This is bigger than Cubs vs White Sox, tastes great vs less filling, and Van Halen before synthesizers vs after. No matter what I say (or don’t) somebody is going to be offended…
With that in mind, I’m going to break this up into two sections: The Facts and The Opinions. You may not like the facts, but there is no logical basis to dispute them. So, into the breach:
- Vinyl playback generally has measurable (and sometimes audible) wow and flutter – Digital doesn’t have this issue.
- Vinyl playback has measurable (within the audible) distortion (from tracking angle variation as the cartridge transits the disc radius) – Digital’s is largely unmeasurable (not audible).
- Vinyl playback degrades the source every time a disc is played – The chance that playing a digital audio file will cause a loss of some of the bits is very low.
- Vinyl playback stops when a single side of a record is finished – then you must change or flip the disc – Digital can play without interruption for as many tracks as you have in the queue.
- Vinyl discs take more physical storage space for a given amount of music than digital.
- A turntable takes fine motor skill and time to set up properly – DACs take some skill in setting up as well.
- A high-end turntable is expensive – There are plenty of DACs that are really expensive too.
- Currently, vinyl source material is limited to remastering old analog tapes and new digital music that is transferred to vinyl – The catalog of old and new digital recordings is huge.
- Vinyl phono cartridge and tonearm compliance must be matched to avoid resonance – Digital has no such issues.
- Physical and airborne vibration have a significant effect on vinyl playback – They have no effect on digital playback.
- Additional gain and RIAA equalization are required for vinyl – Not required for digital.
- Because of the resurgence in vinyl interest, there is much growth in the availability of turntables – New DACs are also arriving on the market constantly.
- Phono styli wear over time, and if not periodically replaced, can seriously damage the discs on which they’re used.
- And I could go on…
- Vinyl playback offers a “liquid” or “organic” sound that digital systems cannot match.
- Vinyl is temporarily enjoying a “hipster renaissance” but it can’t last forever.
- There’s no reason (other than expense and storage issues) not to have both vinyl and digital playback capability.
When CDs were introduced in the mid-1980s, I purchased my first CD player (a highly-regarded and well-reviewed Philips). Upon trying my first CDs, the loss of sound quality, compared to my vinyl system, brought tears to my eyes (literally). At that point, I concluded that Sony’s digital motto “Perfect Sound, Forever!” was the most egregious piece of hyperbole I’d ever seen.
But over the decades, the gap between vinyl and digital started to close. New CD players began to arrive with significantly better DACs and analog output sections. CDs from much better ADCs (Analog-to-Digital Converters) were released. And now, more than three decades since the digital introduction, CDs can have a truly superb sound. Vinyl aficionados still say that LPs “sound better than digital”.
The reason that vinyl has this appeal is not that it is better high fidelity, but probably because the mechanical process of reproducing the sound creates harmonics that are appealing. Below is a spectrum from a Pro-Ject RPM 9 turntable that we reviewed:
Notice the significant amount of second-ordered harmonic distortion at 2 kHz (the fundamental test tone was at 1 kHz. Second-ordered harmonics are pleasant to the ears. They add warmth and body. The other harmonics in this spectrum are much lower and less significant.
Now look at this spectrum from a Panasonic DP-UB9000 UHD player whose audio DAC tested terrific:
There are no visible harmonics. The presence of significant second-ordered harmonics with vinyl is very important to the distinguishable difference between vinyl and digital. This is why vinyl sounds so “good”.
So where do high-definition digital, MQA, and other “enhancements” fit into the comparison? Their admirers claim that these features boost digital performance beyond analog. I’m unwilling to concede that yet, but the argument justifies further examination.
In my opinion, at this moment in time, in October 2019, the best of digital is now equivalent to the best of analog. That does not mean they sound the same, just that they both sound really nice. Take your choice, or better yet, take them both. There are some really fabulous vinyl albums from the 1950s and 1960s that have been remastered from the original analog tapes. The musicians are world-renowned, such as John Coltrane and Artur Rubenstein.