Alright... Let's not get worked up about the cartoon :-).
I know, the debate between vinyl and CD (digital) remains one of the greatest "wars" of the audio world; not that it should be a big deal IMO... As usual in most audiophile conflicts, there are many words spilled about the topic, but it is rare to see "data" or actual direct comparisons. For example, look at Wikipedia's entry for "Comparison of analog and digital recording" and we see no actual illustration to demonstrate differences.
Years ago, I wrote a little about this here (and I think it's only fair that I have a digital-preferring Batman cartoon). As you know, over the years there are all kinds of vinyl evangelists going around touting the superiority of LPs over CDs and digital overall (and vice versa although I'm not sure the digital camp is as evangelistic). Here's a nice example of all the awesomeness that is vinyl based on someone's opinion.
As I've said before, I agree that there are some great qualities about having an LP collection. So long as you have the space for the non-biodegradable collection, the beauty of the artwork is wonderful. It's comforting and collectable memorabilia. And likewise the sound can be alluring in the same romantic way. For some, the ritualization of the playback process can bring with it that sense of security and physical engagement as well.
But let's just not beat around the bush, there's no comparison when it comes to fidelity. There's just no excuse for editorials like this one (silly claims of digital "losing some of the very continuousness of presentation" among other false gems). When we're looking at the ability for the system to maintain accuracy / fidelity in terms of what was originally on the source and the system subsequently able to copy, store, transfer, and reproduce the waveform as closely to the original as possible, the difference in capability is truly worlds apart. In this regard, a CD (and digital file, especially hi-res) is obviously able to handle the quality in a way that will not corrupt the playback with noise, distortions, or timing anomalies.
Remember that back in 2014, I took the PlatterSpeed software (Apple and Android) for a "spin" to demonstrate the lack of wow and flutter with digital. In comparison, we see the results using my Technics SL-1200 M3D and my friend's Roksan TMS. To make it easier to compare, here are the results in one large summary image (I used the iPad app)...
Click on the image to have a close up. The obvious take-home message is that when it comes to temporal and by extension frequency stability, LP playback leaves much to be desired even when we're looking at a rather expensive turntable like the Roksan TMS (I) with a set-up cost easily exceeding $5000 on the used market when you add in the cost of that SME309 tonearm and Whest PhonoStage.20 preamp (see the detailed system description here). These days, a used but excellent condition Technics SL1200 M3D isn't cheap either. I'm obviously not comparing the output from cheap Crosley turntables!
As for the LP itself, remember, no piece of vinyl is perfect since it is a physical piece of plastic. Mild decentering of the spindle hole and tiny warps on the surface are par for the course... I'm using Dr. Feikert's Adjust+ 7" Test Record here which as a test disk I'm sure is pressed better than most commercial LPs and looks to be flat as a ruler with no warps. Remember that this test disk is also used for precise adjustments like setting cartridge azimuth.
It has been a long time since I've seen direct objective head-to-head data between LP and digital, so I thought I'd use the test LP to make some FFT overlays to demonstrate the differences. Easily done. Basically I connected the common XLR output from my Emotiva XSP-1 preamp to my Focusrite Forte ADC.
The vinyl playback chain:
Dr. Feikert's Adjust+ LP 3150Hz sine @ 33.3rpm --> Technics SL-1200M3D (stock tonearm with Denon DL-110 cartridge) --> Emotiva XSP-1 --> Focusrite Forte ADC --> Win 10 laptopThe digital playback chain:
16/44 FLAC of 3150Hz sine (-12dBFS) --> Pi 3 Touch streamer --> TEAC UD-501 DAC --> Emotiva XSP-1 --> Focusrite Forte ADC --> Win 10 laptopWe can then record and analyze the 3150Hz sine wave tone to see just what kind of playback accuracy and quality comes out. Note that since I don't know the absolute loudness of the LP Adjust+ track, I actually "handicapped" the digital resolution a bit by taking out 2 bits worth of dynamic range with the 3150Hz tone at -12dBFS. Here's what the set-up looked like with my Technics SL-1200M3D and recording/measuring gear:
First, using WaveSpectra analyzing the audio FFT in realtime, this is what playback looks like "zoomed" in to the 3150Hz primary tone (frequency scale 1-5kHz):
As a still image, we don't appreciate that in fact because of wow & flutter, as shown by the large 3-way comparison graph, depending on the platter speed at the moment, the actual frequency from the LP playback varies back and forth slightly around 3150Hz. In the image above, I think we can make out the LP playback frequency as slightly higher than 3150Hz (shifted a pixel to the right) whereas the digital tone is precise.
If we zoom out a bit and look at the full 96kHz bandwidth captured with 192kHz digitization:
Notice that even if we ignore the noise level difference, the LP signal isn't clean. We can see the higher order harmonics evident - approximately 2% total harmonic distortion in the signal through the LP --> Denon DL-110 cartridge --> Emotiva phono/preamp. This is orders of magnitude higher harmonic distortion compared to an equivalent digital system (which even in inexpensive DACs these days would be significantly less than 0.05%).
We can zoom in and have a look at the sine waveforms themselves and see the differences between the digital output and analogue LP output (the 2 stereo channels overlaid):
Notice that even though I tried to normalize both waveforms to 100% amplitude, variation in amplitude with the LP playback resulted in a lower amount of gain applied. Notice the DC offset with the right channel in the vinyl playback especially (blue waveform shifted upwards) which adds to a bit of channel volume imbalance with that right channel louder. There's also a relative delay comparing the right with the left channels. The digital playback is clearly more precise in timing, amplitude, and overall morphology like symmetry and precision (smoother sinusoidal waveform).
Because we know the turntable system is significantly less accurate in the time domain, we can average out the spectrum over a few seconds to appreciate the "temporal smear". Here is the spectrum averaged over 5 seconds (using Adobe Audition 3 FFT for analysis):
Note the logarithmic frequency scale. What we see is that clearly the LP playback in green is very much noisier than the 16/44 digital playback. At around 1kHz, the difference in noise floor is around 20dB worse than digital. The noise floor difference gets worse with lower frequencies using my setup (a nice warmish sounding surface noise plus whatever amount of rumble). Again we see the ~2% total harmonic distortion in the playback from the LP.
Because we're seeing the spectral average over 5 seconds, we also see that the 3150Hz primary signal is taller with the digital playback. Due to the LP playback inaccuracy, there's "spectral spreading" resulting in that "skirting" at the base of the primary signal which is absent with digital playback. Over time, because of imperfections deviating from exactly 3150Hz, some of the frequency "energy" is spread around. According to PlatterSpeed, my Technics SL-1200M3D deviates -9.5/+8.8Hz which when low-passed still stays around -0.8/+0.5Hz (-0.02/+0.02%) over a minute; this is certainly quite good as turntables go but obviously much "looser" compared to digital playback stability from the TEAC DAC!
Conclusions:I hope this post has provided an interesting perspective into the differences in objective performance of an analogue turntable / LP system as compared to a 16/44 digital playback using the same pre-amp output.
From a price perspective, digital is "cheap"! My 2013 TEAC UD-501 can be had anywhere from US$400-600 these days (I could have just as well used the <US$90 SMSL iDEA from last week to show a similar output fidelity). In comparison, consider how much it would take to buy a minty quality used Technics SL-1200 turntable these days (of course you could consider the inexpensive SL-1200-like options like the Pioneer PLX-1000 for ~$700), then add another US$200 or so for the Denon DL-110 HOMC cartridge I'm using here, and then there's a phono pre-amp... As we have seen, in the last year, Technics has been cashing in on their "reborn" SL-1200G series ranging from US$4000 to an "affordable" $2000 with the recent SL-1200GR. Does it really make that much sonic difference compared to a vintage model in the context of the limitations in a turntable system?
From a performance perspective, sure, I could spend much more for a better cartridge, we could spend >$100,000 for a turntable, countless dollars on isolation platforms, expensive pre-amps, etc... But let's face it, as much as you clean your LP, there will be surface noise worse than the silence of digital zeroes. The signal to noise resolution from an LP cannot beat 16-bit digital much less get anywhere close to 24-bits dynamic range. And since no plastic / PVC / nonbiodegradable vinyl LP is ever perfect (take note environmentalists), good luck finding a disk with a perfectly centered spindle hole to minimize the temporal distortion!
Remember too that a direct drive turntable like the Technics already will perform better than the majority of belt-drives in terms of speed stability, so the results I'm showing here are better than many other 'tables out there.
As for digital playback and time domain, remember how over the last few years, I've been saying that jitter really doesn't matter? Consider this 24-bit J-Test result when I use a Squeezebox Touch to send the signal to my TEAC UD-501 using the thinnest piece of plastic TosLink cable I own:
It's an example of the imperfection of S/PDIF and the jittery embedded clock. Looks nasty, right? Remember, in a 24-bit J-Test we should not see sidebands or a jitter modulation pattern at all. All those peaks around the 12kHz primary signal are reflective of data jitter.
But look what happens when I record that J-Test signal (yellow) at the same amplitude as the other signals from the Emotiva XSP-1 preamp, and overlay it on the 5-second log graph:
Notice that with the volume attenuation (a rather normal -19dB on my preamp) to match the amplitude of the other signals, the noise level of the system actually drowns out the jitter anomalies around the 12kHz primary tone. When I do my DAC measurements, although I can show the jitter anomalies to quantify differences between devices, it doesn't mean that jitter will be audible whatsoever during actual playback once it goes through your signal chain! And notice that in a real system, this signal still has to be sent to an amplifier and your speakers. This is why I've said all along that if anyone gets worked up about digital timing jitter, he/she should absolutely stay away from vinyl!
Timing anomalies, resolution limitations (in real life, analogue is far from "infinite resolution" - insignificant rationalizations by Steve Guttenberg here), and harmonic distortions are clearly technically much worse with LP playback. Another way to say this is that digital is more "transparent", way less "coloration" is added to the sound. Let's not forget that I have not even mentioned vinyl imperfections like ticks and pops from dirt and groove anomalies, "mono bass" for technical reasons, or inevitable reduction of linear resolution in the inner grooves ("inner groove distortion").
I trust that reasonable vinyl lovers can appreciate the fact that a digital system does provide significantly higher fidelity. I hope the images above put into context the magnitude of differences regardless of subjective preferences. Given the countless contributors to sonic quality with vinyl playback (wide range of speed stability with turntables, all kinds of cartridge characteristics, electrical matching of low voltage signals, potential need for step-up transformers, preamp RIAA compensation accuracy...), in comparison, digital can achieve high fidelity with much less fuss.
Oh yeah, before I forget, raise your hands also if you enjoy taking out your micro screwdrivers, maybe magnifying glass, tonearm tracking weight scale, and protractor for cartridge alignment/set-up. I don't think I see many hands up.
However, just because technically it is superior does not mean that the encoded music takes advantage of this fact about digital. I readily admit that I have many albums especially from the 1980's where the LP version sounds much more "full bodied" rather than the "thin" sounding CD, likely due to limitations of the early digital mastering techniques. Likewise, over the years there are many LPs with audibly more dynamic range than their digital counterparts - ironically perhaps because of the inherent limitations of vinyl and the need to avoid excessive signal amplitude. Remember that it's a bit of "give and take" because even with a dynamic master, limitations in temporal stability, surface noise, material imperfections can still distract from the enjoyment of an LP. Of course, I do not discount the idea that some folks actually like the "euphonic" distortions (which for me is the mark of the "euphonophile" rather than the audiophile :-).
Having discussed and shown the graphs and charts, let me also say that personally, I like vinyl. It's actually rather impressive and a testament to the precision and painstaking evolution of turntable technology that we can even achieve the quality of LP playback we have. I still purchase mostly used titles and in fact earlier this week I went into the bargain bins to grab some almost mint U2, Tom Cochrane & Red Rider, Warren Zevon, and Sinéad O'Connor. Good to "recycle" plastic. It's fantastic that I can pick up some early pressings of childhood and adolescent favourites for literally pennies on the dollar (luckily I have some very good used album stores close to home)! I'm very comfortable with saying that I like collecting LPs for the memories, nostalgia, and album art; the sound quality for the most part isn't the primary draw.
Finally, I think vinyl playback in the age of ubiquitous digital adds to one's "character". And some adherents/evangelists are certainly "characters" indeed :-). To have a nice turntable, decent collection of LPs, and adhering to the obsessive ritual of good vinyl "hygiene" (I still use the 3M suction cup washing technique for the dirtiest albums) inevitably inducts one into the anachronistic order of audiophilia... Totally cool if this is something you want to get into.
As usual, I encourage you to do your own "real world" tests. I'd certainly love to see objective comparisons using other equipment!
New this week is the arrival of the remastered Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band 50th Anniversary Remix. Yeah, it sounds pretty good. When digitally remixing the work, there's the opportunity to keep resolution higher with less/no generational loss (a nice "unveiling" of instruments and voices), lower noise, achieve better soundstaging with much improved studio technology, more precise centering of the lead vocals, etc... These are all notable - have a listen to the remixed "Within You Without You" as a nice example of the improved resolution. I agree with some other listeners that the bass "weight" has increased substantially as well. So far, pretty good overall.
But... (Sadly, there is a but here...)
Above is the 16/44 CD "Lucy In the Sky...", clearly dynamically compressed with a DR8 using foobar dynamic range meter plugin. Let's be honest, with 50 year old source material, this is not true high resolution - impossible. Imagine, in a perfect world with the Super Deluxe Edition Blu-Ray, we should have a 24/96 hi-res version that would squeeze out all the dynamics there is in those original tapes, right? Sadly, this is no perfect world and the opportunity to hear the album aimed not at car and mobile listeners has been squandered. The "high resolution" version on the Blu-Ray is just as compressed as above with all those "thou shalt not go above this point" peak limitations.
For those with a surround setup, make sure to spend time with that multichannel 5.1 mix (I agree with Mark Waldrep - it's great)! Even though dynamic compression has also been used, you get more breathing room with more channels, the surround effect is impressive, very enjoyable, and obviously painstakingly re-created. Kudos!
Looking at both the 24/96 stereo and 5.1 24/96 audio, objectively it's actually more like 16/48 resolution. Again, not surprising given the age of the source material... IMO feel free to downsample/dither for your music server - you're not going to hear a difference.
Oooo.... What have we got here?
Why that's of course the Audioquest Dragonfly Black... Now with MQA "rendering" ability through a firmware upgrade (not "decoding"). I'll put this device through its paces in the days ahead and maybe have a further look / listen / examine what MQA "rendering" means... Stay tuned.
Have a great week ahead everyone. Hope you're all enjoying the music!
ADDENDUM (June 3, 2017):
1987 first CD release of Sgt. Pepper's, waveform for "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds". A time before "Loudness Wars" when digital music still had good "headroom".