Is vinyl better than DSD?

May 24, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

27 comments on “Is vinyl better than DSD?”

  1. Paul — Your example involves a digital recording, and thus poses a question I find maddening: how can an analog copy of a digital master sound better? Like taking a digital photo, printing it, then taking an analog photo of that photo. It ain’t gonna look “better.” (I think, for analog recordings, there is no contest between a well-pressed original, or reissue from the master tapes, compared to any variation of a later-digitized copy).

    I have a theory: the reason we like hand stitched handbags or car interiors is that we can tell it was done by a human being, a craftsman. But one reason we can discern that is because the stitching is not machine-perfect. You can see slight changes in angle, length, whatever. It’s beautiful, it’s pleasant to look at and own, but it’s not “perfect.” And I think the mechanical elements of vinyl create similar, barely detectable, imperfections. It’s just that we like them better than “perfect.” I know I do. Something about that perceived human connection.

  2. My non-scientific theory/belief is that even though DSD, & even PCM, is a better capture than analogue tape, that there is something inherently ‘edgy/etchy’ about the sound of digital & that by transferring the original DSD (or PCM) sound capture near perfectly onto vinyl, a good amount of said ‘edgyness’ or ‘etchyness’ is smoothed-out or removed, thus making the overall resulting sound more pleasing to the
    ears of generations of audiophiles who grew up with records & have the sound of vinyl deeply burned
    into their subconscious memory.

    1. It depends on what digital music you’re listening to. I’ve purged all my early recorded classical CD’s from my collection which were “edgy” and dry. The current SACD’s that I mostly listen to and the newer recorded CD’s are anything but edgy/etchy. My SACD’s sound far better than any vinyl I’ve listened to.

  3. For what it’s worth, I think JRW and F.R. have nailed-it-down; as humans, we seem to like things that are (at least at the moment) unexplainable (as “irrational” as that might seem to some). Vive la difference!!

  4. There’s just so much commitment involved with records. From reading the liner notes to the cleaning etc. It’s such a personal experience that maybe is enbough to influence perception? Who knows?
    Anyway, nothing better than putting a stack of six on the Zero 100 and cracking a cold one. LOL

    1. I agree. I like to use a straight razor for the same reason. The prep time is as important for that sense of well being. It is not quick in a hurry up world. It takes time, it takes effort and can be tuned for my best pleasure. The turntable, cartridge, album, pre amp all can be tuned.

  5. Just wondering, if you took a vinyl recording and then subtract the identical SACD recording from it would there be left the artifacts that we hear that give evidence for this perceived or real difference. I enjoy my SACD music but there is just something more interesting or involving in vinyl.

  6. I often have the same experience listening to sacd vs vinyl and I’ll use a video analogy to describe why I like vinyl better than sacd…I watch the most technologically up-to-date tv’s and the picture is SO REAL it’s as if I’m actually THERE. I see every tiny detail and thus see every tiny flaw…the picture is so sharp it doesn’t allow my brain to get lost in the content…the picture is too real. So I go to another room and watch an older plasma set that I prefer because the picture appears so much more organic (and so much less harsh), and I can watch unfatigued for a longer period of time.

    Same with music. I prefer well recorded vinyl because I experience the music as more organic, whole, and less assaulting on my senses. It may not be as detailed, it may be more distorted, but compared to digital, it is way more pleasant and enjoyable.

    Then, of course, is the issue of how every listener hears and processes information differently. Simply stated, you can measure the correctness of a digital signal and say “that is the best recording”, but it would be incorrect (in my humble opinion) to assume that the human listener, with all of our receptive distortions, would hear “perfect. What I hear as perfect (or as beautiful music) others may hear as imperfect. Bottom line-sit back and enjoy what sounds nice to you. It’s a gift to be able to do so.

  7. “I had to move every household appliance into a sound-proof room, the heating system was relocated to the far end of the roof, all fans automatically turn off during listening sessions, I’ve acoustically shielded my listening room from ANY & ALL outside noise interferences – it is acoustically PERFECT so I can listen to my music without ANY flaws!”

    “What about the ticks & pops?”

    “Huh? Wha?”

    In light of the millions we all spend on audio upgrades which yield micro improvements that ‘vinyl noise’ has never seriously addressed (successfully).
    I agree wax CAN sound better, but that first tick I hear is an instant and absolute defiant deal breaker. Every tick pop and thhhhP I hear is like an aggravating mini RAP music insertion in my otherwise delightful tuneage.

    I DO have a few vinyl recorded digital albums I’ve acquired from folk with bazillion dollar tables, tonearms & cartridges and with Adobe Audition I am able to manually remove each pop & tick from the wav. It takes HOURS but when I’m done, some of them sound remarkably better than my CD versions.

    Audition is an absolute gem to play with. I created a 27 minute version of Peter Frampton’s Do You Feel by crossfade mixing back & forth about ten times between the 76 live version and the Live In Detroit version. Best of both worlds. And fun to do.

  8. There is SO MUCH CONFUSION about vinyl among audiophiles. People use it as a synonym for analog. Vinyl is neither analog nor digital. It is a delivery technology for both analog and digital music. I think we all know that a vast majority of the vinyl produced today is from digital masters. Vinyl does not magically recreate a continuous waveform from one that is digitally sampled. First principles will tell you that a good digital delivery technology for digitally mastered music will sound better than vinyl.

    In my opinion (fire away!), the vinyl resurrection phenomenon is mostly rooted in nostalgia and an industry that has figured out how to make money from it.

  9. Based on the speculation regarding compression, it seems like one could play around with DSP modules that do dynamic limiting / compression and see if the resulting output resembled the “vinyl sound”. There are quite a number of parameters to play with in that regard, but it might be interesting.

  10. Sometimes analog can be very good.

    My question is, would ANY vinyl lovers accept an equalizer in their systems?

    NOT ONE that I personally know.

    My question to them – do they know that the RIAA curve built into ALL of their recordings is EQ?

    Do they also know that their phono stage has the RIAA EQ curve, inverted?

    In other words, not one, but TWO EQ circuits are required to play every vinyl record?

    1. Good evening Mr. Smith!
      You don’t know me, but I welcome an equalizer of any kind, anytime!
      But what I don’t understand, is why the tone controls and equalizers disappeared from high end equipment in the first place?
      Because, if you ask me, you need the tone controls and equalizers to fix what’s wrong with older recordings, and some marderen recordings, that are a little too heavy in the bass range.

    2. Thanks, Jim and yes I agree with you. I know I am preaching to the choir here but of course that EQ you’re referring to with the RIAA is reversing the EQ put on the record as opposed to modifying the signal “unnaturally” as EQ addition often suggests. The reverse EQ achieves a flat response.

    3. The question is, what does this tell us other than it being another fact why vinyl playback can’t sound good (but somehow anyway does)? Within the whole mechanical vinyl cutting, pressing and playback processes, there are even worse details than the RIAA equalizing.

      So no contradiction here…but what’s the better alternative? For a long time we did not know about the harm digital recording, playback and manufacture processing does to lossless playback, although its frequency response was near perfect already and the accuracy all around seemed to be perfect, too. Since then much was improved, but enough yet to do better in usual strengths AND covering everything analog does reveal?

      Talking about the (true) silliness of vinyl cutting and playback processes and enjoying its sound, is like cheering along at a soccer match while wondering about the silliness to spend 1:30 hours looking at a bunch of guys running around like crazy on the lawn 😉

      Finally I, too, wonder when playing a record, how something that good can come out of such strange processing. And how hard it seems for a theoretically much more perfect technology to finally replace it soundwise.

  11. The question why does it sound *better* ,its the *better* bit of the question that is open for discussion .Is it better or just different? if the music playback via vinyl does indeed sound better to lots of listeners then octave records should make a digital version of the vinyl playback sound available for purchase for non record deck owning customers . A comparison of the pure digital and the vinyl captured sound would be interesting and perhaps a new retail opportunity for the octave label, Mick Grant, Stocksbridge, UK.

  12. Paul, did you really ever have compress a vinyl release of one of your recordings (other than maybe gain riding at a single peak, if at all)?
    I know the argument, that effects like more detail information (or others) of all analog productions or vinyl releases in general, come from a reduced dynamic range due to compression…but in fact most audiophile vinyl releases haven’t been dynamically reduced at all. Kevin Gray even cut the whole (greatly dynamic) SFS Mahler Symphony Cycle without using a compressor and even with just one or two places of slight gain riding (which, I know, also is reducing the dynamic range at this point, but is not responsible for vinyl quality perception effects of a whole recording, even if some would like to see it that simple).

    On the other hand I’m sure some are and fulfill the basic cliche, as does a lot of digital mass media.

    Finally I think this argument (even where true) isn’t a key at all to what happens. Some positively perceived distortion of the mechanical processes, very probably.

    As you are so open and honest with what you finally hear, I’d love you doing the experiment to once make an all analog version of your recordings for comparison with PCM and DSD. A few of your label owning colleagues did (for example Giulio Cesare Ricci and Bob Attiyeh). I wouldn’t wonder if you, like them, from a listening result’s point of view, would then produce the vinyl all analog, as in my experience there, the effect is much bigger than when making vinyl from a digital source….and especially extended to soundstage, ambiance information and more air around instruments.

    And yes, I also know, tape is a much worse recording media on paper (and certainly also in practice in some aspects), as vinyl is compared to a digital playback media. But as we found out, that unfortunately doesn’t help us with what we finally hear in sum…

    1. But you even don’t have to do the recording experiment yourself. Compare a Yarlung recording like Mabuchi DSD recorded and pressed on SACD with the same simultaneously analog recorded and pressed on vinyl. Or the same with most Fone recordings. The better and more 3D those recordings are, the more you’ll hear the difference.

  13. The question is what does “sounds better” mean? Is it quantifyable? Or is it totally subjective? As in: I like the bass turned way up and the mids rolled off (or whatever).

    It used to be that high-end audio sort of eschewed that sort of thing. Even some ambitious mid-fi receivers had “tone bypass” for many years.

    You had this dichotomy of “sounds like real life” VS. “sounds better”. But maybe now we are all finally admitting that there is no “sounds like real life” (or it’s very rare in the world of recorded music).

    Which only leaves: “sounds better!”

    It used to be high-end audio was (or claimed to be) all about “accuracy in reproduction”. Which is an interesting ideal, and I doubt very many recording artists have had that as one of their main goals.

    But, as we all know recording engineers are tweaking the hell out of every sound they capture from the moment it leaves the musical instrument or voice until the moment it hits the computer disk or tape. All to make it “sound better”.

    Start with microphones, which are imperfect and have all sorts of characteristics favored for one application or instrument over another. The mics are put into a console and have gain applied, which dramatically changes the sound coming out of them.

    Then every track has a bevy of other sound modification done to it: parametric EQ’s applied, on-board and out-board electronic effects applied, almost always some reverb, possibly some other things (ever hear of the Apex Aural Exciter?),

    Then it’s all mixed down from 24 tracks (typically but anything from 8 to 128 in practice) almost always with more sound modification in the process: usually volume modifications throughout the track
    and then you get the resulting two track

    Which you then take and apply the mastering process to: applying more filters, eq’s and effects, compressing and volume boosting the song

    and ONLYTHEN you have this thing. – the song in final format (.wav or something.

    So the idea of “accurate reproduction” seems sort of silly at that point, a strange conceit that ignores how recordings are actually made.

    My impression is that “high end audio guys” are typically appalled at the idea of putting some device in front of the playback to modify the music – for instance you never see high-end systems with graphic equalizers in them (they were popular in the 1980s though), much less a effects unit to add a touch more “room” reverb and aliveness. Why not?

    How is that different from preferring the sound of a record (which, as Paul states sounds that way because it’s been compressed and modified to fit the RIAA curve, etc. in the mastering process)

    All this leads to a question:

    Why not just build a little black box that you plug in that adds “vinyl effect” by gently compressing the source, applying RIAA, and all the same stuff vinyl does?

    So your playback chain looks like this:

    SPEAKERS <—-AMP <—– PRE-AMP <—— VINYL FX BOX <—- CD or Streamer

    Or, in more general terms:

    Once you decide that "sounds good" is your highest calling, pretty much anything might be inserted into the playback chain

    One thing I find fascinating is that Paul has crossed over from building high-fi stuff (which he's been super successful at for 30 years) into recording and now even mastering and pressing vinyl records.

    I think this is just so fantastic. But in making this new career he's explicitly gone from being part of the "high end audio cult" – seeing "transparency and accurate reproduction" and INTO the realm of recording engineer explicitly trying to make everything "sound better", all the time. Every track, every instrument, every mix, ever master.

    He just showed off some giant reverb units! He's left the world of "accurate reproduction" far behind.

    Hip hop dudes like the sound of very old 8 bit samplers, especially for drums. A lot of more modern samplers (like my Akai) have 'retro" or "8 bit" settings that you can apply to a sample or a track. That's art. That's what sounds better to them (and when they get it right they sell millions of copies, so many agree apparently)

    Paul's like a hip-hop producer dude now! He might even need a new moniker like "DJ Audio" or something.

    1. I think regarding what „sounds better“ means, Paul (for the DSD to vinyl example) and I (for this and especially AAA productions) speak of the same in one aspect at least:

      what’s heard is not of the „matter of taste, subjective, tonality difference driven“ kind (although some might declare any sound quality judgements as subjective). It’s of a „if you hear it, you know“ kind, everyone with ears agrees on if he’s not following a theory-based agenda. It doesn’t have to do with tonality. Tonality is rather a matter of what quality of record player one compares with what quality of digital (and which technical design and voicing).

  14. You can say the same about older recordings that were originally recorded on analog. How does transferring that to DSD or CD make it better than the original master. Don’t forget the microphone is analog and it prefers analog playback to sound analog.

  15. I don’t think it matters much if it’s high quality DSD, CD, or analog. What makes a recording sound great is the artistic quality of the recording engineer.

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