Why CDs Sound Better Than Vinyl

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.

  • Geo T

    Quote: “Do I think CDs actually sound better than vinyl? Yes and no. They sound different, and that’s really all I am saying.”

    What do you mean by “different?” That sounds like you’re just trying to appease vinyl die-hards, and contradicts the title of the article. I can’t think of any instance, with equal quality masters, where a CD doesn’t sound noticeably cleaner and punchier than vinyl, especially on headphones where the instrument-separation is clearer. Also, how can anyone just ignore all the surface noise and rumble of vinyl? It’s not part of the music, unless one is so nostalgic that they think sound is supposed to have crackles and bumps! Before the LP record was invented, people would hear live music that lacked those artifacts, then vinyl introduced compromises that people got used to because they knew nothing else. They were restricted by the technology of the day and are still rebelling against its successors. An impractical waste of time, to me.

    Vinyl was never true analog, don’t forget that. Today’s sound engineers would never pursue it, given what they know now. If tape had been invented before vinyl, I doubt the latter would even exist. Its famous artifact is hiss but most vinyl was cut from tape masters anyhow.

  • Alex Young

    Whilst I realise that this article is all about sound I would add that another big factor in favor of CDs is convenience. They are a lot easier to store and they are a lot easier to play than vinyl.
    Better still , in my humble opinion , is to rip your CDs on to a hard drive using a decent program (EAC) and then to play utilising a great media player (MediaMonkey). It can really open up your collection and make album and track selection a joy rather than a chore.
    The two programs that I mention are what I use but there are many others out there and most (like mine) can be had for free.

  • 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?!!!

    • Anders Pedersen

      * LPs (1) extract more info (400 bits per channel): This is false. In digital audio bits is signal-to-noise ratio. Nothing else. It’s not resolution as so many believe. Each bit gives 6 dB of dynamic range, so 16 bit audio gives 96 dB of dynamic range. Vinyl doesn’t have 2400 dB of dynamic range but around 80 dB. As for resolution/info, the Nyquist-Shannon states that as long as the sampling rate exceeds double the bandwidth, the digital signal will contain ALL the detail with no loss and no distortion.

      And if you intend to claim that vinyl contains more information, please back it up with a proper scientific source (so not Michael Fremer or any other analogue lover’s subjective opinion). Read more about bits here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/415361/24bit-vs-16bit-the-myth-exploded

      * (2) It’s distortion is less objectionable: This is subjective. Digital has 0.0024 percent distortion. Analogue tape has 1 to 3 percent. Vinyl usually has much more, but it varies from disc to disc. Some like the “heavy” distortion (relatively speaking) of vinyl and analogue tape compared to the practical lack of distortion you find in digital.

      * (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):

      1: Have you ever heard jitter, Armydicked? What does it sound like?

      2: Have you ever done a blind test to see what the actual audible threshold is for jitter for you personally?

      3: Robert Harley has been misinforming people about jitter for more than 20 years. You can read about this on page 11 here: http://www.biline.ca/audio_critic/mags/The_Audio_Critic_21_r.pdf

      4: Jitter is present in all digital audio, but is never audible. The actual audible threshold is several hundred nanoseconds, while converters today don’t measure more than maximum a few nanoseconds of jitter (some only half a nanosecond), as shown by for instance this paper: http://www.researchgate.net/publication/242508896_Detection_threshold_for_distortions_due_to_jitter_on_digital_audio

      5: I used to think jitter was a major concern as well – that’s what all audiophiles say, right? So I really believed them – until I decided to look into it. If you want to hear jitter and read an explanation of what it actually is, please see this discussion I started (the sound clips are posted by Arnold Krueger with the wording “Link to post with jitter file attachements”):

      * (Digital sucks because it clips the signal—Hello?!!!

      What exactly do you mean? Clipping as in it’s too loud? Then that’s the mastering engineers poor judgement in pushing the volume, not anything to do with the digital media. If you mean that digital doesn’t capture the highest and lowest frequencies, then at least it captures more than analogue tape. The finest analogue tapes (Studer) goes to 20 kHz +/- 2 dB, while CDs can go to 22 kHz +/- 0.2 dB. If you have a higher sample rate, such as 96 kHz, it can go to 48 kHz. But what is the point of that? Hardly anybody can hear past 20 kHz, and certain experts say that frequencies above the threshold of human hearing can cause intermodulation distortion, although I don’t know enough about that to comment on it.

      All this said: I have 98 albums that I would say are “downright better” on vinyl and 125 albums that I would call a matter of taste where I prefer the vinyl edition. So, I like vinyl (I was vinyl only for 15 years), but I have 317 albums that I would say are “downright better” on CD and 137 albums
      that I would call a matter of taste where I prefer the CD edition.

      • Anonymous

        I do not have an engineering background and do not claim to be one. On the other hand, I am not a shaman with a devising stick imposing his religion on others.

        I can hear a difference between a CD and a Vinyl recording of the same recording.song, I can hear the difference between an MP3 recording and an AIFF recording. I can’t explain why.

        On the other hand, I did win a twenty dollar bet from a college professor who claimed there was no difference in taste between a Coke (chocolate notes) and a Pepsi (tea notes) and that it is our psychological pre conditioning, through advertising that caused people to perceive a difference between said soft drinks. I picked out the differences 10 out of ten times in a blind test of unmarked paper cups.

        You may be sick of discussing the subject but I am not as it goes to the heart of my hobby, to wit, differences between components and playback modalities can be heard.

        Let me be the one to ask questions of you. If Red Book Cd is so ‘Perfect sound forever-ish’, why the need for DACs with higher resolution? Why bother with DxD and the quest for higher resolution?!!! Why the quote from the Sony Chairman that CDs were never intended to be a HIFI format, rather, they were designed for instant search and playback? Why did Sony fight tooth & nail with Phillips for 16 bit lengths over 8 bit lengths when Philips claimed there was no appreciable difference between the two?!!!

        My non engineer opinion is that it’s resolution of detail and not simply distortion of signal that explains the difference between vinyl and digital.

        • Anders Pedersen

          I can’t answer all those questions, but I do know that I can certainly also hear the difference between vinyl and CD in most cases – actually most people can. And many albums I prefer on vinyl – some sound close to terrible on CD. But many albums also sound terrible on vinyl. And many albums just sound a little bit different on the two medias. As simple as that: Some albums sound better on vinyl, some sound better on CD, and many are a matter of preference. The remastered CD issues of The Smiths’ discography, for instance, is brighter and clearer and has more high frequency content than the original vinyl editions. Yet, I prefer the vinyl editions.

          And I’m glad to hear you could taste the difference between Pepsi and Coke. That’s great (and I mean that)! I also prefer 7up to Sprite and at least believe that I can taste the difference (although I’ve never put it to the test). I’ve never, ever claimed that there’s no audible difference between vinyl and CD – usually there is. And for 7up or Pepsi, it’s just a matter of taste, not a fact that one is better than the other.
          In case you haven’t seen my other comments further down, then I was “vinyl only, no f****n CDs” for 15 years. I refused to by anything on CD if it was available on vinyl – even if it meant paying loads of money for it and searching for 5-10 years. But then I upgraded my system and compared 700 albums on vinyl and CD.
          I have no problem with you preferring vinyl, and I’m not trying to impose any religion on you (and vinyl is definitely a religion to many) – all I’m saying is that please do not spread misinformation and lies, which is why I offered my comments :-). I was offering reliable facts that can easily be verified in response to the claims you posted, as I assumed you prefer facts to incorrect claims :-).
          I hope we can discuss this in a proper and well-mannered way without having to resort to shouting and overuse of exclamation marks. When we are discussing such things as facts, then we should get the facts straight :-).

          The difference in a cheap DAC to an expensive DAC is usually just a different sound, just like amp/speaker A sound different than amp/speaker B, and not something to do with “resolution”, but sure a £5000 DAC might sound more pleasant than a £300 one.

          A 24 bit dac is simply just able to play back 24 bit audio, which means audio where the noise floor is lower. Did you read the link about bit depth from Head-fi I provided? A higher sample rate has nothing to do with resolution either per se.
          Is the following picture how you see the difference between analogue, 44 kHz sampling rate and 192 kHz sampling rate?

          If so, I don’t blame you! This view has been propagated from anyone from Sony (who makes money off it) to the audiophile press. I used to believe that this picture showed the difference. But it’s a misunderstanding. If you want to verify this for yourself, there’s a video here that shows it: http://xiph.org/video/vid2.shtml
          A higher sample rate simply adds content from 22 kHz and up – nothing else. And I suppose you could call this “resolution” if you have to (although a better term perhaps would be “more content” or “more information”).
          However, neither vinyl nor analogue tape has more content in supersonic frequncies than CDs except for in certain extreme cases (I can explain if you like).

          The following I copy-pasted from on of my comments further down:

          * The dynamic range of vinyl is around 80 dB. The dynamic range of the finest analogue tape (Studer) is around 70-75 dB. That corresponds to around 12-13 bits in a digital perspective (each bit gives 6 bit of dynamic range). CDs are 16 bit and thus have 96 dB of dynamic range.

          * The finest analogue tapes have a frequency response of 20-20,000 Hz +/-2 dB. CD standard (16 bit, 44,1 kHz) have a frequency response of 20-22,000 Hz +/- 0.2 dB.

          * Analogue distortion is 1 to 3 percent. Digital distortion is 0.0024 percent.

          These are facts that can easily be verified, and I can give you my source if you like.

          And just for good measure I’ll throw in the Nyquist-Shannon Theorem: It states that as long as the sampling rate exceeds double the bandwidth, the digital signal will contain ALL the detail with no loss and no distortion. This was proved already in 1928 by Harry Nyquist, and it has been proved many times since.

          Of all the reseach I’ve done I have not seen a single reputable source that could substantiate that vinyl or analogue recordings have higher resolution than proper digital. But many people certainly love to claim it. But anybody can claim anything. Until it’s substantiated it’s still just a claim.

          The difference between 8 bit and 16 bit is simply that the noise floor is lower on 16 bit – nothing else. It’s still not resolution. 8 bit has 48 dB of dynamic range, 16 bit has 96 dB. I don’t know why Philips would suggest using 8 bit, but with dynamic recordings you would be able to hear the noise floor – just like you can on certain analogue recordings and especially on casette tape. With loud rock music you wouldn’t be able to hear the noise floor though.

          As to “Why bother with the quest for higher resolution?!!!”, then I feel this article has a good response: http://www.head-fi.org/t/571259/hi-rez-another-myth-exploded

          As he says: “The difficulty facing the audio industry is that 16/44 is an old and well established technology. It’s difficult and not very profitable to keep selling the same thing for years. On the other hand, it’s easy to convince consumers that bigger numbers are better, so hi-rez provides an ideal opportunity to sell the same customers new equipment and new music collections. Everyone wins, the companies stay in business and the consumers think they are getting something better. The real shame is that instead of spending their development money improving the quality of their products at 16/44, they are spending their money aiming for bigger and bigger meaningless numbers to make their marketing departments happy, while actually reducing audio fidelity.”

          The last remarks is a reference to the this: “Distortion, ringing and phase issues are all measurably poorer at 176.4kS/s and 192kS/s than at 96kS/s.”

          So, as you hopefully can see, I’m talking mostly about facts, and I’m trying to distinguish between fact and preferences/opinions. Unfortunately, there’s SO much misinformation out there that we simply cannot see is wrong. I believed a lot of it too – we can’t all be experts :-). There are many albums I would NEVER buy on CD, but because certain albums sound better on vinyl doesn’t mean that the whole CD medium as such is worthless :-).

          • Anders Pedersen

            By the way: I did some ABX testing in Foobar with just a pair of Grado SR80 headphones (around €100) plugged into the built-in headphone jack. I compared 128 kbps mp3 and 320 kbps mp3 and scored 12/12 for one song and 19/20 for another one.

  • 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.

    • Geo T

      “Can I hear a difference, of course the analogue when warmed up has a broader range, more depth,…” Really? Digital has a much wider dynamic range, cleaner bass, tighter highs, no rumble or clicks, no need for crude RIAA equalization during mastering, and so on. I can’t fathom why anyone would still favor needles grinding on glorified plastic. It’s mostly psychology.

  • 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!

    • Geo T

      Well put. I never turned back, either, not being subject to nostalgic whims in the pursuit of sound quality. Vinyl buffs have forgotten the whole reason digital audio was sought after. It reminds me of people who long for faxes instead of email due to some pleasant association they had with the heyday of faxing; maybe they met a girl, etc.

      LPs were widely known to be a compromised format and when CDs arrived it was a very big deal. I remember some resistance but mostly wide acceptance. My first CD player cost over $600 and had some tracking issues but was worth it at the time.