It’s a debate that constantly has people going round in circles, and our friends are constantly debating over the differences between vinyl and CD’s. But what really are the differences and can we even tell them apart? As people with a background in both Engineering and Music, we have pooled our knowledge to give you our understanding of how Vinyl and CD’s work and the nuances between them.
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How Vinyl Works
A vinyl record is essentially a physical representation of the soundwave of a piece of music.
When listening to a record, you put the needle in the groove; and this groove has been carved to mirror the original sound’s waveform.The output of a record is an analogue output – meaning that the output represents the actual, continuous sound wave generated by the artists and their equipment. In theory, this means that no information is lost (aka a lossless format), and the record can be fed directly to your amplifier with no conversion, which then feeds to your speakers.
Of course, anyone who owns records will be aware of the potential inconsistencies that can affect the sound quality when listening. Any spec of dust, or scratch, or smudge can change how the record sounds at that particular point; and over time your record can wear down, dulling the sound.
There can also be issues with vinyl pressing, as a plant may produce bad pressings by using the wrong equipment, or trying to squeeze the grooves too close together (which can increase the likelihood of skipping). And finally, even weighting your needle incorrectly can damage a record over time – if balanced incorrectly, the needle can be a leading factor in eroding the soundwave.
That being said – here we love records, and there is something special about both playing a record that always seems to have that bit of extra warmth; and owning what is essentially the physical sound wave is something we love.
How CD’s Work
CD’s operate differently to vinyl as they are digital. When a recording is digitised, slices of the information are being taken at different points along the sound-wave (or samples) and its shape is being transposed into 1’s and 0’s. A digital to analogue converter (DAC) is then used to fill in the information between these slices to form an analogue wave that can be used by your speakers.
The amount of slices, or samples, taken represents the sample rate – the higher the sample rate, the closer the digital wave is to representing the original analogue signal. Different digital file types have different sample rates, with higher sample rates requiring more storage space. CD quality sits at around 44,100 samples per second (or 44.1KHz) and 16-bit accuracy – this means that the value of each slice taken must be one of a possible 65,536 values).
So with this in mind, it would stand to reason that as a digital wave can never fully replicate an original sound-wave from a record, that vinyl must sound better? It’s not as simple as that. A sample rate of 44.1KHz and frequencies of up to 20KHz is about the limit of what humans can hear, and that CD quality provides; and alongside this sound engineers have made leaps and bounds in improving the sound you can hear digitally on CD’s, using methods such as oversampling. There have also been blind tests that have confirmed people can’t tell the difference between recordings with frequencies over 21KHz and those that don’t.
With the definition of a digital sound wave being that it is capturing slices of the original recording and approximating it with a series of steps; this means that sounds with very quick transitions such as a brass tone or a snare drum, has the potential to be distorted if they change quicker than the sample rate – although you probably won’t be able to tell.
Now you know how both formats operate you can see that both have their own pro’s and con’s. Music pressed onto a record will have a closer representation to the original sound-wave from the recording; whereas a CD will be a digitised reconstruction of the sound wave which may leave some sounds with quicker transitions sounded distorted.
On the flip side of this, the sampling rate (44.1KHz) and frequencies provided by CD’s (20KHz) is at the limit of human hearing; and records take more time and care to keep in good condition, and there are a multitude of factors that could negatively impact the sound from a vinyl record.
Each format has its own charms and for most of us, we probably can’t tell the difference between the two. That said, we love records here at Set the Record Player – just the physical aspect of owning that original sound-wave is something that has more than just an audiological appeal, and every record we own has a story to tell that is hard to forget.