A U D I O... P A P E R

The potential fidelity of CD's vs. LP's

by Steve Deckert
Jan. 2001


We 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.

In 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.

It 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.

It 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.

Now 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.

The 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.

Fact 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.

In 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.

With 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.

With 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.

What 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.

It 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.

So 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.

The 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:

Planer 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.

My 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.

Since 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.





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