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 thatGeddy 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 stuffand 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?