy’s bass tone and since it would best mimic the thwackiness of Paul McCartney’s bass as well as his upper bass presence, the sounds where I first noticed my bass problems, unlike Sting’s which would be a bit more bottom heavy, good ole’ Dirk and his Rickenbacker it was to help me identify whether the bass resonances were coming through my turntable or as a result of my room.

The most logical way to test this would have been to listen to Abbey Road again, but I chose to not as a symptom of my mild music-consumption OCD which prevents me from listening to the same record twice over a short period of time if it has already been put back in the sleeve. There are just too many records to listen to and not enough time to absorb them all if I keep on playing Abbey freaking Road.

I put on “Closer to the Heart” from A Farewell to Kings. The bass response was still out of control. At one point, one of Neil Peart’s kick drum thuds sounded like his kick pedal had broken through the woofer. Something had to be up. I checked my EQ, and it turns out the bass was cranked. My roommate Leeor had been listening to his Animal Collective records. WTF. I mean, it’s cool; I told him he could, but this made me question whether all my previous listening tests had been tampered with. Maybe my bass has been cranked for the past three weeks? Doubtful: this bass was intense. Woofers were cracking. The house was shaking. Neil Peart was bursting through my speakers.

I turned down the bass on the EQ so I could finally start to make some real comparisons between the vinyl and CD versions of Rush’s A Farewell to Kings.

At first, the CD grabbed me with its forward presentation, fuller bodied sound, and Geddy’s tacky and attack-filled bass tone. At the vinyl’s start, I was off-put by its quieter level compared to the CD. The acoustic guitars at the start of “Closer to the Heart” were calmer and less metallic, which I took to be an indication of lack of clarity and high-end precision, but as I continued to listen, the actual sonic differences came to light.

On “Closer to the Heart,” guitarist Alex Lifeson and producer Terry Brown layer multiple guitars in both channels. Through the CD, what I first recognized as a “full-bodied” sound now revealed itself to be clutter between the various guitar layers fusing the notes together and making them difficult to distinguish. On the vinyl, the more delicate and quieter guitar layers gave the arpeggiating acoustic and electric guitars room to breathe and be distinguished from one another.

The second and most painful difference between these two versions was Geddy’s bass tone and the huge disparity in low-end extension and resolution between the CD and LP versions. During the guitar solo on “Cinderella Man,” Geddy lays down a seriously funky bass-line intertwining with Peart’s hi-hat work and kick drum accents. For years on the CD version, I had grown to appreciate Geddy’s brittle and distorted Rickenbacker as unique but white-bread, but as I discovered when listening to the vinyl, Geddy’s tone is actually DEEP and full of soul. The harsh nature of his CD mastered tone in-no-way brought out the natural swing in his playing and instead just emphasized the front-end of each attack putting Geddy ahead of the beat instead of behind it, and in the end, robs the guitar solo of the bumping groove it so deserves.

Finally, the CD version sounded dynamic-less compared to the analog, particularly in terms of the shading of Peart’s tom-tom hits where the attack, air, and release were lost in the missing frequencies.

What a sham. I felt I had been robbed of a tiny piece of musical childhood. Who knew Geddy’s bass was that funky? I thought he was a dork because he always sounded so un-funky. Strike that—Geddy Lee is cool.

I looked up my CD version of A Farewell to Kings, and it is just a random and currently out-of-print Mercury release (D-118703). My LP copy, SRM-1-1184, is not a first pressing, and like the CD is just a run of the mill press from Mercury.

The CD version was much harder to listen to. While listening to the CD I found myself not focusing on the music and instead thinking about my own life. The vinyl would not let me stew. The CD caught my ear the quickest with its forward presentation and Geddy’s bass accenting every attack, but it also facilitated my ear’s departure the fastest as I could not sink into the spaces between the sounds as I could with the vinyl. This is not the digital medium’s fault. Actually, I’m pretty sure this can all be blamed on the mastering engineer who transferred the Rush recordings to CD. There are great sounding CDs out there that can capture one’s attention, just not this one.

After doing this comparison, I realized I cared about sound quality because the subtle details can make a huge difference. I cared not about the difference between the CD version and the analog but about the quality of the experience provided by each medium. In this moment of revelation, I actually feel I became an audiophile, a title I had avoided because I did not feel my music listening habits reflected those of the “normal” audiophile. I spend most of my time playing my guitar live or watching concerts. Records were primarily reserved for relaxation on the weekends. But now I know what it truly means to be an audiophile: dealing with the struggle of caring about your listening experience. This experience taught me that quality can matter and can even change the message of the music. Scary stuff—and probably why Neil Young find mp3s so terrifying.

The next day, my guitar-brother Alex P., cofounder of Basement Floods a recording studio in Kensington that specializes in all-tape recordings, stopped by to jam and listen to some records. After a good hour of guitar explorations, I sat Alex in my room’s Sweet Spot to listen to Battles’ most recent record Gloss Drop, where he was struck by the Usher S-520’s accurate high-end and the soundstage’s depth. Being a recording nut, he kept freaking out about the album’s entrapping snare sound, sharp and woody at the attack but cushioned with a gated reverb pillow closing off the sound quickly and softly.

“Does anything sound weird to you?” I asked Mr. P.

“Nah dude, this sounds great…” Alex’s smile couldn’t be contained.

“The bass doesn’t sound too bloated?”

“Eh, it’s a little flabby, but don’t become a psychopath. This sounds great.”

The differences in the sonic characteristics between the two Rush recordings could not let me do an accurate bass response comparison because the bass tones between the recordings were so very different. I guess, I’ll have put Abbey Road back on there again. So maybe next time, I actually fix my system’s problems? Maybe?

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COMMENTS
deckeda's picture

If it's the original (1983) CD it's no one's system evaluation tool. That early CD was a poster child for how wrong early CD was. The LP is much better; I haven't heard the SACD.

Seems there's been a reissue of the CD; hopefully it's better and that's what you have? http://www.discogs.com/Police-Synchronicity/master/39248

Regardless, yes --- the source is King. Get that right first, then wonder about the equipment you use to play it back.

Poor Audiophile's picture

I Can't stand the police! Sting is a stalker! Every breath you take I'll be watching you.surprise

But, yes the source is most important IMHO. How it's recorded is #1. Ask David Chesky, Barry Diament, Pierre Sprey, etc.

tmsorosk's picture

Ariel, try your same listening tests with a decent CD playback system. I switch back and forth daily and can't say I clearly prefer the ability of one over the other. Now take into account  that the LP rig costs four times more ( SME 20/12 and Manley Steelhead VS. Ayre C5mp and ARC DAC8 ) and the digital rig clearly becomes the winner, and unless you have to much spare time on your hands one must consider all the extra set up time. Frankly after 40 years of cleaning LP's and ajusting tone arms, cartridges etc etc, I'm to the point where I simply want to listen to music.

 Digital done right has left many of my analog loving friends with mouths agape, it's priceless.

To each his or her own I suppose.

chuck's picture

i have considered a "return to vinyl" lately but instead went with a laptop and the dac cable from halide and am enjoying absolute sonic bliss.too many memories of pops ticks hiss rumble and just too fragile of a medium for this guy- i end up listening for and anticipating the imperfections too much to be drawn into the music. i would love to get a mega-buck turntable with all the trimmings and what the hell, maybe a 5000 dollar record cleaner for my new 50 dollar audiophile LP's as well but my budget won't digest it

mrplankton2u's picture

If you've listened to Rush for any period of time (and it looks like you have), you should know that their music can't be appreciated very much unless you've developed the ability to hear past the problems introduced by producers and recording techniques over the years - the whole Vapor Trails debacle comes to mind. So just accept the fact that with digital renderings, you're getting a more accurate version of the mistakes that were made - you won't have the opportunity to confuse the rumble coming from your turntable with bass actually coming out of Lee's Rickenbacker. But then, if you really want to be

"spinning, whirling still descending, into a spiral sea of minutiae never ending..."

 

there's that option too.

 

: )

Ariel Bitran's picture

In regards to enjoyment: they can be enjoyed equally, but for two very different reasons.

Analog sounds better than the real thing.

Digital actually sounds like the real thing, or close to it.

I came to this realization while listening to some of the test tracks on the Editor's Choice CD. CDs/Digital Audio manages to capture the starkness, the aggression, and the lack of actual warmth in a recording hall. Analog playback adds a luscious veneer, a romantic approach to the sound, but doesn't actually match the dry, real sound of an acoustic instrument. 

Each medium gives a rise to a different type of emotion and enjoyment, which is why I like both and will play either depending on my mood. 

****

Version of Synchronicity: most likely post-1983 seeing as I probably bought that CD in 2003, twenty years later.

mrplankton2u's picture

I'd rather be a Digital Man than Analog Kid, but that's just me. I'm happy with either though. It's the Kanye and Madonna stuff I could do without...

JohnnyR's picture

"Analog playback adds a luscious veneer, a romantic approach to the sound, but doesn't actually match the dry, real sound of an acoustic instrument."

Yeah who needs to hear what the engineer and recording artist wanted us to hear? *eye roll* Add to that, tube amps and vintage horn speakers and we are back in the 50's again.

mrplankton2u's picture

Could it be? Has JohhnyR returned from banned purgatory through a warp in space time instigated by Cygnus X-1? Or did he just get bored with the Parts Express forum and decide it's once again time to agitate the pot of derangement here at Stereophile? 

JohnnyR's picture

......for the further adventures of "Fearless Leader and Company Froth at the Mouth" brought to you by Ovaltine and The Group For Common Sense in Real World Audio.  :D yay!

Regadude's picture

Well well! Look what the cat dragged in! Johnny the cry baby and know nothing troll. No matter how much you flush, sometimes a "floater" keeps coming back...

JohnnyR's picture

My one and only reply to you in this thread.

"In Internet slang, a troll is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion."

In other words YOU are being the troll while in fact I am always speaking on topic about the OP's post. If you don't know the difference, then don't open your fool mouth and make an ass out of yourself. Thank you.

Regadude's picture

Nice try little Johnny. But, you are a troll and a **** disturber extraordinaire. That's it, that's all!

GeorgeHolland's picture

Mr Regadude I've seen enough of your trolling to know a troll from someone who is serious about contributing to a discussion. I agree with JohnnyR, you are a fool and it's evident to everyone else on here. If you wish to post something about the original topic then do so, Otherwise keep your childish comments to yourself.

Now on to the subject before Troll face decided to make it personal and stupid to boot

How anyone can compare the awful vinyl sound to an accurate digital sound is beyond my understanding. Ariel admitted that analog adds to the original sound rather than preserving what was intended for us to hear.

Regadude's picture

Johnny R = Troll

GeorgeH = Troll defender

Regadude = not a troll

Regadude's picture

Any serious discussion on the subject starts with one admitting Vinyl is superior to CD. Vinyl destroys CD. Vinyl is Batman, CD is the 90 pound weakling.

Vinyl adds no coloration to the sound. Vinyl IS THE SOUND. 

GeorgeHolland's picture

Everytime you open your mouth, you just prove what everyone else knows except yourself. You sir are an idiot and a troll to boot. grow up please.

Regadude's picture

First of all, I have not opened my mouth. I have not spoken a single word to you. I have typed these statements and you have read them. 

You are making this very personal George. I have not insulted you. But, you have seriously insulted me. Grow up? Take your own advice George. 

I also find it really funny that you use polite terms like Mr., sir, please, etc. But, you then insult and degrade. You sound like the kind of person who prepares a gourmet meal for his guests, and then farts at the table... 

Back off George. 

GeorgeHolland's picture

You are delusional and a sad person. Anyone can see your posts on the RMAF and most if not all of them are you acting like a little boy throwing a tantrum or using childish words to insult others.I'm taking JohnnyR's stance and just ignoring you from now on when you start posting off topic sillyness.

John Atkinson's picture

Our office is closed thanks to Hurricane Sandy, I'm stuck in Chicago trying to get back to New York after the AES convention in San Francisco last weekend, and I am losing patience with flame wars like this.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JohnnyR's picture

......and relax from the taxing burden of not doing any tests on magic bowls John. Perhaps a good stiff drink will help too.

John Atkinson's picture

I asked you to play nice. From now on, any more abusive posts, from you, JohnnyR, and from others will be deleted.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

soulful.terrain's picture

 

Your definition of 'troll' fits exactly what you do in the Open Bar.

Now you need to look up the definition of 'hypocrite'

FSonicSmith's picture

First, let's talk about modestly priced analog vs. digital. Let's say a Rega RP1 with Rega Bias 2 cartridge vs. an Oppo or Cambridge CDP. Let's assume a Rega phono stage as well. There will be significant deficits in both. The analog rig will be deficits of omission. Lack of low end and high end extension, and their will be a higher noise floor. The cdp is going to render deeper bass, higher highs, low noise and will on first impression provide better overall sound. With extended listening however, many experienced listeners and many neophytes will discern the listener fatigue and lack of soul and satisfaction provided by the cdp. The descriptors may be different, but the cause will be the same.

As you go up the ladder to that SME 20/12 and Ayre cdp and ARC dac that tmsorosk is lucky enough to own, the differences converge, but they are still present. The digital will win on noise floor, the analog will win on lack of listener fatigue. One can legitimately argue that at both ends of the spectrum, the convenience of CD trumps the ease of analog. It's a judgment call. But while tmsorosk may amaze neophytes to high end sound with his digital rig, I doubt he gets the same amazed response from those who have heard the best of both worlds.

tmsorosk's picture

To reply to the above comment  , " but while tmsorosk may amaze neophytes to high end sound with his digital rig, i doubt he gets the same amazed response from the best of both worlds. " Well, as I said in my last post, the folks that seem to be left sputtering and speachless are often analog junkies, many with far superior analog rigs to the rubble in my sound room. So I would think they have heard the best of both worlds. 

Some people here just don't seem to be able to face the facts that the latest digital players are very good, particularly when used with a well engineered disc, and in some ( not all ) systems, match or trump there analog counter parts.

antubaro's picture

The comparison between CD and vinyl only makes sense in a certain system and cannot generalised becasue it depends on both the hardware and software. First of all the quesiton is whether we are speaking of an equal investment between CD player/computer + line amplifier and the record player + arm + cartrige + phone preamplifier chains. In my system, good vinyls still sound better that even 24/96 and 24/192 files but the difference is getting smaller and smaller over time. The big quesiton is whether DSD will close the gap but only time will tell us!

The real point is that I want to listen to the music I like and if I only have it on CD I will listen to a CD, if I only have it on vinyl I will listen to a vinyl. When I get all format available it depends whether I am listening to background music while writing or reading or whether I really concentrate on the music, then I usually prefer vinyl!

Hansch's picture

I was there when Philips was just about to introduce its first CD player, back in 1983. For the first time I was able to hear a piano without distortion. I have maintained my turntable for quite a number of years, but now it has been in storage for 16 years and I've never looked back.

What strikes me about all these vinyl-hugging stories is that nobody seems to complain anymore about bad pressings and the constant battle of preserving your records. Suddenly, vinyl seems to have gone into the stratosphere of completely ideal conditions. I have returned Neil Young's Harvest multiple times, but was only able to hear The Needle and the Damage Done completely when I got the CD. Japan's Nightporter, likewise - the record label they were on didn't seem to be interested in providing decent pressings, as were so many other labels.

Has al of this misery suddenly vanished? I must admit I never had a high-end turntable; I had a mid-range Dual with a mid-range AKG cartridge. With a good pressing, e.g. Paul Simon's Still Crazy After All These Years this did sound good to my ears. But with CD I've got much closer to the master tape than with an LP.

Some romantics seem to have a love affair with the 'pop' when the needle hits the groove and the anticipation of what's to come. Fine with me, I do love romance; for me, though, that doesn't involve vinyl.

mrplankton2u's picture

My experience mirrors yours. I bought one of the first 4X oversampling Philips CD players in the early 80's (retalied for about $600). After that, my Dual table and MA 3002 cartridge began collecting dust and are still in storage to this day. There is a constant thread running through these so called "arguments" for analog antiquities, boutique cables, tube gear, cable suspenders, "footers" and the like. It's all ultra expensive garbage. My ancient Philips CD player or the newer carousel players I've had easily surpass the most expensive analog junk available in the past and today. There is no degradation with repeated play. Dynamic range is audibly and measurably far superior with digital And most importantly, it's affordable. You don't need to be a "Regadude" dork who spends as much on his audio gear as his automobile to achieve sound that is as accurate and virtually indistinguishable from the original master recording. And this must seriously annoy the analog/tube/cable jihadis. Whisper the words "double blind test" and they all scamper away like cockroaches in a dingy New York restaurant kitchen after the lights are turned on. What's a little surprising is how the con games and snake oil are eagerly supported by "industry professionals" (I use those terms very loosely) years after double blind tests established proof that it's all BS. We know why they support this crap - they need this absurdly priced garbage to improve the bottom line just like a Harley Davidson dealership relies on the sale of "accessories" more than the sale of the actual motorcycles themselves to keep the lights on. What shouldn't be tolerated are the insults by the analog jihadis and tube/cable faithful. When they scoff at your $200 CD player, just give it back to them spades.

chuck's picture

this reply says it all for me. there may be something special about the sound of vinyl to many but after my experience with high resolution HDCD , now  HRx files , SACD-  it seems to me to be going backwards in quality and convienence.. i don't dispute the quality of the sound-  , it's the number of factors that have to be dialed in to achieve it - and then have it all for nought because the fragile medium has been damaged by the last guy who sneezed while reading the label. analogue fans go for it-  but all the hype in the world won't convince me to go back to that format. records are giant coasters now,  we just need to design a beer bottle that fits them. i think it would hold about a gallon or 4 litres. perfect.

Regadude's picture

BEST--------------------------------------------------Worst                                                     

Vinyl SACD CD/and hi-res files iTunes/mp3

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