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
Archimago's picture
If life were that simple...

Boy, talk about a generalization!

One "small" point I would like to note is that SACD is "just" DSD64. The ultrasonic effects of noise shaping diminishes the dynamic range from about 10kHz up to the extent that by 15kHz, possibly the CD at 16-bits can do a better job up to 22kHz on many systems. Some may say that this is not detectable since our ears are limited at these upper registers but this characteristic of DSD64 isn't impressive any way you slice it based on "perfectionist audio" expectations of a high-res format...  If you want to be accurate in capturing the audio, then "hi-res files" of 24/96+ are superior. In fact 24-bit PCM is theoretically better than DSD64 essentially across the board in terms of noise floor (and potential dynamic range) - this has been known since the release of SACD but not discussed much in the mainstream. Some will argue the high samplerate for DSD improves temporal resolution in stuff like impulse response but IMO that too is a fallacy since an impulse (as in a single sample going from 0 to 100) is not really a "sound" as exists in nature but an artificial construct to test digital reconstruction filters.

I believe many of us would consider the digital formats in terms of accuracy (assuming the same high resolution master used to downconvert to the following formats) as follows:

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

Hi-res 24/96+ > SACD (DSD64) > CD > MP3

The recent push for DSD capable DAC's therefore makes no sense to me unless one is trying to listen to pure native DSD content (precious few recordings have not gone through at least one DSD <--> PCM conversion).

Vinyl doesn't fit anywhere on this scale IMO since we'd be comparing red delicious to mcintoshes.

Archimago's picture
Media is nothing... Mastering is EVERYTHING.

Personally, I've said "never again" to vinyl 20 years ago.

Guys, the media; CD, vinyl, SACD, DVD-A, vinyl is IMO irrelevant since they are all capable of great sound. The mastering is what's important.

Regarding A Farewell To Kings, I have 3 masterings:

Mercury 822 546-2 - 1987 release
Anthem ANMD-1079 - 1997 "Rush Remasters"
2011 "Sector 2" Box set

Each successive remaster has gotten louder and more clipped. The D-118703 you have is from the 1997 remaster series which isn't bad compared to more recent remasters and much better than the 2011 Sectors box. If you really want a good comparison with the LP, check out the 1987 release. For "Closer To The Heart", the average volume is almost 7dB softer compared to the one you have.

For the record (no pun intended), on balance, IMO digital is superior for most of my favourite music.

deckeda's picture
I agree about mastering's importance.

And I'd add that the mix (or ... remix) is critcial, too. With regard to "loud" (i.e. little dynamic range) releases, often the mastering engineer was handed a mix where the dynamics were already squeezed out because the artist/producer/label demanded it.

But of course, with reissues such as what's being discussed here, anyone who takes an existing "legacy" mix and squashes it dynamically (or who orders it be done) has their head up their ass.

Archimago's picture
Agree...

Yup, absolutely. I find it fascinating that so many "audiophiles" are actually only "hardware audiophiles", looking out to eek out the little bit of differences between comparable DAC's for example, but almost neglect the musical material itself...

Differences between the different masters and mixes are so much more obvious than the little difference between cables (another example), yet it's amazing the amount of thought (and expense) put into such accessories.

BTW: Needliess to say, the 1987 first pressing has ZERO clipping vs. a handful of obvious places in the 1997 version used in this article.

deckeda's picture
Jeebus!

It appears two entrenched camps have shredded this post topic and taken it far off the rails. "You've won!"

And in so doing, we all lose.

mrplankton2u's picture
Seriously?

The "topic" concerning minutiae believed to be causing slight PERCEIVED differences between digital and analog versions of the same original recordings was never really "on the tracks" to begin with. The original post was more of a confession about the poster's obsessive/compulsive disorder than anything else. And the other OCD sufferers were more than happy to chime in about their beliefs in analog superiority. A few sane individuals joined the discussion to effectively salvage some use out of it - putting forth the obvious conclusion that different recording/mixing techniques vastly overshadow the minutiae of media/hardware differences. So actually, if it weren't for commenters chiming in with their real world experience, this entire thread would have been much more of a "loser".That said, the entire premise of the original post was an attempt at drawing distinctions between analog and digital media/systems. So the usual comments coming from the usual suspects could hardly be a surprise. Just as some recent Republican candidates have suggested about "legitimate rape", the OP was "asking for it"

: )

tmsorosk's picture
If life were that simple

 

    I get a kick out of these

     BEST------------------------------------------ WORST

     grafts, I hope most people understand that these are personal opinions only. 

    I think by now we have all realized that what technically may seem superior dosen't always sound superior, even when properly implemented.

  I love my vinyl, my Hi-Res downloads, and my SACD's, but I've got a few Red book    CD's that trounce them all. Just my opinion.

 

And John, if the site mediators want to give JohnnyR the punt, I don't think they'll be much opposition. 

GeorgeHolland's picture
I disagree with the Giving

I disagree with the Giving JohnnyR the punt. If he does that then what about the rest like regadude and Soulful Terrain? They aren't exactly saints and have dished out just as much themselves. The Open Bar  on the forums shows a total lack of integrity and judement by Stereohile. No where else have I seen such raw dismal disgusting talk as on there. if they cleaned up the forums maybe just maybe more people would participate.Trying to blame it all on JohnnyR is silly. He does bring up good points that by the way JA and the rest ignore.

John Atkinson's picture
Missing the point?

GeorgeHolland wrote:
The Open Bar  on the forums shows a total lack of integrity and judement by Stereophile. No where else have I seen such raw dismal disgusting talk as on there.

That's the point of the Open Bar forum on this site. It's basically unmoderated, a place where antisocial readers can vent their fury without it spilling over into the other forums.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JohnnyR's picture
Who Needs Forum Readership Anyways?

Yeah we get YOUR point. It was stated in another post where you told MrPlankton2U you couldn't care less about good opinions as long as the magazine subscriptions were holding steady. I see the forums are really booming too. That was sarcasm in case you didn't notice, the last statement.

John Atkinson's picture
Really?

JohnnyR wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
GeorgeHolland wrote:

The Open Bar  on the forums shows a total lack of integrity and judement
by Stereophile. No where else have I seen such raw dismal disgusting
talk as on there.

That's the point of the Open Bar forum on this site. It's basically unmoderated, a place where antisocial readers can vent their fury without it spilling over into the other forums.

Yeah we get YOUR point.

I don't think you do. The Open Bar is not like the other forums on this site. It was created so that those who were more concerned with flame wars than with productive communication could have a playground to themselves.

JohnnyR wrote:
It was stated in another post where you told MrPlankton2U you couldn't care less about good opinions as long as the magazine subscriptions were holding steady.

I think you are misremembering something you must have misread. Here is the passage to which you are referring, in a posting I made to one of our RMAF reports on October 21:

mrplankton2u wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
In order to maintain objectivity and hence - credibility, the magazine might need to do a better job of drawing lines of demarcation between areas where pure, unsupported, subjective opinion is permitted and where opiinion is expected to be supported by some degree of independently verifiable evidence or science.

I disagree. Any such line is arbitrary and ultimately meaningless. We offer our opinions for readers to accept or ignore. If someone feels the manner in which we form our opinions is flawed, then they are welcome to ignore what we say, and are free to say why, as you are doing here. But I see no compelling need for me, as editor of a magazine with a stable circulation, to abnegate my own philosophy in favor of yours.

How these words equate to what you have me saying is a stretch, to say the least.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JohnnyR's picture
Yes Really......Same Old Same Old

"But I see no compelling need for me, as editor of a magazine with a stable circulation, to abnegate my own philosophy in favor of yours."

That's just a "nice" way of saying "piss off" to those with differing opinions and the bottom line is "stable circulation" equals MONEY which is more important to you than a REAL objective based magazine. I.E. The truth be damned lets write whatever to get subscriptions.

John Atkinson's picture
Seriously...

JohnnyR wrote:
John Atkinson wrote:
But I see no compelling need for me, as editor of a magazine with a stable circulation, to abnegate my own philosophy in favor of yours.

That's just a "nice" way of saying "piss off" to those with differing opinions and the bottom line is "stable circulation" equals MONEY which is more important to you than a REAL objective based magazine.

Not at all. That's your projection. What I meant was that if I was wrong in my editorial policies, there would be a continuous reduction in our readership. That there isn't, that Stereophile's ciruclation is stable, strongly suggests that I am not wrong, that readers in general appreciate the mix of science and subjectivism that reflects, not only the magazine's content, but also my own personal beliefs.

And again I must request you to cool it with respect to the personal comments you are making about other readers in recent postings. You can trashtalk me as much you like - I have a professional thick skin -   but you need to treat other readers with more respect.

John Atkinson

Editor, Stereophile

JohnnyR's picture
Then What You Have Done...............

..........is find the motherload of gullible fools to read your monthly falsehoods. Congrats. I dish out what I get, they need to cool it too.

GeorgeHolland's picture
As usual, you seem to think

As usual, you seem to think everything is perfect. So be it. Like JohnnyR has pointed out, your forums seem a bit empty for such a prestigious magazine. Maybe the older audiophiles with the money are departing and don't care for the crass forums.

Ariel Bitran's picture
Ahh Internet Access...

since this conversation is happening here...

if you feel someone is being a troll, then:

***

mrplankton2u's picture
As someone who has been an

As someone who has been an avid Rush fan since 1978 (probably long before you were hatched), I can say with pretty good authority that the differences you've been hearing have more to do with remastering, transcribing from the original sources, and from flaws in the original mix/recording process than anything connected with analog and digital media formats. As noted elsewhere, I was one of the first people to buy a CD player from the inventor of digital music technology - Philips of Holland. And I was probably one of the first people to purchase CD's of Rush and compare them directly to the Analog Counterparts - probably several years before you were born. 

The entire premise of your blogpost was to incite a flame war - whether you realize it or not. The hard reality is that you are nit picking argumentative minutiae while ignoring a tidal wave of influences that are the root cause of what you're experiencing. Living in your tiny tidal pool, you've forgotten about the sea. So, to be fair, if you're going to start complaining about "trolls" and urge others to do something about it, you might want to start with self censorship.

Ariel Bitran's picture
Why?

"As someone who has been an avid Rush fan since 1978 (probably long before you were hatched), I can say with pretty good authority that the differences you've been hearing have more to do with remastering, transcribing from the original sources, and from flaws in the original mix/recording process than anything connected with analog and digital media formats. "

 

Which I say in my article.

"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. "

 "nit picking argumentative minutiae"

huh? I'm just talking about what I heard, and why it may have sounded that way, and expand it to a general neuroses about sound quality because i don't know where a lot of my cd masters came from, particularly for a lot of older music--a particularly threatening question because i found that the music's message changed with the different masters.

"So, to be fair, if you're going to start complaining about "trolls" and urge others to do something about it, you might want to start with self censorship."

I never complained about trolls. I said: if YOU feel someone is being a troll, then please don't feed the trolls." I have yet to make a comment on any "trolling behavior" from any specific user.

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