There’s been a growing enthusiasm for vinyl records in recent years. As a result, sales of vinyl have noticeably gone up, and more artists are releasing their albums in vinyl format along with CD and MP3 versions.
This trend once again shines light on the fundamental difference between analog and digital. In short, analog recording preserves the entirety of the waveform of the sound signal where digital recording samples it with thousands of bits of data per second.
It’s easy to see why some music purists would prefer an unbroken analog signal stream to one made of chopped up digital bits. The effect of that difference–they say–is a fuller and warmer sound from analog records.
Digital has it’s unique benefits, however. Apart from being more consistent in playback, digital records are widely accepted to be more clean and sharp sounding.
Here’s our take on how vinyl shapes up against three types of digital formats:
Vinyl vs. MP3
MP3’s reduce file size by dumping inaudible information from the audio, usually in the very high and very low frequency range. As a result, the sound is often flatter and less dynamic than in the original recording. Resultantly, compressed digital music file formats like MP3 are the worst quality of popular audio formats.
MP3’s exist to balance quality against file size. While digital storage space and online download time is still an issue for some applications, it’s a problem that is rapidly being fixed as advancing technology allows for faster, cheaper and smaller hard discs.
Because of the loss in information in compression, a vinyl record will likely sound much better than an MP3.
Vinyl vs. CD
In comparing CD to vinyl, some would say that the lossless digital signal still doesn’t cut it against the analog signal. Others have debated whether the human ear can even perceive the difference.
While technology for digital recording has certainly gotten better in the past three decades, the quality (i.e. sample rate and bit depth) of the CD format hasn’t been changed since the mid 80’s. And pretty much since that time audiophiles have been arguing about which sounds better.
For this one it’s a toss up. Generally speaking, for rock or jazz vinyl may have more warmth and presence. For classical and pop–where a clean, detailed sound is often preferred–a CD may have the edge.
Your best bet would be to do a blind test.
Vinyl vs. New HD Digital Formats
Modern advancements in technology have allowed for digital recordings at five times the fidelity of CD. These HD formats are currently sold as SACDs, Blu-rays, audio DVDs, and online downloads for playing on high-end DACs.
Theoretically, the warmth that is missing from a CD due to information missing in between bits is fixed by doubling to quadrupling the sample rate and expanding the bit depth.
Compared to vinyl, new hi-fi digital formats can offer more detail and resolution without noticeable loss of warmth and character. Some artists have even started mastering an alternate versions of their song or album to take advantage of the added fidelity in HD audio.
HD digital audio formats have a lot of potential to offer over vinyl. Of course, however, if the original recording was made at a lower digital quality or in analog, there would be very little difference.
The recent resurgence of vinyl has proven its viability as a high quality music format. While its admirers proclaim it to have the best sound, new digital hi-fi technology is now giving listeners unprecedented clarity and resolution that can’t be overlooked.
As time tells, it’s likely that digital will continue to advance in quality, catalogue and accessibility–ultimately pushing LPs into antiquity. But, it doesn’t look like vinyl is going anywhere for quite some time.