Who can deliver the highest quality music?

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One of the longest running and most contentious debates in the music world is whether or not vinyl records deliver the highest quality sound. Many people in this camp are dismissed as overly nostalgic millennials that are just looking to blow significant amounts of money. Others see the rise of digital downloads – especially via iTunes – as a huge blow to fans of high quality music and hope to find security in CDs or vinyl but aren’t sure where to turn. In fact, when it comes to the pure science of music and recordings, CDs can easily deliver much better sound quality than any record player. The basis of this is that CDs have a high enough sampling rate – which is the number of samples that are taken per second to represent an event digitally, which currently stands around 44,100 for CDs – to capture the full range of sounds that can be heard by humans. CDs also allow for the perfect recovery of the original analog signal whereas vinyl records can deteriorate and are harder to transfer from the original.

This means that if a CD or LP record is made via the same mastering process, they are essentially “indistinguishable” (excluding the fact that CDs are immune to the mechanical noise that often accompanies playing vinyl).

The interesting part of this whole debate actually rests on how the recordings are mastered into CDs and LPs. Since the processes are radically different, the resulting recordings can differ dramatically to the point that many LPs do, in fact, sound much better than their CD counterparts.

CDs can handle a much greater dynamic range – which is essentially the difference between loud and soft sounds. When CDs were first beginning to be commercially produced, early engineers wanted to take advantage of this capability and even used it to promote CDs over LP records. The result was a product where the quiet parts of some of the recordings – in many cases some of the backing vocals, different elements of percussion, or the bass guitar – became drowned out by louder parts.

Thus these parts only become perceivably audible at extremely loud volumes where the loud parts are unbearably loud. These recordings were essentially useless if one wanted to listen to their music in their car or using personal headphones.

Digital mastering became more focused on having higher average levels of signal and became less focused on dynamic range – the differences between higher and lower levels of signal. Many attribute the “warm” or “light” sounds that accompany playing a vinyl record to having a broad dynamic range.

This trend – and the growing backlash against it – has taken on the name “The Loudness War” because of the growing presence of the problem. Many famous albums, such as the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Californication or The Stooges 1997 remastering of Raw Power have been criticized for their sound quality. Many new albums are mastered this way so there is no alternative to compare to.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEFyNdB13vg

An example from Radiohead’s In Rainbows

Despite the advances in technology towards the modern CD, the result is a situation in which thousands of albums sound significantly worse than their LP counterparts. There are also thousands of albums that may sound significantly worse than they would have had they been released on vinyl. Ultimately the misuse of more advanced technology has led to a decrease in audio quality that is just now beginning to attract awareness from the broader public.

Personally, my belief is that much of this criticism is imperceptible to most music listeners out there. Music, especially over the last decade, has become more oriented around being played on mobile devices using headphones or speakers that are cheap and flimsy. The problems associated with the differences in mastering CDs and LPs would be undetectable using this equipment.

Regardless of the true technical capabilities of each medium, the key to the debate seems to be that the listener should do whatever brings them closer to the music. Only listening to vinyl records is not feasible in our current age and the amount of music available over the last decade has dramatically increased the exposure that the average listener has access to. To some, experiencing music is listening to the highest quality sound; to others music holds a place in their lives but they are not as invested in the actual process.

The truth of the matter is that the quality of music production has taken a significant hit since the introduction of CDs. Despite the advances of technology, the music industry has failed to adapt at the expense of listeners. The quality of music depends on many complex factors and so it really comes down to personal preference how much energy you as a consumer is willing to expend in order to access and experience different recordings.

Tom Bonan