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.

  • Anders Pedersen

    I collected
    vinyl records for 15 years and preached to everybody about their superior sound quality. Truth be told, it was also a very frustrating hobby. So I did an
    enormous A/B test between vinyl and CD (410 albums so far) to see if it was
    actually true, and I’m still not done. I’m considering making a website about
    my findings, so get in touch if you would like to know more.

    Possibly the very best article I’ve read about debunking the myths of superior
    sound quality on vinyl as opposed to CDs is this:

    http://wiki.hydrogenaud.io/index.php?title=Myths_%28Vinyl%29

    Read it, read it, read it! Please!
    I think especially the angry Fatboyslimmer should read that article, as some of the statements he’s making (e.g. about noise) are simply false, as can be seen in the article. It’s not widely accepted that a CD is a poor medium – that’s something only vinyl freaks say (and they all seem to say it – it’s ideology). Around 2 % of the music being sold today is on vinyl. Yes, there’s a large market for used records too (which also exists for CDs), but there is also people downloading illegally/streaming for free, so it’s fair to say that only 2-5 % of people in the West buy vinyl.

    Dinky Toy’s test was not only enlightening and true but also absolutely hilarious!

    I have done A/B testing with 410 albums on vinyl and CD, and my stereo system cost around $16,500 in total, so the equipment shouldn’t be the problem. Unlike most people, instead of talking theory I believe the proof is in the pudding: Just listen, compare and see what you prefer. If you want to say something GENERAL about this, you need enough statistic data – not just ONE or TWO records that sounds better than the CD. What I can say is this:

    Some vinyl records sound better than the CD – some significantly better, others just a bit. There are albums I would never buy on CD. It’s true that proper equipment is really needed when playing vinyl records (less so with CDs). If you use a Technics 1210 turntable, almost all records are going to sound crap compared to the CDs. But my test has shown that even with proper equipment most CDs still sound better than the vinyl records.

    My results so far:

    * 410 albums compared

    * 59 albums were better on vinyl, which is equivalent to 14.39 %.

    * 128 albums were a matter of taste; each media had its strengths and weaknesses; or they were practically identical (and then it would be arbitrary which media you would choose). This is equivalent to 31.21 %.

    * 223 albums were better on CD, which is equivalent to 54.39 %.

    When it comes to the ones that were a matter of taste, then I preferred 13 records to CDs, which means that I would choose the CDs in 82.43 % of the cases. This figure is only preliminary though, as there are some vinyl albums (mainly from the early 90s) that I would like to hear again as I think I will change my mind on those.

    Some people have a taste/preference that has very little to do with “real/accurate” sound and “best sound”. A friend of mine likes his records to be a bit noisy (“it tells the story of what the record has been through” he says). I played one of my worst records (from 1971) and the great CD equivalent for him. He could easily hear that the CD sounded better, but he preferred the record, because “that’s how it sounded back then”. Many people are actually like him. They prefer primitive sound – “CDs sound too clean. It has to be grimy”. Many vinyl freaks prefer clean sound and still prefer vinyl to CD. No problem. Some albums really do sound better on vinyl. I can’t explain why, they just do. Maybe the CD produces the most “accurate” sound, but if the vinyl record simply is more to our liking, despite a coloured sound, then who cares?

    However, unlike what some people believe, a CD isn’t just a CD. My test showed that there are three very, very important things you should know if you want to avoid bad CDs – because there are many bad CDs:

    1: CDs from the 80s and partly from the early 90s almost all sounded worse than the vinyl record. The CDs from this period usually were very shrill, thin and cold. This period lasted until around 1992-1993 (although both certain earlier CDs outperformed the records, and later certain records outperformed the CDs).

    2: Despite their reputation, Japanese CDs, from any year, sound very similar to CDs from the 80s.

    3: Buying CD reissues of albums that were originally released before CDs’ good period (ca. 1994 onwards) is a lottery. Sometimes you win, and you might win big. Other times you don’t win anything, or you might even lose. Remastering can drastically improve the sound quality, or it can destroy it. Some remasters are light years beyond the original record, and some are simply worse. As has been pointed out, this is the work of studio people and engineers. When you buy a reissue/remaster it means that someone else has been fiddling with what the original engineer/producer did, and therefore it might be an improvement and it might not. It all depends on that new engineer’s skills and taste. And maybe the master tapes are in poor condition too.

    I haven’t done statistics on the above three groups yet but I will.

    So, in other words: If you buy music from around 1994 onwards, my test has shown that the CD usually sounds better. Some cases are, of course, a matter of taste, and for some albums (for instance Suede’s “Coming up” or Arcade Fire’s “The suburbs”) I prefer the vinyl edition, but in most cases the CD was anywhere from a tad better to significantly better. The newest Justin
    Timberlake album is a great example. The vinyl edition sounds great. But the CD sounds just a tad better – more life and punch to the CD. And yes, I believe this “brickwalling” thing that has been going on is not healthy, but
    this is also to do with the type of music. Classical music or orchestral
    soundtracks, to name just two examples, probably wouldn’t be brickwalled. On Youtube you can hear the difference between the brickwalled “Death
    Magnetic” by Metallica and the Guitar Hero version, and what a disgrace
    the brickwalled version is! But heavy brickwalling has only been going on for a couple of years, so all the music released before then won’t suffer from this. Only very few of the albums I compared were from the brickwalling era. I
    actually also had a few records (mainly 7″ singles) that were cut so loud
    that they clearly distorted, and that sounded much worse than any brickwalled CD (perhaps minus the Metallica one).

    So, If you mainly buy music from the 80s, then the original vinyl editions are often better than the CDs – and often/occasionally also better than the remastered CDs (but not all). If you buy music from around 1994 onwards, the CD is usually best, although brickwalling might have changed that in the last couple of years. If you buy music from the 60s and 70s, then comparing vinyl and CD would be the best. Some records from that period are a disgrace, while others are better than the CD. I don’t feel embarrassed for paying $75 for the original mono edition of Jefferson Airplane’s “Surrealistic pillow”, because it sounds much better than the CD. But I do feel embarrassed paying around $50 for the first album by H.P. Lovecraft as the CD (“Dreams in the witch house”) sounds much better. And there are many examples like that.

  • Anonymous

    I think even low bit mp3 sounds better than vinyl. Vinyl was dying even before CDs came along. People were buying cassettes with anti-hiss technology from Dolby labs instead of records. Those tapes would get eaten by many a car deck, but they played on boom boxes and Walkmans. Is it possible “artistes” are trying to bring back the analog medium because of its fragility?

  • Crutnacker

    Having purchased a buttload of CDs from 1987 until today, I’m not going back to Vinyl. My old collection sounds pretty good to my ears.

    I was glad, however, to hear about brickwalling a few years ago. I couldn’t figure out why so much of today’s music wore on my ears, even songs by artists I liked. It sounds like records these days are engineered by the guys who used to do car commercials a decade ago, with everything in the mix turned to 11 and louder than everything around it. I’ve tried to point out the differences to my wife and daughter, but they look at me like I”m crazy.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t help but noticing your conclusion is a cop out compared to the click frenzy inducing title.

    Grow some balls and admit you think CD is the superior format when the contents is not taken into consideration :)

    If some of the masters available only on vinyl were just put straight on to a CD as opposed to being pressed then digitised on a consumer player, I would stop having to berate people online about this.

  • Tom Green

    I’m honestly inclined to say that I’m probably going to be buying more CD’s.

    My
    absolute favorite albums will probably be bought on vinyl, “Pink Moon”,
    “Velvet Underground & Nico”, “Dark Side of the Moon”, all of the
    Pavement and Deerhunter albums.

    But I really like CD
    too. For stuff like mathrock, they really EQ it so well today that I
    can’t imagine why I would want to buy a Don Caballero album on vinyl
    instead of CD.

    Honestly, its way more convenient, and I
    don’t rip to mp3 either, I like putting the CD into a player anyway,
    and it sounds awesome. Doing the same on your computer for the full effect would probably need FLAC.

    And
    after ripping so many albums from vinyl to 320 kbps mp3 and flac, you
    get so tired of doing it, that honestly, CD is a lot better than what it
    used to be.

    I might even sell my vinyls to get more CDs to be honest. The price for records is getting ridiculous and I just don’t have that kind of money period.

  • Ugh_so complicated

    Ok, now I’m confused. I’ve been wanting to know whether its worth investing in having a vinyl LP player… and I know nothing about what plays well and what records actually will play better on vinyl vs CD. I just know that I listened to one album on LP and thought the sound was kind of awesome (Beatles White Album)

    I’d love to know what records I should compare on CD vs vinyl. Also, how important is the quality of the player? Also… I have a TON of .mp3s.. is it worth getting these in FLAC format? Umm… and

    For someone who is NOT a sound engineer or super audiophile, but wants a good player, any recommendations?

    • fatboyslimmer

      Don’t be. I’ve never read such utter rubbish in my life as on here. CD’s are recognised as a very poor replay medium, and well past their sell buy date. 16/44 was used simply because that was the accepted norm in the 70′s, either that or 16/48. Neither are ‘high resolution’ formats. 24/96 and above is high resolution, and recording and playback at that level avoids the numerous issues with CD DAC. CD has massive problems turning the Digital wave back into something audible without producing distortion artefacts, even expensive DAC’s and CD players struggle to do this. CD in fact CANNOT remove all artefacts from the audible spectrum meaning you are listening to a medium that has distortion in every disc you play. As such, if people are really happy to listen to a medium that is inferior to vinyl, be my guest, me, I’ll stick to vinyl and Hires digital.

      It’s argued that vinyl replay is inferior due to compression and it’s limitations at the cutting stage. 100% correct on the limitations, but this doesn’t produce ‘warmth’ (another statement of ignorance) that is purely down to the quality (poor) of the replay system which is over emphasising low frequencies. High quality MC cartridges and a decent Phono stage (by which I mean good not expensive) will eliminate that annoying ‘warmth’. Vinyl replay is all about the engineering, and as such a well made deck is worth it’s weight in Gold. At the low end of the market Rega and Project are the top dogs (I prefer Rega for build) while up the ranks Roksan, ClearAudio and VPI are good marques that avoid ‘warmth’.

      Don’t bother comparing vinyl vs CD it’s a no brainer when they are on a level playing field. I would never buy a CD over a vinyl version, unless they are both cut from a well mastered 16/44 source (i,e, not brickwalled). 16/44 recording is so poor you won’t get any benefit from the vinyl version. However, luckily for the vinyl fan, the loudness wars mean 9 times out of ten it’s worth getting the vinyl as, according to any engineer worth his salt, vinyl cannot be cut using brickwalled Digital sources.

      in contrast to the lead article I have read numerous articles, by far more respected and well known industry figures who cannot stand CD (for the reasons mentioned) due to it’s limitations, and argue that mastering, while important cannot overcome the issues with CD’s DAC. (Bob Stuart (Meridian), Kevin Gray, Bernie Grundman, Barry Diament for example) I would never argue that a good master is critical, but again, talking to engineers, you very rarely get one these days once the production master is signed off. From that point it’s up to the record company what you get, not the engineer.

      On digital files, MP3 is fine for portable use. At home I would recommend getting Flac at the very least. MP3′s deficiencies are easily exposed by a proper Hifi.

      I could not tell you what is a good player of any kind without a budget.

    • SampsonJ

      Honestly i love both, and i would dearly miss having either format. However, the reason i like vinyl is because there is so much material that doesn’t exist on cd. I like going down to the thrift store and garage sales where i can find albums for literally 59 cents. As far as mp3′s, they are a lossy format, which depending on the bitrate will incur a loss in sound quality. 320kbps being the better of mp3 there is still an audible loss on higher end speakers. I would suggest buying the album on cd and ripping to your preferred lossless format (i like flac)As far as good players go for an entry level “audiophile”, i highly suggest the U-turn Orbit for a new turntable, or for a used vintage turntable, one of the technics models.

  • Ryan Doyle

    After the initial honeymoon phase upon getting a turntable last year, I’m beginning to accept that CD’s are generally better. They are higher resolution audio. I don’t see how anyone can deny that. In theory, analog would be higher res but in the real world so much is lost in the pressing of the record and the playback of the record that it’s not. Losing high end does create “warmth” but but is that really better?

  • 2112

    I think both have their pros and cons. I think they both sound good. I do have a nice vinyl rig, and never realized vinyl sounds as good as It does until I purchased a good turntable, cart, and phono stage. I also have an older Technics mash CD player which plays very nice. I have been given hundred of nice shape vinyl that sounds stunning…. Never been given a CD though. Some I have just wanted to downsize. I also have mp3′s, flacc, etc. Do I see myself ditching vinyl in favor of cd.. No, and vice versa. I do like cd pitch black background, and are killer for quiet and softer music. Mastering or remastering has given cd a bad name. I have older cd’s that sound awesome and newer versions are compressed badly! This is 100% mastering and engineering. My billy Joel is one example of this. Others it don’t matter… My led zeppelin 2 sounds grossly distorted on cd, and vinyl. And my latest ls box set on cd sounds of the same. No matter what medium vinyl, cd, flacc… Buy it and support your artist!! Sit back and enjoy the music!

  • Rob

    I do not agree, vinyl sounds way better. Cd’s are all in 44100 khz 16 bit. Too low. Did you ever hear the difference between a rip from cd at a 16 bit and then the same song from vinyl at 48000 32 bit? The problem is that 16 bit is way too low to be of good quality. It would be a different thing if cd’s were mastered at 32 or 48 bit.
    They say 16 bit is enough because people can’t hear the difference. That’s crap. I hear the difference!!!

    • Robert Bergmann

      Sounds like you have golden ears, but the crap is in your posting.

      “10. The Golden Ear Lie

      This is the catchall lie that should perhaps go to the head of the list as No. 1 but will also do nicely as a wrap-up.

      The Golden Ears want you to believe that their hearing is so keen, so
      exquisite, that they can hear tiny nuances of reproduced sound too
      elusive for the rest of us. Absolutely not true.

      Anyone without actual hearing impairment can hear what they hear, but
      only those with training and experience know what to make of it, how to
      interpret it.

      Thus, if a loudspeaker has a huge dip at 3 kHz, it will not sound like
      one with flat response to any ear, golden or tin, but only the
      experienced ear will quickly identify the problem. It’s like an
      automobile mechanic listening to engine sounds and knowing almost
      instantly what’s wrong. His hearing is no keener than yours; he just
      knows what to listen for.

      You could do it too if you had dealt with as many engines as he has.

      Now here comes the really bad part. The self-appointed Golden
      Ears—tweako subjective reviewers, high-end audio-salon salesmen,
      audioclub ringleaders, etc. often use their falsely assumed superior
      hearing to intimidate you. “Can’t you hear that?” they say when
      comparing two amplifiers. You are supposed to hear huge differences
      between the two when in reality there are none — the GE’s can’t hear it
      either; they just say they do, relying on your acceptance of their GE
      status. Bad scene.

      The best defense against the Golden Ear lie is of course the
      double-blind ABX test. That separates those who claim to hear something
      from those who really do. It is amazing how few, if any, GE’s are left
      in the room once the ABX results are tallied.”
      (From http://sonido.uchile.cl/articulos/tenbiggestliesaudio.pdf)

      “”The most important person in a company that makes audiophile speaker wire is the head of marketing.”
      (From http://ethanwiner.com/myths.html)

      “There is no technical proof of the sonic superiority of the vinyl medium compared to CD.”
      (From http://wiki.hydrogenaudio.org/index.php?title=Myths_(Vinyl))

      • Dinky Toy

        All sites blah blah vinyl is better than CD.

        That is why I found this one so late.

        Many thanks for this very welcome article.

        Here my reaction:

        I fully agree the CD sounds better than vinyl. In case I want to get rid of my old vinyl I am happy many think they sound better ;-)
        There are exceptions.
        I have a handfull CDs out of my 5000 CD collection that sound lesser than on vinyl.
        So 999 out 1000 were the CD sounds better as the LP.
        On 2 CDs the stereo was too extreme , leaving too little in the middle. 1 CDs sounded less fresh probably due to aging problems of the master tape that was used. 1 CD was remastered in a way I prefered the old vinyl mix. 1 CD where the highs were cut off at mastering.
        I kept all 5 LPs of the above… and a lot more (but only because of their beautifull big sleeves).

        We arranged the blind listening session.
        A test I organized with a friend who had a very fine high end set in the 90s:
        The panel was our other music friends. All had CDs and LPs. Some loved CD more others prefered vinyl.
        -We recorded a LP on a CD-R and called it A
        -The original LP of A and called it B
        -We recorded an CD and added (very tricky) a little surface noise from between LP tracks! and called it C
        -The original CD of C and called it D

        We tuned the 4 ch mixer so all channels had exact the same playback level. The same amp & speakers were used for all playback.

        2 simple questions, 2 sound compariations between vinyl and CD.
        We first switched between A and B for our listeners.
        All of or 7 friends wanted to listen again and again to A and B and verse versa,
        We asked what did you hear Vinyl or CD all replied like : went someting wrong I heard vinyl in both cases.
        What sounded the best for you? They all replied A sounded as good as B.

        Then we started listen between C and D.
        The 3 vinyl lovers among the panel prefered C over D (!) Are you sure? Yes definitly, the vinyl on C sounds more lively can’t you hear that?!
        3 others found D a CD sounding the best: a bit more clear. One said C sounded as good as D.

        We asked those what did you hear Vinyl or CD? All replied: damn good vinyl on C, CD on D.

        After telling them what really C was, the vinyl losers were pissed being tricked, but underneath embarressed.

        No need because vinyl lovers listen with their big-sleeves-eyes too you know…

        Here you are:

        A CD adds nor left out anything, there is nothing wrong with the format compaired to the Flinstone age vinyl!
        If a CD sounds bad it’s the recording they put on it. Vinyl has ALWAYS it’s imperfections.

        Is this it? No.

        A needle in a groove is an instrument* itself. It produces a sound along the sound in the groove too. It add something to the recording many people like or are simply used to. They call that warmth. Like some people are used to the sss-sounds of a less than 192 kbps mp3. I just call it distortion. But even the right distortion can sounds great to others.

        What leaves:

        Why emputee a long piece of music in 20 min. parts per LP side when you have 80 min. at your disposal on CD.

        Why buy you desert island LP again and again when you are done with one purchase on CD.

        7 inch E.P. and singles are as bad sounding as LP tracks near it’s label, anyone that states this sounds better as CD is nearly deaf to anything! Only 12 inch singles and the first centimeters of an LP count for the best possible quality on vinyl.

        I don’t need the sound the vinyl format makes and certainly no sounds that cover what the musicians did play when worn or badly pressed.

        Vinyl is an insult to the musicans and it’s listeners. Many historic recording are covered in groove noise and detoriation. Thank God future generations can go back to old CDs not to have to rely on worn vinyl.

        • Anonymous

          Blunt review. I like it. And finally, as many say, the master is of great importance. Plus, the vinyl is prone to defects during the pressing. But, honestly, I have some CDs recently published by Naive and Aparte (from France) sounding absolutely incredible – I can close my eyes and feel the breath of the artists. This is real music fine recorded. And, looking back at the many years of listening to vinyl, I can only say “This quality cannot be put on a vinyl no matter what master they come up with”.
          The rest, is just marketing gargle. Fact is that the music industry is losing bags of money due to the CD piracy (including copying on CD-R and ripping to loseless or lossy formats). This wasn’t so bad during the vinyl era and they have all the pecuniary reasons to regret it (this is all they care, isn’t it?)

  • Al

    A CD produces better sound because there is none of the surface noise there, and it holds its sound quality with each play. CD is also not plagued by many of the production issues that vinyl is.

    DAC’s have come a long way since the early 1980′s. The problem with CD’s, and I guess most music, is that it is a loud, compressed mess. When CD is mastered right, it sounds cleaner and better than a record.

    That is my two cents. I know that fanboys of vinyl will come here and disagree because they spend x amount of dollars for a vinyl setup, so their ego is hurt when you say CD is better.