Why CDs Sound Better Than Vinyl

Posted on January 9, 2012 - by James Cruz

Photo: Skyvixen

That’s a pretty bold statement, I know, and I can feel the collective shudder of the audio world, so I feel I should back it up by telling you a bit about myself. I’ve been a mastering engineer for 18 years. When I started, everything was on tape, digital workstations were new, and every project I worked on went to vinyl. I started at the Hit Factory, was a senior engineer for Sony Music, and now I own my own mastering lab, Zeitgeist Sound Studios in Long Island City. I’ve cut hip-hop singles for OutKast and The Wu-Tang, dance records for C&C Music Factory and Whitney Houston. I’ve cut rock records for Pearl Jam and Metallica. I’ve cut reissues for The Clash and Sly and the Family Stone. I've even done my share of classical records. It's an incredible process and it amazes me every time I do it.

Now to get into my original statement: “CDs sound better than vinyl." I say it for a couple of reasons. There are sonic limitations to vinyl that do not exist on CD. There are also degradation issues that exist on vinyl. The act of playing a record actually destroys it. The inverse is also true of CDs, but in a different way. That is what I would like to discuss.

Let's start with a very brief overview of how records are cut. When a piece of program enters the cutting chain, it gets split to two different places. One split goes to a level attenuator, some filters, an elliptical equalizer, and ends at a very rudimentary and basic computer. The computer tells the lathe how far apart to put the grooves. The second goes to the attenuator, the filters, elliptical equalizer, a high frequency limiter, then the cutter head, which cuts the actual groove in the record. The groove, if looked at under a microscope is actually a complex sine wave. There are variations in depth, it is not straight (it's actually quite wavy), as well as variations in the width. All of these variations are program dependent. If an experienced cutting engineer looks at a groove under a microscope, he (or she) will have a pretty good idea as to what is happening in the music at that particular spot. The groove needs more room to go back and forth the louder the program is. The longer a record is, the lower the volume will be to accommodate the longer grooves. The more bottom end a piece of music has, the deeper the groove needs to be. Filters are usually put in around 35 Hz, but can go much higher for longer sides. Finally the more stereo a track is, the wider the groove has to go. It's actually a V shape and the left and right sides of the audio are on each side of the V, with the center being the point. The wider the stereo, the wider the V needs to be. The elliptical equalizer will take the program and mono all the signals below a certain frequency. Stereo bass can be a disaster to cut, as can any out of phase program. The Neumann electronics (the industry standard) are preset at 150Hz and 300Hz. Cutter heads also have a huge problem with high end. Most engineers will put a high frequency filter in the program as well as use a pretty aggressive de-esser to prevent any problems. Another physical limitation of the medium is "inner diameter distortion." As the record needle travels toward the center of the disk it becomes more difficult to reproduce high frequencies. The frequency response of a vinyl disk is drastically different at the outer section than the inner section. Cutting vinyl is a constant compromise.

CDs have none of these limitations. Outside of not being able to reproduce anything above 20 kHz, anything you want to put on a CD will play. This includes all the bass you can think of, the most sibilant thing you have ever heard, and the craziest phasing effects ever created. Want to put the left hand of your synth on one side and place your vocals 180 degrees out of phase? You can do that; probably not on vinyl. It might sound crazy (or awesome, hmm…) but it can be done.

Don't get me wrong. CDs have their problems too. Most people will tell you "digital doesn't sound good." It might be true, but there are plenty of albums that don't sound great either. The ‘80s were a bad time. Personally, I think it was a dark time for vinyl, and digital was just coming into vogue. Digital still wasn't quite right, and vinyl seemed to be missing that warmth that people love the medium for.

Do I hate vinyl? NO! I absolutely love vinyl. I listen to it all the time. The fact of the matter is this: with converters now sounding as good as they do, engineers understanding higher sample rates and bit depths with proper dithering, digital now sounds pretty good. Do I think CDs actually sound better than vinyl? Yes and no. They sound different, and that's really all I am saying. Proper use of equipment can yield fantastic sounding results on any medium. There are plenty of albums that are still the benchmark for great sounding music. Have you heard an original press of 'Dark Side of the Moon'? It's amazing. Know your gear, know your medium, and make a great sounding record. Getting involved in the argument of "back in the good old days" is fun, but at the end of the day it doesn't matter.

I would love to hear your opinion. Please let me know what you think. I'd like to continue writing articles about the mastering process that interests you, so please let me know what kind of topics you would like discussed and I will do my best to address them. Until next time, keep listening.

About the Author:

James Cruz is a Grammy Award-winning mastering engineer and owner of Zeitgeist Sound Studios in Long Island City, NY. He has worked on projects for artists like OutKast, Wu-Tang Clan, Pearl Jam, Metallica, Calle 13, and more. Head over to his website for his complete discography and contact information.

  • Anonymous

    Front End: Systemdek IIX with Linn Basik+ arm, Sumiko BPS cartridge, Mitchell GyroClamp/GyroMat Acurus RL11 pre amp, Acurus A150 amp bi amped in to an Energy EPS 150/NHT 1.3A speakers, Bellari VPS 129 into a Mullard 12AUX7 Valve with MIT interconnects & Terminator IIs speaker cables ( My office gear= 1995 technology)

    You gimme a 180 gram LP of Cowboy Junkies Trinity Sessions Sweet Jane and put it up against a LOUSY RedBook 44.1kHz/16 bit CD and a CD will sounds better?!!! Blasphemy!!! With an LP, you have sound stage liquidity where you can walk around the instruments. The singer is there in the room with you, the high hat has a REALISTIC sizzle and presence no REDBOOK CD can hope to match!!! Screw CD—gimme a 192kHz/24 bit transfer over Saber32 DACs and it won’t sound as good as my 1888 vinyl technology!!! Why?

    As of 2015, LPs (1) extract more info (400 bits per channel) (2) It’s distortion is less objectionable (3) the S/PDIF interface is fundamentally flawed because the clock is carried within the audio data (Harley 2015). That’s Jitter, to you and I!!! Errors as little as 10 pico-seconds (0.000000000001) is audible (Harley p190 Complete Guide to Hi End Audio 5th Ed. 2015) (Digital sucks because it clips the signal—Hello?!!!

  • Anonymous

    I have an SME 20/3a Deck with a V arm and cadenza ortofon black cartridge with a Quad QC 24 P valve amp, on the digital side I have a naim dac with an Naim NDX streamer, this made my digital library sound phenomenal. Can I say one is better, sure my vinyl sounds great, my digital sounds great, is it a fair comparison listening to my vinyl and saying its better than my digital library NOPE… one format offers analogue depth and the other adds convenience and awesome sound from digital based on DAC limitations today. Can I hear a difference, of course the analogue when warmed up has a broader range, more depth, I put this down to more expansion on the wave form as opposed to bits and bytes decoding limitations and the digital does have a more sharper edge. For me the comparison for each format is as bad as saying a tesla is better than ferrari… pointless. In the Eighties, CD’s were engineered by engineers that were Vinyl centric and now we have CD engineers learning all about mastering vinyl again… I would like to see a top end turntable and a top end Cd setup go head to head with a similar price bracket… The future is looking Vinyl and Flac wrapped Wav for CD preservation. I have since noticed that my digital library sounds better and better as new technology, speakers come into play.. Do digital drums sound better than a real drum kit….. hmm pointless I tell you its a matter of choice and I like both, just need a portable player to take it with me… Now is my cassette player better than my AK240 lol pros and cons for all…. To conclude technology is at its infancy with digital playback and its growing and growing in terms of quality… NOW why can’t I find a great copy of Vienna Philharmonic new year concert on Vinyl but it is in abundance on Cd….. Oh and maybe when DAC’s can expand 1′s and 0′s to the same level as an analogue waveform then were on to something special… bit depth might have a clue but frequency depth am not so sure, anyone know what the matching frequency for a vinyl on digital might be hmmmm oh thats right it depends on the variances of kit lol….. great write up but the title should have been why CD and Vinyl hold their own merits in their own rights… but thats a boring non grabbing attention title, so well done to the author, first write up I have seen thats fairly written.

  • Drum Thunder

    I find that albums recorded from as late as the 60s through the 70s era can sound amazing on CD, being a musician myself, i spent many hours in my youth listening to albums 100s of times a week just to work out parts.Roll the clock on 25yrs , and i listen to a cd now, i come across stuff on the same mix i never heard before the odd guitar track,drum sound, more clarity on vocal harmonies,fade outs etc, it just goes on.If your a rich man or woman then it would be great to have a deck and cd set up.I think a lot of early stuff in mp3 format coming back through basic head sets and pc speakers sounds great.The thing is with vinyl, giving a warm sound in the final mix is down to the producer engineer band etc.Some bands end up hating the mix but some record company exec will release it anyway if there is limited control over their product.Warm sounding records are great if that was the desired effect.I doubt bands like zeppelin were looking for that on their say”led zeppelin II album” for example.On the otherhand medium to warm sound would suit dark side of the moon just fine.

  • Bill14224

    I’m an old electronics technician from the early 80′s who would love to tell you analog is great and digital is crap but I can’t because I’m honest. When I first heard CDs in 1984 I said to myself “Wow this is way better!” while some audiophiles are telling you the opposite 30 years later. CDs have a far superior signal-to-noise ratio noise than analog media and as long as you use a high enough sampling rate the digital sound is more crisp than analog and does not degrade as you play it. That’s the best way I can put it. I love the analog days but that’s only because where it has taken us. Analog is inconvenient, labor intensive, and therefore too expensive to achieve good quality for the general public, as it has always been. When I tell the truth I feel like my soul has been cleansed!