In a recent video in his “Ask Paul” online video series, PS Audio’s Paul McGowan offers his theory of why new vinyl LPs sound more “digital” and less “analog” (“Why does new vinyl sound digital”):
(He postulates that it’s because many new vinyl releases are made from poorly-done digitally-recorded masters.) I disagree, but I do have an explanation, or at least a theory or two. One is good, the other bad.
Let’s tackle the good theory first, because I’ve noticed the same thing as Paul. (We all have.)
As digital has gotten better – I’ve written before that when I first heard what has evolved into the Laufer-Teknik Memory Player (in 2007), it was a shocking revelation – it has become more “analog-like.” Chiefly, the “air” came back into the music – it sounded like someone took the lid off of the sound. And for the very first time, I was able to relax when listening to digital playback.
But vinyl playback has also improved – which, in my mind, is a good thing, though it may not be in your view (i.e., you may not find it to be an improvement). Vinyl is approaching a kind of neutrality, at least when played back on certain turntable designs. I’ve written before that for quite a few years I had an Immedia RPM-2 turntable (with an Immedia arm), a Lyra Helikon SL cartridge (still have that) and listened through an EAR G88 preamp and a pair of BEL 1001 mk. IV/V amps. This was a system that very closely approached neutrality.
So for about five years, I listened to the Immedia/Lyra/EAR system and the Memory Player. Were they identical? No, they weren’t, but they were damn close. The analog set-up gave the impression of a bit more “air” on certain recordings, and the digital system sounded a little more – oh, I don’t know – solid? No, that’s not quite right – stable, maybe?
So this convergence of analog and digital playback is a good thing to me. Again, it may not be to you. And now that digital is as good as it is and I’m using the PS Audio DirectStream DAC in my system, I feel free, in a way, to pursue non-neutrality in a turntable. I might go for a used Linn Sondek, or beautiful rosewood VPI Classic 4 – because they look so good. (I’m currently using a VPI Prime turntable with a VPI 3D arm, on loan from the company.)
So this is all good. At least, I think so.
As the bottom has fallen out of the music market, and as record companies are notoriously cheap, and as only us weirdos actually give a flying f*ck about stuff like this, there has also been a tendency (HAH! more like a wholesale rush) to using one – digital – master for both the vinyl and digital releases of an album, rather than an all-analog master for the LP version. This is not always a bad thing – I recall hearing the vinyl LP of Elbow’s The Take Off and Landing of Everything a few years back at a hi-fi show on a megabuck Australian system, and although it was cut from a digital master it sounded pretty great. I had no pure analog to compare it to, but just on its own, it was great.
But using a single master for all formats is often a bad thing. Even with orchestral or chamber music, sometimes both just repeat whatever errors are audible in both technologies. (Fortunately, as with digital in general, these audible problems are more rare these days.) I can often close my eyes while listening to digital and the system goes away, leaving only music (and this is with 25-year-old speakers).
So I offer these as theories – the convergence, sonically speaking, of digital and analogue (good), and the practice of the dumbing down (so to speak) of LP-making to a single digital-only master tape (bad).
Header image courtesy of Pixabay/Luisa Munoz.