This is one of the most common questions about vinyl these days. In this Digital Age we live in, where most music is in fact recorded digitally, why is Vinyl a viable proposition and why should we expect better sound reproduction from vinyl records?
It’s a very good question, and even though most people instinctively found the answer just by using their ears and actually listening to records to learn that they do usually sound much better in the real world today, it’s very important that audiophiles and consumers in general understand why this happens.
The answer to this question involves the correct understanding of what makes recorded music sound like it does and how this relates to audio formats as they changed over time. There are multiple factors contributing for great sounding vinyl records today:
01 – High Resolution Sources. Industry Standard today for Studio Digital Audio resolution is at 24bit depth / 96kHz sampling rate or higher. It’s not uncommon to find most recording, mixing and mastering studios today working with a baseline of 24bit/192kHz, and most archival transfers done at the big labels from their treasured vaults is actually going up to 32bit depth! Most vinyl records today are mastered from the highest resolution digital sources available, usually 24bit sources that are much higher resolution than the 16bit/44kHz CD has to offer.
02 – Better Mastering. Most quality digitally sourced vinyl made today is mastered specifically for the vinyl format from high resolution sources. This means that the production goals of the vinyl mastering are not the same and can actually be much different from the goals of mastering for iPod, streaming, or for a CD that will get a lot of car play. Usually better dynamics and balanced EQ are top priority for vinyl mastering. Most of the dreadful aberrations common in digital mastering from the last 10 or 15 years, like extreme dynamic compression and limiting (the so called Loudness Wars) and exorbitant EQ choices for over-the-top brightness, are not even reasonable technical options when mastering for vinyl, it would be just silly to do that when cutting the lacquer, some of those moves that make digital mastering often sound so bad would actually be impossible on a cutting lathe, the cutter head would burn out and dozens of acetates would be wasted…
03 – Digital is much more than resolution. It involves Analog to Digital Conversion (ADC) and/or Digital to Analog Conversion (DAC) processes that are very complex and easy to disturb. True digital quality results from high resolution and from extremely controlled operation environment to prevent data loss or degradation in the time domain, it’s about how it is actually processed and relayed through cables and between interfaces, how different algorithms work to correct errors, the actual processing power and speed to ensure only the best possible filtering is applied to shape the conversion effectively. Professional studio digital is a completely different universe when compared to domestic home digital, no matter how much “audiophile” your DAC says it is it will still be put to shame by the controlled studio environment. Most likely the DAC process result used for mastering the digitally sourced vinyl LP will sound much better than the sound you get from the DAC process being made in your home system. Your vinyl playback might just expose that weakness in domestic digital systems…
In short, if you stay away from bad quality vinyl from well known “junk” labels that are just taking advantage of the growing vinyl sales worldwide (you know, the usual junk from labels like DOL or Wax Time, Vinyl Passion, Vinyl Lovers, Doxy, Lilith, Not Now Music, Jazz Wax, in some ways even MOV, and many more), you can be sure that in general vinyl records are actually the best option today to enjoy contemporary music with the highest possible sound quality, even if they are digital recordings, and they also sound better than consumer grade high resolution music files because they are mastered better for vinyl.
Actually, I can’t remember a single major release of new music from the last several years that sounds better on any digital format than on the corresponding vinyl release. The ratio of bad mastering for digital formats is much higher than the ratio of bad mastering for vinyl, and in addition to better sound, with vinyl you also get decent large format artwork, a collectible physical object that increases the ownership satisfaction and intensifies the relationship with the album, and a much higher potential to maintain financial value or even increase in value over time.
Of course, all this is is a non-issue for full analog vinyl being cut from 100% analog recordings, and we are fortunate to have many of those at Vinyl Gourmet. But that is something everybody already knows, analog is king!