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Is CD Or Vinyl Better?
I recently purchased the CD version of the RCA High Fidelity Living Stereo reissue of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 [09026-61 494-2] and wanted to compare it with my brand new Classic Records (a mail order firm) LP reissue [LSC1806] of the same 1955 recording session. The performance features Fritz Reiner directing the Chicago Symphony. The equipment used for this review were a Revox 8226 CD player, a DUAL 5000 turntable, Signet AM30s cartridge, Eico ST84 preamplifier, a custom built Macintosh MI 200AB triode stereo amplifier using 8005 output tubes, and a pair of custom built three way JBL Hartsfield speakers. The test that I performed was an A-B test between the CD and the record running simultaneously. This test was only conducted on the first side of the record because it was too difficult to align side B of the record with the same place on the CD. I also switched between both sources roughly every two minutes.
The following are notes that I took during the A-B test. I started with the record, where I immediately became impressed with the string sections and how smooth and full they sounded. As I switched to the CD the field of music shrank to just in front of the speakers, yet the dynamic range of the music increased. (This makes perfect sense. As the dynamic range increases with CD, the hall ambience is, in effect, "downward expanded" to a lower volume level, de emphasizing the 'room presence'. Is this why we like our beloved old vinyl so much? - Dan)
In comparing the two sources the midrange began to sound stretched and the bass violins immediately came to the forefront of the image. When I switched back to the record the depth of image increased and the trumpets and string instruments became the main focus of the music. As I switched back to the CD again, I noticed that a slight rumbling sound had disappeared which had been noticeable during the time that the LP was played. This rumble came from the turntable. What I also concluded was that while the rumble was slightly annoying during lulls in the music, I tolerated it because the music had soul which vanished along with the rumble. The CD produced music where the bass violins always became prominent and the music clean of almost any pop and all rumble. During the CD's time the music was clean, clear, and almost sterile.
This may sound repetitive but I began to notice something different with each switch of the preamplifier control knob. Switching back to the record I noticed that the image returned as well as the rumble of the turntable. However, I tolerated this annoyance because it disappeared once the tempo of the music increased. As I switched back to the CD during one passage the tympani drums joined the Bass violins as the most prominent instruments in the musical image. The violins became higher and more brittle sounding as well.
As I switched back to the record for the last time it became apparent that the record allowed the strings, trumpets, and wind instruments (basically the whole midrange) to hold court in my living room. While I played the CD the tympani and the bass violins became the main instruments along with the bright sounding violins. In my mind I imagined the musicians moving their chairs around as I switched between the two sound sources.
My roommate, who was sitting in the kitchen eating dinner, said that the music sounded better during one passage. He knew that I was performing an A-B test but was not sure which medium I was listening to at that particular moment. When I said to him that he was listening to the record he appeared a bit surprised, as he is a member of the X generation whose music experience is mostly with CDs.
In summary the record sounded more musical. But this was an excellent record. I will not make a blanket statement that all records sound better than CDs. This A-B test and others that I have made have enabled me to make the following conclusion. Excellent LP's made with care from a relatively new stamper sound superior to the best CDs of the same music when properly maintained. Excellent CDs sound better than middle of the road LPs. Music recorded with tube electronics such as Ampex or Revox recorders, tube microphones by Neumann or Manley Electronics, and others will sound better than those made with solid state electronics. This rule holds only if the recording engineers are conscientious about their work.
In this case the original master tape was made using tube electronics in 1955 and therefore both music sources were quite musical. While the CD paled when played along side the record, the record's occasional pop and the turntable rumble were viewed by me as annoyances. Although the CD had a soundstage it sounded two dimensional when compared to that of the record's obviously three dimensional sound stage. It was almost as if I was listening to two completely different concerts by the same orchestra. I almost didn't recognize them as the same performance.
Another advantage of the CD is that a second complete movement was carried on it. That movement was "Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40" which added an additional 11.5 minutes of music to the listening session. If I was rating the CD vs. the LPO on the more bang for the buck scale the CD would win especially since it costs $10 compared to the LPs cost of $25. If I was choosing the source that I would want to critically listen to, the LP would win hands down regardless of cost. Would I bother to listen to an LP when I was washing the dishes? No!
For casual listening use the CD wins hands down because there is no wear incurred from playing it as well as its ease of maintenance. However, if I'm in the mood for an 'emotional musical experience' bring on the LP. If I am having a beer and pretzel party or having a large group of people over for dinner then the CD will earn its money. The bottom line however is that both sources sound better when played on tube electronics.
To chip my usual two cents in, we've done this test a few times at meetings, and the LP always wins when dealing with reissues, the CD when comparing current issues. Different cartridges and CD players don't affect the results as much as one would think, although we still need o butt kicking reference CD player for auditions. I almost negotiated a trade a few months back for a great sounding Denon transport a modded Philips 960 DAC. The guy who had them was the guy who ripped off Classic Audio! Glad I didn't do the deal.