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October 30, 2007

Filed under: music»recording

The Groove

One can only hope that Wired's article on audiophiles choosing vinyl over digital formats is true. Not because vinyl actually offers a better sound. It doesn't: the noise floor is roughly 50dB higher than CDs, the high-end response is limited, the media itself tends to warp and erode, and the format is far larger than it needs to be. But at least this way, we'll have a more reliable sign of sound system gullibility. "Oh," you can say. "You've got a nice collection of vinyl. Excuse me, I have to go make up lame excuses for leaving this conversation."

Choice quotes from the piece:

Another reason for vinyl's sonic superiority is that no matter how high a sampling rate is, it can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove, Nyquist's theorem to the contrary.
I love that little jab at Nyquist. Because as I found while researching A/D converters last week, Claude Shannon's elaboration on Harry Nyquist's original paper means that a sampled analog recording does, in fact, contain every bit of information under the Nyquist limit. That's the whole point of the theorem--given a bandlimited signal, there is only one possible way to recreate it using the samples. Saying that digital "can never contain all of the data present in an analog groove" is not only hyperbolic, but it's also completely false.

This objection is often paired with the myth that people can somehow perceive frequency content beyond a CD's 22.05KHz Nyquist limit. And again, that's just bogus. The average adult's hearing flat-out stops at 16KHz, and above that it requires extremely high amplitudes for even the most sensitive ears. Considering the fact that modern digital recordings are probably captured and mixed at twice the sample rate of CD-quality audio (or higher), the whole argument is snake oil.

Golden-eared audiophiles have long testified to vinyl's warmer, richer sound.
Sure they have. They also buy $3,000/meter audio cables, so maybe we shouldn't be going by the word of these "golden-eared" listeners. It should be added, of course, that everyone claims to have near-magical hearing perception. At least one listening test, however, has shown that "expert" listeners actually vary wildly in their capabilities for detecting audio errors. There's no such thing as a naturally "golden" ear, in my opinion--merely people who have trained themselves to listen closely, or convinced themselves that they can hear the difference.
San Francisco indie band The Society of Rockets, for example, plans to release its next album strictly on vinyl and as MP3 files.

"Having just gone through the process of mastering our new album for digital and for vinyl, I can say it is completely amazing how different they really sound," said lead singer and guitarist Joshua Babcock in an e-mail interview. "The way the vinyl is so much better and warmer and more interesting to listen to is a wonder."

This could just be clumsy writing, but it sounds to me like he's comparing mastering for MP3 and vinyl--in which case, yes, I'm not surprised that it sounded good during mastering. How would the CD sound? How does it sound at home? How does it sound after 100 listens? And can we really consider people to be distinguishing listeners when, according to the Matador rep, they're enthusiastically pairing their vinyl purchases with MP3 downloads? I've come around some on MP3, but I don't think anyone has ever argued that it's a premium-quality format.

As far as I can tell, the point of all this vinyl frenzy (such as it is--Van Buskirk's evidence of a rebirth is far from conclusive) is the nostalgia of it all, not how the material actually sounds. The experience of putting a record onto a turntable, and hearing the inherent rumble and flaws of the medium, makes some people happy. It makes them feel like they're closer to an "authentic" experience. Just don't tell them that they could do the same thing with a plugin, or a cheap tube preamp with the tone turned down--in other words, don't explain that their authenticity is highly constructed and artificial. We wouldn't want to spoil their fun.

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