Can We Agree to Disagree? (LP vs CD)

I had a wonderful chuckle while reading the reviews of the Finial Laser Turntable in the May 1990 issue of HFN/RR. Perhaps I should preface this by saying that, in the entire quarter-century since I became intensely involved in audio, I have always found the LP an unsatisfactory playback medium for music. As a regular concert-goer in Boston and an addict of WGBH-FM's simply miked, virtually unprocessed live broadcasts of BSO concerts direct from Symphony Hall, I never learned to ignore the many anti-musical distortions endemic to LPs—the ticks and pops, the inner-groove congestion and tracing distortion, the harsh mistracking of high-level climaxes and overcut grooves, the persistent static in dry winter air, the constant slight wow due to off-center spindle holes, the muddy bass due to resonances and feedback, the universal cutting engineer's practice of blending low bass into mono (which wipes out low-frequency hall ambience).

Although I bought about a thousand LPs of the music I love, I never learned to love the LP itself. I tried buying tapes: Barclay-Crocker sold some good prerecorded open-reel tapes, but there weren't enough, and they were much more expensive than discs. I began recording my own on-location concert tapes 20 years ago, not because I wanted to (it's a lot of work, and I'm basically lazy), but because it was the only way I could obtain a collection of recordings that I could enjoy without being distracted by the annoyances of disc playback. Analog tape had its drawbacks, but they were basically distortions of the subtractive kind: fine detail blurred by scrape flutter, high-level transient peaks softened and compressed, timbres rounded by low-order harmonic distortion, hall ambience at once buried and magnified by random-phase low-level hiss. The distortions of the LP, however, were mostly additive: wow, rumble, surface noise, ticks, grating breakup in transients, harsh congestion in climaxes.

So, after 20 years of reading virtually undiluted praise of LP sound in audiophile magazines (and seven years of constant carping from the same writers about the deficiencies of digital), I got a big chuckle out of reading in the May 1990 HFN/RR an honest description of the aggravating faults in LP sound that have always stood between me and genuine musical enjoyment. Two critics of undisputed audiophile reputation, Ken Kessler and Martin Colloms, wrote these words about LP sound:

KK: The Finial "will track discs which no mechanical stylus can manage...worries which may have kept you from enjoying your LPs are rendered insignificant...warps and disc, static, acoustic feedback, stylus tracing 'whoosh' and other ills...for the first time in your life you've heard an analogue LP without 'insignificant' traces of rumble, wow, et al...low end grundge with mechanical origins...vinyl nasties."

MC: "...vibrations normally affecting vinyl disc replay...acoustic feedback and the wow and flutter components induced by warps. Also complex noise modulations resulting from the subsonic resonance effects in conventional arm/cartridge systems...the problems associated with manifold mechanical and geometrical variations on the stylus/groove contact are sidestepped...less severe than the mechanical mistracking and/or poor tracing which can occur with a pickup cartridge when used on tracks cut beyond normal modulation levels...sound nearer the mastertape in respect of its almost total lack of added harshness. That inevitable trace of a 'scrapey', 'grainy', roughened sound apparent with vinyl...low coloration with this player; it did not sound like a turntable/arm combination. One can clearly sense the absence of vinyl 'roar', the resonances and reflections resulting from stylus tip reaction energy. Also absent were the bass coloration resulting from arm/cartridge subsonic resonance...overload was gentle and not particularly disturbing."

Is it any wonder that I have always preferred to listen to open-reel tape, and in recent years to the CD—media that are free of all these aggravations? Whenever I read a statement in The Absolute Sound or Stereophile suggesting that the LP is the most lifelike and natural-sounding music medium, I am both annoyed and amused. I have only to play an LP of a Brahms symphony from CBS or DG to make such an assertion seem ludicrous on its face. But I think I understand why my LP-loving friends and I disagree so profoundly, even though none of us are cloth-eared numbskulls. (Of course, you may think I am; it's a free country.) My thesis has three parts:

1) LP-loving audiophiles are people who have trained themselves, through years of concentrated mental conditioning, to focus on the musical sound presented by the LP and to selectively "tune out" the distortions of that medium. This is a specialized case of a well-known adaptive property of the ear/brain system. City-raised children are unconscious of traffic noise but are kept awake by crickets when they visit the country. Their farm-grown cousins, having become oblivious to the sounds of nature, hear every subway rumble and taxicab horn in the city. My failure as an audiophile is not that I'm tin-eared but that I hear LP distortions far too clearly and never learned to tune them out. I wish I had.

Perhaps I could make this point more clearly by citing a specific example. Several years ago Nakamichi introduced a turntable that eliminated the wow caused by the off-center spindle holes in virtually all LPs. It had an elaborate mechanism for sensing the true axis of the groove spiral and re-centered the disc to rotate about that axis. LP lovers who had never consciously noticed the slight wow in all LP playback marveled at the new feeling of solidity and stability that they heard with this turntable. I, unfortunately, was always bothered by the slight unsteadiness and uncertainty of pitch in LP play; perhaps if the Nakamichi 'table had been available 20 years earlier (and at a price I could afford), I might have enjoyed LPs more.

If you doubt the reality of this wow, play a test LP containing a test tone, preferably around middle C (approximately 250Hz). With any turntable but the Nakamichi the pitch wobbles up and down noticeably, while the output of a test-tone oscillator—or a CD player—is absolutely steady. In music this makes a dramatic difference to the realism of piano tone, which has no natural unsteadiness and a very complex harmonic texture. It's less destructive to singing voices and violins, which usually have vibrato and are slightly unsteady in pitch anyway.

2) LP-loving audiophiles listen mainly to music of modest complexity and limited dynamic range—in other words, music that doesn't strain the LP's capacity. (Note, for example, the LPs cited by equipment reviewers in these pages, featuring mainly small performing ensembles.) If I could be satisfied with music performed by soloists and small groups, I too might have learned to love the LP. But for me the core of musical experience is the large symphony orchestra, in music from Beethoven to Shostakovich.

3) As a group, LP-loving audiophiles (including most of my Stereophile colleagues) are dedicated to perfecting two-channel stereo playback. Elsewhere in these pages you'll find descriptions of the remarkable illusions that a two-channel stereo system can produce when everything is just right—imaging that stretches beyond the speakers, layering in depth, true-to-life timbre, and details that you seldom hear in a live performance. I've heard such playback, and it is indeed wonderful; there's a quality of magic in it. At the present state of the art, that's what high-end audio is mainly about.

But this amazingly lifelike, palpable illusion of reality works best with music of modest scale—the same music that is served well by the LP. Where does that leave the rest of us—we who find our greatest pleasure in music on a larger scale? We can't just give up, so we search for alternatives. The LP cannot fully encompass the frequency range, dynamic scale, tonal complexity of a Mahler symphony; and neither can most two-channel stereo systems. As JA has said in these pages (notably in discussions of recommended components), only a handful of speakers do a credible job of reproducing large-scale music.

Given the inherent limitations of two-channel playback, I agree. But since my goal is to achieve something like the illusion of hearing a symphony orchestra from Row J of a concert hall, I don't accept the assumption that two-channel stereo is the way to go. Realistic playback of large-orchestra recordings requires a four-speaker ambient-surround system in addition to the primary stereo speakers.

When you do this, you find that the qualities of the primary speakers are less important than in two-channel stereo. I agree with critics who point out that ambient-surround playback tends to obscure some of the inner detail and soundstage information that you hear in two-speaker playback. That's not a fault; it's a normal part of the concert-hall illusion. Remember that even in the most conservative (ie, not multi-miked) recordings, the microphones are just a few feet behind and above the conductor's head—where no audience member ever sits.

At that location the microphones deliver a hyper-detailed picture of the stage, together with a brighter tonal balance than you would hear in a typical seat. If you sit in row J or M with your eyes closed, you're not particularly aware that the bassoonist is behind the flute player. You just hear the woodwinds as a group in the middle of the stage, flanked by brasses and strings. The unrealistically detailed soundstage delivered by the best two-channel playback is entertaining to hear; and, like dreaded accent miking, it may help to compensate for the lack of a visual sense. But it is not something I need to hear in either the concert hall or my home.

Use of ambient surround has another consequence: the most realistic surround processing uses L–R extraction of the hidden ambience in the recording, which pretty much rules out the LP as a source. Ticks, pops, mistracking, and inner-groove congestion are hard enough to tune out when heard through two speakers; when they surround you they become even more annoying and destructive to musical enjoyment. And since the L–R signal corresponds to vertical stylus motion, it often contains an especially large dose of noise and distortion.

(Try this simple experiment: Switch your preamp to mono, play an LP, and notice how good it sounds; it really is quite a good medium when used only for lateral stylus motion. Then swap the leads to one channel of the cartridge, play the LP again in mono, and notice how bad it sounds. The mono mode of your amp is now canceling the lateral signal and letting you hear only the vertical L–R signal. As you'll see, it contains a lot more crud than the lateral signal does.)

If you're still with me, I'm trying to suggest the existence of a bifurcated pattern: the world of audiophiles is divided into two camps. In one camp are people who love the LP's ability to deliver the warm, delicate timbres of real music. Through long practice these people have mastered the art of "tuning out" the faults and limitations of LP playback, focusing beyond them to the music. These audiophiles also possess expensive front ends that minimize those flaws as far as possible. They enjoy two-speaker stereo, listen mainly to music performed by small ensembles, and are sensitive to questions of timbre and subtle differences in soundstage imaging. In these pages that camp is represented by John Atkinson, Larry Archibald, Dick Olsher, and Guy Lemcoe.

In the other camp (represented in these pages by myself, Bill Sommerwerck, and the venerable J. Gordon Holt) are people who favor music performed by large ensembles in large spaces. We use multi-speaker ambient-surround systems to produce a more realistic illusion of being in a concert-hall environment. We don't worry very much about subtle differences in detailing or imaging. And we are willing to forgive the acknowledged limitations of digital in order to benefit from its manifest virtues (complete freedom from wow, flutter, rumble, surface noise, static, mistracking, end-of-side congestion, acoustic feedback, resonances, and the need for frequent disc and stylus cleaning), plus other benefits such as consistent timbre, deep and unmuddied bass, stable decoding of L–R ambience, and long playing time.

A final point: when critics dismiss the CD's hour-long playing time as a mere "convenience," I am outraged. Do they listen only to three-minute songs? For me, the need to break my concentration halfway through a symphony, in order to turn over an LP and clean the second side before resuming play, is unforgivably destructive of the mood the music has created. In the high-end community's quest for beautiful timbres it is too easy to forget that our goal is to let the music speak to our souls—in long forms as well as short. The CD's ability to play an entire symphony without interruption is a fundamental and musically essential asset.

What Harry Pearson has said in The Absolute Sound is true: I have liked the CD since it first appeared. I don't admit that grudgingly; I proclaim it. First-generation CD sound was far from perfect, and there is considerable room for further improvement at both the recording and playback ends of the chain. I have been pleased to report the development of less edgy-sounding microphones and A/D converters, and no one was happier than I to hear the dramatic improvement in musical realism afforded by the Esoteric P-2 CD transport. But even with digital's faults, I feel the CD to be a better medium than the LP for large-scale music, especially in the context of the under-$10,000 systems that I (and most of Stereophile's readers) normally use.