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Australian Hi-Fi Magazine
March / April 2019
Editor's Lead In
Wow & Flutter: Does It Improve Sound Quality?

Editorial By Greg Borrowman


Australian Hi-Fi Magazine March / April 2019


  I can't say that I am surprised at the resurgence of vinyl as a playback medium. Good vinyl can be very, very good, with an extended frequency response (more extended in the high end than CD), low noise (rumble, groove noise, etc) and imperceptibly low wow and flutter.

Well, I say 'imperceptibly low' but I have recently been alerted to what is potentially one of the reasons that many audiophiles prefer the sound of vinyl sound to that of CD. It's wow and flutter. Whereas I'd always thought that lack of channel separation and cross-phasing effects between the left and right stereo channels were the prime reasons for the great sound of vinyl, it's been pointed out to me that the wow and flutter that's inherent in every turntable — no matter how good — might be a reason for the great sound heard when playing back LPs. 

It is well known that stringed instrument players and singers get better 'tone' if they modulate their playing/vocalizing slightly with a slight vibrato… and vibrato is the musical equivalent of wow and flutter. That is, varying the pitch of the note being played/sung so that it's not always exact, but alternately slightly high and slightly low. So now we have three potential reasons why LPs sound better than CD (and other digital sources).


Australian Hi-Fi Magazine March / April 2019


Note, however, that I said 'good' vinyl. Despite the prices LPs currently command (ouch!), I am still finding brand-new LPs with surface noises bad enough to make them unlistenable, scarf left in the grooves and, most recently, a center label that had been applied so off-center that it covered the run-out groove, ready to rip the stylus out from an unsuspecting phono cartridge.

But what certainly has surprised me in recent months are the media reports of a resurgence in cassette tape as a music playback medium. Cassette tape? Really? Next someone will be suggesting we re-introduce the Edison cylinder. The sound of cassette tape is just barely acceptable for 'popular' music, while most orchestral (and all piano) music is unlistenable on cassette… which is why there never was much of it recorded onto cassette in the first place. And although it was possible to produce reasonable-sounding cassettes if you owned a really good hi-fi cassette recorder fitted with Dolby B (or C) noise reduction, commercially-recorded cassettes sounded horrible.

Being something of a skeptic, I decided to investigate the 'increase' in cassette sales being reported by the media. The most recent Australian figure I could find (from the Australian Record Industry Association) put 2017 cassette sales at 1,304. That's one thousand three hundred and four cassettes. CDs on the other hand (which everyone says are a 'dead' format), sold around eight million units over the same period.

But what about elsewhere in the world? Perhaps the Australian figures are just outliers. So what about the UK then... full of anoraks. The best-selling cassette in the UK last year was Kylie Minogue's 'Golden'. Total sales? Exactly 2,987… so not quite enough profit in it to finance her next music video then!


--- Greg Borrowman



Australian Hi-Fi Magazine

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