Music Wars: Vinyl vs DigitalBaltimore Post-Examiner

Vinyl vs. Digital: Low Fidelity in High Tech

“My goal is to try and rescue the art form that I’ve been practicing for the last 50 years,” Neil Young told Wired magazine. “We live in the digital age, and unfortunately it’s degrading our music, not improving.”

And Steve Jobs, who brought MP3s to the masses with his game-changing iPod line of digital music players, was an audiophile himself and listened to vinyl pressings of his music at home. MP3s were considered an acceptable trade off in terms of smaller file size and listening quality.

Neil Young

Neil Young

The good old days

It is ironic that the music we grew up listening to and the way we listened produced vastly superior sound quality than the most common way we listen to music today–MP3s either ripped from CDs or purchased from iTunes or Amazon. As digital technology became dominant, replacing analog recording and consumer distribution, sound quality generally diminished. An MP3 for instance, ripped or downloaded at a bit, or sampling, rate of 192kbps, retains just five percent of the audio data that a vinyl pressing made from a master analog studio tape recorder contains.

Now you might not notice the difference between the two when listening in public through ear buds, but you most definitely will if you listen to such an MP3 and compare it to your CD copy of the same song.

With most modern or current music, the bass is emphasized, as are the higher registers, and what you get is a very muddy middle. You also lose the dynamic range of higher fidelity formats, especially analog.

Middle turns to mud

1112vpitra.promo_I had a large vinyl collection years ago, to which I have no idea what happened. I’ve been trying to replace it over the years with CDs and digital downloads. I was listening to a song by the Judybats in which the singer’s voice swells in volume before the chorus. But it was gone, lost to the muddy middle. The dynamics were just missing, flattened out, compressed, and this was from a 320 kbps rip from a CD.

And a sampling rate of 320 kbps is supposed to be indistinguishable from a CD to the human ear. I suppose it is fine for most people, myself included, but it still strikes me that as technology has progressed, rendering images and video at crystal clear levels, music has been ghetthoized and fidelity has been on a downhill slide since the transition from analog to digital occurred.

An analog recording, for those who don’t know, is done on an 8 or 16 track audiotape recording of an artist in a studio. The sound is continuous. A CD, by contrast, is digital. It samples the sound of an analog or digital tape recording, essentially capturing bits at a very high rate, allegedly beyond the ability of the human ear to distinguish between the two.

Steely Dan

Steely Dan

First came Steely Dan

Interestingly, to me at least, that the first band to be converted to the new digital format was Steely Dan, chosen because of their very high production values, allegedly the best in the business at the time. Potential customers were told and sold on this new format as being free from the pop, hiss and noise of vinyl records, the fact that CDs would not wear out as vinyl did after many playings, and that CDs were virtually indestructible, immune from damage such as scratches and skips. Well we know that last is a lie. I don’t know how many CDs I’ve had to polish to remove such damage.

But the trouble and the arguments started right off the bat. CDs presented a noticeably different sound. Some described it as colder, as seeming to float directionless in the air. And I don’t remember the first CDs I owned but I do recall that difference was spot on. It all sounded very clear, but it lacked the warmth of records.

Now you’ve got to remember that stereos in that day were dedicated music systems, with several crucial components, including amplified speakers, and if you ask me the quality of speakers was the single most important link in the chain, provided your amplifier had enough wattage to drive them to their highest peaks of performance. We’re not talking about just volume here, but the ability to faithfully reproduce highs and lows, along with the crucial middles.

One channel or two?

Stereos themselves were subjects of controversy up till the middle Sixties. Most people don’t know that The Beatles recorded in monaural, or single channel sound, adding layer upon layer of sound on that single track. Sgt. Pepper, believe it or not, was recorded in monaural. But by then, everyone had stereos, and expected two tracks.

The Beatles

The Beatles

Their producer, George Martin, and their brilliant sound engineer, Geoff Emerick, just 15 when he started with The Beatles in 1962, catered to the label’s demands for stereo, and they weren’t happy about it. So they simply would dump the voice and rhythm guitar on one track, the bass, drum and lead guitar on the other. You can hear this most clearly through headphones or ear buds, and today it still somewhat startles to hear a blistering lead from George’s guitar in your left ear followed by a vocal from John or Paul in your right.

Today stereos and sound systems are mostly integrated into television 6.1 surround systems, and many if not most people use these same speakers for music, which is increasingly derived from the library of songs stored on their computers, or in many cases their phones. But music is not recorded for such theater-like surround systems, it is still stereo based, and once again the sound suffers.

To me, today, nothing beats the sound of a good CD player hooked up to a high powered amp played through a set of Bose ceiling mounted or bookshelf speakers.

Close enough for rock and roll

For personal listening I like the sound of the Sony Walkman line of MP3 players with a good set of earphones. I think their digital signal processors are superior to iPods. There are many high end earbuds available and the minimum you should expect to pay is about $70 for a satisfying listening experience. There is a lot of competition in this market, but I’ve found the Sennheiser line to be the best performing compromise between value and sound quality. And I burn most of my CDs into MP3s, at an average bit rate of 256kbps. Good enough for rock and roll as I listen on the go.

There are other, more high fidelity formats, as well. CDs are recorded in PCM formats, at bit rates of 1,1411kbps. There is AAC, also known as MPEG-4, which is used by iTunes for its digital downloads at 256kbps, and YouTube for its streaming music. WMA, or Windows Media Audio, is popular, as is FLAC, a lossless open source format handled by most players and systems, except, notably, by Apple.

Lossless refers to the ability to compress a CD track by up to 60 percent without losing any data. Lossy formats are those that compress even further by extracting data from the music. Both lossy and lossless compression techniques are found in most of the popular formats.

This subject can be, and is, debated endlessly among audiophiles, musicians and recording labels and their distributors.

Another factor that comes into play is the increasing tendency among record producers and sound engineers to tightly compress the sound during the recording process, aiming particularly for heavy bass, bright highs and sheer volume. They record loud. This is nothing new. Sound engineers since the beginning have exerted efforts to achieve a distinct sound. Others have simply not been very skilled at their craft. There are plenty of vinyl recordings far inferior to the average CD today.

Return of the righteous

But I return to Neil Young and his crusade to clean up the sound of today’s music.Young crowdsourced funding for a new format and portable player that would provide near- studio quality, up to 30 times the fidelity of a 256kbps MP3 player and greater than CD quality. It is called the Ponos system, Hawaiian for “righteous”. His Kickstarter program was the most successful in history, raising $6.2 million dollars the first day. Young took on the job of CEO of the new venture, which has produced an oddly prism shaped player (price not yet firm but expected to run about $700) with albums sold online at about $25 each.

2014-04-07-neilyoungponomusicplayerWill it succeed? Ask yourself if you are so dissatisfied with the quality of music now available that you’d fork over $700 for a new portable player capable of handling a single, proprietary format. Did you even know that you were accustomed to an inferior format? Have you been alive long enough to remember vinyl and analog recording?

My answer is, it could. If Beats Audio, with its mediocre headphones selling for upwards of $600 and becoming more of a fashion statement than audiophile accessory, could do it, there’s no reason Neil Young can’t, except for the fact that he’s not a youth oriented hip hop star like Dr. Dre. In other words, yes he could, but how many people who have listened to Young for 50 years are concerned about fashion? Of course there was that wildly successful Kickstarter campaign, so obviously some people are looking for what he has to offer.

But my guess is the Ponus will become the next Microsoft Zune. You remember the Zune, don’t you? You don’t? Look it up on Google. High profile, oddly shaped, high fidelity music player introduced amid a massive PR campaign and praise from all the tech sites. Now it’s consigned to the memory hole.

Cellphone dominance

If you’ve read this far then you’re obviously interested in the subject. Truth is that cellphones are the major personal listening devices today. Everybody already has one, storage has never been cheaper, and cloud services let you stream hundreds of gigabytes of your own music wherever you have an internet connection, and streaming services such as Pandora, Spotify and others let you listen to the music you want on demand.

And (now this is very important) sales of iPods are down by half of what they were just two years ago. Need I say more?

Truth is, I’ve been putting off writing about this topic for some time. The reason? Its growing irrelevance. Why did I write it?

Neil Young made me do it.


About the author

Paul Croke

Paul Croke, former newspaper editor and longtime Washington DC area freelance writer, has loved gadgets and consumer electronics since he saw his first Dick Tracy watch. He writes about consumer technology. Contact the author.
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