The potential fidelity of CD's vs. LP's
by Steve Deckert
live in an age where for the past 20 years "digital" has
become the all-time most overdone buzzword in the industry. Our
children are growing up in a generation that think records are some
kind of giant CDs. All of us who at the time had even marginally
decent turntables can share stories about our first exposure to
CDs. With great anticipation I think we all thought they would be
better than LP's and with the purchase of our first CD players,
most of us ran out to find a CD. On the trip home to listen to it
with the excitement building by the minute, the moment finally arrives
...we press play. About 30 seconds later, with this odd new sound
laying in a ball on the floor between the speakers we instantly
conclude that we must have done something wrong and carefully go
over all the connections. We then conclude the player must be defective
so we call our friend who also got a new CD player and borrow his.
Same thing, this thin dry and super clean sound just wasn't doing
anything right and for many of us it was our very first experience
with ear fatigue.
the years to follow there was great pressure placed on manufactures
to improve the performance - or more appropriately make good on
their claims. And while many aspects of the CD player's design did
get better, some parts actually got worse. In the 20 years that
has passed, many have forgotten the cardinal difference in sound
between LP and CD and since adjusted their hearing and expectations
to a lower level, focusing on it's good points rather than it's
bad. And it does have good points, most related to ergonomics rather
than fidelity. Then there is the response from the masses who've
never owned a high quality turntable. Compared to the cassette tapes
they had, CD actually did sound better.
was the miracle child of computers, the next sign of a true advancement
for the human race. Everyone had to have one to see what this big
breakthrough was all about and eventually the units got cheap and
crappie enough that everyone did. I can remember how one of the
biggest sales tools used to prep people for the new CD format was
the simple fact that you could scratch one and it would still play
without any pops or skips - something most intriguing for all who've
ever scratched their favorite LP. The very first place I could find
one when they first arrived on the market was at Radio Shack. I
remember waiting months for them to finally arrive.
was almost a year after I got my first CD player that I found myself
at a stereo store standing behind a salesman who was in the process
of explaining this new miracle of science to a lovely couple. Right
in the middle of his sales pitch, he tosses the CD down on the carpet
and grinds it into the floor with his shoe. Eyes real big now the
couple watches as he proceeds to demonstrate how it will still play
even after all that. It skipped, I snickered, the couple left and
I'm sure the salesperson spent the rest of the day whining about
his misunderstanding of the technology.
it's the year 2001, and the efforts of many high end manufactures
and the concept of stand alone DACs with transports have yielded
a hand full of players that make CD's listenable. New higher resolution
formats are in the works which will advance the performance to a
new level making it even easier to forget about LP's and good old
fashion turn tables. And frankly my concern is just that... everyone
forgetting. Forgetting just how much better LP's really are.
tendency I find in most audiophiles with a listenable CD front end
is to justify it all with the reason that LP's are no longer available.
Or the music they like is too hard to find on LPs. And at the same
time, many who have decent turntables have other weak links, usually
phono preamp and amplifier that mask most of the magic a good cartridge
has to offer. That combined with owning one of the better sounding
CD players makes it very easy to conclude that the sonic gap between
the two isn't very large. It's going to end up being similar to
kid's and their new "high performance" computer plagued
cars. All of them think nothing has ever been better until they
make the mistake of revving their motor next to my '72 Monte Carlo
at a stop light.
is, an LP played with a respectable MC cartridge and appropriate
arm and table will WITH THE RIGHT ELECTRONICS still destroy the
perceived fidelity of a CD. It's easy to skew the results with the
wrong electronics making the difference less profound. To understand
why CD's tend to sound so bad, and LP's tend to sound so good you
really need to consider a couple things, the recording studios,
and the accuracy of the digital and solid state electronics we currently
have at our disposal.
the average to above average studios, if you traced the signal path
of any given track you could probably circle the globe with it 3
times or more. Picture a $4000.00 ribbon mike being fed through
100's of feet of wire that would offend even the most ignorant audiophiles.
Take that and feed it though around 50 op-amps, and EQ, compressor,
effects box, mixing console with 700 knobs, vocal exciters. By the
time it's on tape it's pretty screwed up. Then they try to digitally
doctor it up during the mix down process in an effort to restore
some of life that's been smashed out of the music. The result is
dry rather two-dimensional recordings. This is true even for LP's,
with the exception of some audiophile and other world class studios,
recordings actually aren't that good.
the incredible accuracy and ultra low distortion of solid state
amplifiers and the digital front ends you hear (in a somewhat compressed
and overly regulated way) exactly what's on the recording, a somewhat
dry and rather two-dimensional sound. The proud engineers who invented
all this stuff like to point out that the terrific specs mean the
sound is perfect. But don't bother to mention that solid state devices
are so fast and accurate that they need tons of negative feedback
in every single stage to keep them from contacting other planets
with RF frequencies or just plain blowing up.
all this accuracy comes ear fatigue as we become exposed to the
shortcomings of the average recordings that we listen to. Believe
it or not, what makes tube amps generally sound more pleasing than
solid state is the fact that they are imperfect, and have distortion.
They also don't need gimmicks to make them operate without exploding
and that means less parts. Phono Cartridges that sound good are
also not perfect. Now there are two ways to make a typical dry recording
sound listenable. One is to have a playback system that filters
it to a point where the veil is so thick you can't tell what instruments
are playing. The other is actually put back what is missing from
the recording with a good mechanically resonant device like a cartridge.
you pay for in a great phono cartridge is desirable interpretations.
The interpretation and presentation of the recording is in the hands
of the cartridge and the best ones will interpret recordings with
air, space, dynamics and shimmer that result in a completely holographic
soundstage with depths in the hundreds of feet. You sit there and
wonder how in the hell the recording engineers managed to capture
such marvelous presence and depth. They didn't. In fact it's likely
that the actual engineers that mixed down the recording wouldn't
know what I'm talking about. No, it's the cartridge. A good moving
coil cartridge adds these illusions, or puts back a lot of what
was squashed out during the recording process. It's a mechanical
device governed by the laws of physics that resonates and excites
the information into electrical energy.
is because of this mechanical to electrical interpretation controlled
by the cartridge that many audiophiles have claimed to have seen
God in their listening rooms after hearing music that actually surpasses
the quality of the live performance. This is hard to do with CD's
because there is no mechanical factor involved. The only real interpretation
being done in a CD player is in the final analogue output stage
and the ones that I've heard sound the best had tube output stages
that were carefully voiced and slowed down to a point where they
properly glued the recordings back together to create a semi-believable
illusion. These rare CD players, or DACs I should say, are the result
of many painful hours spent by designers who like some cartridge
makers are especially gifted in voicing equipment. I like to think
of it as letting the circuit be allowed to breath a bit, or interpret.
if you believe any of this, it's easy to see how rare, if ever,
the chances are of a CD setup sounding better than a vinyl setup.
If you're chasing the magic illusion that you believe is possible
but seems to evade your every effort, you need to understand that
the magic is in the interpretation of the recording. Given
all the horrible things that happen to fidelity during a recording,
it's a certainty that going for hard core accuracy will make aspirins
a regular part of your listening equipment.
best illusion you can create as an audiophile can be better and
more lucid than real life, and usually is. But it takes a delicate
balance of gear and proper setup. I have found it to be possible
with the following gear:
speakers, Single Ended Triode amplifiers with no feedback, a single
ended triode preamplifier, triode phono stage, good MC cartridge
with a step-up transformer, a good tonearm, a good table and good
wire. If anything in the above list is weak, the illusion will collapse.
For example, if a raved about solid state phono stage is substituted,
the illusion will collapse and the resulting sound is just
like a really good CD player.
thoughts are that unless you can create the bodaschious illusion
(one that will have you running around in circles shaking your head
in total awe) what's the point in piddling with LPs, especially
today. If you're going to do vinyl, there are no short cuts. You
can create the illusion with a modest $2000. table/arm/cartridge/phonostage
if you,re prudent and careful in choosing the components. That's
the same price as a good DAC, and for the difference in sound I
think the rewards are obvious.
the magic is in the interpretation of the recording, I'll say it
again, extreme accuracy and specs will all but ensure that you never
hear it. A good MC cartridge is a mechanical analogue device. For
this reason, CD's even in the new high res formats are not likely
to have the same magic. So if you're waiting to see at the expense
of owning a good vinyl setup, don't wait. You'll notice lately that
in the high end of DACs we now have jitter devices, harmonic recovery
devices, and dozens of other gizmo's that push a DAC to a higher
level of fidelity (when they work). It's pretty obvious to me that
all of these have one thing in common, and that is to attempt to
recapture some of the interpretive magic of a good cartridge.